Cover Story

The Great Divide

by Christiaan Mader

Folks from every reach of the project to complete I-49 South through Lafayette seem anxious. Few will talk on the record. Even fewer will commit to definitive answers as to what the outcome of the project, dubbed the Lafayette Connector, will or can be. Nothing of this magnitude has been tried in Acadiana since Eisenhower built the skeletal interstate system that defined American transportation for the last 65 years. But even as far as a playbook has been written, insiders and outsiders to the process seem unable or unwilling to interpret it.

For now, it would seem, the sacred transportation texts of the last two decades that govern the project — the Environmental Impact Statement (begun in 1990; completed in 2002) and subsequent Record of Decision, or ROD (2003) — are as fractiously discussed as scripture or the Constitution.

What is contained in those documents, and thus the Connector itself, is an amalgam of agendas, intentions, considerations, commitments and regulations not altogether obvious to the public, nor perhaps to the parties entrusted with their execution. Engineers and consultants working with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, planners hired by Lafayette Consolidated Government, Sierra Club antagonists, energy lobbyists, urban developers and citizen bystanders are left grappling with a cache of documents at once immutable and incomplete, that are begging for interpretation against a guideline not clearly set by the federal government, the final arbiter of the whole debate. Like a constitution, these documents attempt to fix rules in a way disconnected from time, while the physical realities they regulate grow and change.

What we do know is that we’re faced with a project that, if completed, will likely cost billions, define Lafayette’s historic urban core, dictate future arterial roadwork and put we the people through a civic crucible that will either break us or bind us. The magnitude of its potential impact makes 2016 a make or break year for the city as a whole.

The 5.5-mile jaunt from the I-10 interchange to just south of Lafayette Regional Airport is poised to be the most tribulated portion of a transcontinental energy corridor that spans the American heartland at its Midwestern waist, joining I-35 and I-29 at Kansas City. Federal eyes will watch Lafayette’s outcome. Through LaDOTD’s $21 million public outreach and planning campaign, implemented by its private contractors self-styled as the Lafayette Connector Partners, this could be the model for how to build urban freeways for generations to come. Or it could be yet another lumbering disaster, dividing and stunting Lafayette as a fledgling urban center before it emerges as a true regional and metropolitan anchor.

Given its complexity, the Connector has already served to create precarious divisions in Lafayette’s geography, among its leaders and between its citizens, and drawn focus to the chasm between possibility and reality.

Birth Scar

The Sierra Club's Harold Schoeffler
Photos by Robin May

When the Evangeline Thruway was constructed in the 1960s, Lafayette divided itself from its past. For the remainder of the 20th century Lafayette spread southward and westward, neighborhoods sprawling erratically along roadways scattered with no unified vision. Even then, by 1968, the corridor was earmarked as a future freeway alignment, so it’s no wonder that investment along that route dried up in the intervening years. That limbo was further crystallized by property acquisitions conducted through the 2002 Corridor Preservation Action Plan. Lafayette’s historic urban nucleus has thus for decades languished in uncertainty.

That we can even conceive of the neighborhoods north and east of the Thruway as a “side” of town is proof alone of the division it’s caused. There’s a gridded fossil of an oak-lined Southern city decaying within the adjacent radius of either side of the Thruway’s curbs. Take a slow ride through National Historic District Sterling Grove and you’ll see what we mean. It’s hard not to wonder what could have been without the six lane no-man’s land that has disconnected the historic neighborhood from the city’s place of birth in historic Downtown, née Vermilionville.

The dividing Thruway itself is a nebulous thoroughfare. At once wide and daunting, spanning what feels like a city block, its six lanes pack high volumes of traffic in precarious proximity. Traffic moves slowly, but the speeds are too high for cyclists and pedestrians to cross. Accident counts are alarming. Fatalities all too common. The pavement and houses are cracked. Porches droop. Lots are vacant. The boulevard is a motley limbo of flop houses, gas stations, crumbling driveways and rusting chain link fences. Of course, one man’s eyesore is another man’s home.

As it lumbers south toward Broussard, the gap widens in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Neighborhoods further north along the route once had clear sight lines conducive to a friendly wave. On either side of Pinhook Road and farther down toward the airport there’s no pretense of community.

New Urbanism — a school of thought that has influenced city planners, architects, developers, engineers and civil servants seeking a revival of core-oriented urban recovery — has held that the urban freeway is a blemish on the American city. In service of interstate and intermetropolitan connection, they gash the urban fabric they traverse, rending cities in halves and quarters, spilling blight beneath, above and below them, discouraging investment, cultivating suburban sprawl and hollowing cities from the center out. Highways, we’re told, were meant to connect cities, but not go through them. Such was Eisenhower’s intent. Such is the predominant layout of highway systems in Germany’s Autobahn, Eisenhower’s inspiration.

One Acadiana's Harry Weiss

While the Evangeline Thruway is no freeway, burdened as it is by low speeds and what feels like dozens of clustered traffic lights, the Thruway has done precisely what the New Urbanists have described. It has foisted blight upon historic neighborhoods and divided Lafayette along the same black inner-city and white outer-city binary that has defined many other American cityscapes.

And now, as we once again take up the prospect of an urban freeway along the established Thruway corridor, the city has been visited with further division. The neighborhoods adjacent to the Thruway — Sterling Grove, McComb-Veazey, Freetown, Port Rico, La Place and Downtown — have stalled or stuttered, starved of investment by fleeing affluence.

Modest gains have been made since the 1990s. Coteries have birthed neighborhood identities and pride. Investment is slowly revitalizing Downtown. Retail shops poke out among the cavalcade of bars that long monopolized the district. Freetown and Port Rico have made strides toward National Historic District designation. But by and large, Lafayette’s urban center, bifurcated as it is by the Thruway, has not enjoyed the runaway growth that has splayed Lafayette southward.

This is the cultural and economic landscape that the Connector will trod. Twin spans of elevated concrete, possibly up to three miles long, will connect Canada with New Orleans while cauterizing Lafayette’s existing urban wound.

This could be a healing or this could be a permanent scar.

Angst and Administration

By official documentation, the Connector was born in 1987. Since its inception, the project has not been without serious opposition from several factions that, even today, pepper the Connector’s proponents and leaders with vociferous criticism. It’s not surprising that a project of this size would generate considerable dissent. Outside of political leadership and the business community, the Connector has not attracted unified public support. Yet it has curious momentum, moving listlessly into the future, surviving litigation and hibernation in turns.

A consistently energized opposition has hindered the Connector’s progress with stops and starts. All the while, DOTD, LCG and the Federal Highway Administration have bought up 40 percent of the required parcels along the route, further freezing investment and development since acquisitions began in 2005. Property values in adjacent neighborhoods tumbled, and the Thruway’s traffic and body counts mounted. In 1992, 200 people showed up to oppose the Connector at a public hearing for its draft Environmental Impact Statement. DOTD halted the process for the next four years.

More than 600 form letters of opposition or challenge — dozens more individually crafted — and a petition of opposition signed by about 2,000 people are cataloged in 2003’s Record of Decision. That record of derision contradicts the narrative of pro-Connector unanimity presented in historical documents by proponent agencies like the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce (now One Acadiana) and LCG. Yet a note from then not-yet Mayor-President L.J. “Joey” Durel exhorts the “tremendous” community support for the project and insists that the Connector will “save lives” and “improve the quality of life for people in Louisiana.”

Cajundome Director Greg Davis

That dissonance of perception between power brokers and those broke for power continues to foment distrust among the Connector’s opponents. “This is a chamber of commerce project, not a community project,” familiar Connector foe Harold Schoeffler said to applause at a Sierra Club sponsored forum called “Y49” in December.

Belief in the omnipotence of monied powers is the most basic of democratic fears.

When the Connector program relaunched to great fanfare in the fall of 2015, DOTD and its contractor partners — publicly traded companies AECOM and Stantec Consulting Services, among eight other local and national entities — attacked the perception problem head on by promoting the inclusion of a design phase program called Context Sensitive Solutions, or CSS, a transportation design approach influenced by New Urbanism and promoted by the Federal Highway Administration. A big part of that $21 million price tag goes to the CSS process: laborious hours conducting charrette events and community workshops, collating public comment and integrating the whole kit and caboodle into a final Connector design that hovers between the public will and the Record of Decision’s way.

The 18-month outreach and engagement program — which began in October — seek to mitigate or attenuate the destructive potential of urban infrastructure projects by involving the affected community in the Connector’s planning and design phase. DOTD’s multi-million dollar consultants have vast experience in CSS-led construction projects, operating as prime and sub contractors on major infrastructure initiatives around the country. The Connector is the first Louisiana project to include a CSS program.

But despite world-class design expertise employed by the state, public outreach has thus far been ham-fisted, with several unfortunate gaffes and PR blunders vexing the planners’ attempts to assure a community very much in angst. Incoming DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson drew an uproar at the Sierra Club’s Y49 forum when he referenced New Orleans’ West Bank Expressway — ironically the terminus of the state’s $3 billion, 160-mile Geaux South program — as an example of an urban highway project successfully mitigated by community input. Stantec consultant Steve Wallace got caught in a media cyclone over likening the Connector’s current design phase to that of picking paint colors and shingles at a meeting of the Community Working Group, one of the citizen committees created through the CSS process. These may have be unintended messages, but the resonance has nonetheless been detrimental.

Others have criticized the appointee make-up of the three groups created by CSS, bringing to fore a lack of black and minority representation on those panels. Tina Bingham, vice chair of LCG’s Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, CWG appointee and McComb-Veazey coterie member, says that while there are perhaps more black voices in the process than usual, they may not be the right ones.

DDA Executive Director Nathan Norris leads a recent public discussion about the Connector.

“There’s a distrust [among African Americans] of any entity that says they’re going to change things,” she says. “The community that’s being affected is not being represented. I’m proud to be given a platform. But I’m only one person. There are a few other people that have more history. We need more African-Americans on those boards and those committees. We are being affected by this.”

The Y49 meeting marked a major inflection point since the Connector’s re-emergence. DOTD staffers, including Connector Project Manager Toby Picard, seemed rattled by a room chocked and seething with Connector opponents. These are new leaders facing an old institutional enemy in the Sierra Club and its sympathizers. Schoeffler was the lone agitator on the panel, and the Sierra Club has been a thorn in the project’s side under his leadership, filing suit as “Concerned Citizens” against the Federal Highway Administration shortly after the Record of Decision’s approval in 2003. Picard et al. may not have first-hand memory of the 1992 public hearing that halted progress in the early 1990s, but the immediate response seemed eerily familiar in style if not in severity. December meetings of the Connector’s CSS citizen committees were canceled with a reassessment in the offing. The Connector partners were spooked.

To be fair, much of the angst arises from the tectonic shifts in elected leadership at the city and state levels. Louisiana has a new governor in John Bel Edwards, who in turn appointed the aforementioned Shawn Wilson DOTD secretary. Lafayette has a new mayor-president in Joel Robideaux, who has yet to weigh in as his predecessor Joey Durel’s term winds down. As of this writing, Robideaux had not completed his personnel shuffle, meaning some of LCG’s key players in the process are playing ball without a guaranteed spot in the lineup. Bingham notes that some black leaders appointed to the CWG aren’t showing up following election losses .

On an internecine level, the Connector team — state DOTD and its contractor partners — has tussled behind close doors with the coincidental planning team activated by LCG’s recent receipt of a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant. The TIGER team, comprised of LCG operatives, Lafayette-based Architects Southwest and Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, is charged with reactive design in the I-49 Corridor.

While on paper these two organizations should work collaboratively, the two have failed to reach an agreement as to the purview of their respective planning jurisdictions.

Incoming DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson

A so-called Memorandum of Understanding is stalled but in the works and would determine how far into the Connector’s right of way and design scope the TIGER team could work. By appointment, the TIGER team is charged with urban revitalization in the neighborhoods in an around the Corridor. To what extent that influence can spill into design territory marked out for the Connector partners is yet to be determined. An agreement is critical if the planning and design process is to bridge the gap between a Connector that is simply buildable and actionable, and one that is a true civic asset.

While the TIGER team ostensibly represents the city via its relationship with LCG, TIGER planners have thus far oriented toward a future that includes a Connector and a potentially massive revitalization project for Corridor bystanders. To the extent that they don’t exactly oppose the Connector, the TIGER team finds itself in a similarly tense relationship with Connector opponents.

While the Connector partners and the TIGER team hammer out a Memorandum of Understanding, both planning organizations are perhaps more crucially working out an informal understanding with the public at large. For their part, the Connector partners’ options are strapped by the Record of Decision — or at least the Federal Highway Administration’s interpretation of it —purportedly a historic record of the community’s intent. Their current gear has, thus far, mostly managed public expectation while the wheels continue to spin out. At its heart, the tension among the public, the Connector partners and the TIGER team stems from a fundamental mystery: What does public engagement actually mean? How much of the Corridor is predestined by its historical documents? And what desirable outcomes are actually possible?

The Frontier of Feasibility

Perhaps no greater gulf must be crossed in the next year and half of discourse and debate than the one that separates the possible from the plausible. Government infrastructure projects have a reputation for accepting the cheapest achievable minimum, undoubtedly a side effect of decades spent awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. There are many among the city’s leaders who believe that a new kind of urban freeway is achievable here in Lafayette, one completely disconnected from the freeway’s sordid history.

That audacity requires flexibility.

And there’s an extent to which even the Connector’s leaders are unsure what flexibility is allowed by the ROD. Could we remove interchanges? Could there be a suspension bridge? Could the elevated portion rise to 40 feet? 60 feet? 100 feet? Could the remaining portions of the Evangeline Thruway be used as an on and off ramp? Could there be a boulevard? Could the pillars be made to look like crawfish? Will Freetown’s future designation as a historic district force alterations to current preliminary plans? What virtuous good beyond satisfying the goals of upgrading traffic volume capacity, improving arterial connectivity, providing disaster evacuation and decreasing travel times can a highway project achieve?

More than likely you will see a preliminary map, one that has been publicly contested and not readily defended. It shows an aerial interpretation of the ROD’s highway prescription. There are interchanges at Willow Street, Second and Third streets, Johnston Street/Louisiana Avenue, University Avenue and Kaliste Saloom Road. The freeway will be elevated from the Vermilion River to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The route peels west off the Evangeline Thruway toward the railroad tracks, leaving the original Thruway corridor intact from roughly Second Street to Taft Street.

Given the 21 mitigation commitments made 15 years ago and cemented in the ROD, it’s just not clear if basic structural elements can be changed. Much is owed and already promised, oddly enough from a past community to a future version of itself. That interchange at Second and Third near Downtown was a concession to the Downtown Development Authority’s 15-year-old request for freeway access. Some stakeholders Downtown have now questioned the wisdom of that interchange. We’ve been told of other major transportation builds that have deviated from the RODs that governed them, but at this point that information is almost apocryphal and not clearly pertinent.

“Anything we change has varying degrees of risk to the environmental documents,” Toby Picard said in an Advocate report about the Y49 meeting. It’s a refrain we’ve heard often from him and other DOTD representatives. Change anything in the ROD and risk starting the process all over again. It’s not unfair to wonder why we should privilege the existential safety of a document over the existential safety of people living in the shadow of the looming Connector.

That’s not to be glib about what can be done with a project so large. I have no doubt that Picard, Wilson and the folks at Stantec and AECOM know precisely the human and cultural cost of what has been proposed. For its part, DOTD is currently conducting updated environmental studies to determine if the ROD should be amended. That process takes into account changes within the proposed Corridor that have occurred since the ROD was approved in 2003. How far those amendments will go is also unclear, and there is a distant chance that the Feds will rule the current ROD invalid.

Perhaps the most compelling argument we’ve heard in defense of the Connector’s go-ahead is that the magnitude of this project and the advent of CSS presents an opportunity to right an institutional wrong.

“I’m starting to wrap my head around the history of everything that’s taking place,” Tina Bingham says. “It is an opportunity. It’s important that people recognize that we already have that barrier.”

The very existence of programs like CSS and TIGER demonstrate the destructive potential of urban freeways. The TIGER grant itself was awarded because it dealt head-on with a monumental adversity presented by the introduction of an urban freeway into Lafayette’s historic urban core — though planning funds would remain if the Connector project halted. The grant awarded Lafayette’s city leaders the opportunity to respond directly to the needs of the Corridor’s extant communities. For generations, Lafayette abandoned its core and left it to rot, literally an afterthought for drivers destined to keep the crumbling neighborhoods in rear view. LCG’s grant application presented something revolutionary — the possibility of building an urban freeway that improved rather than eroded the community in which it was built.

But believe it or not, it’s possible for conditions along the Thruway to get worse. An elevated stub of concrete, built 20 feet above ground, as preliminary designs hold, with reckless disregard for the people below it, would serve to make permanent the current gash in our city’s heart. To do nothing and allow the Corridor to erode year by year would be a slower journey to the abyss. From our meetings with the various professionals, experts, planners, consultants, amateur sociologists and city developers involved in this project, no one wants that to happen. True consensus will be the only path forward, whether we decide to build this thing or not.

Whatever happens, we are poised to make a decision that will determine our city’s developmental fate for generations. Full engagement in the CSS process is a must for all who desire a Lafayette worth living in. If done correctly, the Connector can be just that, a way of re-connecting Lafayette from a past it left behind. If done wrong, the gap will only widen.