As classes turn over at UL Lafayette, students zoom over a brand new cement path on bikes, scooters and skateboards.
The 6,400 feet of new path on campus is a small section of an ambitious plan to build bike paths criss-crossing the entire city announced by the Lafayette Consolidated Government last year, along with millions in funds to seed the enormous costs of building and improving almost 50 miles worth of trails outlined in the city-parish government’s master plan, called Bicycle Lafayette.
“It makes a difference in the quality of life of our students and the public in general,” Gretchen Vanicor, the UL’s director of sustainability, said of the new path. “We’re happy to finally see it done.”
Quality of life initiatives like Bicycle Lafayette have become common tactics in American communities’ competition to attract and retain young people. In surveys produced by The Current, young voters have pointed to bike-ability and walkability as a key factor in their deciding to stay or move.
The campus spur is a start, but transportation advocates are concerned about the lack of progress on other sections of the proposed routes, especially those serving communities with limited access to other modes of transportation.
The campus path is an example of just how slow such plans can move and the debilitating effects it can have on their execution.
Initially awarded federal funds in 2012, construction was delayed due to challenges in obtaining the necessary right-of-way, coordinating between the various levels of government involved and the construction of new dorms nearby, Vanicor said.
In the meantime, construction costs exploded. Municipal funds allocated to bike trails last year finally allowed it to be completed, a decade later, yielding a consecutive bikeway of nearly 3 miles between the university’s research park area, across campus, along Girard Park and to the major thoroughfare of St. Mary Boulevard.
Lumbering timelines are typical of transportation projects, but Bicycle Lafayette’s launch came with a sense of urgency around its early phases.
The first phase of the master plan to be constructed has faced its share of obstacles and delays already. A portion of the Véloop route, Bike Lafayette’s spine, the first stretch connects Moncus Park and Heyman Memorial Park near Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Center.
Construction on this section of trails was initially anticipated to start as early as March of this year. But shovels are yet to hit the ground.
“Cost of construction has increased exorbitantly over the past few years,” said city planner Nick Hernandez. An LUS project to dig new sewer line connections has thrown another wrench in the works, according to Hernandez. A new start date for construction is yet to be determined.
Those delays have raised concerns about whether this section, or any of the plan’s seven main routes will ever become reality.
“I love the plan, I think it’s a beautiful plan,” said André Angelle, president of Bike Lafayette, an organization that participates in LCG’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning Committee but had no formal role in shaping the Bicycle Lafayette Master Plan. “I haven’t seen any execution of said plan.”
If other projects, like the digging of sewer connections by LUS, are what’s holding up the plan, Angelle suggested the government look to other sections of the proposed route network, including on the Northside, where more access to alternative modes of transportation would be likely to yield the most benefits.
An analysis of census data completed during the planning process identified several neighborhoods along the Véloop route where more than 21% of households did not have access to a vehicle, making it difficult and potentially dangerous to get around, especially without protected bike routes.
“Why couldn’t we build the other sections while we’re waiting?” Angelle asked.
The need is certainly there, said Nureaka Ross, a Northside resident, transportation advocate and current candidate for city council.
“It’s a real problem,” Ross said of the lack of safe transit routes for local residents, many of whom, she said, already use bikes to get around. “Whenever this is built, I’m sure even more people will. But right now, I don’t even feel safe to ride my bicycle,” Ross said, adding that she sold her own bike for lack of safe routes to ride it on.
Stephen Ortego, the architect of the government’s ambitious plan, said he would have liked to see parallel efforts on both the southern and the northern sections of the Véloop, signaling a commitment to increasing equity and access between different neighborhoods — one of the benefits identified in the plan.
Still, he supports the selection the city-parish government has made — as long as it gets constructed. His team submitted final plans to the public works department in December, Ortego noted, but they are yet to be put out for contractors to bid on.
“Build the Véloop first, people are going to use it. The data tells us that,” Ortego said. “It just needs to start getting built.”
As for the Northside, Hernandez points to a variety of other projects currently in the pipeline that would improve transportation safety for residents, especially for those using transit options other than a personal vehicle.
The Evangeline Corridor Improvement Program features $16 million worth of projects along and around the major thoroughfare, including streetscaping, lighting and intersection improvements.
Another project on the Northside, a conversion of railroad tracks to bike trails dubbed “Rails to Trails” would tie into one of the routes laid out in the master plan. This particular project has been in the works since the 1990s, but bikeways are yet to materialize.
“That project is near and dear to my heart,” said LCG Planning Manager Cathie Gilbert, adding that she hopes the project, in addition to garnering federal funds, will be the next one on the list to be funded by the total of $14.5 million in bikes and trails funds allocated in the Five-Year Capital Improvement Plan.
Lafayette is on the verge of investing millions in urban core neighborhoods set to be traversed by the I-49 Connector.
With sufficient funding and commitment, the 50-mile network of trails and paths could remake how Lafayette gets around.
The department is currently in the process of appraising the land in question and trying to hammer out a deal with the railroad companies, which have been slow to respond, according to Gilbert.
Along with highlighting projects outside of the Bicycle Master plan’s core scope that contribute to the same goal of making the city safer, more accessible and more enjoyable for cyclists, department staff tried to manage expectations.
“This does have implementation in mind, but it’s not something that’s implementable in the near term,” Hernandez said. “This is a long-term plan.”