Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to included additional comments from DOTD regarding its commitment to a “signature bridge.”
Roundabouts or traffic signals? Those are among the last choices to make for a revised design of the I-49 Connector.
Over the last 18 months, community design meetings moved efficiently and virtually to chip away at an updated concept for the decades-old urban interstate project. As that phase of the project, the main contours of the elevated freeway have taken shape.
Beginning Monday, project planners will hold several neighborhood meetings at the Lafayette Science Museum, culminating in an open house that will put the freeway’s components on display.
While the project’s footprint remains largely the same — 5.5 miles from end to end, with roughly two miles of elevated freeway cutting through historic Black neighborhoods along the Evangeline Thruway — there are substantial changes that surfaced from the community design process begun five years ago. DOTD eliminated a major interchange at Second Street that would have gobbled up 32 acres near Downtown. A concept to salvage the Thruway’s northbound spur as a boulevard, which came from the city’s Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, is part of both remaining concepts. For the most part, the two “alternatives” are identical except for how they manage traffic. One imagines a series of roundabouts, the other a flow of traffic lights.
“I think we have a superior design relative to the original one, the traffic, flow, operations and aesthetics,” DOTD project manager Tim Nickel says. “People were pushing and pulling, and we got something out of that, and I think the community got something out of that and it’s seen in this project. We’re not eliminating all impacts. We have substantially mitigated impacts, and we have a better product for all parties involved.”
More or less extinguished is the dream of a signature bridge promoted by project boosters, notably One Acadiana, when the Connector was revived in 2015. DOTD never committed to funding the ambition, but its allure remained an understood possibility as the at-times contentious design process winnowed concepts mostly based on a design approved by the federal government in 2003.
DOTD will spend up to $12 million (1%) of the projected $1.2 billion project cost on “signature” embellishments of key sections of the elevated mainline, which will stand 22 feet high.
The state could accommodate a signature bridge if Lafayette funds it, Nickel says. He defends the state’s flexibility, noting that the basic elements coded into the remaining designs go beyond what was required in the 2003 record of decision signed by the Federal Highway Administration.
(In an email received after publication, Nickel contends DOTD is following through with a “signature bridge,” not just elements. He provided the following images, saying options 1 and 2 are within the $12 million budget.)
“There are other perks that we’ve added to this. Segmental concrete girders, nice aesthetic-type girders,” Nickel says, in addition to the 1% funding commitment to pay for the signature elements.
What LCG will pay for remains an open question, and the key one for the project’s skeptics. While pitched as a transformative project for Lafayette and the beleaguered neighborhoods the highway will traverse, the Connector is a transportation project first. The ongoing context sensitive solutions process — atypically deployed on an interstate project in this case — has teased out ideas to activate the space beneath the highway, sketching images of farmers markets, lighted parking lots, parks and green space.
While DOTD might pay for bike lanes, sidewalks, lighting and other improvements on the highway itself, the quality of life around it will be the responsibility of LCG.
For some, that’s raised the stakes of the remaining uncertainty. Without knowing what LCG will commit to funding, neighborhoods have engaged warily.
“It’s a transportation project. It’s going to move forward whether the community is behind it or not,” says Tina Bingham, who represents the McComb-Veazey Neighborhood on the project’s community design group. Bingham says her neighbors worry not just about the imposition of a “concrete wall” but the possibility of gentrification, losing even more control over their neighborhoods.
“The question to me … is what’s happening under that structure, not just the pretty paint,” Bingham says. “Who is going to drive the development under that structure?”
The Guillory administration did not answer a request for comment, though the mayor-president made clear in 2020 he views the Connector as a priority that shouldn’t be “needlessly” delayed. The project’s executive committee will meet before the end of the year, Nickel says. It will be the first one held since Guillory took office in 2020.
Fully aware of the destructive legacy of urban freeway projects, Black leaders who have continued to support the project still view it as the best chance for significant investment in the area.
The restored thruway provides a buffer to the McComb neighborhood, Bingham says. The Thruway itself replaced Clay Street, once a strip of commerce in the historic Black neighborhood. Community centers like Sam’s Star Club, a Chitlin circuit hotspot, fell into decay in the decades after the Thruway arrived in the 1960s.
“We get a chance to experience construction, which brings jobs, opportunities, growth. That’s the crystal ball I’m looking through,” says State Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, an ally of Gov. John Bel Edwards and native son of McComb. “The alternative is people avoid the area, crime stays high, all of those negative things.”
After two decades, the project is becoming more real. Detractors have scoffed that it would never be funded. Money remains a hurdle, but Covid relief dollars provided a windfall. Nickel says $125 million is in reserve. Should a federal infrastructure bill pass, it could free up more dollars for the state’s priority project list, which the Connector has been on since the 1990s.
In that time, the state has sunk $47 million into the project, including $15 million buying right of way.
Shovels may not be hitting the ground soon, but the window for community engagement is closing.
“There needs to be ownership of the project,” Bingham says, “or it’s going to be what we were all afraid of: the government coming here and saying here’s the interstate, aren’t you happy?”