At a time when many urban areas are talking about tearing down elevated interstates built decades ago, Lafayette is just beginning to talk seriously about how best to build a new one through the middle of the city.
The potential downsides of big, elevated roadways — that they can divide communities, foul local traffic patterns and shadow out quality development — are widely known.
But state and local officials hope a planning effort launched Tuesday for the Interstate 49 Connector will lead to a project that not only does no harm but actually makes things better.
“I think we have an opportunity to take lemons and make Champagne,” said Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel. “This is an opportunity to elevate — to elevate property values, to elevate quality of life.”
He spoke at an event to mark the beginning of an 18-month public outreach campaign to gather ideas for the design of the I-49 Connector, the mostly elevated 5.5-mile, six-lane stretch of the I-49 project that roughly follows the current path of the Evangeline Thruway.
Estimated to cost from $700 million to $1 billion, it’s one of the most expensive missing pieces in the plan to complete I-49 from I-10 in Lafayette to New Orleans.
Funding for the project, which has been talked about for more than two decades, remains elusive, but the state Department of Transportation and Development is moving forward with planning and design work.
“Our goal is to make this project a showcase for other people to follow,” DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas said.
Local elected officials, the regional economic development group One Acadiana and the industry-backed I-49 South Coalition say the road project is a critical transportation priority for the region, badly needed to address traffic woes and to serve the oil and gas sector and other businesses with the need to efficiently move equipment and products.
Still, there are concerns about the potential impact.
The planned interstate will pass alongside the Sterling Grove Historic District and Freetown-Port Rico, a neighborhood now seeking a historic designation, as well as areas that have undergone a renaissance in recent years, some dramatic, like downtown, and others just starting, like the LaPlace and McComb-Veazey neighborhoods.
The Downtown Development Authority has raised concerns about an early design that calls for a downtown interstate interchange at Second and Third streets, which come together to form Congress Street.
The road, which runs north of the core of downtown, is now being studied for a possible makeover as a slower route more friendly for walkers, bicyclists and developers.
That plan could be upset if an interchange is not designed to slow down vehicles coming off the interstate.
City-parish officials have questioned a preliminary design that brings the height of the interstate down to 5 feet between the interchange for Second and Third streets and the nearby Johnston Street interchange — too low for the pedestrian pathways, parks, local road connections or other features to keep the areas beneath and around the elevated interstate from becoming an urban wasteland.
DOTD officials and the consultants leading the planning effort, the national design firm Stantec, have said they are not married to any particular plan at this point and are keenly aware of the need to build a project that does not disrupt everything around it.
“We want it to be a seamless fit,” said Steve Wallace, of Stantec.
The group is planning extensive public outreach: social media, exhibits that can set up at different locations around town, public meetings, interviews with community members and workshops for neighborhood-specific issues, among other things.
Some see the current planning effort as a positive step to improve the areas it will touch.
“The I-49 Lafayette Connector Project offers an opportunity to transform a key gateway corridor from an eyesore to something our community can be proud of,” One Acadiana President and CEO Jason El Koubi said in a statement.
For information on the project and how to get involved, visit lafayetteconnector.com.