I-49 Connector activities resume after summer hiatus

by Christiaan Mader

The whole gang is back for another round of work on Lafayette's favorite transportation project.

Interested residents and DOTD engineers discuss one of the 19 design options on the table for the I-49 Connector at Wednesday's public open house.
photo by Robin May

While perhaps a coincidence, we all got a summer break from the I-49 Connector. Earlier this summer, DOTD hit pause just as temperatures were peaking and pulses were shrieking on the controversial interstate project which, as proposed, would drive 5.5 miles of controlled access freeway straight through Lafayette’s urban heart. Maybe that’s poetic hyperbole at this point given many of the changes entertained by DOTD and its team of contractors, bannered the Lafayette Connector Team.

In June, months of back channel back and forth culminated with a hotbed of announcements. First, the state opted to conduct supplemental environmental studies through 2018, effectively reopening the 2003 Record of Decision, which until then had stratified the project’s design limitations like a sacred text. Then, DOTD announced Connector project manager Toby Picard had left the agency to pursue a career in the private sector, a high level departure which could dramatically change the project’s tack.

Such is the backdrop for the project’s resumption this week. At Wednesday’s open house, the first public meeting since the halt, state and city engineers as well as public proponents and opponents reconvened around dozens of poster-sized placards displaying the array of design ideas that have become the project’s bandy. As it stands the Connector’s wardrobe of design choices features 19 design concepts, grouped into six categories, along with 23 potential design modifications for accessorizing.

The buzz on the open house floor was that two general concepts will make it through to next round of design: the "signature bridge" concept confederated as the 4 Series and the cut and cover concept designated the 6 series.

Should expectations hold true, then the slightly re-aligned cut and cover design proffered by the city’s Evangeline Corridor Initiative would make it through as a potential modification to the other buried interstate concepts. The state initially and publicly balked at the concept’s provenance, boiling over a long simmering feud between state and city planners on the role that the city’s team should play in the process.

While far from technically vetted, the ECI concept gained momentum among once disparate factions in the Connector universe, suggesting that it could represent a long sought after consensus for the decades old project. For now, at least, the concept is still in play pending further technical review before it can abut cost and further political jockeying.

There’s been some confusion about the role the supplemental environmental studies will play in the project’s process and what, if any, changes will be required by federal regulations. Ostensibly, we’ll get a few clarifications from the state at Thursday’s meeting of the Community Work Group, the citizen advisory committee appointed by DOTD to help guide the state’s design process. Until now, state design activities and corridor studies have been directed by a federally required environmental re-evaluation process, reportedly a less in-depth review of the project’s on the ground conditions. Not surprisingly, the state found plenty had changed in the alignment corridor in the 13 years since the Record of Decision was approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

When the state announced additional environmental studies, there was a brief panic among hard-lined, legacy Connector supporters who feared that the more thorough re-examination of the project’s impact would threaten its viability, delaying a decades-old project by perhaps yet more decades.

Things have since calmed down as the additional studies’ inevitability became more apparent. Put simply, given the project’s age, proceeding without supplemental environmental study would have put the project in greater legal jeopardy.

Since the fall, the state has often reluctantly agreed to changes pushed on it by vocal community members, with the aforementioned buffet of options not materializing until midway through the spring. Yet, here we are with a lot on our plate to consider. Now that summer’s out and school’s back in session, the Connector’s fate feels as wide open as ever.

Tonight's meeting of the Community Work Group is open to the public and takes place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Lafayette Public Library in Downtown Lafayette.