Trying to ’Connect’ with the public on I-49 It’s been a long few months, and we’ve got many left to go before a design is churned out of the I-49 community design machine. DOTD and its team are working to prove that they’re listening to the public.

by Christiaan Mader

Putting its team on the floor with the public in a four-hour open house, DOTD explores more ways to connect with the public on the Lafayette Connector.

Attendees of DOTD's I-49 Open House got plenty of face time with top officials like DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, right, on the Lafayette Connector project.
Robin May

An associate of mine wondered, quite astutely, if what DOTD calls public comment is perhaps different than what the public calls public comment. We stood together in a basketball court for a four-hour public open house hosted by DOTD with impromptu conversations about the proposed I-49 Connector vibrantly humming. Citizens gathered around placard displays of design alternatives, examples of similar projects from around the world, project history placards, flow charts of the decision-making process and decodings of the flurry of acronyms that accompany the project: NEPA, DOTD, CSS, FHWA, FAA, DOT, TIGER. Attending engineers, consultants and grad students stood graciously by to answer questions about the displays.

If you were coming for a chance to shout at DOTD, you were definitely disappointed. The event was informal for the most part, and “official” public comment was relegated to a single station.

Critics have bristled at the regimentation of comment as a de facto public silencing. For its part, DOTD routinely advertises the opportunity to use electronic and handwritten comment cards — the open house provided the novel option of leaving a voice recorded comment. This is all part of an immense, laborious data gathering process that DOTD spokesmen insist are part and parcel of transparency, but for some it can seem like a black box.

To an extent, that suspicion is a function of a slow-moving machine. People tend to think their voices are heard only when their demands are quite literally met. If you keep shouting stop, and the train keeps going, you’re not gonna believe the engineer has heard you. Or worse yet, that he heard you and chose to run over your horse anyway.

Still, DOTD and its team of consultant partners have made some progress in meeting a demand for engagement. Outright opponents of the project will not be satisfied by the Connector adjustments as laid out, but many of those came at the suggestion or request of community members involved in the design process through the Community Working Group, the public-representative body created by the project’s ongoing Context Sensitive Solutions process.

Going into last night’s open house, 12 modifications on the Connector’s design floated in the digital ether via the Connector’s official web site. On an LCD, the dotted lines, vector renderings and legends can be so much gobble. Even an informed reporter would have difficulty articulating to the uninitiated what the continuum of modifications did, and what distinguished one from the next. But at the open house, patrons were met with the options live and in full color, including a 13th hot off the presses, with a nifty human guide ready to assist.

One of the design modifications that was displayed at the open house. This one, part of the "4 Series," comes directly from a proposal introduced by planners with LCG and MPO.
Lafayette Connector Partners

The publicly reviewable, commentable options are, for the most part, all refinements stemming from public input. Grouped into now six cascading series, the variations graduate from the preliminary plan that was abstracted from the commitments, enshrined in the Connector’s Record of Decision and Environmental Impact Study, to a semi-recessed version that depresses the highway 10 feet below grade instead of elevating it. You can draw a direct line to the appearance of that semi-recessed placard to comments made by C-P Councilman Bruce Conque at a meeting of the Community Working Group, and still another line from his comments to feedback from his constituency.

The standing best line of alternatives, in the opinion of this reporter, come from the four series, a class of variations introduced by planners with Lafayette Consolidated Government and the Metropolitan Planning Organization. ‘

Rolled out earlier this year, the options proposed removing two interior interchanges from the original plan, thereby allowing the urban grid below the Connector to be repaired. That such radical changes would be considered — in the context of public infrastructure design that’s a radical change — was a sign of remarkable glasnost on the part of DOTD, which had rolled into town late last year essentially assuming that it had the nuts and bolts of this thing ready to go and Lafayette was going to rubber stamp it.

As a concession to recent complaints that the public cannot speak at meetings of the three working committees established by CSS, DOTD has agreed to allow 20 minutes before and after meetings of the CWG for the public to approach and address the design team.

To be sure, DOTD and its team have a long way to go to convince people that they’re listening. But that’s not entirely their fault. Folks are dutifully and justifiably leery of bureaucratic projects that have, by and large, plowed through communities with collateral damage unheeded. The point is that informal engagement opportunities like these are valuable to people who need to form opinions of the goings-on.

No doubt plenty of dissent was shared into the communal hum of that basketball court, and no doubt outright opponents of the project will not be placated by what they will perceive as marginal and superficial changes. But before you can responsibly dissent, you need information.

Events like these do not replace the open forum, screaming match. Nor should they. DOTD should host some of those too. But that doesn’t mean the efforts they’ve made shouldn’t go unnoticed.

DOTD and the Lafayette Connector Partners will host a meeting of the Community Working Group today (Thursday) at the Lafayette Public Library - Downtown from 5:30 p.m.- 7:30 p.m.