June 3, 2016 02:20 PM

Whether or not the concepts produced by the LCG's recent design charrettes will have a chance to stick in the state’s process is another question entirely.

Toby Picard
Photo by Robin May

State transportation planners for the I-49 Connector didn’t exactly say yes or no to studying late-coming refinements of the interstate’s design put forth by architects and engineers hired by Lafayette Consolidated Government.

Of particular interest is one so-called “cut and cover” iteration that nudges the Connector mainline further east of the railroad and which gained vocal support from City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque after it was conceived by the consultants affiliated with the city’s Evangeline Corridor Initiative, aka the TIGER team. Conque officially requested that the option, which he named “6F” in the parlance of DOTD’s naming regimen, be included among 19 other refinements that are to be fully evaluated and winnowed by June 3.

In what could be described as a politically tactical email from Connector project manager Toby Picard, DOTD declined to include the design in the current evaluation period. Conque’s official request was past the May 15 deadline for refinement submissions by the Community Working Group, a DOTD-appointed citizen planning team of which Conque is a member. Picard also claimed that late-breaking concepts could complicate and confuse an already ballooning list of revisions. However, Picard left the door open to including the 6F and other concepts born out of the city-organized design charrettes as revisions to whatever designs make it to the next round.

“DOTD realizes that a significant community involvement process regarding neighborhood revitalization strategies in corridor Levels 2 and 3 led to the development of potential revisions to two series of concept refinement options (4 and 6 series) that were presented by the Evangeline Corridor Initiative (ECI) team to the members of the community on Friday, May 27,” Picard wrote in an email to the Community Working Group. “We also realize that there is interest within some parts of the community to further explore those potential revisions. Please keep in mind that potential revisions to a concept do not create a new concept which must then be evaluated under Tier 1.”

If you’re counting, now we're talking revisions to refinements to concepts. What distinguishes a new refinement versus a new revision to a refinement is not really clear given that the 19 concepts on the table, grouped into six series, often have only gradual differences from one another.

So-called 6F would have marked the sixth in a series of cap and cover concepts included in DOTD’s Tier 1 evaluation matrix. The organizing principal for the series is to build the interstate mainline 10 feet under ground through the Evangeline corridor, 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 cut 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. Planners ran with the concept at the charrettes, sketching verdant public parks and multi-story developments resting tranquilly above a subterranean interstate.

Bruce Conque

Picard’s letter, in no short order, points to an ongoing territorial dispute between state and city-based Connector planners, and a risky one at that. DOTD has held that the city’s ECI/TIGER team has no authority to comment on or otherwise make design suggestions to the Connector’s mainline structure. TIGER’s scope of work says otherwise. The two agencies attempted but recently failed to draft a memorandum of understanding, defining their respective planning roles.

The decision to exclude 6F asserts authority for the state team which has struggled with PR crises since the project came back online last year. While DOTD is firmly within its rights to ignore the revisions put forth by the ECI/TIGER team — and to be clear, they’re not doing that at present — refusing to add a twentieth to 19 design concepts puts a good idea in danger of being left behind on procedural grounds. If one of the "6 Series" revisions the 6F option is based on dies in the first round of evaluation, then 6F dies with it. And that could set Connector planners up with yet more publicity problems.

For his part, Conque says no idea that has yet been floated has been as attractive as 6F.

“When I sat down and filled out my matrix there wasn’t one which I put down which I found fully acceptable,” Conque tells The IND. "Every one had at least some shortcoming. Not one stood out when I looked at my final matrix, other than the one we’re not considering. In my mind, the one we’re not considering would receive a 4 or 5 in every major category.” To be sure, at this stage none of the 19 concepts have enough engineering behind them to be shovel ready any time soon. But judging by recent developments around the charrette and commentary voiced in support of subterranean urban freeways in general, it could be a mistake to let it die.

Conque says he will continue to champion what he believes is the best idea yet, carrying it forward to the next CWG meeting, at which time the 19 options are to be narrowed.

“On June 23 it will be my purpose to have a conversation to look at the ECI suggestion in detail,” says Conque.

It'll be up to DOTD to listen.