His hands folded over a spreadsheet stacked with his slate of infrastructure projects, Tim Nickel stares the magnitude of the I-49 Connector down and invokes the engineer’s limit of feasibility — cost.
“Will people be a little disappointed?
Everybody would like the nice Corvette and everything, and all the bells and whistles with it, but you got to be reasonable,” he tells ABiz in an exclusive interview.
Soft-spoken and deliberate, Nickel presents the same insular quietude as his predecessor, Toby Picard, who left the Department of Transportation and Development earlier this summer for a job in the private sector. As project manager for the Connector, Nickel will need to make harmony of a lot noise, carefully directing dozens of dissonant interests. To that end, Nickel is deferential.
“Honestly, I just kind of step back and make sure every body is doing their part,” he smiles. “It’s more like a conductor in an orchestra, that’s the best way to put it. The best thing you can do is have everybody play together and create a masterpiece.”
Nickel is walking into a brief rest between cacophonies. While tempers have calmed following a summer hiatus, Nickel is inheriting a short mileage project, long with tension, that’s unlikely to move forward without further conflict. To finally break ground on a project two and half decades in the making, Nickel will navigate a landscape thorny with civic and political agencies, each of which want something different from the Connector, or perhaps, no Connector at all.
He’ll govern two separate engineering tasks, between supplemental environmental studies and the ongoing context sensitive design process, and attempt to move fractured community opinion toward a consensus design by December, all while mollifying regulatory concerns from the state Department of Environmental Quality, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration, among others.
Nickel is a career man with the state, spending the last eight years in the project management division at DOTD. As a trained geotechnical engineer, he can’t help but raise his concerns about South Louisiana’s soft soils, subsidence and drainage when talking about burying the interstate, one of the two Connector design options on his table.
A graduate of McNeese State University, Nickel says his time in Lake Charles left him with a fondness for Cajun hospitality and cuisine. But given his long affiliation with the state, Nickel must see the Connector in the context of the state of Louisiana’s needs and resources. He’s worked a couple high profile builds himself, including an interchange project on I-210 in Lake Charles, where he opted against lower-cost options for the maximized utility, and the second phase of a project to elevate LA-1 over the vanishing coast near Golden Meadow.
Of the two, the Golden Meadow project is the most similar to the Connector in terms of cost, roughly $350 million, and nature, erecting a nine-mile stretch of elevated freeway. Taking on the 5.5-mile Connector, however, Nickel faces an urban environment with thousands more constituents and a bill at current estimates much more than twice the cost of Golden Meadow.
There’s a big difference between a billion dollar project and a $350 million project, and it’s not just $650 million.
One is the Connector’s Context Sensitive Solutions process, the Federal Highway Administration design guideline that includes an exhaustive regimen of public meetings, citizen committees and pages upon pages of community and consultantgenerated design options, each representing a community desire that must be vetted against the state’s practicability. Nickel, like most DOTD staffers, has never worked a CSS project. Now he has to learn its ropes while overseeing the details of the state’s Supplemental Environmental Impact Study, which his predecessor avoided as a potential threat to the project’s viability.
That’s a lot to balance for a project conductor who, until only recently, worked with quartets and ensembles. There’s no doubt that this will be the largest project Nickel has yet managed and, as decision points approach this fall, tensions will no doubt resume. That’s not to single Nickel out among his peers for a lack of experience. The fact remains that state engineers haven’t attempted something like the Connector in generations.
State planners on the Connector project have hinted at cost as a comparative factor in the upcoming design phases. So it’s prescient that Nickel himself speaks to cost and feasibility as key and meter for his agenda. The various design options — at present grouped into two basic ideas, a flyover bridge with few urban interchanges or a buried mainline concept — present serious cost consideration to the state and city taxpayer, something that Nickel believes must restrain lofty concepts. A realist, it would seem, Nickel anticipates that his work will not be without criticism, but believes it nonetheless necessary.
“You can do things on a project and do them near perfect. And we could still have a project that [adversely] impacts somebody somewhere,” he says. “We’d like to reduce that to as little as possible. Quite often, especially on massive projects, there’s gonna be some impacts. The best we can do is minimize. But we’re gonna have to move forward. DOTD is committed to moving forward with the Connector. That’s the way it works out.”