Any future negotiations between DOTD and the city of Lafayette on the I-49 Connector will be haggling between beggars, now that the gas tax push failed. While always a long shot — and perhaps an ill-conceived one by measure of timing and design — the gas tax hike’s demise will severely limit DOTD’s ability to deliver a Connector project that does anything more than blow freight traffic through Lafayette’s urban core. The promise of a truly extraordinary project, one capable of overcoming the urban interstate’s legacy of city gutting, has shriveled. That promise too was a long shot.
DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson’s patented refrain on the Connector campaign has been that the state will pay for a great project, but only within reason, a dangerously interpretable caveat if there ever was one. Since the project relaunched back in 2015, the state’s PR machine and generational Connector dreamers have rebranded the project as an urban game changer, a kind of panacea to the Evangeline Thruway Corridor’s half-century of racially motivated disinvestment. That’s a recent innovation on the project’s 30 year history, and one that’s struggled to really gain buy-in across the board.
"While the outcome is disappointing, it does not stall the efforts or commitment to deliver the Connector project," Wilson said in a statement to The IND. "It does make competition for limited dollars stiffer. The outcome of the current process will yield segments of independent utility, which are smaller more affordable segments that offer immediate utility and benefits."
When Rep. Steve Carter withdrew his bill in a rebuke of intractable state Republicans, he took with him the project’s margin of error. Two big ticket items remain virtually unaccounted for on the project — the signature bridge and clean up of the toxic sludge along the old Union Pacific rail yard — with previous questions of who would pay for what settled with plenty of unwritten fine print.
Both of these components are integral to whatever urban revitalization potential the project has and are terribly expensive. Cost ranges are indeed great. A signature bridge, in DOTD’s parlance, could be anything from a fresh coat of red paint and a couple of fleur de lis murals at nominal project cost, to a $409 million cable-stayed dandy like the John James Audubon bridge near St. Francisville. Wilson’s environmental concessions to Mayor Joel Robideaux at a meeting of the project’s executive committee bound his agency only to cleaning up contamination in parts of the rail yard DOTD purchases for construction right of way. How deep and wide DOTD cleans, and to what degree, will certainly be impacted by a lack of funds. Leaving the rail yard zone at industrial RECAP standards would preclude building a park or residential property.
DOTD officials have suggested in the past that anything above the project’s budget would need to be covered by local partners. Construction estimates have varied widely. Most recently, DOTD pegged costs at around $850 million in its Highway Priority Program, a slight increase from an earlier $750 million figure that floated around historical Connector documents. In truth, no one really knows how much the thing will cost at this point. Too much is undecided to make that call.
That raises the specter of city taxpayers cashing even more checks for the state’s promises. And we know how well positioned city-parish government is to pay for a magic interstate. The less money DOTD has to work with, the more it will retreat to the project’s most basic purpose and need, moving cars, leaving everything else on the table for city taxpayers to swallow. Parks, streetscaping, transit investments, sound mitigation, none of these are official commitments from DOTD. If Robideaux wants to protect Downtown, McComb-Veazey, Sterling Grove and the rest of Lafayette’s urban core, he could be forced to do so with city tax dollars, not parish dollars.
With no money on hand, the project returns to its baseline. It’s unlikely that will stop the call to complete it, even if the Connector's promise falls well short of its most recently stated goals of urban reform. The project is supported by a well-connected lobby of regional and state business leaders, many of whom view the project as a necessity regardless of the final design it takes.
Not long ago, Governor Edwards brandished his stick to a gathering of Connector supporters. No gas tax, no Connector, he said. A Connector built to minimum standard could well be worse than no Connector at all. That’s a disaster the city of Lafayette can barely afford.