March 18, 2016 11:51 AM

The time for ‘why’ is over; ‘how’ and ‘when’ are the questions for today.

Context Sensitive Solutions study area map for proposed I-49 Connector

Our city’s leaders began working long ago on a vision for Lafayette, a bold ambitious project that will boost economic development, improve how we move around our community and make us all safer while we do it. This effort started more than 30 years ago, in the midst of the last serious downturn in the oilfield. After numerous starts and stop, exhaustive research into alternative routes, a lawsuit, an environmental impact study and thousands of meetings later, here we are, finally at the doorstep of realizing this goal. Or are we?

The I-49 Lafayette Connector and the completion of I-49 South provides a chance of changing our community and Acadiana as a whole, and I happen to believe, for the better. In addition to the wonderful economic benefits and traffic solutions, I believe it is the answer to the revitalization of historic Downtown neighborhoods and the solution for much of the blight that exists along and around the Evangeline Thruway.

The I-49 Lafayette Connector is a future 5.5-mile segment of limited-access highway that will extend I-49 from I-10 to the Lafayette Regional Airport. It is a critical transportation link for Lafayette and the entire state. The Connector is a key component of I-49 South, whose parts and pieces are in place, mostly, from Lafayette to the Westbank Expressway in New Orleans. This last section of I-49 is the last link in the Interstate that stretches from Texarkana to New Orleans.

The Connector is the most challenging piece of the puzzle because it traverses an existing, developed urban landscape, not to mention the enormous price tag. Completing the Connector is expected to cost about $900 million, and the entire I-49 South project tops out at about $3 billion. That means about a third of the total cost for all of I-49 South will be spent right here in Lafayette. If we unable to get this project moving forward, there is little hope for completion of the remainder of the interstate headed south.

I can but won’t go on about the traffic, safety and economic benefits of the Connector for Lafayette and Acadiana. I can but won’t mention the recent survey of Lafayette Parish voters that showed overwhelming support for the completion of Interstate 49 South through Lafayette. My point is that the Connector can be the solution to urban neighborhood redevelopment in Lafayette and a step in the right direction to addressing the congestion and blight along the Evangeline Thruway.

The federal government has approved this project and is at least saying for now — although funding sources have not completely been identified — that it is going to spend about a billion dollars right here in Lafayette and upset existing urban surroundings. I have been around long enough to know that when our government does that sort of thing, it attempts to mitigate the damage and make it all better with plenty of money.

It is my belief that as the Connector moves closer to a construction date, there will be federal legislative assistance offered. This assistance will come in the form of tax incentives, grants and low-interest loans to assist in the redevelopment of the area in and around the Connector, over and above the billion or so spent on the road itself. This will inject needed incentives for new development and investment in and around the Connector.
This will not only benefit the existing Evangeline Thruway corridor but also Downtown and the adjacent historic neighborhoods.

While my assumptions here are just that, assumptions, what is the alternative? What if nothing happens with the Connector and I-49 South is either not built or delayed another decade or so? Where will redevelopment funds come from then? What will Evangeline Thruway look like in 10 years from now without the Connector? Does anyone think the blight and neglect in the area, mostly due to the uncertainty of the Connector, will improve from another delay?

So here is where we stand: The federal government is about to plunk down a billion dollars in our community, and it is actually asking us for our opinion on how, where and what we think it should look like. To be fair, there has been a great deal of local effort into getting us this opportunity for input. We should seize this opportunity, and it appears our community is doing just that. Participation in the 18-month long, Functional Plan for the Connector utilizing a Context Sensitive Solutions approach has been phenomenal and mostly productive.

We need to keep it up and make improvements and suggestions that will produce a favorable outcome for our community. But the goal must be completing the Connector. Now is not the time to look this gift horse in the mouth. If we are to drive the Connector in our lifetime, we all need to be asking “when” not “why.”

Steven P. Hebert is president & CEO of Billeaud Companies. To comment on this column, email him at sph@billeaudcompanies.com.

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