[Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the current status of DOTD's ROD evaluation process]
No one ever said building roads was supposed to be easy. The Romans built them straight and without trouble, but that likely had more to do with the might of an authoritarian empire. For the I-49 South Connector, it’s hard to see how Caesar Augustus himself could have laid this one down without rousing civic ire. Maybe this would be a project better built by Constantine. After all, the stipulations, stakeholders, arrangements and mixed messaging make this a positively Byzantine proposition.
Still, whatever side of civilization you’re on, yesterday’s TIGER grant roll out should be seen as a net positive for those of us concerned about the compounded impact of 5.5 miles of interstate highway clonked down on Lafayette’s urban center. The route is generally along the Evangeline Thruway from I-10 to the Lafayette Regional Airport.
The TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant is a competitive U.S. Department of Transportation program designed to give American communities the opportunity to stimulate economic progress with federal transportation funds. In Lafayette’s case, officials at LCG, namely Chief Development Officer Carlee Alm-LaBar and former Public Works Director Kevin Blanchard, applied for a grant aimed at responding to whatever design and construction elements are implemented by the state Department of Transportation and Development’s Connector project. The idea is that the $500,000 in planning funds, $304,000 coming from the grant, will be used for urban planning and economic development that can offset the often destructive impact of urban highways.
This is essentially Lafayette’s leg-up to having a voice in DOTD’s construction plan. But from there it’s very important to parse what it all means. The TIGER grant and the planning it generates does not, as such, enable LCG and its consultants to direct design of the Connector itself. For now, at least, that’s DOTD’s express purview, and the state agency's looking to stick to the plan as laid out by 2002’s Final Environmental Impact Statement and the subsequent Record of Decision, or ROD.
The team stemming from the TIGER grant, namely Lafayette-based Architects Southwest and Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, is for now primarily concerned with the impact zone that extends beyond the rights of way established by DOTD’s decades-old preliminary plan.
Think of it this way. DOTD, along with its design and consulting partners Stantec Consulting Services, works on the Connector with the specific alignments, overpasses, underpasses and interchanges all within its territory. The Context Sensitive Solutions portion of that project will attempt to address community concerns without deviation from the ROD.
The TIGER team members design the Corridor, the adjacent communities and arterial roadways, and will operate in response to the transportation fixtures cemented by the Connector. Theirs will be the world of plazas and urban gardens, of lighted gateways, public art and economic revitalization. In that regard, they are not beholden to the design restrictions set by the ROD, but can encourage further deviation to an extent.
The TIGER team is thus fundamentally reactive in procedure, though it has leverage to be proactive on the Connector's final design — ostensibly, the will of the people and the ear of the federal government.
To the extent that the Connector and Corridor must interact, there is considerable murkiness as to how. Currently, parties representing the TIGER-grant team and DOTD are working on a Memorandum of Understanding that will outline what each player is responsible for, and what authority they have over which decision. Having a more direct line to the federal government — which will likely provide most of the estimated $700 million to $1 billion needed to complete the project — gives LCG something of a trump card, though it's unclear what that means in practice.
At the TIGER grant announcement event on Dec. 1, Mayor-President Joey Durel said he hated to use the word “mitigate.” But that’s precisely what the TIGER grant does — provide a chance to make the best of a bad situation for those in the immediate impact zone.
Want to get involved? Attend the local Sierra Club’s “Y-49” meeting on Dec. 3 at the Lafayette Public Library Downtown. Meeting starts at 6 p.m.
To be sure, the current state of the Evangeline Thruway corridor, the general alignment for the Connector, is blighted and bleak. At that same event, City-Parish Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux pointed out that, with the TIGER grant and infrastructural attention paid with a major highway project, the adjacent communities will get economic attention long neglected by a city sprawling southward and outward.
We’re already just under two months into DOTD’s 18-month design process, and things seem somewhat tense and stale. DOTD, for its part, has consistently messaged that the Connector’s design is more or less complete as of the 2002 ROD. Stantec consultant Steve Wallace infamously likened the current phase of design to that of picking out shingles and wall colors for a house. Their fear in all of this, it seems, is that if we revisit 15-year-old plans based on 15-year-old data, we’ll have to do it all over again.
We have some say in how this thing gets built, but it's unclear that we have a say in "if" the thing gets built. For its part, the DOTD/Stantec team has insisted that the ROD is an immovable fixture. What confuses that message is the fact that the ROD is currently under re-evaluation as required by DOTD’s own procedures.
The 2002 Final EIS used to create it stood on demographic data gathered only as late as 1990. At a Sierra Club sponsored forum on Dec. 3, DOTD Project Manager Toby Picard assured folks that DOTD is accounting for environmental changes in the proposed right of way contained in the I-49 ROD. In that same meeting, Picard repeated that significant changes to planning elements cemented in the ROD would pose a risk to the document's validity in the eyes of the federal government.
To what extent DOTD's CSS consultants and the parallel TIGER grant operatives can propose changes that threaten what is enshrined in the ROD and still move forward with the project is unclear. No doubt as the two groups hammer out the roles they'll be playing going forward, we'll get a better idea.