June 15, 2016 04:06 PM

Community design activities will be delayed two months

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, right, discusses the Connector with a resident at an April public meeting.
Photo by Robin May

State transportation planners have added a new round of environmental impact studies on the I-49 Connector project, according to a statement issued today. The supplemental studies come months into a contentious design process, one that has yielded potential revisions that may not be supported by the project’s original studies conducted in the 1990s.

A Record of Decision was approved by the Federal Highway Administration in 2003, officially designating the project’s essential alignment and mitigation commitments. As required by federal law, DOTD began the aforementioned “reevaluation” process this year to ensure that social and environmental conditions had been static enough to not invalidate the Record of Decision.

“In consideration of the input from the community, potential refinements to the approved alignment are now being assessed,” reads DOTD’s statement. “As a result, FHWA and DOTD agree that a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) process and document, in lieu of a Reevaluation, will be appropriate for assessing or documenting possible changes within the approved alignment.”

It’s not clear what the studies will focus on, but the additional process could allow the project’s leaders to further investigate a panoply of changes that have been superficially considered since design activity on the project resumed late last year. Initially, DOTD’s engineers were reluctant to entertain significant changes to the Connector’s preliminary features such as interchanges, overpasses and alignment. Some recent ideas that have percolated in DOTD’s design process have significantly altered the preliminary design. DOTD has maintained that those changes need to be thoroughly vetted, especially if they include tweaks to the Connector’s alignment.

Of particular interest would be a series of design modifications that would bury the Connector’s mainline through a portion of Lafayette’s urban core, from Hobson Street to Pinhook Road, roughly along the Evangeline Thruway Corridor.

The timing of the new studies is somewhat curious given recent controversy over a late-coming design suggestion produced by planners and designers funded through a grant awarded to Lafayette Consolidated Government. The plan, called “6F” by City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque, was based in part on the buried mainline concept but shifted the freeway’s alignment 150 feet east, but still within the project’s right of way, to accommodate better at-grade connectivity.

The concept gained some energy among city officials and citizens alike. But DOTD cautioned that the buried mainline concepts had not been thoroughly vetted, and that the more easterly alignment suggested by LCG’s team may not be tenable.

Three stakeholder and constituent committees, created by DOTD’s Context Sensitive Solutions design process, have been evaluating 19 “refinement concepts” to the Connector’s preliminary design. DOTD was to evaluate the 19 concepts on June 23. Conque recently requested that 6F be studied as the 20th such refinement and be included in the June 23 evaluation. DOTD declined to include the concept, but noted that principles developed could be used to revise a buried mainline refinement that makes it to the next round.

Committee meetings to finalize those evaluations have been postponed until August of this year to allow the supplemental studies to begin.

To be sure, the announcement does not exactly signal a reboot for the process. A supplemental impact statement does not require a cessation of design activities currently underway, according to federal regulations. That said, it’s not clear how the additional study work will impact the scope and schedule of the 18-month conceptual design process that began in October of last year.