How a civil rights investigation could alter the I-49 Connector

Cars on Evangeline Thruway
A sidewalk squeezes next to the Evangeline Thruway. Photo by Robin May

This month, federal highway officials announced a civil rights investigation of the project to complete the I-49 through the city of Lafayette. The investigation could force changes to the I-49 Connector project, now into its fourth decade, to blunt its impact on the Black and low-income neighborhoods that will house it. 

In Houston, a similar investigation paused a $10 billion highway expansion but spurred a compromise between local authorities and state transportation officials, including more money for housing and other mitigation measures.

It’s hard to say for sure what will come of the Lafayette investigation, but if Houston is any indication, it likely won’t stop the project altogether, transportation policy experts say.

Why is there an investigation?

The investigation in Lafayette follows a complaint by Ann Burruss, a resident who recently left the Lafayette area.

Her letter to the Federal Highway Administration details how the Connector’s path was laid along lines drawn in a 1923 ordinance that bisected Lafayette into white and Black communities along with fire maps that show historically segregated areas in Lafayette.

“If this project is built through the center of our city this racist past will carry its racist impacts into our future,” Burruss wrote.

She does not want the project scrapped altogether; rather, she believes the project should consider other pathways instead of through the heart of Black communities in Lafayette. “Establishing that line in 1923 was all that was needed to etch in stone an economic and racial divide that exists in this city on these streets to this day,” she wrote.

A scan of the 1923 ordinance referenced in Burruss' complaint.

The U.S. has a long history of building roads through Black communities, says Desiree Powell, programs coordinator at Congress for the New Urbanism. Freeways like the Evangeline Thruway were built all over the country in the 1960s and 1970s to connect cities and towns, often cementing lines of segregation put in place by racist practices like red-lining.

“I think whatever redlining didn’t put out of Black homeownership, Black communities, the highway pretty much broke,” Powell says.

Low-income communities were easier to relocate by way of eminent domain, and before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the complaints of Black communities fell on White officials’ deaf ears, Powell says. Title VI investigations like the ones pursued in Houston and Lafayette stem from that landmark law.

The legacy of damage in mostly Black neighborhoods has led many critics, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, to call the construction of urban freeways “racist.”

“Even though the intent may not be there today, if a highway was located in a discriminatory way in the past, expanding it today can double down on that damage and harm,” says Beth Osborne, a former federal transportation official and director of policy group Transportation for America.

Federal transportation policy has begun to shift in light of that history. The Biden Administration included funding to address disparities caused by urban highway projects in the massive infrastructure bill passed in 2021. Approximately $145 million will go to 45 projects intended to help communities repair neighborhoods divided by those freeways.

This week, officials awarded $500,000 to New Orleans for improvements under the Claiborne Expressway, a project notorious for its impact on Treme, an iconic Black neighborhood. A $95 million plan to revitalize the Claiborne area was launched by state and local governments in 2022.

The latest design of the Connector creates a boulevard out of a leg of the Evangeline Thruway. Alternatives proposed include using roundabouts or traffic signals.

Some argue the Connector itself represents a way to fix a broken situation along the Thruway. Neighborhoods there have been in limbo for decades, lacking investment while the project hung in the air incomplete.

When the project resumed in 2015, it kicked off a new community engagement process that yielded some changes. One major shift would return a portion of the Evangeline Thruway into a local boulevard.

Shawn Wilson, outgoing director of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, issued a blistering statement in response to the FHWA’s investigation, flatly denying racism is embedded in the project itself.

“The idea that the I-49 Lafayette Connector is racist, and that it disproportionately impacts segments of the community with merits or demerits, is not only disingenuous, but it is a complete snub to the local, state, federal and community investments towards this project,” Wilson said. “While I understand this project will not meet the approval of everyone, and some opponents will go to great lengths to stop it, one thing we know for sure is that doing nothing is an unacceptable alternative.”

DOTD declined further comment for this story. Wilson, a Democrat who lives in Lafayette, is expected to run for governor this fall.

What could happen?

The investigation’s immediate impact on the project is unclear.

To date, DOTD has spent at least $47 million on the project’s planning, including $15 million or more acquiring property. Planning has paused several times since a formal process began in the late 1980s.

This could pause the project again, at least while the investigation is ongoing.

Project managers hoped to have a final design up for federal approval early this year, and at least $250 million in state funds are set aside for its construction, the largest allocation in the project’s history.

The investigation in Texas is instructive. The end result, so far, looks to be that the project could make more changes to address problems it is expected to cause. It’s very unlikely to stop the project altogether.

“It is hard to find an example of a project being canceled or substantially changed due to such an investigation. There may be more mitigation required causing an escalation in cost, like in the case of I-45 in Texas,” Osborne says.

Investigations follow up on any specific claims made in a complaint, says Madison Sloan of Texas Appleseed. Texas Appleseed was among the advocacy groups that jointly filed a complaint to TxDOT’s I-45 expansion project in December 2021. The Federal Highway Administration’s civil rights office can investigate the impact on health created by car exhaust fumes, noise pollution, deposits of heavy metals in the soil, impacts on property values and displacement of households — anything that could pass as discriminatory under the Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

“Once they open a Title VI investigation, they’ll investigate anything that’s a potential civil rights violation,” Sloan says.

The FHWA does not comment on ongoing investigations.

The FHWA tries to resolve complaints through “informal” negotiation. If negotiations fail, the FHWA may issue a formal letter requiring changes, subject to sanctions or suspension of federal funds.

Federal officials can force a wide array of changes: Air quality monitoring, sound barriers for neighborhoods, lighting and sidewalks for improved pedestrian safety, flood mitigation, connecting neighborhoods, improving public transit and creating green spaces.

That’s exactly what happened in Houston.

Local authorities there had sued TxDOT, a process separate from the civil rights complaint. An agreement reached earlier this year increased funding to the Houston Housing Authority and promised to add more bike and pedestrian connectivity, improve flood impacts and more. The agreement could bring the civil rights investigation to an end.

The deal is viewed as a compromise and one not likely to satisfy ardent critics of urban highways.

Highways create physical barriers to communities, displace residents and undermine the environmental quality of surrounding areas, critics like Sloan and Powell say. They instead seek alternatives to highway expansion and hope the Biden Administration’s DOT can be more active in highway projects to create more equitable roadways.

“It’s probably the same thing in Lafayette, these highways were originally run through historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods,” Sloan says. “It’s people of color who live closest to highways and who are going to bear the brunt of this impact.”