Jan. 26, 2016 12:16 AM

Will DOTD’s five months of added outreach ‘refinement’ get through to Connector skeptics?

Attendees vote on four types of bike and walking lanes at the Jan. 23 Vision and Values Workshop hosted by DOTD.
photo by Robin May

Over the holidays, DOTD and the Lafayette Connector Partners announced to members of its three I-49 Connector committees — local and state leaders in the Community Work Group, Technical Advisory Committee and Executive Committee — that five months of community outreach would be added to the 18-month Context Sensitive Solutions program that kicked off in October 2015. At present, it’s unclear exactly what “added” means.

At press time, DOTD’s spokesperson Deidra Druilhet could not confirm any changes to consultant contracts. It’s possible that the next five months would be tacked on to the current $21 million design program for a total of 23 months of CSS programming. It’s also possible, depending on the outcome of the next few months of outreach “refinement,” that the added five months are folded into the standing schedule.

While not exactly part of that outreach reboot, the Jan. 23 Vision and Values Workshop DOTD held at the Progressive Community Outreach Center attracted around 200 concerned citizens looking for answers and an opportunity to speak their minds. Attendees divided into groups and worked through three breakout sessions, helmed by Connector contractor consultants from Stantec and AECOM, covering the project’s environmental impact, design aesthetics of a possible signature bridge and an overview of the urban freeway's vertical and horizontal alignment.

Some attendees were alarmed to learn of a planned 11-foot retaining wall splitting Downtown from neighborhoods to the east of the Thruway. Others criticized Powerpoint images of elevated freeway structures hosting farmers markets and music festivals as disingenuous and unrealistic. Familiar opponents from the Sierra Club took breakout session exercises as an opportunity to levy their 20-year-old "Teche Ridge" refrain in the form of sticky notes affixed to a Connector design map.

The event culminated with a workshop-wide voting exercise that flashed images of bike stations, cable-stayed bridges, intersections and light rail trains and asked participants to vote their preferences via smart phone or worksheet. Consultants were mum on instruction, ostensibly to avoid influencing community input, but it left many confused as to what exactly the slides represented.

"I object to getting those choices," said Freetown resident Marcella Peron. "Some of those choices don’t even apply to Lafayette."

Since rekindling the long dormant project with the announcement of the CSS program in October, DOTD and their partners have stumbled through public relations gaffes that have left critics confused as to what role the community will ultimately play in the Connector’s final design. The Vision workshop, billed as an opportunity to hear from the community in a substantive way, left many still skeptical of the impact public input has beyond choosing between crawfish- or accordion-themed bridge pylons.

Public dissent in this chapter of the Connector’s almost 30-year saga came to a head at an Acadiana Sierra Club forum held in December. DOTD’s shuffling of the CSS schedule came shortly thereafter.

Based on comment from Vision workshop attendees, the Connector team still has a long way to go to convince the public that they’re really listening.

Pick up a copy of The IND’s February print edition to read IND writer Christiaan Mader’s sense of place report from the Vision workshop.

For more perspective on the Lafayette Connector, check out our January cover story - The Great Divide.