A rumbling groan leapt out of Lafayette’s Old Guard when the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development announced a new round of studies on the I-49 Connector.
No. Not this again. Not another delay. Officials with the state transportation agency have stumped loudly on avoiding this exact scenario — reopening the more than decade-old Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and threatening the 2003 Record of Decision that defines the project.
Many in the business community blame the latest delay on advocacy for an ambitious design concept — a buried and easterly shifted interstate modification slanged “6F” — which they say pushed the project too far. We’ve come a long way in the past eight months from an utterly hideous preliminary design, and that’s caused some growing pains. Fundamentalist Connector supporters have looked at each round of debate and to date 19 sanctioned design modifications as yet more dithering. They argue that reopened studies make the project more vulnerable to a litigious opposition and wastes valuable time. But some transportation experts counter that long cues for federal funds makes rushing to a design pointless, and assert that additional studies provide the best route to legal protection given the project’s age.
Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative, a Wisconsin-based transportation policy center, says the presence of an alternative like 6F could have forced a lawsuit if DOTD didn’t consider the idea, even if supplemental studies ultimately rule it out.
“If there’s a viable alternative out there that the EIS doesn’t address, people can take them to court and hold things up for a long time,” Sundquist says. “They scoped it years ago. Technology changes. Land use changes. Environments change.”
Connector project manager Toby Picard indicated in an email to City-Parish Councilman and 6F champion Bruce Conque that DOTD intends to study the 6F refinements in the context of the supplemental studies, which will conclude in 2018. Moving the mainline 150 feet east to flatten the trans-interstate hump, as 6F suggests, would not have been possible without supplemental studies and amendments to the Record of Decision.
No matter what, lawsuits await aged-out projects like the Connector at every turn, according to a former senior transportation official who asked not to be named for this story.
Moving forward without further environmental studies is only acceptable if nothing in the environment has changed, and the Connector’s Record of Decision is long past its three-year window for actionability. Had DOTD gone headlong into the 18-month itinerary begun last fall, opponents could have legally challenged DOTD — and had reasonable expectations of success — for not conducting supplemental studies.
Since the ROD was signed, the Freetown neighborhood received national historic designation, Downtown experienced an upturn in economic development, oil boomed and recently busted.
What’s more, additional studies won’t delay the process any more than federal funding schedules will. DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson recently said the Connector is like an elephant, the sort of thing you eat one bite at a time. But we haven’t seen the Connector show up on the state’s menu yet, even with a signed ROD in place. Louisiana’s current State Transportation Investment Plan ends in 2019, meaning the Connector would likely have to wait until that point to get in line for some of the state’s cut of federal apportionment through the FAST Act.
You could argue that the STIP schedule pressures DOTD to get a new ROD signed in time to make the next four years of funding. Even then, the Connector would have to fight for a piece of a shrinking pie. Louisiana receives around $700 million a year for transportation projects, a list that never seems to stop growing. Nearly half of Louisiana’s FAST dollars are unavailable to projects like the Connector. Early estimates for the unacceptably destructive preliminary design for the Connector hover around $400 - $600 million. Barring some impressive pork barreling, widespread taxation or a windfall federal grant, the likelihood that a shovel-ready Connector gets funded any time soon is slim.
All of that rushing would thus have been for a party not yet ready to start. Supplemental studies don’t kill projects. Lack of funding does. This is a long-term project. And it’s still not clear that an urban interstate is a transit solution that will prove a real asset to Lafayette’s quality of life. There are many who would argue, including some of the nation’s top transportation wonks, that the age of the urban interstate is over. If they’re right, then what’s the rush?