Monday, October 3, 2016

Introduction: Building A Better Connector For Lafayette

First off, a disclaimer: I represent no one but myself, and my opinions here are strictly my own. They do not reflect anyone from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LADOTD), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the Lafayette City/Parish Consolidated Government (LCG), or any agency affiliated with the I-49 Connector Partners design team or that of the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team's Evangeline Corridor Initiative (ECI). All official inquiries about the Connector freeway project should be deferred to the official Lafayette Connector website,  DOTD, FHWA or LCG.

I have been a supporter of the process of building a freeway within the Evangeline Thruway corridor in Lafayette for most of my lifetime, and I have seen the progression of the development of this project from its initial conception during the 1980's to the current Conceptual Design Study now ongoing.

The process for implementing the I-49 Lafayette Connector has been inching along in a jerky fashion: from the aborted 1992 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), to the 1993 North-South Corridor Study, to the 2003 Final EIS, approved with a Record of Decision, to the original Conceptual Design Study that started in 2007 but was terminated in 2008. Along the way, the process has met with organized and passionate opposition from many citizens and organizations who fear that the implementation of the Connector would further divide and destroy the inner fabric of Lafayette. Most of them have promoted as an alternative a loop bypass called the Teche Ridge Alternative, which would run to the east of Lafayette proper generally along the Coteau-Teche Ridge plateau above the Bayou Teche and Vermilion River basins through St. Martin and eastern Lafayette parishes.

The promoters of Teche Ridge contest that that alternative would complete the extension of Interstate 49 from Lafayette to New Orleans at far less a cost fiscally and environmentally than the Connector would. They even went as far as to file a lawsuit after the initial Record of Decision for the Connector project's current alignment was approved in 2003; but their suit was thrown out by U. S. District Judge Tucker Melancon in 2004; that decision survived an appeal to the U. S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later that year.

The current Conceptual Design Study and Preliminary Design process was restarted in October 2015, using protocol and conditions set forward through the Joint Agreement between DOTD, FHWA, and LCG that was signed in 2002 as a precondition to the ROD, Originally, this process was supposed to simply reconfirm and implement the preapproved 2003 Selected Alternative (RR-4 with MPO Subalternative and Subalternative H), with additional Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) design integrated into the entire alignment to fulfill the requirements of full integration and connectivity within the neighborhoods affected within. In the midst of sharp concerns from some local community  interests about the divisive impacts of some elements of the Selected Alternative, however, the Connector Design Team decided to open the floor for "refinements"; i.e., modifications to the Selected Alternative that would mitigate these concerns. As a result, 19 refinement concept modification proposals and 23 design modifications were proposed and either were or are now being analyzed as modifications to the original alternative.

In addition to that, the FHWA, in the midst of performing an Environmental Reevaluation of the 2003 Record of Decision, which is required for any major project where over 3 years had passed since a ROD was approved, determined that a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) was the appropriate protocol and review for these refinements and potential modifications. That process was initiated in August of this year, and will produce an amended ROD by at the latest the spring of 2018.

Another player in this was the Evangeline Thuway Redevelopment Team (ETRT), the organization entrusted by Lafayette Consolidated Government with the job of incorporating the Connector freeway design with the neighborhoods and downtown sections that would be bisected by the project. In 2015, ETRT applied for and was awarded $500,000 from the US Department of Transportation through their Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, for the purpose of expanding and maintaining connectivity and neighborhood-appropriate economic development for the Evangeline Thruway/Lafayette Connector corridor. The Connector would take most of the Evangeline Thruway for its right-of-way, only deviating for a 2 mile section on new alignment between near Simcoe Street and just north of Pinhook Road. The Evangeline Corridor Initiative (ECI) was the functional organization for these efforts, and their studies yielded two particular design concepts for the downtown portion of I-49:

  • Elevated Mainline with Signature Bridge: in which the freeway would be fully elevated throughout the downtown area with no standalone interchanges, but with the existing Evangeline Thruway modified (perhaps converted to an urban boulevard) to serve as the access for downtown connections and major streets; the viaduct would be raised to a maximum of 40 feet above ground level and enhanced with CSS concepts as green space, park space, maximum joint use with pedestrian/bicycle access, and parking; and with considerations for appropriate development within the corridor.
  • Partially Depressed And Covered Mainline: in which the Connector freeway mainline would be sunk 10 feet below ground level and given another 10 feet of vertical clearance above ground, for a total of 20 feet of vertical clearance; then completely covered in the form of a partially submerged tunnel, with berm treatment on both sides using 100 - 150 feet either side with 6 percent sloping allowing for cross streets to pass over the "tunnel" for connectivity; and allowing for development via mixed use on either side of the mainline freeway accessible through an avenue/boulevard setup flanking or on top of the mainline structure. (There is also an option for the boulevard using the existing Thruway ROW.)

I will cover more about the ECI options in future posts, as well as why I favor the Partially Depressed and Covered option as the best solution for implementing the Connector through Lafayette. For the moment, though, there is the matter of some of the arguments that are currently being made against the Connector by the very same people who have been opposing the alignment through Lafayette from the very beginning. In particular, the Greater Lafayette Sierra Club has been in the forefront of efforts to kill the Connector project and replace it with a bypass -- mostly, the Teche Ridge bypass, but also the proposed Lafayette Regional Expressway (LRX) outer tollway loop that would go south and west of Lafayette. Their Y-49 and Teche Ridge Facebook pages state their cases quite adequately, as well as this blog formed by a well known and very outspoken opponent of the Connector freeway.

I do not in any way wish to demean Michael Waldon, Harold Scheffler, or any of the other opponents whom have advocated against the Connector freeway, nor do I want to diminish in any way that this project will indeed have some major impacts and much dislocations for people within the city of Lafayette. They have every right to speak their mind and offer critique and promote their alternatives. What I intend to do is to just as respectfully counter their arguments and refute their claims about the Connector having a negative impact and the Teche Ridge alternative being a suitable alternative. I intend to make the counter claim from my own perspective and using fact and detail that the Connector freeway, with the modifications and alterations proposed by the ECI and a few proposed by myself, can be and is the best alternative for completing I-49 through Lafayette.

References, unless explicitly stated otherwise, will use all of the historical documentation of the I-49 Lafayette Connector freeway project as listed in the Project Library section of DOTD's Lafayette Connector website.

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