Thirteen people have died crossing the Evangeline Thruway on foot since 2020. At least that’s how many community advocate Nureaka Ross has counted. She has tracked pedestrian deaths on the Northside since returning home to Lafayette after a stint in the military, often showing up to the crash scenes to get more information and livestream what she finds.
The latest was Nov. 10.
Ross blames inaction by local and state officials while they keep their sights on completing I-49 South through Lafayette along the Thruway, a state highway that splits some of Lafayette’s historic Black neighborhoods from the rest of the city.
Louisiana has invested more than $47 million on the project to complete I-49 — called the Lafayette Connector — which has been in planning since the late 1980s. It’s now expected to cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, a dramatic increase since the program resumed in 2015. Project planners aim to break ground by 2025. There’s no plan to improve the Thruway before then. Ross and others worry that means more people will die while the status quo remains.
“I believe this whole system is negligent at preventing and rectifying these issues that are plaguing the Evangeline Thruway and part of the Northside,” Ross says. “I don’t see why they can’t use funds or obtain grants to make it more pedestrian-friendly in the meantime.”
The exact number of fatalities is difficult to pin down. Transportation officials in Louisiana do not make the data readily available. Ross says officials with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development have told her they cannot provide that data, calling it “sensitive information.”
In that vacuum, Ross has worked to tally her own counts.
It’s an issue that hits close to home for her. Ross grew up on the Northside with a single mother. They didn’t own a car. So they walked and took the bus everywhere. That’s a common circumstance on Lafayette’s Northside. In some neighborhoods, as much as 20% of households don’t have vehicle access, according to census data.
“We were forced to walk to points A and B,” says Ross. “We had to walk to the laundromats, walk to the Walmart.”
During her time in the military, Ross saw how other cities handled pedestrian infrastructure and safety. When she returned to Lafayette in 2019, she saw a problem.
News reports popped up on her phone and Facebook feed, all with the same basic story: A car struck and killed a pedestrian on the Evangeline Thruway. After a woman was killed near a dollar store on Carmel Drive at the beginning of this year, Ross launched the Protect Our Pedestrians initiative.
“There is no sidewalk and no lighting in that spot [Carmel Drive],” Ross says. “I noticed that flaw, and it broke my heart.”
Her count is incomplete. She maintains that some deaths and accidents are not even reported by the news. “I started reading all the news articles I could find,” Ross says. “What I was able to find, I put it on a map.”
Data gaps have made the effort to quantify the problem and put it on the map difficult. Getting better information is why Edna Guillory of Brossard started a petition, hoping to get DOTD’s attention.
“We wanted to see how many people we could get to sign the petition to send to the DOTD so they can actually name the streets where these incidents occur,” Guillory says. “By doing this it will bring awareness to them.”
DOTD is aware of the safety concern along the Evangeline Thruway, according to Deidra Druilhet, a public information officer for the state transportation agency.
A road safety assessment for the Evangeline Thruway is currently happening, Druilhet says, that will recommend safety improvements — but only after the Connector is built.
“If we install safety measures right now, those can all be removed when we’re ready to do the project,” Druilhet says. Safety measures will be part of the completed project, she notes, which DOTD will complete in segments.
A new intersection on Willow Street is planned to improve safety in the area by adding a marked crosswalk. Soon after breaking ground on the project, DOTD began a re-evaluation, pushing back construction until at least 2023. In the meantime, Druilhet says DOTD encourages pedestrians to cross with caution.
How long the Connector will take is unknown. The state has set aside $200 million or more as a down payment, much of it from Covid relief money. But the budget has skyrocketed since the plan’s inception. In 2003, the proposed budget was $294 million to complete. By 2015, upper-end estimates neared $1 billion. Most recently, it’s sitting north of $2 billion to complete, Druilhet says, largely due to inflation.
Many are skeptical of that timeline and worry that more people will die in the interim.
Matthew Holland, a member of the advocacy group Bike Lafayette, believes pedestrian deaths are being willfully ignored by public officials. The Connector will take decades to complete, if ever, he says.
“I don’t know if the I-49 Connector will ever be built,” Holland says. “There have been a lot of promises from the DOTD. … The reality is, that road has been neglected for quite some time because the assumption is that the I-49 project will get built anytime now.
“What is the cost of this neglect? It’s human life,” Holland says.
Like Holland, Ross sees the Connector as a pipe dream. She and others are demanding action now to save lives. She dreads adding to her tally.
“How many people have to perish before they get that I-49 corridor?” Ross asks. “I think they should be held accountable for those deaths because they know of this issue and they have done nothing to change it.”