Feb. 19, 2016 01:57 PM

Planning officials floated an I-49 refinement concept that could utilize the Connector’s alignment to repair the interior grid broken by the Evangeline Thruway

A slide shows how surface streets could reconnect under the I-49 Connector as part of a proposal which removes two interior interchanges.
Lafayette Consolidated Government

Local and regional planning officials rolled out an alternate design concept for the I-49 Connector at project committee meetings on Feb. 18 and Feb 19. While still very much a germ of an idea, the concept would remove some publicly maligned elements of the Connector's preliminary design, namely two full interchanges in Lafayette’s urban core.

The idea hinges on the use of the Evangeline Thruway as a reconfigured spine for an urban grid within Lafayette’s historic core, re-connecting neighborhoods previously severed by the Thruway’s construction. According to preliminary design concepts distilled from 2003’s Record of Decision defining the alignment of the Connector, the Evangeline Thruway from Taft Street to Congress Street would remain open as an ad hoc service road, while the Connector bends west toward the railroad tracks.

By eliminating currently proposed full interchanges at Second/Third Street and Johnston Street, the plan presented by engineers and planners with Lafayette Consolidated Government and Acadiana Planning Commission would commandeer the remaining portion of the Thruway to serve as a possible boulevard or patch to the historic surface grid. Planners also recommended removing frontage roads throughout the historic urban core, narrowing the footprint of the Connector's right of way and improving grid interactivity.

The Connector would then be elevated from Pinhook Road to Simcoe Street, while the urban grid would traverse the alignment underneath. The preliminary design brought the Connector to grade throughout much of the frontage adjacent to Downtown, including an earthen berm or retaining wall at Jefferson Street. The LCG/APC proposal raises the Connector such that a vibrant grid could be re-established in a manner more conducive to walking paths, street-side commerce and neighborhood revitalization.

To allow access to and from the elevated Connector, planners proposed slip lanes near Pinhook and Simcoe that would serve as feeders to the Evangeline grid and emanating surface streets.

By removing land and dollar-consuming interchanges, the idea also affords the expansion or possible relocation of the so-called signature bridge concept, which received vocal support from many at the Feb. 18 meeting of the Community Work Group, one of the appointed collaborative committees involved in the ongoing Context Sensitive Solutions process employed by DOTD and its consultants, the Lafayette Connector Partners.

This slide shows the current proposed location (red circle) of the signature bridge concept. The latest proposal could open the possibility of expanding or moving the bridge within the Connector's alignment (yellow square).
Lafayette Consolidated Government

At that Community Work Group presentation, the concept received at least initial exploratory support from many appointees, including some otherwise skeptical of the project. The signature bridge, which One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi believes will help define a skyline for the city and improve Lafayette’s travel gateways, is a concession to the need for the Connector to provide a tangible aesthetic benefit. One which CWG member John Arcenaux, a Connector skeptic, found at least tolerable.

“If I have to look at something loud and obnoxious, it better be beautiful,” said Arcenaux, a Freetown resident and board chairman of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority.

The weakness of a signature bridge concept is that it still remains an additive feature to the city’s environment. Beyond that, seminal bridges are generally thought to go over water, not traverse overhead houses and office buildings. Beautiful or not, people who live around the signature bridge, regardless of where it shows up, will have to look up and see it. APC director Monqiue Boulet pointed out that such a bridge should be designed from both above and below, such that the design and its impact is sensitive to nearby residents.

“A man needs to be able wake up and go get his newspaper, look up at the bridge and be at peace,” Boulet said at the Feb. 19 meeting of the Technical Advisory Committee.

There’s still plenty of devil in the details of this concept, a caveat heavily stressed by the proposal’s presenters. Some of the criticism or commentary levied by CWG members like former DOTD Secretary Kam Movassaghi spoke directly to the logistical ramifications of the concept. Removing the interchanges would affect traffic density currently planned for in that region as well its as its utility as a hurricane evacuation route, Movassaghi argued, and must be accounted for in that data.

That comment spurned a back and forth among the members that spoke to the heart of the Connector’s genetic tension: the conflict between quality of life in the adjacent neighborhoods and the rapid movement of high volumes of traffic. Whether local or not, the Connector’s transportation purpose is to improve interstate system connectivity and provide an arguably vital enhancement to Louisiana’s supposed energy corridor.

“Part of the conundrum here is you want downtowns to be congested, and highway design is all about relieving congestion,” said Harry Weiss, One Acadiana’s vice president of urban revitalization and development, at the CWG meeting.

The decision to present at these most recent meetings reportedly came after a meeting in Baton Rouge featuring representatives from DOTD, LCG, APC and the Federal Highway Administration. Ultimately, it would be the FHWA’s discretion if a concept like what LCG/APC presented would be actionable under 2003’s Record of Decision.

According to John McNamara of AECOM, the consultant company driving the Context Sensitive Solutions process, that federal officials did not kibosh the idea outright is a good sign moving toward establishing a baseline of flexibility.

“The best way to interpret it, because we haven’t gotten the FHWA to render an opinion one way or another, is we’re willing to push the bounds,” McNamara told The IND. “We as a team, and when I say a team I mean the partners LCG, APC, the FHWA — at least they haven’t said no — and DOTD, which I think they’ve moved a bit in the last couple of months, are willing to test some big ideas.”

The CWG and Technical Advisory Committee will revisit the concept at their next meetings on Feb. 25 and Feb. 26, respectively. The meetings are open to public observation. More information can be found on the Connector's website.