Longtime supporters of the I-49 Connector are anguished by yesterday’s announcement that state transportation officials have reopened environmental studies on the controversial project. In a statement issued this morning, One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi sums up the essential fear that’s taken hold among Lafayette’s corporate old guard — that a supplemental environmental impact statement will delay the project to the point of killing it.
“We are working with state and local officials to assess in greater detail how the supplemental EIS process will impact the I-49 Lafayette Connector project,” El-Koubi says in the statement. “But it’s already clear that it will further delay urgent investments in our community and provide more opportunities for a vocal minority to kill this important project.”
Reportedly, reopening the EIS is the original fear for the project’s founding cheerleaders. Mystery surrounding interaction between the supplemental studies and the ongoing 18-month design process begun last October will only serve to rattle them more. The supplemental studies are tentatively scheduled for completion in 2018.
The Connector’s founding documents, 2002's EIS and 2003's Record of Decision (which affirms the location, outline and primary features of the Connector), withstood heavy opposition from many of the same faces that now dog the latest attempt at moving the project to construction. El Koubi’s statement most certainly references the vocal opposition raised by members of the Acadiana Group of the Sierra Club, doing protest as Y49 since last December.
Harold Schoeffler, the agitator-in-chief for the Connector’s opposition, shepherded a lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration to the Third Circuit Court of Appeal back in 2003, looking to invalidate the Record of Decision. The appellate court ruled in favor of the FHWA, effectively coating the document and the project in legal Kevlar, so long as the project adhered to the script established by the ROD.
Therein lies the problem. Supporters fear that opening the EIS in pursuit of a supplemental ROD discards the legal protection enjoyed by the process thus far. By law, the current conceptual design process will be folded into the supplemental studies process with a different set of federal regulations and rules set in place. Arguably that means Connector opponents have more formalized means of opposition to the project, and could once again bring suit against the FHWA. On that view, DOTD has just done Schoeffler’s work for him.
Whether that comes to pass could be contingent on the scope of the supplemental studies, and the resulting design. By federal regulations established in the National Environmental Protection Act, DOTD is not required to reopen every aspect of the original environmental study. At present, DOTD has not released the specifics of the additional study, but it surely has something to do with the myriad design modifications that have arisen in the ongoing conceptual design process.
An email from DOTD to members of the Community Working Group, one of three design committees working on the project, notes that part of the process will include a “Right-of-Way Acquisition and Relocation Plan.” A design idea, controversially stemming from charrettes hosted by Lafayette Consolidated Government, suggested a mainline shifted slightly eastward of the preliminary alignment and buried through portions of Lafayette’s urban core. The idea piggy-backed on similar so-called “cut and cover” concepts floated in the DOTD-sanctioned process and gained some energetic support among CWG members and city officials. Certainly, a “relocation plan” could include further investigation of that study.
The media posture from DOTD doesn’t indicate much panic on the inside, even if its latest move has eroded faith in the project among die-hard supporters. For the time being, it doesn’t appear as though DOTD has any intention of backing away from the project. DOTD has re-scheduled committee meetings until August, at which point the design process is supposed to resume exactly where it was paused.
“DOTD will continue to work with our federal partners to ensure any significant or proposed changes since the original EIS are thoroughly vetted to identify and document any new positive or negative environmental impacts,” DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said in a statement. “DOTD is not just committed to the completion of the I-49 Connector, we’re committed to getting it right on every level.”