Tensions flare at Connector meeting, pitting the community against the state

by Christiaan Mader

Conflict ahead of the biggest design decision on the interstate to date sets the stage for the mayor to make his presence known.

Wednesday's meeting of the Connector's community committee nearly went awry
Photo by Robin May

“We knew you were coming here guns blazing,” said I-49 Connector public relations consultant Cathi Pavy to seething community members, up in arms at a community design meeting held Wednesday night. All attempts to mollify agitated members of the Community Working Group, one of the project’s community-oriented design committees, seemed to confirm the members’ suspicions — DOTD partners were trying to firewall public outrage at a shakeup of the public planning process by separating the committee into small groups.

At issue was a recent a decision to cut one of two remaining design alternatives — an elevated design or a semi-depressed design — without further study, a change of plans that was set back in December. That would force a major design decision without detailed consideration of costs and who pays them, issues raised by members of the City-Parish Council.

“How do you expect us as an advisory body to make a decision based on documentation that’s been committed to but not been provided?” asked City-Parish Councilman Bruce Conque.

For almost half an hour, the Connector team insisted that explanations regarding the contested change of schedule for a major design decision would only be heard during small-group sessions.

Cynicism about the state team’s plans was all but confirmed when DOTD’s public information officer, Deidra Druilhet, assured the attendees that the state planners had indeed not come to the meeting to “divide and conquer” what they anticipated to be an angry crowd, per Pavy’s indication.

Exhausted, the Connector team relented to the stubborn committee. The remainder of the meeting proceeded with a single group presentation.

The episode sets up another potential showdown when members of the executive committee meet on Friday for the controversial vote.

That committee is populated with executives from the project’s stakeholder agencies — DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson and Mayor Joel Robideaux, along with representatives of the FHWA and the Acadiana Planning Commission

With fevered tempers swirling and a major decision to be made, eyes now to turn to the mayor.

Bruce Conque demanded that the state team address the community's unanswered questions before moving forward with the process
Photo by Robin May

Back in December, the state team told the Community Working Group that “hybrid concepts” of the two remaining design types for the 5.5 urban interstate project would be produced at upcoming meetings, prior to moving into the third and final tier of the community design process begun 18 months ago. Both design types would then move into third tier.

That order of events would have scheduled both design types for a more rigorous technical evaluation, including more detailed cost estimates. But the schedule was changed at a hastily assembled meeting of the project’s top decision-making committee on March 10. Instead, only one of the remaining concepts would be evaluated in the third phase, leaving the other on the cutting room floor.

At the March 10 meeting, the mayor insisted that no vote be taken before notifying the project's other committees. That leaves open the question of how the mayor will weigh in come Friday.

Wednesday’s meeting of the Community Working Group was the first meeting that body held in four months.

After the furor settled, working group members began to collect their concern.

Jan Swift, executive director of the Upper Lafayette Economic Development Foundation and a sitting CWG member, quietly suggested that moving forward with only one concept fully vetted would be like signing a contract without full knowledge of the ramifications.

Margaret Trahan, executive director of United Way of Acadiana objected that had she known the city might be on the hook for paying the cost of a signature bridge, she would have reconsidered her support of the elevated design, now registered as public comment in the project’s public opinion dragnet.

Monique Boulet, CEO of the Acadiana Planning Commission, said the rest of the state was laughing at Lafayette, urging the process to move forward per DOTD’s recommendation.

Connector contractor John McNamara, of AECOM, addresses community concerns
Photo by Robin May

Design engineers exhorted the irritated CWG members to see that plenty of decisions involving the community work group were yet to be made — an appeal to the group’s sense of purpose in the ongoing decision making process.

After the meeting, Tim Nickel, DOTD’s project manager on the Connector, seemed mystified by the crowd’s response, sticking by the state team’s position that only the schedule had changed, and not the process. He declined to speculate about how the meeting would affect the upcoming vote of the executive committee, citing the turbulence of the “human element.”

But true to the episode’s contradictions, Nickel and company’s explanation that this was only a change of schedule revealed not only the state’s customary tone deafness about public opinion, but the falsity of the state’s defense of its actions.

It is precisely that more decisions are yet to be made that makes the re-scheduling an issue. DOTD’s team has punted on issues of cost and feasibility, pinning the city to fewer and fewer options along the way. So long as the state holds the cards as to when decisions are made, it limits the leverage the city has in negotiating what it wants from the project.

When executive committee members meet on Friday, they will make a decision without the benefit of a completed technical memo, detailing the respective feasibility of the two remaining concepts, or the hybrid “end-to-end” concepts that were said to be produced before such a decision would be made. That the state previously scheduled this information to be in hand come game time suggests, at face value, that this information would be of use to decision-makers going forward.

At the meeting’s end, an informal vote was taken, intended to send a message from the CWG to the executive committee, an unorthodox exercise in parliamentarianism trapped inside a stubborn institutional process, like a tempest in a cracking teapot.

Fifteen of the 23 attending committee members voted to urge the top committee to move both remaining concepts into the final design phase, a decision which in no small part now hangs in the balance of Mayor Robideaux’s calculations.

Earlier this week, according to Swift, at a meeting of the pro-Connector support group Connect Lafayette, the mayor voiced concern for the many unanswered questions on the project’s stultifying to-do list. How much money will the city have to pay? Would the semi-depressed design produce more development opportunity and thus potential return on investment than the elevated design? Who’s going to pay to clean up the acres worth of toxic dirt that sits in the project right- of-way, precariously sinking toward the Chicot aquifer?

Whether the CWG's ceremonial vote impacts the mayor’s thinking will only be known by after the executive committee meeting. Should that body pull rank over even Robideaux’s possible objection, it won’t be the first time that the state team worked over outrage fomented in its own process. And it won’t be the last.