Since the nearly 30-year-old I-49 Connector project came back online early last fall, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development officials have avoided some community-requested changes to the interstate’s design as potential project killers. Following early public backlash, DOTD allowed its contracted design team to field more conceptual flexibility in its public design meetings, putting 14 design refinements on the table with features once feared to be dangerously deviant from the design prescriptions enshrined in the 2003 Record of Decision.
Members of the Community Working Group, a planning team made up of civic representatives appointed by DOTD, requested that DOTD and its team study a boulevard as a refinement concept instead of yet more interstate-grade options. DOTD clammed up. In a letter to CWG members, DOTD Connector Project Manager Toby Picard required that all further design concepts include a mainline interstate facility that follows the alignment selected in the ROD. Anything else would risk the ROD and set the project back decades. The retreat to the ROD was intended to protect the integrity of the project by bracketing out concepts DOTD representatives say could kill the project, but the fundamentalist approach presents an existential threat to the project in its own right.
By positioning further planning in a “ROD or bust” framework, DOTD unnecessarily alienates some community-generated ideas as deal breakers, making more enemies of the project where there perhaps otherwise wouldn’t be. Conceivably, whether the ROD permits any change is up to the Federal Highway Administration. But beyond reported “informal discussions” with FHWA about non-interstate options, DOTD has refused to approach the federal agency about non-interstate options or alignment changes in any official capacity.
“As described in the Record Of Decision, the I-49 Lafayette Connector is a limited access freeway,” DOTD spokesperson Deidra Druilhet said in a statement to ABiz. “As such, DOTD has not and cannot discuss non-interstate options with FHWA, as they violate the purpose, need and intent of the project.”
The “purpose and need” of the project as outlined by the ROD is to accommodate heavier traffic in the coming decades, improve safety in the corridor and provide better hurricane evacuation, among other commitments. While the ROD does stipulate a freeway grade facility, it stands to reason that any concept that accomplishes those transportation goals shouldn’t be ruled out, especially if it comes with community support and demonstrable benefit.
According to some national transportation experts, the federal transportation authorities that enforce DOTD’s commitment to the ROD are inclined to take a liberal view of what a ROD would allow. DOTD representatives argue that they have no choice but to stick to the script, but that’s not exactly true.
According to Eric Sundquist, managing director of infrastructure think-tank State Smart Transportation Initiative, DOTD has little reason to hide behind the ROD beyond preventing a study reboot, itself not a project killer.
“All the options are there for them,” says Sundquist. “There are RODs that have been sitting around for decades. Things change. I don’t think the ROD is a major impediment to doing the right thing.”
Federal regulations require a ROD to be re-evaluated if the action approved is not taken within three years of the project’s approval. DOTD is currently in that re-evaluation process as part of an 18-month, $21 million public collaborative planning process. Regardless of what DOTD designs, the FHWA will determine if social, economic, transportation and ecological conditions — what transportation professionals call the environmental impact — are sufficiently met by the potentially expired document. Should circumstances be different enough, the FHWA could require that DOTD amend or even re-start the environmental impact studies anyway, a circumstance that DOTD seems hell-bent on avoiding.
“We have not been shy that our intent is not to reconsider or re-evaluate decisions made in the past,” DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson wrote in an opinion piece published in The Daily Advertiser. “We are focused on advancing the project within the scope of the decisions that have been made.”
Among those decisions and promises made, according to DOTD, is that the project produce a freeway. But as noted, those documents were “finalized” over a decade ago after yet another decade of studies, stops and starts. In any case, DOTD has consistently walked back previous stonewalling behind the ROD.
At a town hall meeting held by Connector opposition group Y-49? last December, Wilson — then the transportation agency’s chief spokesperson, as he had not yet been appointed secretary by Gov. John Bel Edwards — repeatedly told a seething crowd of skeptics that DOTD’s hands were bound by the will of the FHWA.
“I’ll tell you from a real practical standpoint, we’ve done this over and over in different places. And so do we have an idea that the feds are gonna tell us no if you say you’re going to get rid of this, that and the other interchange?” Wilson told ABiz at the time. “Yeah, we know they’re going to say, ‘No. Who are you kidding?’” Here we are in May 2016 and DOTD has allowed 14 refinement concepts on the table, many of which remove interchanges.
Of course that’s a decidedly different move than say dramatically altering the alignment or changing the grade. But the point is that DOTD has more discretion on the issue than it lets on, especially considering federal transportation authorities up to Secretary Anthony Foxx himself are trying to reverse course in urban highway design. The Connector’s environmental studies predate the advent of Context Sensitive Solutions, a new planning approach that is being used on this project to ensure the interstate will enhance, rather than harm, the surrounding area. The ROD is thus a relic of a time when interstate building was an end in itself rather than a means to civic repair.
Credit should be given to the Connector team for the progress that has been made until this point, reluctant as it seems to have been. Many of the 14 options on the table are dramatic improvements to the preliminary working designs produced a decade ago, and they address many of the connectivity and contextual issues that have been raised by the community at large. It may be impractical for DOTD to allow a full study of a new alignment, but limiting design options to interstates and ideas that haven’t been tested is unnecessarily rigid. That rigidity forces Connector skeptics into taking their issues outside the design process.
Rallying around the ROD dissuades community buy-in and attracts aggressive and political action against the Connector. Proactive and angry opposition is a far more dangerous threat to the livelihood of the project than a flexible interpretation of the ROD.