After detour, I-49 Connector cruising toward updated design

Photo courtesy The Acadiana Advocate

The gist: Officials are working to pin down a revised proposal for the alignment and design of the Lafayette Connector by early 2022. On that timeline, the project could get updated federal approval by the end of next year, moving it on to construction after nearly three decades in limbo. 

Connector planners wrapped up a round of neighborhood meetings over the last two weeks. Targeting the neighborhoods in the immediate impact zone of the proposed highway, design consultants and officials with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development met with locals to get input on the freeway structure itself, focusing on the three-mile elevated portion. 

“The Thruway as it is has to change,” planning consultant Derek Chisholm said Sunday to a small gathering at Destiny of Faith Church on Patterson Street in Lafayette. The Thruway’s rot has become a plank for proponents’ moral case for the project. 

Many view the project as North Lafayette’s best chance at getting investment after years of neglect. The area has withered economically over the past several decades, with ownership declining and poverty increasing. Social division and disinvestment have been blamed on the Thruway itself, which was constructed through Lafayette’s majority Black neighborhoods in the 1960s, during a period of massive infrastructure investment.  

Column design, bridge height and signature features were the primary topics of this slate of meetings. Residents picked through a slide show of aesthetic concepts, including what a “signature bridge” could look like in general terms. Since this phase of design work began in 2015, the idea of an iconic bridge feature heralding the city has been a frequent topic of discussion. Planners sought input to guide the approach of such a design, talking though whether residents closest to the feature would want it to look classic or modern or not happen at all. 

How exactly the project will impact the neighborhoods remains unclear. Total displacements won’t be calculated until the updated design is complete. Over two years of intense public meetings, project leaders agreed to removing two interchangers and a slight shift in the interstate’s alignment. Those changes impact which homes and businesses and how many of them would end up in the project’s path. 

There are four alternatives still under consideration. Two would preserve the south-bound stretch of Thruway and restore it as a boulevard that doubles as a frontage road. The Evangeline Corridor Initiative, a local counterpart that is planning redevelopment efforts around the interstate project, sketched out concepts for restoring that spur to the local fabric. 

DOTD has acquired $15 million worth or property so far. Most of the properties bought over the last 10 years are near the north end of the corridor, with many in the blocks between the north- and south-bound lanes of the Thruway. Acquisition paused in 2017 to update studies on historic properties in the area. 

COVID did not slow design work. After a brief pause in 2019, design work resumed in early 2020, just as the pandemic flared. DOTD convened a new community design committee that met virtually throughout 2020 as officials worked to update environmental studies required by changes to the project’s approved design.

The political conversation around urban highways is changing. The Biden administration has characterized as “racist” the history of building interstates through Black neighborhoods and included billions to address the impacts of urban highways in its infrastructure proposal. A $7 billion highway expansion in Houston was paused by request of the Federal Highway Administration to take a harder look at its social impacts. DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, who lives in Lafayette, believes the Connector project will satisfy heightened scrutiny around issues of racial justice, despite the legacy. 

“DOTD applauds the Biden administration’s commitment to infrastructure and strongly feels the Connector is a great example that validates the administration’s position on the future of interstates,” Wilson wrote in an email to The Current. 

Funding remains the big question mark. State leaders celebrated a $50 million earmark for the project, which indicates its priority status. But the project is likely to cost in the range of $1 billion. Wilson has long held that the project would be funded in bites. The $50 million will be deployed after environmental studies are complete. 

Skepticism is still hovering over the project, both in disbelief that it’ll ever get built and fear that it won’t deliver on the lofty promise of repairing a broken social fabric. After 30 years, the conversation can feel like déjà vu to some observers.  

“They haven’t made big progress,” says barber Lyntrell Moses. He attended a neighborhood meeting earlier this month, looking for answers about how the project would impact the shop he has operated on the Thruway for over a decade. “They’re still kinda talking upon the same things.”

DOTD will host more community meetings this year. Larger-scale town halls are to come, as well as another round of neighborhood meetings. Check the Connector’s website for upcoming events and project info.