In competing I-49 Connector designs, opposing ideas of safety in a deadly pedestrian corridor

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

Two competing plans for the Evangeline Thruway corridor have new Mayor-President Monique Blanco Boulet at odds with the city’s Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team over how to protect pedestrians on the parish’s most deadly roadway.

The central difference in the plans — displayed by DOTD at public showcases in April — comes down to this: traffic signals versus roundabouts.

A seemingly small variation in the scale of the estimated $2 billion I-49 Lafayette Connector project, the options are polarizing stakeholders with opposing visions for improving pedestrian safety in the future corridor, particularly along a boulevard imagined as a feature that would repair damage done to historic neighborhoods in Lafayette’s city center.

Boulet has made completing I-49 through Lafayette a priority, despite her government’s limited power over the federal project. The Connector has been under development in one form or another for nearly 40 years. Tens of millions have been spent on its design and right of way purchases.

State planners aim to have yet another design federally approved by early 2025, after the project’s alignment and design were changed in the years since the 2003 record of decision defining the Connector’s contours was produced.

Among those changes was the conversion of a spur of the Evangeline Thruway into a boulevard that would mend some of the neighborhood fabric split by that highway’s construction in the mid-20th century. In concept, the boulevard would make space for new businesses and homes to sprout at the street level while the interstate zoomed above on an elevated span.

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Boulet’s team favors roundabouts to control traffic on that boulevard. And that support has elevated it to become DOTD’s “preferred alternative,” which could weigh heavily in the design ultimately greenlit by federal officials.

“Roundabouts are traffic calmers. They bring everybody to 15 miles per hour. If you get hit at 15 miles per hour as opposed to 40 miles per hour, it’s a game changer. You might have a little whiplash, but you’re not going to lose a leg. It’s a traffic calmer, and you can mitigate for pedestrians,” says Boulet, who has been involved in the I-49 Connector project for years during her time atop the Acadiana Planning Commission.

Traffic signal proponents argue roundabouts aren’t safe enough because they don’t force cars to stop and thus won’t offer pedestrians dedicated opportunities to cross the roads.

Roundabouts have become increasingly popular across the U.S. since the late 1990s, with many state transportation agencies and metro areas investing in the concept as means of reducing fatalities in car crashes. Research broadly supports roundabouts’ safety records. Lower speeds lead to fewer deaths and less severe injuries.

But those benefits largely depend on how the roundabouts are designed and where they are placed. Smaller, one-lane roundabouts are often compatible with pedestrian-friendly streets. That’s less true as more lanes are added and traffic counts increase, according to the highway research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

As proposed, the roundabouts rotate two lanes — merging two pairs of two lanes going in either direction — at three junctions, including one at Jefferson Boulevard, just east of the Connector’s bridge span and Downtown.

Map showing plans for roundabouts on an urban highway project
DOTD's preferred alternative design for the Evangeline Thruway grand boulevard includes three controversial roundabouts at important intersections.

In 2022, the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, created by Lafayette’s former City-Parish Council to advise LCG on community impacts and visions for the massive project, approved a nine-page report questioning the value of urban roundabouts for the future grand boulevard, which would carry local, at-grade traffic along the footprint of the existing northbound lanes of the Evangeline Thruway.

Last week, members of the team’s project subcommittee again criticized the idea, saying it had repeatedly been panned by public feedback.

“It just comes back to the fact that when the Thruway was put in, it created a barrier of connection between one side of the community and the other side of the community and that this is kind of like the one opportunity that we have to make sure that people can easily cross from one side to the other on foot or bike or car,” said ETRT member Brady McKellar during the meeting. “And when we’re talking about roundabouts, we go back to the emphasis on the car and not on the emphasis of serving the community.”

Go deeper on I-49

That’s a critical point of contention because of planned developments and investments in the corridor that aim to take advantage of its proximity to Downtown and the future relocation of interstate traffic to elevated overpasses.

Roundabout opponents say those improvements in pedestrian access and safety could be lost by letting a critical design decision err on the side of streamlining car traffic.

“I do not prefer roundabouts because they are not pedestrian friendly; in fact they encourage drivers to drive faster because now you are not allowing the pedestrians an opportunity to cross because the traffic is continuously flowing around the roundabout,” says Nureaka Ross, who founded Protect Our Pedestrians in 2022 to advocate for better road safety measures and pedestrian prioritization along Lafayette’s major roadways where pedestrian fatalities have been prevalent.

Between 2020 and 2022, at least a dozen people were killed by cars while walking along or across the Evangeline Thruway. Project opponents and advocates alike have pointed to the dangerous conditions on the ground and stress the urgency of completing or canceling the Connector itself, even as the project has dragged on over the decades.

Debating the merits of roundabouts and traffic signals on the boulevard points back to the essential dispute about the urban highway project. For those opposing roundabouts, like pedestrian advocate Ross, it’s about who the project is fundamentally for.

“The way it’s designed is to move cars faster,” she says. “It prioritizes cars, not people.”