I-49 Lafayette Connector: How we got here
The Interstate 49 Connector through Lafayette will either be the best economic spark the city has seen in decades or the biggest mistake since the Evangeline Thruway cut the city in half.
People like Rusty Cloutier, CEO of Mid-South Bank, have been fighting 30 years to get I-49 South completed from Lafayette to New Orleans. It’s important, supporters like Cloutier say, for better hurricane evacuation, to alleviate traffic congestion in Lafayette and to spark economic development.
“Lafayette’s a great place to live but you’ve got to have jobs. Jobs come from roadways,” Cloutier said. “We’ve got no roads and we’re dying in the Lafayette area.”
Now that the 5.5-mile Connector project has been revived from a seven-year hiatus, proponents say it’s time for the community to get on board and move ahead with planning and design work, even though the $750 million needed to build the interstate between Lafayette Regional Airport and Interstate 10 has not been identified.
Others say not so fast. Kate Durio, who represents The 705 young professionals organization on an I-49 committee, said too many questions are unanswered and the role of the public in the planning and design process isn’t clear.
The “old guard” pushing the project isn’t going to have to pay for it, Durio said. Her generation will.
“This plan is very expensive. I’m concerned about the fiscal responsibility our generation is going to have to take on to pay for this,” she said.
Starts and stops
As early as the 1960s, Evangeline Thruway was identified as a potential future interstate. It wasn’t until the 1990s that state and federal highway officials got serious about it and started work on an environmental impact study.
Two years later, when a Draft Environmental Impact Statement containing six possible routes for the I-49 Connector was revealed to the public, the outcry was so loud highway officials withdrew the plan and shut it down.
The Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce didn’t let the idea die, though. The chamber appointed a task force to generate interest in the proposal. The Lafayette Areawide Planning Commission and a design team of private and public sector professionals published in September 1993 the North/South Corridor Study, “Path to Progress,” that evaluated four potential routes for the interstate
The estimated construction cost listed in the report was $232 million to $524 million.
In December 1997, the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development restarted the project and published a Draft EIS in November 2000.
The University of Louisiana at Lafayette Community Design Workshop program in the school of architecture, hired by Lafayette Consolidated Government, conducted public meetings and design exercises called charrettes with residents to find out what the community wants the project and surrounding property to look like.
The architecture students drew designs and built models based on how residents envisioned the I-49 Connector. The findings were published in what has become known as The Blue Book.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council in February 2001 selected the RR-4 route, the one still under consideration, and the Final EIS was published in August 2002. A Record of Decision giving the go-ahead to the project was issued in January 2003.
In 2004, a citizens coalition filed a federal lawsuit to halt the project based on issues like the impact to the environment and historic properties. They lost. Planning began but was put on hold again from 2008 until this year.
A new beginning
Around 200 people joined the DOTD celebrating the Oct. 7 relaunch of the I-49 Connector project in Lafayette.
Planners and designers are picking up where the process was suspended in 2008. Over the next 18 months, DOTD and consultants will work with community stakeholders to plan and design the project.
Three committees — a working community group, a technical advisory committee and an executive committee — are aiding in the planning and conceptual design of the project using a Context Sensitive Solutions process (CSS).
The committee members were selected by the Lafayette Connector Project CSS Team after consulting Lafayette Consolidated Government staff and councilmen, along with the Acadiana Planning Commission, One Acadiana (regional chamber of commerce), Downtown Development Authority, UL and DOTD, Deidra Druilhet, DOTD public information officer wrote in response to The Daily Advertiser’s questions. DOTD approved the final committee rosters.
The goal of the committees, Druilhet wrote, “is to achieve a project design that’s affordable, acceptable to all key stakeholders and has the potential to become a valued community asset.”
CSS is a collaborative approach that involves key stakeholders like community members, special interest groups and elected officials in planning and designing a highway that meets its purpose while complementing and even enhancing the area in and around it.
At the end of 18 months, consultants will publish a CSS Design Standards Manual that will “directly inform the final design of the I-49 Lafayette Connector project and related improvements related to corridor aesthetic consistency, community integration and compliance with all stakeholder and community input,” according to the project website, lafayetteconnector.com.
DOTD and consultants say public input is part of the process. The project website states that UL will conduct Community Design Workshops for public input, although none have been scheduled.
Can it, will it be done right?
The three committees met last week for only the second time. They were given an overview of the project and process and shown a preliminary design of the Connector.
Some committee members expressed confusion and concern over their mission, the design they were shown and the level of ability to change the design of the I-49 Connector.
One of Durio’s unanswered questions is when will the public be able to comment and what aspects of the project can they address. The public is not allowed to speak or ask questions at committee meetings. They’re instructed to complete comment cards instead.
Durio’s not sure what role the community working group will play in the process. The 705 group that she represents is more than 300 members strong. They have a lot of questions about the Connector but most think it’s too late to change the project.
The DOTD, Federal Highway Administrations and project consultants from AECOM and Stantec have guidelines and performance measures in place to meet through the process, Durio said.
“This team has been assembled with a lot of money on the line to get this project built. That’s their motivation,” Durio said. “Looking through our history, the DOTD hasn’t been the shining example of going above and beyond, striving for excellence. It’s kind of let the public down.”
She’s concerned that the official team is more interested in providing the minimum, not the best possible scenario for the community.
The 705 formed an I-49 task force to track the project and keep its members informed.
John Arceneaux, a member of the community working group representing the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority, accompanied a small group of locals to New York this week where Stantec explained the CSS process used there and visited a few highway projects the company designed.
“What they showed us, I think they did a great job,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily translate to the I-49 project. It’s not to the same scale or scope we’re trying to do.”
The I-49 Connector will be six to eight lanes wide and no higher than 22 feet. The New York projects aren’t nearly as wide and are much higher, Arceneaux said.
Another problem is originally the Connector was supposed to have 20-30 feet between the northbound and southbound elevated sections. Because of right of way issues, the space was narrowed to about 6 feet, which isn’t wide enough to let light in or plant trees in.
“I honestly would like to see how they’re going to mitigate this to something different than what we’re used to seeing like Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans and I-10 in Baton Rouge,” Arceneaux, said. “I can’t envision that amount of square footage being mitigated for that distance.”
He understands the reasons for going through the CSS process to design the Connector as best as possible, but Arceneaux said he doesn’t see any way, under design limitations, to make it safe and attractive and avoid creating blight and further dividing north and south Lafayette.
“I feel that everybody involved wants to do the right thing. I still haven’t gotten the impression that they’re going to be able to,” he said.
Carlee Alm-LaBar, development director for Lafayette Consolidated Government, was on the New York trip this week, too. It was more about learning how the CSS process works and how the consultants consider each community’s geography, history and character in designing highways.
Additional public input is expected, she said. The UL Community Design Workshop is a subcontractor on the Stantec design team that will be conducting public hearings and building on the Blue Book.
“We have a lot of work to do as a community,” Alm-LaBar said. “This is going to be a long process, but I think there’s a lot of potential to do it right.”
Lafayette Consolidated Government received a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant for additional planning related to the I-49 Connector project. Negotiations are under way with Architects Southwest on the scope of work, she said.
The purpose of the grant is to create preliminary plans for improvements to road connectivity, alternate transit, economic development and items like public plazas and linear green space, Alm-LaBar said. Planners need to have a realistic conversation about how to fund those items, she said.
“The whole reason we were given that grant is to protect neighborhoods and make sure, if we’re going to have this kind of investment in the I-49 corridor, we’re going to make it excellent,” Alm-LaBar added. “We have a lot of work to do as a community. I think we can do it.”
Cloutier, who is one of the “old guard,” agreed. The space under and around the interstate through Lafayette doesn’t have to be blighted like Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, Cloutier said. He points to places like Dallas, where parks were built under interstates, and on a smaller scale, the town of Berwick in St. Mary Parish, where a nice little park thrives under the U.S. 90 bridge.
“That’s what can be done all over if people want to put the effort into it,” he said. “We can build it right. We can make it a nice area for people to enjoy.”
I-49 SOUTH LAFAYETTE CONNECTOR TIMELINE
1968: Evangeline Thruway identified for possible upgrading to interstate standards.
1990: Federal Highway Administration and Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development begin location study and Environmental Impact Study of U.S. 90/Evangeline Thruway.
1992: Draft Environmental Impact Statement completed; 200 people oppose I-49 project at public hearing; DOTD ends further work.
1993: Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce convenes task force to increase interest in and to further study a north-south corridor through Lafayette. With Lafayette government leaders, the Lafayette North/South Corridor Study, “Path to Progress,” is completed in September offering four possible north-south routes.
1997: EIS restarted.
2000: Draft EIS published in November.
2001: Lafayette City-Parish Council in February endorses the RR-4 alignment for the I-49 Lafayette Connector.
2002: Final EIS published in August.
2003: Record of Decision issued in January with 21 commitment and mitigation items. Notes receipt of a petition with 2,000 signatures opposing interstate through the city.
2004: Concerned Citizens Coalition sues Federal Highway Administration in federal court to stop construction of elevated interstate through Lafayette. The FHWA wins.
2006-2008: Functional planning begins, interpreting EIS to create engineering drawings.
2008: Project is halted.
2015: Functional planning restarted in October.
Things to know about the I-49 Lafayette Connector:
- The Connector is about 5.5 miles long. About 3.5 miles is elevated to various heights, most up to 22 feet.
- Where it’s elevated, the Connector will be built as two separate bridges with minimal space, maybe 6-10 feet, between them. Each bridge will include 3-4 lanes, with shoulders in some places.
- Three hundred buildings/properties will be taken, fewer than half of them residences.
- I-49 Lafayette Connector begins at ground or “grade” level at existing U.S. 90 just south of Lafayette Regional Airport and Kaliste Saloom Road.
- One-way frontage roads will be built on either side of the interstate in this area with slip ramps to enter the interstate.
- A major interchange will be built at Kaliste Saloom Road so motorists can enter and exit the interstate from any direction.
- I-49 will pass over University Avenue/Surrey Street. Because it’s elevated, a runway at the airport has to be moved per Federal Aviation Administration rules at no cost to the airport.
- No impacts on Beaver Park. I-49 will remain in the current Evangeline Thruway right of way in this area.
- The interstate will pass over Pinhook Road and include turnarounds. Additional right of way is needed.
- Just past Pinhook Road, near Taft Street, I-49 will peel away from the existing Evangeline Thruway and travel towards the railroad tracks. Substantially more right of way is needed here.
- The interstate goes to grade level (at or near ground level) between 7th and 8th streets and stays at grade level until somewhere between 5th Street and Jefferson Street.
- I-49 will be elevated from Jefferson Street, past Sterling Grove historic neighborhood and Willow Street.
- Johnston Street will be reconstructed several feet lower to go under I-49 and the railroad tracks. Part of Johnston Street will be moved and a curve will be eliminated.
- Jefferson Street also will go under the interstate and railroad. Engineering constraints require Jefferson Street to remain depressed for a longer distance east of the railroad tracks than the current underpass.
- Intersections at 2nd and 3rd streets will be relocated and depressed to travel under the interstate and railroad tracks. They will become a “single point urban interchange,” where all left turns are directed into one intersection.
- Simcoe Street will be depressed about 2 feet.
- The elevated Connector will pass through property now occupied by the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Center.
- I-49 will pass over Willow Street.
- Part of Evangeline Thruway will be moved to the west to build a ramp accessing I-49.
- Castille Street will pass beneath the Connector and include turnaround lanes.
- The Connector returns to ground level just before the existing I-10/I-49 interchange, around Ginger Street.
- No changes will be made to the I-10/I-49 interchange, including the single-lane I-10 on-ramp, as part of this project.