April 7, 2017 03:13 PM

Eric McClellan, a consultant hired by the Community Foundation of Acadiana, sports an I-49 South pin on his lapel while presenting an "unbiased" report on the economic impact of completing the interstate through Lafayette.
Photo by Christiaan Mader

Consultants paid by Lafayette Connector advocates suggested today at an invite-only press conference that completion of the controversial interstate project would result in tremendous economic benefit, primarily realized for the state and the greater Acadiana region.

Unveiling an "unbiased" report commissioned by the Community Foundation of Acadiana, with funding help from One Acadiana, LEDA and several Connector boosters, the consultants suggested that completing I-49 South from Shreveport to New Orleans would generate just under $10 billion in gross domestic product for the state over a period of 21 years. The consultants also said the Lafayette Connector would save local drivers 5.5 million trip hours in the same time frame.

The national consulting agencies on the study, CDM Smith and Regional Economic Models Incorporated, used a projected 2023 completion year for the whole of I-49 South.

Curiously, the press conference was embargoed from public view in advisories sent to select press outlets earlier this week. CFA head Raymond Hebert insisted that the foundation’s commissioning of the study was couched in the organization’s interest in the public good, and not indicative of advocacy.

Hebert’s rote insistence of objectivity on the matter contrasted starkly with rallying speeches by 1A CEO Jason El Koubi, LEDA chief Gregg Gothreaux and regional economic officials from St. Mary and St. Martin parishes.

Also attending were Mayor Joel Robideaux and former Mayor Joey Durel, as well as a DOTD representative.

Following a short top line presentation, the press conference proceeded to an exercise in confirmation bias — with regional economic cheerleaders touting the study's "rigor" as proof of the project's heretofore self-evident need and benefit.

“This project has attracted the attention and, in many ways, the dreams of so many people in Lafayette and across Acadiana for many decades,” El Koubi said in his remarks. “Having a rigorous, unbiased calculation of the economic impact is incredibly helpful.”

Assuming a $911 million cost for the completion of the Lafayette Connector — considerably more than some indicated cost estimates for the 5.5-mile urban interstate project — the report suggests that Lafayette would see a net gain of 1,500 jobs by 2044, following the completion of the entirety of I-49 South.

The report does not indicate where in Lafayette Parish those jobs would go, the consultants said, nor of what quality those jobs would be. To put that in to context, LEDA's Gothreaux pointed out in his remarks that Lafayette Parish lost some 20,000 jobs in the three years since oil prices crashed.

The study does not account for the geometry of the interstate itself. Nor did the study explore any alternative routes. The base comparison used was a "no build" scenario.

Whether the interstate is elevated or semi-depressed, or even at grade, does not factor into the bullish numbers presented. The Connector's community design process recently committed to an elevated design for the interstate's interior structure. Proponents of a now discarded semi-depressed option argued the depressed design would allow for more development, potentially producing more return on investment than the elevated type. The decision to move only the elevated option forward was made a week to the day before the release of this study.

At its most localized, the report studies benefits to Lafayette Parish, and not to the corridor and neighborhoods that the interstate will run through. That means the report makes a case for regional prosperity resulting from the project — albeit tenuously on that count — but not necessarily to the same extent locally.

The report’s math is predicated primarily on general economic statistics assumed to result from road building, and not necessarily on any on-the-ground observation. The effective operating variable is travel efficiency, or reduction in travel time. The report “monetizes” reductions in vehicle miles traveled, among other considerations, to show economic benefit in a cash value. The resulting cost benefit ratio is at most $1.93 for every dollar spent on the Lafayette Connector, with the conservative estimate pegged at $1.23 per dollar.

Critics of urban interstate projects, like Strong Towns' Chuck Marohn, have questioned the reasoning and validity of this sort of report's take-home message: that improved transportation efficiencies yield a direct-to-pocket impact for locals.

A similar report was released earlier this year in defense of Shreveport’s Inner City Connector through the historically black Allendale neighborhood, another contentious part of the push to complete I-49 South. In a three part series, Marohn argued that studies like the REMI/CDM report make flawed assumptions about the economic value of saved travel time to consumers.

Marohn points out that reducing economic analysis to a consideration of travel time saved fails not only in terms of real world applications, but also in terms of cash delivered to the consumer’s pocket.

Reports like these are commonly used to make the case for major infrastructure projects. That seems to be REMI’s stock and trade as a K Street consulting firm. Among its clientele are several state departments of transportation, including Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development.

As a service peddled to lobbying firms and policy makers, REMI boasts on its website that the modeling tool used in the report “drives home a single message that transportation is the locomotive of economic growth."

Working from that premise, particularly as it pertains to traffic efficiencies, contradicts the report’s presentation as a “credible and unbiased” study, buttressed by scientific rigor.

Critics argue these reports favor build options over "no build" options without consideration of social impact or costs.

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