June 2, 2016 02:40 PM

If the goal of the I-49 Connector design process is to get it right the first time, then good ideas shouldn’t have deadlines.

Steve Oubre, of Architects Southwest, presents findings and ideas generated from public design charrettes held in May.
Photo by Robin May

[Editor’s Note: A response late Thursday from DOTD spokewoman Deidra Druilhet appears to indicate that officials will consider the 20th refinement concept favored by some TIGER team members, telling this newspaper in an email, in part, “Even though the proposed revisions were not consistent with the stated goals of the TIGER grant and were outside of the responsibilities of the ECI as outlined in the ECI public information flyer entitled: “Who’s Doing What & Why”, the DOTD/Lafayette Connector Partners (LCP) Team will be investigating the feasibility of these ideas in the coming weeks should one or more of the 4 or 6 series options advance in the process.]

Whether DOTD likes it or not, a 20th refinement concept— to borrow their term — to the proposed I-49 Connector through Lafayette is on the table. Since the idea to nudge a buried mainline eastward floated out of a week of design charrettes organized by city government’s TIGER team, it’s slowly gained buy-in and generated some buzz. City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque officially requested that the concept be included in the first round of evaluations with the other 19 refinements currently on the big board, even though DOTD’s May 15 deadline for concept submission had come and gone. As of this writing, we still wait with bated breath DOTD’s answer to the councilman’s request. Backed up against yet another potential PR nightmare, DOTD and its team of consultants have little choice but to take it up.

For one, it’s a pretty good idea despite it’s arguably unsanctioned provenance (more on that in a graph or two). To catch you up, 6F would mark the sixth in a series of “cap and cover” concepts included in DOTD’s Tier 1 evaluation matrix. The general notion for the series is to build the interstate bed 10 feet under ground, with some manner of a bulging cap constructed over to abate noise and unsightliness and improve surface street connectivity. It’s not really a new idea. A fully-depressed version of this concept was vetted in the 90s and was ruled out for a variety of reasons not worth getting into here.

What differentiates 6F from the other cap and cover ideas in the series is that it moves the mainline structure east away from the railroad tracks. The extra distance from the tracks, roughly 150 feet away from the conventional mainline plan and still within the project’s right of way, allows for all railroad crossings to be made at grade. Gradual, gentler-sloped berms can be built over the semi-depressed mainline which gives broader space for plazas, parks and development. TIGER planners ran with the concept at the charrettes, sketching verdant public parks and multi-story developments resting tranquilly above a subterranean interstate.

Considering DOTD’s skittishness about major changes to the alignment cemented in 2003’s federally approved Record of Decision, the document which effectively governs design on the project, this would seem like heresy. But such a dramatic suggestion was actually made possible by DOTD’s own problem solving. DOTD produced refinement concept 6E, in response to a CWG request, which shifted both the mainline and the railroad east to allow enough clearance to bury both routes. Taken from that perspective, 6F is just 6E without moving and burying the railroad, with the added benefit of removing overpasses and allowing at-grade crossings.

Refinement concept 6E was the first time DOTD designers moved the alignment of the mainline of the Connector, in effect setting the stage for concept 6F.
Photo courtesy lafayetteconnector.com

Some transportation commentators, many of those generally opposed to urban freeways, see underground freeways as a much better alternative to oft-maligned elevated structures, which we’ve more or less assumed would be in place along the current US 90/Evangeline Thruway alignment since late last year. Even Conque’s fellow CWG member, architect Eddie Cazayoux — whom I once watched write “Go Around ” on a dry erase board as a refinement suggestion to the CWG — has voiced support for the idea, even if his preference remains a bypass. That’s a pretty good bellwether for the accessibility of the concept.

So if this is such a good idea, then why is there even a question about including it? Well, as noted, Conque’s official request was registered after a previously set deadline of May 15. When tens of millions of dollars in consultant contracts are in play, deadlines are more than just arbitrary lines in the sand. Currently, CWG members are working to evaluate the 19 sanctioned concepts and turn in their scores by June 3. From there, the 19 concepts will be culled based on community preference reflected in those scores.

Following the emergence of 6F during the TIGER charrettes, project manager Toby Picard has reported some confusion among CWG members as to whether they ought to consider the concept when scoring their Tier 1 evaluations. Picard instructed confused members to focus on the 19 official refinements at hand, noting that, “There is no requirement... to view the conceptual ideas being developed by the TIGER team.”

It’s a mess to be sure, and one a fairly long time in the making given the 6F refinement’s provenance in the muck of a relationship between DOTD planners armed with a federally approved ROD and the city-based planners waving the banner of a federal TIGER grant. There’s been talk of TIGER consultants over-stepping their boundaries by conceiving 6F or prejudicing their charrettes toward series 6 and series 4, the constellation of ideas orbiting around a “signature bridge.” It’s a territorial dispute. From DOTD’s point of view, TIGER has no place commenting on the structure of the Connector.

Respective scopes of work for contractors with both organizations overlap considerably. It’s DOTD’s official charge to design the Connector with additional attention paid to the Corridor — the adjacent neighborhoods that will be immediately impacted by its construction — through its Context Sensitive Solutions process. It’s the TIGER team’s charge to study the Corridor in reaction to the Connector’s design. According its scope of work, TIGER was always intended to comment on the Connector’s structural design. To boot, that scope of work was developed in 2014 and viewed by both the FHWA and DOTD.

Back in late 2015, the two teams set out to draft a Memorandum of Understanding, which would define how they would interact. Part of the scope of work contracting Stantec — DOTD’s prime consultant on the project, — is to reach such an agreement with the TIGER team. Ideally, such an agreement would have avoided the back channel bickering that’s muddying the waters under an already controversial bridge.

From the city team’s perspective, there is but one ace in the hole here and that's TIGER’s role as an appendage of a Lafayette Consolidated Government. The Purpose and Need for the project, enshrined in the ROD, stipulates that the Connector has local agency support. That should put more pressure on DOTD to heed TIGER ideas, provided they have the political will of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux behind it. For his part, he’s played his cards close to the vest, and it looks like won’t weigh in till more smoke is cleared off the battlefield.

But even given political meanderings, if DOTD is interested in getting community buy-in, it simply cannot be perceived to throw out an ostensibly city-proffered idea on a technicality.

To be sure, 6F may not turn out to be a panacea. As TIGER team chief consultant Steve Oubre said in his presentation of the idea, it’s still got a lot of engineering devils to be exorcised. DOTD’s process is designed to gather ideas that are structurally feasible at face-value, and vet the technical stuff as they go. Ostensibly, that’s what would happen to any idea that makes it past Tier 1. Sure, 6F is not yet ready to be stamped as shovel-ready. But neither are the other 19 ideas on the table.