Leaders of state, federal and local agencies on the I-49 Connector project voted today to advance an elevated design, one of two remaining concepts, into the third tier of the ongoing design process on the controversial interstate. In doing so, state officials also emphasized their intent to clean up contamination in the interstate's right-of-way and made a soft commitment to building a so-called signature bridge feature.
"[DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson] went on record in saying he would get the [contamination] mitigation done and that we would have good robust discussion as it relates to the signature elements, whatever those are, and I’m going to hold him to that," Mayor Joel Robideaux said after the vote.
Going into the meeting, the decision hinged largely on Robideaux's input. On Thursday, Robideaux told The Daily Advertiser that the vote may be postponed, a position he hedged until the vote.
Even as Wilson recommended at the meeting that only the elevated design move forward, and not a semi-depressed design also under consideration, he deferred to the mayor's comfort on the issue.
Robideaux agreed with Wilson's recommendation, pushing the elevated design forward and leaving behind the semi-depressed concept, which had been developed and championed by the city's Evangeline Corridor Initiative. The ECI operates independently of the DOTD-controlled design process, and serves as an advisory body to the city-parish council on the project.
For the last week, anxiety flared over whether it was prudent to advance to the next design phase with many questions left unanswered, particularly those concerning which project elements the city might need to pay for.
Following the informal roll call of the executive committee, the deciding body of the ongoing process, Wilson emphasized the state's commitment to cleaning up contaminants in portions of the former Union Pacific rail yard that the state would buy for interstate right-of-way. Wilson also committed state funds to paying for a signature bridge feature as an enhancement of the interstate facility, so long as that feature was "within reason."
Despite the state's assurances on these two issues, it's not known what cost responsibilities the city will have to bear.
Robideaux remained silent for nearly an hour and half of the meeting's discussion, until asking to clarify whether today's vote would preclude returning to whichever design was left behind.
The state Connector team told him no, which appeared to give Robideaux the comfort to move forward with the elevated design.
Urban interstates, particularly the elevated structures like what is ostensibly planned for Lafayette's urban core, have a long history of blight associated with their construction. Neighborhoods in New Orleans and New York City have fought these structures in the past, only to lose their battles and watch precipitous cultural and economic decline result.
To be sure, the semi-depressed concept was not without its drawbacks, and seemed an unlikely contender for the final design. State officials harped on the semi-depressed concept's increased risks for emergency services and hurricane evacuation. Supporters of the concept believed it would make available more land for development.
Moving forward, state engineers and planners on the project will conduct more extensive study of the elevated concept's design, discussing potential enhancement features like parks and green space, as well as bike and pedestrian connectivity.
The state is only legally responsible to build features that satisfy the purpose and need of the project, which include, among other considerations, completing the I-49 South corridor, addressing traffic and serving as an interstate commercial corridor.
Although Wilson committed the state to the project's tertiary goals like urban revitalization, it's not clear at this point to what extent the state will be financially responsible for those elements.