After lying dormant since 2008, the debate over our small stretch of I-49 has revived with vigor.
When it’s finished, the freeway will connect New Orleans through Kansas City to Winnipeg in Canada, 1,700 miles away. It is 80 percent complete and with only a small gap remaining between Shreveport and the Arkansas border, the North Louisiana leg is essentially done as well. The heavy lifting remains between I-10 in Lafayette along Highway 90 to New Orleans, a stretch that state highway officials have dubbed Geaux South 49.
The five-mile snippet through Lafayette is the most challenging segment because of the impact it will have on our urban core. Now called the Lafayette Connector, the project has proceeded in fits and starts since it inched to the top of the state’s transportation to-do list almost 30 years ago. In the first decade the requisite environmental impact study (or EIS) was launched, withdrawn, revived and approved. In 2003 the Record of Decision (or ROD) was adopted then challenged in court, stalling progress until the judge dismissed all the plaintiffs’ assertions. Planning resumed in 2006 and was suspended two years later to reassess potential impact on the glide path at Lafayette Regional Airport.
Along the way the Lafayette Chamber joined with local planning commissions to resurrect the project with a Path to Progress study that determined an elevated highway along the current proposed route is the best option. For the Connector to proceed, it must stay within that basic footprint. UL’s Design Workshop guided local stakeholders through design charrettes that envision parks, playgrounds and other development beneath an elevated freeway. The work was published in The Blue Book in 1999 and still informs today’s discussions.
So now the debate resumes. Familiar faces are back at the table, opinions unchanged after a seven-year hiatus. But some things are different, including the demographics in some of the adjacent neighborhoods, leadership in key organizations like DDA and the Lafayette Chamber (now One Acadiana), and a more informed citizenry, courtesy of PlanLafayette.
Trends have changed, too. Across the country, communities are more focused on preserving neighborhoods and fostering connectivity. Young professionals are returning to urban centers to live. There are new models for moving traffic through urban areas that include removing elevated roads in some cases. And transportation professionals are responding at both the state and federal level by developing more sensitive planning processes and hinting at greater design flexibility. Both are relevant to this project.
The state’s planning consultant is experienced in designs based on context sensitive solutions, which are broadly collaborative and focused on enhancing aesthetic, historic and community resources as they improve mobility and safety. This is the first project in the state to utilize CSS. Lafayette also received a highly competitive federal TIGER grant to ensure that neighborhoods along the Connector are protected and preserved.
Together, these resources represent the most current thinking and best practices in transportation planning today. If the process works the way it should, we will design a Connector that we can be proud of. But will we have the funding and flexibility to execute the plan? Hopefully our planning partners will remain as committed to the construction as they are to the process that gets us there.