When can an interstate not be an interstate? Community members are probing the limits of design options for the I-49 Connector, this time with a multi-way boulevard concept that DOTD is hesitant to pursue.

by Christiaan Mader

At present, DOTD is blocking the proposal to study a boulevard as segment option on the I-49 Connector project. But its reasoning is based on institutional rationale not necessarily written in stone.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, right, discusses the connector with a resident at an April public meeting.
Photo by Robin May

A voiceless squirm held over the room following John Arceneaux’s suggestion. A consulting engineer, frozen mid-presentation by the shot fired, was clearly below the pay grade required to respond. A Sierra Club acolyte guffawed. The inquisitor leaned in for an answer. An eternity bloomed.

Arceneaux’s suggestion, made at an April 28 meeting of a community-representative planning group for the I-49 Connector project, was that DOTD study the possibility of substituting a grand boulevard as a refinement concept to the as-planned elevated freeway, particularly along the urban portions of the corridor.

What was so vexing, of course, is that Arceneaux had asked a question a state-contracted transportation engineer simply can’t answer — can an interstate project produce something other than an interstate?

Arceneaux posited this study after viewing a 13th refinement concept added to a series of 12 incremental modifications to a widely-disliked preliminary design of the Connector. DOTD and its consulting partners had allowed several major concept refinements, as suggested by the Community Working Group, following some rough public meetings early on in the 18-month design process, following tense and uncomfortable conversations just like this one.

The silence hanging over the Downtown public library meeting room was the sound of worlds colliding.

When Toby Picard, DOTD project manager for the I-49 Connector, finally spoke, the answer was an obvious exasperation.

“With this project, that is not going to happen,” he said. “That would be ending this project and starting a whole new project.”

An ontological conversation ensued among engineers, policy wonks and politicos. In a nutshell, angst.

A grand boulevard, it is argued, would be cheaper to build, more urban-coherent and convey as many cars as DOTD needs to make the project work. Arceneaux cited two oft-referenced annals in the history of freeway reclamation projects: the removal and replacement of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and the West Side Highway in New York City, both elevated urban freeways, with boulevards. You can break DOTD’s objections down into arguments from logistics and arguments from definitions.

The logistical objection is that boulevards won’t carry enough cars. However, the Embarcadero, now a roughly two-mile grand boulevard that cost San Francisco $50 million, saw its traffic count drop from 60,000 cars daily prior to the earthquake that provoked its removal to 26,000 cars daily in 2000. The West Side Highway moves upwards of 125,000 cars per day along its five miles of six- to eight-lane boulevard.

For reference, the Evangeline Thruway corridor currently conveys about 60,000 cars per day. Some projections say traffic counts along that route will increase to well over 100,000 in the ensuing decades. That number's been known to creep north of 140,000.

New York and San Francisco both have immense traffic systems and excellent mass transit options; that’s true. But it’s not certifiable that a boulevard can’t do the job.

The more definitional objection is that a boulevard is not an interstate and thus does not meet the Purpose and Need of the project. What Purpose and Need? The Purpose and Need to build an interstate.

Logicians call that a tautology — a cyclical reasoning in which the premise and the conclusion are the same.

Whenever DOTD officials are confronted with radicalized changes, they generally retreat to Purpose and Need as the metric by which the project must be gauged to function.

We’ve argued that for the Connector get city-wide buy in, the project’s goals must be inverted to prioritize quality of life. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has made similar arguments in national discourse.

Consider that the primary planning vehicle for the Connector is the ballyhooed Context Sensitive Solutions process, which was implemented by the Federal Highway Administration to address the known destructive impact of transportation facilities on the communities that host them. By definition, that means a solution sensitive to an urban context could be a transport structure that is not an interstate.

“Is a multi-way boulevard a potential for improvement? Absolutely,” DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson told The IND at the CWG meeting. “In the context of this project, the Record of Decision says we’re looking at an interstate. And that [a boulevard] would be a big departure from the commitment we made to the community 20 years ago.”

That’s a prison of language. DOTD, as a state agency responsible for a federal road project, has to play by the federal government’s rules. And according to FHWA guidelines concerning interstates, they must be comprised of limited access freeways, which boulevards are not.

We do know that federal transportation authorities are interested in unorthodox solutions. DOTD and its partners could get a green light for a boulevard study by way of FHWA, which ultimately decides the fate of whatever design is churned out of this indigestive machine. DOTD seems reluctant to take that approach.

“If we ask them to just give us a decision over here, that would open Pandora’s Box in terms of saying, ‘You [the FHWA] can give me a decision on any of these [alternatives] in that same context, and that would violate the process,” Wilson said.

The ambiguities in Wilson’s answer point to something other than federal rigidity. Experience in the project should tell us that anyhow. Back in late December, DOTD reps implied that the FHWA would not authorize many of the sorts of changes being officially contemplated right now.

What Wilson and Picard may be avoiding is not the boulevard as such, but rather the endless cascade of options that undoubtedly stand behind it. Opening the floor to the boulevard sets an uncomfortable precedent for them, one that may make it even more difficult to exclude the recalcitrant “Teche Ridge option” from the project’s channels.

If that’s the case, Picard could be right to say that the boulevard could kill the project. Whether that’s such a bad thing is an entirely different question.