The 4.2-mile roadway that will connect Airport Road near Slidell with U.S. 11 beginning Monday was 14 years in the making, but when the project was first conceived, Parish Councilman Steve Stefancik envisioned something far more modest: a relatively simple and inexpensive gravel road.
He wanted to provide another way in and out of the area of more than 1,500 households along Airport Road.
Residents often endured traffic jams just trying to leave their neighborhoods to reach Interstate 12 when nearby North Shore Square mall was inundated with holiday shoppers or when heavy rains would make the roadway all but impassable.
But T.J. Smith Sr. Expressway, which will open to traffic after ceremonies at 10:30 a.m. Monday, has moved far beyond that initial idea. Parish officials now see the road as a promising tool for economic development.
The $15 million connector snakes through a vast swath of mostly undeveloped land stretching north to La. 41 and east to U.S. 11.
Finding a more ambitious scope was necessary to get the road built at all. Stefancik needed to persuade parish officials, beginning under then-Parish President Kevin Davis, to undertake what became the largest parish road project on St. Tammany’s eastern side.
Now the road will be part of a larger strategy to draw warehouses and clean manufacturing plants to the area.
Some of the pieces were already there, such as the Slidell Airport and access to I-12, which parish officials see as a vital artery for St. Tammany’s future growth. When the parish undertook comprehensive rezoning in 2008, Stefancik said, he made sure the land flanking the new road was zoned to allow industrial uses.
More recently, St. Tammany Parish created several economic development districts, with an eye toward treating I-12 as the parish’s main street. That designation allows the governing authority to use tax revenue to help finance projects within the districts.
The Airport Road area was one of the first districts approved, at the Parish Council’s February meeting.
Stefancik wants to see a major economic development project launched by the parish to attract attention to the new corridor.
Just building the road presented a number of challenges, Stefancik said. Acquiring the land was one hurdle. Dealing with wetlands issues and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was another; the parish had to spend about $800,000 on wetlands mitigation alone.
The parish also held up some potential residential development in the area, with the council voting to put a moratorium on resubdividing land — a first for the parish — to delay a potential 2,400-home subdivision on land north of Belair subdivision. The project would have created traffic that Airport Road could not have handled, Stefancik said. Now, he said, the moratorium will be lifted.
There were engineering challenges, too. Part of the new road cuts across a retention pond, and that required driving down sheet piling and pumping out sand to raise a roadbed that then had to settle for nearly a year.
Because the project’s costs were climbing, some features Stefancik wanted were not included. For instance, the shoulder is dirt instead of gravel or rock, something that he worries could cause problems in rainy weather if cars skid on mud.
Also, partly because of wetlands issues, the road is two lanes for almost its entire length, although the parish acquired enough right of way for four lanes and could still expand it in the future.
Naming the road proved to be far less complicated than building it. Councilman T.J. Smith came to Stefancik to suggest that the road, which goes through both of their districts, bear the name of “an individual who made a significant impact in St. Tammany Parish for all people,” Smith recalled.
He was talking about his father, T.J. Smith Sr., who was the lone plaintiff in Thomas J. Smith v. St. Tammany School Board et al., the case that desegregated the St. Tammany public school system.
Smith wasn’t supposed to fight that battle alone, his son recalled, but when he arrived at the federal courthouse in New Orleans, the other plaintiffs didn’t show up. He paid a high price for his activism. He was fired from his teaching job at Chahta-Ima High School in Lacombe and had to spend the rest of his teaching career in New Orleans, working several jobs to support his family.
Smith died in 2010, and his son said he received some recognition later in his life for his role in the civil rights movement. But having a road named for him is a more enduring salute.
“He would have really relished it,’’ the younger Smith said.
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This story was altered on Dec. 15 to correct the cost of the project.