Connector planners moving closer to green-lighting elevated design

by Christiaan Mader

The design of the I-49 Connector is beginning to take shape, amid growing confusion about the project's decision-making process. p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Times}

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, right, listens to feedback from a resident at a Connector meeting last year.
Robin May

[Editor's Note — A earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the CWG and TAC committees would meet after the next Executive Committee meeting. They will meet before the next Executive Committee meeting. We regret the error.]

At a hastily announced meeting of the Lafayette Connector’s top committee on Friday, planners and officials on the decades-old interstate project moved closer to committing to the elevated design for the highway’s mainline structure.

Provided the process follows the tentative schedule laid out at the meeting, the Executive Committee will choose between two remaining categories of concepts — an elevated design and a tunnel-like design — before commencing the third and final tier of the community-oriented design program. Discussion among the committee’s members indicated general preference for the elevated concept, although no official decision was made.

“Short of us spending public dollars to investigate two concepts to a level of detail, knowing full well one of them will not proceed, that doesn’t seem to be the best public use of dollars,” says DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson. “We’re talking about advancing a project that will either go up or will go down. I don’t have the ability or the resources to do the thorough investigation on both of those knowing one those will disappear.”

Although it was unclear if a vote was in the offing for Friday’s meeting, Mayor Joel Robideaux, who sits on the Executive Committee, insisted that any decision about which design moves forward be made at a subsequent Executive Committee meeting, likely to be held in the next two to three weeks.

Scheduling the decision this way appears to be a shakeup of the process as outlined at a meeting back in December, where project leaders seemed to imply that a public meeting would be held prior to the beginning of the third phase. On that order of events, the public would, in effect, have had some input into which design moves forward.

A slide from a December presentation suggests a public meeting would be held before moving any concepts to the third phase of design.

The $26 million, three-phased community design process, called Context Sensitive Solutions, began in late 2015 and was originally scheduled to produce a design in 18 months. That original deadline has long passed as momentum has faltered amid pushback against the project from within and outside the process. The program is currently in its second phase.

Meetings of the Community Working Group and the Technical Advisory Committee will be held next to inform the members of those committees of the Executive Committee's upcoming decision. No public meeting would be held before the beginning of the third phase.

Planners on the project would then solicit input on the details and particulars of the chosen design from those committees, further refining, in Connector parlance, the interstate’s essential structure and features during the third phase — for example, a possible signature bridge’s height and aesthetics, or the type of recreational facilities surrounding the 5.5 mile Connector.

“We can’t dedicate our resources with a shotgun approach,” says City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque, who attended the Friday meeting as an observer, acknowledging prudence in moving only one design forward. “But the process itself has been changed.”

Confusion remains about how, exactly, the Executive Committee will decide which design moves forward to the final phase. Officials with DOTD indicate that the decision will not be a vote, but rather a consensus, though they expect some disagreement among committee members. By definition, that would appear to be a vote, given that a consensus would require unanimous consent. Officials nevertheless declined to characterize the decision process as a vote.

DOTDS's Connector project manager, Tim Nickel, said that costs will continue to mount on the design phase of the project, ballooning with the increased man-hours required for study and design. On that view, having two dramatically different designs could, in effect, multiply those man hours. Work on a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), which began in June of 2016 despite efforts by the state team to avoid the step, will add further costs given that the project’s scope has expanded to afford more time and resources for the additional studies.

More than likely, the elevated concept will move forward for further study and review in the ongoing CSS process, which would wrap up with a finalized design produced in July of this year. That finalized design would then be subject to further study as part of the ongoing environmental studies, which were announced to some outcry among Connector proponents in late June and are scheduled to finish in 2018. The interstate’s design could be tweaked further pending study work prepared for the SEIS, which state engineers are pursuing parallel to CSS activities.

Some confusion around Friday’s meeting could be attributed to the hasty and tardy notices issued to announce the meeting. Conque, who sits on the CWG and attended as an observer, noted that members of his working group were only notified by email on Thursday of today’s Executive Committee meeting. The email included an agenda that did not suggest any decisions would be made.

The IND requested a copy of the agenda from DOTD on Monday, which DOTD declined to provide, saying that the content of the Executive Committee meetings tends to change.

The meeting was not listed on the official Connector website until this week.

Perhaps more troubling is a growing sense of unease among some city officials as to what role city government will play in approving the Connector’s final design, elevated or otherwise.

Conque has sought clarification about where on the decision-making tree the City-Parish Council sits, sending an email on the matter to the Connector team earlier this year. On his account, DOTD's response departed from his original understanding of the council’s purview, with the state indicating the council’s opportunity to weigh in would come after environmental studies were completed, rather than before.

“I asked them to be very specific about the role of the Council in this whole process. And all of a sudden our role has been changed,” Conque says. “We have been reduced to reviewing the SEIS and basically signing off on it. And that’s all they identified as our role as it stands today."

The process to produce a community-approved design for the contended legacy interstate project has been plagued at times with opacity about the role of public opinion. The Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, a city-government committee charged with planning for development in neighborhoods around the Connector, issued a series of questions late last year seeking clarification on a variety concerns such as construction costs and environmental remediation. DOTD has responded to that slate of questions by posting a detailed set of answers to, the project’s official website. Neither the CWG nor the ETRT were notified that responses were posted.

While the state team, comprised of DOTD engineers and contracted consultants, has responded to community input delivered through the CWG — the design committee comprised of mostly layperson stakeholders — it’s still not clear to what degree public opinion will inform the upcoming choice between the elevated and tunnel-like concepts, much less the final design.

Critics have argued that shifting protocols and schedules in the decision-making process threatens to cement decisions before all required information is in place.

“I guess my confusion is,” adds Conque, “it’s a moving target as to what the process is.”