Jan. 27, 2016 02:10 PM

After a rocky first three months in the quest to design the I-49 Connector, messaging from the Connector team strikes a different tone.

DOTD Project Manager Toby Picard, second from right, discusses the Connector's alignment at a public workshop hosted by DOTD on Jan. 23
photo by Robin May

[Editor's note: This article has been edited to reflect that meetings of all three CSS work groups are open to public observation, including the Executive Committee.]

Evidently, conversations within the team charged with designing the proposed I-49 Connector got serious over the holidays. Based on statements at a Jan. 26 presentation to the Connector's Community Working Group, the DOTD and their partners have seen the light when it comes to the public and institutional resistance they've faced since re-opening the near 30-year-old project to design last October.

(The CWG is a group of community stakeholders created as part of the Connector's Context Sensitive Solutions process — a community collaborative design program adopted by DOTD and its partners for design of the Connector.)

“We had a heart to heart with DOTD,” said John McNamara, a chief CSS operative and vice president for AECOM, one DOTD's contracted partners for the project. “It’s not right to pick up where we left off [in 2003]. We want to identify your vision and what you see as opportunities.”

While that’s been the language of CSS since the beginning, McNamara’s exhortation came with a verbalized recognition that things have changed drastically since 2003’s Record of Decision cemented fundamental aspects of the Connector’s design and alignment.

He made note of urban revitalization in Lafayette’s urban core and a shift in development priorities from public interest groups like Downtown Development Authority, LCG and One Acadiana. LCG’s Comprehensive Plan, for instance, was not around in 2003, and creates a civic momentum that must be heeded by the Connector’s proposed barriers and goals.

Fundamentally, McNamara offered that the Connector is best guided as an opportunity to stitch together neighborhoods once rended by the construction of the Evangeline Thruway in the mid 20th century.

This rhetoric is not so much different in content as it is in tone and compassion compared to what we’ve heard since October. It’s very much yet to be seen if DOTD’s bureaucratic inertia will allow the idealist in McNamara — and the rest of the contractor team— to deliver a freeway structure that avoids cauterizing the scarred legacy of racial inequity and disinvestment that broke the neighborhoods adjacent to the Thruway.

Harry Weiss, One Acadiana’s VP of Urban Revitalization and a newcomer to Lafayette, delivered an “outsider’s perspective” of Lafayette’s planning history, intoning passionately about legacy issues that have been ignored in Lafayette’s urban core for decades. He laid bare a history of “chronic” and “perpetual” decline along the Thruway, alluding to Lafayette’s sprawl southward that mimicked the white flight of America’s metropolitan centers.

“Lafayette hasn’t done urban planning well in its history,” Weiss said. “There’s tremendous demand out there for the kind of core that we don’t have.”

Both Weiss and his boss, One Acadian CEO Jason El-Koubi, stressed the importance of a strong urban center to attract the diversified economic development that a fast growing metro like Acadiana needs. That sentiment was echoed in a presentation by DDA CEO Nathan Norris and Design Director Geoff Dyer.

Dyer showed preliminary concepts developed by DDA that will attempt to convert portions of West Congress into a dense urbanized core, using redirected lanes that encourage pedestrian traffic. The plan, it would seem, would be jeopardized by traffic exiting the Connector at 45 mph from the Second/Third Street interchange as currently designed.

Dyer made note of the devouring land consumption in interchange construction — 32 acres in the case of Second/Third Street — and drew attention to chasms of concrete, often 2100 feet in length, that the interchanges would present to crossing pedestrians.

Those interior interchanges have been a subject of great debate of late, with many calling for their removal from the Connector’s structural design. DOTD and their partners have apparently heard the murmurs.

“We need to look at how might the Downtown connect with the Corridor in a different way than was envisioned in the ROD,” McNamara said near the meeting's beginning, prior to Dwyer’s presentation. “Do we need those interchanges or do some need to be moved?”

Addressing concern from Acadiana Sierra Club leader Harold Schoeffler, a longtime Connector opponent, that engineering on that site restricted study of contamination to the Connector’s 2003 alignment, McNamara claimed that surveyors were investigating a wide berth outside that footprint for both environmental impact and the possibility of alignment deviations.

Given the magnitude of the project and a 30-year history of headless inertia at odds with public dissent, the Connector team has been met with well-deserved suspicion. But in a rare moment of accord between Schoeffler and the Connector partners, McNamara agreed to look into removing from the CWG appointed members who had thus far failed to show up to any CWG meetings.

Both men agreed that turn out for the meetings was disgraceful. Of the 50 selected members — representing various neighborhood coteries, civic organizations and interest groups — attendance has consistently been below 50 percent. Around 15 were in attendance at this last meeting.

Considering how close to the vest DOTD has played their cards when it comes to design modifications that threaten the legal standing of the Record of Decision, McNamara’s remarks are a sea-change in public messaging. Of course, no promises were made, nor would they be at this stage of the game. And to be sure, they’ll do nothing to stymie abject opposition to an elevated freeway running through the city.

The CWG meets monthly, and will next reconvene on February 18 and 25. All meetings of the CWG, the Technical Advisory Committee and the Executive Committee — the three work groups created by CSS — are open to public observation. Public comment on the proceedings can be registered via comment cards distributed at the meetings, or online at lafayetteconnector.com. Meeting schedules are also published on that site.