Lafayette Connector heads for last mile

Signs on the Evangeline Thruway pointing toward I-49
Photo by Robin May

Many have come to scoff that the I-49 Connector would ever be finished. After some 40 years in limbo, the project appears to have turned onto its last mile.

Reaching what they called a “milestone,” consultants last week briefed top local officials on the latest version of the billion-dollar interstate project, laying out a path to “turning dirt” some time in 2023 — perhaps sooner than some realize and still not soon enough for others.

Funding is falling into place by way of coronavirus relief and the federal infrastructure bill. But with community work mostly wrapped up since design activity resumed in 2016, some thorny questions remain of the project’s impact — both on the people near it and the area’s air and water quality — and who will pay to address it.

“What we have now I believe is unacceptable,” says state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, echoing a common sentiment that anything is better than the Evangeline Thruway’s status quo. “I believe what we’re going to build is much better than what we had in 2016. We’re doing what the community asked us to do.”

Most of the major decisions have been made, including some significant changes to the version approved by the federal government in the early 2000s. As planned, the completed Connector will be roughly 5.5 miles end-to-end and erect six lanes of freeway 22 feet high between the Northside and the rest of Lafayette. But the project will discard one massive interchange at Second Street and preserve a stretch of the Evangeline Thruway as a neighborhood boulevard, an idea floated by local groups.

The project’s executive committee met Thursday for the first time since those changes caused the community design process to go on hiatus. It was also the first time the committee met since Mayor-President Josh Guillory took office.

Consultants recapped the last year or so of community meetings, mostly by Zoom, and charted out the remaining bullet points on the project’s to-do list, among them ironing out a joint-use development plan that would define costs shared between local and state government and ongoing maintenance of non-highway functions — virtually all of the features touted as “enhancements” over the course of dozens of charrettes.

Who pays for what is a question left unanswered for years, and remains an unresolved conflict between LCG and DOTD, which struggled to reach an understanding for how to intertwine the Connector project with LCG’s Evangeline Corridor Initiative, a grant-funded planning process launched to get ahead of the interstate’s impact. This year, LCG budgeted the initiative’s second round of neighborhood projects, $2.8 million for small-scale improvements and more studies.

Federal investment looks to be a slam dunk, but it won’t come in a lump sum. The state has set aside $125 million in coronavirus relief funds for the Connector, good for more than 10% of its estimated budget. Wilson has long indicated the state will build it chunk by chunk. The federal infrastructure bill signed into law last week — which notably includes a pot of money to repair communities divided by highway projects — will unlock more funding, but most of Louisiana’s $7 billion share is a routine allocation.

DOTD has committed up to $12 million for “signature features” near Downtown Lafayette. Earlier ambitions for a soaring “signature bridge” that would define the Lafayette skyline have been reined in as a concession to cost, unless locals spring for something bigger. LCG would be on the hook for overages, and Guillory made clear Thursday he wants to keep a suspension-style bridge, which is among the more costly options, in the conversation.

Drag the slider to compare plans for a portion of the connector’s path.

Above all, Guillory wants to dispense with further delays. When he urged state officials to hasten the project, Wilson and project manager Tim Nickel noted their hands were tied to the pace of federal environmental regulations, which require substantial documentation of historic properties, potential displacements, and potential air and water pollution.

Community advocates with Y49 seized the end of the meeting to demand more transparency about the project’s impact on the Chicot aquifer, which supplies drinking water to Lafayette and lies under a contaminated railyard in the project’s right of way.

“It has been siloed since October 2015 when this rolled out,” Kim Goodell, a water resources advocate, said Thursday, criticizing officials’ lack of urgency in re-assessing potential threats to the aquifer.

Samplings done in the course of a suit filed against Union Pacific reportedly show contaminants reaching the aquifer to a greater extent than previously thought, she said. Houston officials this year requested an EPA probe into railroad pollution and its connection to elevated rates of cancer at an abandoned site in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Confronting the committee, advocates hoisted Houston’s aggressive approach to contrast what they say is a lack of action and transparency in Lafayette. Wilson says additional assessments are underway, and that DOTD as a matter of practice won’t release incomplete data.

Whether the state is listening to community concern meaningfully has long been a point of contention. A desire to avoid delays caused friction when the project reopened. In meetings often fraught with mistrust, some saw in DOTD an agency obstinate about thinking outside of a bureaucratic box, resisting changes in the project’s design its leadership now embraces.

However choppy the road, we’ve arrived at a crucial point with the Connector again rendered into a design detailed enough for residents to take stock of how the interstate will bend by their homes or require their displacement. At a series of neighborhood meetings early this month, residents hunched over high resolution maps with consultants and engineers.

Opponents have broadly criticized the project as an outdated technology, pointing to efforts to tear down or rethink elevated freeways in other communities. Money in the infrastructure bill, likely a source of funds for the Connector, will presumably be steered to removing or otherwise reckoning with New Orleans’ Claiborne Expressway.

“I think it’s a misinterpretation that equity solutions and infrastructure solutions are the same in every community,” Wilson says of the Connector’s apparent contradiction. “I can show you infrastructure on the Evangeline Thruway that’s at-grade that’s killing people. The solution here is to go up.”

And neighborhood groups are indeed concerned with what’s below the interstate. The 2021 version returns a segment of the Evangeline Thruway to local use, in a sense, but other ideas for parks, greenspace, recreation and more will fall to LCG. Planners suggest some state-owned highways could be turned over to the city, allowing more urban-friendly design than the state’s highway manual. Whether Lafayette is willing to invest in making the project transformative has been the subject of skepticism among some neighborhood representatives involved in the project.

Exactly what LCG’s share will be is unclear, but Guillory insists he’s ready to make the investments.

“Look at our last budget,” he says. “We’re absolutely committed to infrastructure and quality-of-life initiatives. It’ll look a lot like that. And it’ll look better than what it looks like now.”

The Connector has come to be promoted as a chance to revive North Lafayette. Whether the Connector can make good on that promise will largely hinge on decisions made in 2022. Should the project fall short of ambitions never before realized in highway building, an enterprise associated with urban decay, not revitalization, the neighborhoods around it would bear the brunt.

“One of my big concerns is making sure the community and culture is intact,” says Symphony Malveaux, a fourth generation resident of the historic McComb neighborhood in the path of the Connector. “I understand community development is important, but you don’t have to tear up a community to do that.”