Who pays for what on the I-49 Connector remains unknown, at the city’s peril

by Christiaan Mader

We don't know what the Connector will look like, or who will pay for it.

Greenscaping and recreational facilities beneath an elevated interstate, pictured on the landing page banner for the Connector's official site

As design activities on the I-49 Connector near the third and final tier of preliminary design work, state planners on the interstate project continue to punt on questions of costs, particularly concerning who will pay them.

Since the decades-old effort to complete I-49 South through Lafayette resumed a year and a half ago, commentators have pointed out that no funding for the 5.5-mile urban interstate has been identified. That problem, a central one when you consider the state’s $29 billion transportation to-do list, has clouded over the project with little precipitation, save for DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson’s suggestion to fund the Connector like you would eat an elephant — one bite at a time.

At project meetings to be held this week, the state is pushing to progress only one of the two remaining design types — an elevated interstate or a semi-depressed one — into that third phase, the last before the community-oriented design process ends. The decision would come this week by way of the project’s executive committee, according to state officials.

That short circuits an order of events, laid out at project meetings in December, that would have scheduled the production of hybrid design concepts on both design classes before moving into the third design tier. DOTD says no hybrid concepts have been produced. The state has not completed a technical memo it began in late 2016 in time for this week's executive committee meeting. These improvisations have created a skittishness among city representatives about the state’s credibility as a faithful partner in the project.

DOTD has thus far demurred on relevant questions of cost and next steps fielded from both city-parish government’s appointed Connector task force on the project, the ETRT, and members of the City-Parish Council. Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque says that there are “more questions than answers” regarding who would pay for a so-called signature bridge feature, for cleaning up the contaminated Union Pacific railroad site and for extensive redevelopment of the remaining spur of the Evangeline Thruway.

Conque and two other councilmen, Nanette Cook and Kenneth Boudreaux, sent an email in February to DOTD requesting clarification on those issues and the council’s role in approving a final design. Speaking for himself, Conque says he was not satisfied with the state’s response.

“I don’t think anyone has a clue,” Conque says. “No one has a clue, as to what dollar amount can we be held accountable at the local level. We don’t know what will be our area of responsibility.”

A DOTD spokesperson said in an email to The Independent that a signature bridge would indeed be considered an enhancement or a “landmark feature.” The state is legally committed to addressing the railroad site contamination per 2004’s Record of Decision, the legal document governing the project. It’s not clear whether it would clean up the whole portion traversed by the highway, however.

Conque’s sentiments reflect an anxiety about the city’s cost responsibility that has flared up among city leadership, including some prominent project backers in the private sector, ahead of this week’s slate of project meetings. Those concerns reportedly hung in the air this week at a meeting of Connect Lafayette, a multi-lateral pro-Connector advocacy group, led by One Acadiana.

That unquiet is also expressed in a slate of questions raised by Carlee Alm-Labar, LCG director of planning and zoning, in a letter sent to DOTD in her capacity as a sitting member of the project’s executive committee. In her letter, addressed to DOTD Connector project manager Tim Nickel, Alm-Labar objects to moving forward only one design concept into the third design tier with so much remaining unknown.

Increasingly, DOTD’s position on cost-sharing has amounted to more hedging, while at the same time marketing on the project continues to tout the interstate’s potential to revitalize neighborhoods in the Evangeline Thruway corridor.

The Connector is said, by proponents and project planners alike, to be that improbable interstate that could restore neighborhood connectivity. That promise, one heavily stoked by the state, has garnered project endorsements, via the Connect Lafayette coalition, from prominent black leadership who represent the project’s most vulnerable constituency in Connector-adjacent neighborhoods.

One Acadiana CEO Jason El Koubi speaks at a press conference announcing the launch of Connect Lafayette in January.
Photo by Paul Kieu/image courtesy 1A

The state’s PR machine on the project has branded the interstate with images of green space and basketball courts under elevated portions of the Connector, rendered in curb-appealing illustrations for public events and press materials. Planners have also stoked the public’s imagination, in broad terms, about what a signature bridge could look like.

That creates the perception that those design elements are essential to the project, not extras tossed on at the city’s expense. Alm-Labar’s letter to DOTD notes that even $20 million in obligations would be more than the city could bear, yet a mere sliver of the project’s estimated $700 million bill. A signature bridge could cost in the hundreds of millions. It’s unknown how much remediation of the entire railroad site would cost.

“What you have heard from people talking about urban revitalization tends to transcend the core footprint. I don’t have a problem having that negotiation and discussion. I want to manage the expectation that the state cannot absorb all of those costs,” Wilson said in an interview with The Independent following a January presser announcing the launch of the Connect Lafayette coalition.

Some of the development and revitalization promises of the project would seem achievable only by facilities that are not strictly designed and built for the purposes of moving traffic at high volume and high speeds. That’s an important distinction to be made. In other words, if the state views the signature bridge as an enhancement, then the state can make an argument to not pay for it.

Lack of commitment on funding is not unexpected, given the lengthy process and the state’s well-documented budget woes.

“DOTD is going to resist as much as possible putting in additional expenditures when, right now, we’re talking about DOTD asking for $700 million in additional revenues every year to be able operate,” says Kam Movassaghi, a former DOTD secretary. “DOTD doesn’t want to commit to any further expenditures than they have to.”

Movassaghi says that the state would have to pay for project elements that are included in the SEIS, the amended environmental study document that the state will later produce to federal authorities for approval of the project. Such funding would come the state's annual allocation from the federal government, at present around $700 million per year. Design features that are considered enhancements by the state, and to some extent by federal authorities, would not attach to the SEIS in a way that committed the state to funding.

To be sure, the city is a partner on the project, and accordingly is expected to share in the cost burden. Back when representatives of city government and the state failed to work out a memorandum of understanding that would govern the local and state roles in the project’s design, state negotiators suggested that any cost above $700 million would be paid for by local agencies.

Since then, city and state officials have danced around cost considerations, while failing to work out any understandings.

From the state’s perspective, the Connector is not primarily an instrument of community development. The Connector is about completing I-49 South. Talk of revitalization gins up excitement for the possibility of a cure-all for decades of racially-motivated disinvestment in the Evangeline Thruway corridor. Should the state hand responsibility for the enhancements that could address disinvestment over to the city, it’s entirely probable that they won't get done. The city doesn’t have the capacity for it. But that would not stop the project from moving forward, context insensitive as it likely then would be.

It’s possible that the state comes through and pays for some of these enhancements. That's a negotiation among state and local agencies. A DOTD spokeswoman said in an email to The Independent that cost allocations would be made during upcoming stages of the context sensitive solutions process or during completion of the SEIS. A familiar punt.

Meanwhile, the city leaders are scrambling to avoid buyer’s remorse.