Forecasting 25 more years of sprawl in Acadiana

by Christiaan Mader

Not quite time to panic, but if all goes according to the MPO's long range transportation plan, the Acadiana region could see worse fiscal trouble thanks to a swelling suburban road network.

Website banner for the Acadiana MPO — an exurban highway with a massive interchange.
Acadiana Planning Commission

[Editor's Note: A previous headline did its math wrong. It's 25 more years. Not 35 more years. We regret the error.]

A regional transportation plan for Acadiana, set for an adoption vote this March, could tie $303 million in funds to sprawl-inducing roadway projects over the next several decades. The 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, guided by Acadiana's Metropolitan Planning Organization, outlines 10 roadway projects around the Acadiana region, most of which are positioned outside of Lafayette city limits and in exburban areas of the MPO’s region.

You can view a map of the 2040 MTP here.

The plan, which has been in development since 2012, runs aground of ongoing public discussion about the parish’s dire financial situation, much of which is arguably attributable to the city’s sprawling trajectory over the past few decades. A committee of the City-Parish Council is taking a long, hard look at Lafayette’s financial predicament, spurred by declining tax revenues and increasing maintenance costs for public infrastructure. Three members of the Financial Liaison Committee, councilmen Bruce Conque, Jay Castille and Kevin Naquin, also sit on the MPO policy committee which will vote to adopt the plan.

Pat Trahan, vice chairman for the Lafayette region at IberiaBank and a sitting member of the MPO’s policy committee, voted against the plan moving forward to a recent public comment phase, arguing that it promotes “more of the same” types of projects that have soured Lafayette’s financial future.

“We need to stop four-laning every road out of town,” Trahan says.“If we’re told that we don’t have the revenue to maintain the infrastructure we have, why would we put $303 million more of concrete and pipe out there?”

The policy committee will decide on March 15 whether to adopt the plan. The 15-day comment period, which terminated in February, received no public comments, according to Trahan.

Near the tail end of the Durel administration, consultants contracted by LCG declared that Lafayette was running headlong into insolvency if it continued developmental patterns as seen on the south side of town with massive, car-heavy infrastructure like the Costco-anchored Ambassador Town Center. Chuck Marohn, one of those soothsaying consultants, recently held Lafayette up as a poster child for suburban development run amok and running tax dollars into the ground.

By law, the 2040 plan uses demographic data from the most recent census, in this case 2010. That means economic and population projections, used to screen some 100 projects proposed for this planning cycle and winnow them to the current 10, are based on six year old demographic data, from a time when the price of oil was above $70 per barrel. The plan is predicated on the projection that the region will see “robust, sustained growth,” adding some 148,000 new residents by 2040, the plan’s terminating year.

According to officials with the Acadiana Planning Commission, the planning agency that houses the MPO, the plan is amendable and could very well be voted down at the March meeting by the MPO’s policy committee, populated with representatives of the APC/MPO’s 13 member jurisdictions. MPO’s are responsible for regional transportation planning for areas of varying size. In this case, the Acadiana MPO covers 650 square miles, including all of Lafayette parish and parts of Acadia, St. Martin, Vermilion, St. Landry, and Iberia parishes, a boundary that includes 340,000 people. Federal regulations require an MTP, often referred to as a Long Range Transportation Plan, to be adopted every five years in order for the agency to access federal dollars for its projects. Failure to pass a plan, say APC officials, could jeopardize federal funding.

In a sense, the plan is an exercise in wishful thinking. Of the 10 projects on the financially constrained plan, only three have any funding identified — environmental studies for widening of Verot School Road and N. University, both on the outskirts of Lafayette’s corp limits, and design work on a bypass in St. Martin parish. All of the projects included on the plan have some work already done on them, according to MPO director Melanie Bordelon. Long range plans are structured to fund projects as money becomes available from federal, state, and local sources, budgeting for a selected and prioritized set of projects based on what regional planners project will be the amount of transportation dollars available over several decades, in this case by 2040.

Despite the potential for changes — projects can, and often are, removed during subsequent planning cycles — a long range transportation plan codifies a region’s priorities, based on what constituent jurisdictions believe could be choke points in the regional roadway network in the future. To that extent, the MPO’s long range planning process, particularly its method of ranking projects, appears to favor capacity building projects like lane additions and road widenings, which improve level of service by allowing vehicles to travel safely at higher speed. While effective at moving cars, planners in the urbanist camp, like Marohn for instance, say these types of projects incentivize sprawl type development that’s expensive to maintain and produces little return via tax revenues when compared with denser development patterns.

Indeed, both APC CEO Monique Boulet and Bordelon concede that the plan tends toward sprawl. But both lament that it’s reflective of the agency’s regional mission, the priorities of all of its member jurisdictions, and some organizational turmoil experienced over the past 5 years. In interviews with The IND, both remarked that they hope to “educate” regional constituencies on the value of denser, more urban-friendly land use and transportation planning in the coming years.

“It’s been a three year process. What we need to do is bring a new thinking and help them [member jurisdictions] understand urban sprawl, and then we’d have a lasting change,” says Boulet. “I do see us moving in that direction as a region. I really am optimistic.”

The MPO does have a complete streets policy, a commitment to building roads that serve pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike. And the MPO’s Transportation Improvement Plan, which allocates dollars in hand to regional projects, does fund projects in Lafayette proper, including the Johnston Street pilot project that will transform a portion of the oft-maligned congestion magnet around Moncus Park.

Provided the plan is adopted, it does not prevent the MPO from continuing to use current funds to promote urban-oriented projects. Again, Bordelon says the plan could be “easily” amended, an approach which she favors going forward over throwing the plan out altogether.

If the plan is indeed handcuffed to the outlook of member jurisdictions, it may very well take a sea change to move regional transportation priorities in a different direction.