May 1, 2017 11:28 PM

Dollar figures continue to rise on 5 miles of new interstate, while the state is gasping for money to fix its crumbling highway system.

State consultants Steve Wallace, standing left, and Jeff Grob, seated left, talk Connector modification at a public open house.
Photo by Robin May

The team of engineers and consultants working on the controversial I-49 Connector interstate project received a more than $10 million budget expansion, in a supplemental agreement signed with the state’s transportation agency earlier in April. Additional costs were awarded to compensate the team, led by publicly traded engineering contractors Stantec and AECOM, to accommodate work over a longer preliminary design phase and on more extensive environmental studies undertaken last year.

Over the past year, the Department of Transportation and Development declined to disclose the expanded contract for the team of nine contractors, known collectively as the Lafayette Connector Partners (LCP), while the document was still under review. The IND received the new contract via public records request.

The LCP contractors were originally budgeted at just north of $21 million for the current preliminary design phase, which is now set to end in 2019. Originally this phase was scheduled to end in 2017. Approved costs for preliminary design work (called "concept refinement" in DOTD parlance) are now set at $32,415,793.

The expanded contract keeps the LCP team on the project, a lynchpin in the state's quest to complete I-49 South, for a total of seven years and four months, roughly two and half years longer than the original 2015 contract. Overall estimated costs of the design hold pat, despite the increase for the preliminary design work, at just under $60 million.

Three "extra work letters" totaling $327,786 are included in the new figure, covering mapping work on a fiber optic system, alignment adjustments for new federally required distances from the airport runway, and studying bridge and depressed highway concepts.

The state has also increased its budget for public relations on the project, managed by Lafayette-based BBR Creative, to $2 million, more than triple the original amount allotted in the 2015 contract.

Rising costs of design are no surprise, given the magnitude of the supplemental environmental studies begun last June amidst upheaval from community groups dissatisfied with the state’s ongoing community-sensitive design process, begun in 2015.

Initially, the state attempted to push a design through without substantial changes to the now 14-year-old record of decision on the decades-old project. DOTD has since entertained a slight change to the Connector’s alignment and removed two previously planned interchanges in Lafayette’s urban core from the plan.

Half way through the project’s original 18-month schedule, a semi-depressed concept was floated by an urban revitalization team housed within city government. Shortly thereafter, DOTD announced expanded studies in preparation of a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) and, ultimately, a supplemental record of decision, which will legally bind and define the project’s design. Federal law gives records of decision — commonly called RODs, as in “thy rod and thy staff" — a three-year shelf life.

The amended scope of work in the new agreement defines the LCP’s role in the SEIS process, instructing the engineers on deliverables for studies on both elevated and semi-depressed design options. According to the amended contract, which was signed April 21, the Connector team was permitted to bring up to three design options for study into the third tier of the three-tiered community design process, called a Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) process. In March, citing cost considerations, the CSS program's decision-making body voted to drop the semi-depressed option before the process moved to the third tier. That decision came after a community CSS committee on the project voted, more or less symbolically, to move both the elevated and semi-depressed options forward.

The Connector’s growing cost and time sink comes at a time when DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson is lobbying legislators to support a 17-cent increase in the state’s gas tax. As much as 50 percent of that new money is positioned to pay for capacity building roadway megaprojects like the Connector, which a recent state transportation plan projects will cost $750 million, an incremental uptick from a $700 million figure that bounced around in earlier project documents. That means just under 10 percent of the project’s overall cost will be dedicated to design.

All told, the state has a $23 billion transportation backlog Wilson hopes to tackle with the new money. A 17-cent gas tax increase, which would generate $500 million per year annually, falls short of the $700 million in annual new funding Wilson says the state needs to shore up its transportation system, widely considered one of the worst in the nation. Widespread anti-tax sentiment in Louisiana has Wilson navigating prickly political thatches.

On top of major bottlenecks, notably over the Mississippi River west of Baton Rouge, much of the state’s more pressing needs are, arguably, in maintenance and upkeep, highlighted by a near-failing infrastructure grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Pushing more money toward more lane expansions will do little to solve those more immediate problems, and would most certainly contribute to rising maintenance costs over time. Of 39 megaprojects currently in priority waiting, 23 are capacity expansions or freeway upgrades, not counting new bridges.

Cost considerations on the Connector project itself have flared recently, given unknowns about what costs city taxpayers will have to bear. Until the controversial decision to cut the semi-depressed option in March, the state would not commit to funding comprehensive cleanup of an extensively contaminated rail yard in the interstate’s path, nor would DOTD commit to building a so-called signature bridge, seen widely as a concession to the Connector's invasive impact on the city's historic neighborhoods.

DOTD committed to funding both, with caveats in place: namely, that the cleanup be confined to property in the rail yard purchased by DOTD and that costs for the signature bridge be “within reason.”