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Can a New Urban Highway Avoid the Mistakes of the Past?

As plans advance for the Interstate 49 Connector, Lafayette, Louisiana, might soon find out.

A rendering of a possible I-49 design from a "Blue Book" study of the connector corridor done in 1999. (University of Louisiana-Lafayette / LCG/MPO)

Lafayette, Louisiana, shouldn’t have to debate the social hazards of building a highway straight through the heart of a city. It’s been living proof of them for decades.

In the 1960s, the Evangeline Thruway rolled downtown—a monster six-lane north-south thoroughfare destined to divide and destroy the very community it called home. The thruway “foisted blight upon historic neighborhoods,” as Christiaan Mader of the local Independent has described it, leaving vacant lots, flop houses, and rusty fences for the poor families who lived in its wake. Many blocks hugging the road are now populated largely by minorities with median household incomes of less than $25,000 a year.

“In the ’60s, before they put that at-grade freeway through, it was a very mixed area,” says Sally Donlon, assistant dean at the College of Liberal Arts at University of Louisiana-Lafayette, who lived downtown at the time. “It was working class and a little bit of upper-middle class. Then they sent the road through and that sounded the death knell. It became rapidly a lower-income area, because people move out whenever you put roads in.”

Things are improving, with strong neighborhood groups and fresh commercial options reviving pockets and strips of the urban core. But now Lafayette faces a new threat that looks remarkably similar to the one it’s long tried to shake: a proposed 5.5-mile, six-lane, partially elevated urban highway called the Interstate 49 Connector. The bigger, stronger, faster road would effectively replace the Evangeline Thruway, like a concrete boa constrictor shedding its skin, and would also seem poised to be yet more divisive.

Officials expect this time around to be different. Their faith rests with what’s called a “context-sensitive” planning approach—an ambitious if vague quest to design big roads that enhance a community’s existing character rather than assaulting it. By submitting the I-49 connector to a far more rigorous and intensive public engagement process than normal, project leaders believe they can avoid the past mistakes of so many American cities torn apart by a highway, Lafayette among them.

A view of the context-sensitive study areas for the I-49 Lafayette Connector. (Louisiana DOTD)

“These types of facilities, a long time ago when they were built right through the heart of a city, caused damage,” says Toby Picard of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the I-49 Connector project manager. “The idea is to work with the community … for enhancements to the project that make the area an attractive place. A place that’s more inclined to draw people in as opposed to pushing people out.”

To Mader, who’s followed the I-49 discussions as closely as any reporter, what’s at stake with the context-sensitive process is nothing short of the city’s future:

[T]his could be the model for how to build urban freeways for generations to come. Or it could be yet another lumbering disaster, dividing and stunting Lafayette as a fledgling urban center before it emerges as a true regional and metropolitan anchor.

How I-49 got here

The thruway pavement was hardly dry before the specter of the I-49 Connector arose. In 1968 the Evangeline was targeted as a possible candidate for an interstate upgrade. The project found new life in the 1990s, advancing in fits and starts over public opposition. A final environmental study was published in 2002 and an official record of decision by the Federal Highway Administration approving the road in 2003, committing to 21 local mitigation measures intended to “minimize harm.”

That didn’t satisfy opponents. A group of them filed suit against the I-49 project as the Concerned Citizens Coalition, arguing that FHWA had failed to consider sufficient alternatives to a major interstate rammed through the heart of the city. In an almost apologetic ruling from 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Tucker L. Melançon found in favor of the Highway Administration but wrote that his responsibility to the law conflicted in this case with his own “temptation to go about doing good” (emphasis added):

The issue before the Court, however, is not whether the undersigned judge would have placed the proposed Interstate 49 as it will traverse Lafayette where it was placed; he would not have. Nor is the issue before the Court whether or not the Concerned Citizens Coalition, its members and those individuals and businesses that will be affected by the proposed Interstate 49 and the detrimental changes that it will bring to their neighborhoods and their lives feel aggrieved; they should. Neither is the issue before the court, whether or not most people in Lafayette would be in favor of or opposed to the proposed interstate highway had they made the tour of its "footprint" that the Court made with the attorneys for the parties on May 25, 2004. That there will be drastic changes in appearance and functionality occasioned by the construction of the interstate is without question.

Even with that decision, the project lost momentum and faded away for several years. Its recent revival comes as part of the state’s $3 billion “Geaux South” initiative to upgrade 160 miles of I-49 south to New Orleans. Champions of the Lafayette Connector—primarily the local chamber of commerce—expect the highway to serve as a hurricane evacuation route, reduce local traffic, and enhance a so-called “energy corridor” to jumpstart the city’s economy. As one proponent has put it, via the local Advertiser: “Jobs come from roadways."

Many of these hopes seem out of touch with the times. Experts now widely agree that highway expansion is not a long-term solution for congestion. An economic strategy based on oil and gas feels backwards and tenuous; indeed, a weak oil industry in 2015 led Lafayette to plunge 116 spots in the latest Milken Institute index of city performance—the largest drop in the country. And there’s plenty of evidence that roads no longer lead to jobs as inexorably as they did before the age of mature highway networks, declining driving patterns, and digital communication.

On top of those concerns, of course, is I-49’s potential social impact. The context-sensitive planning process began in October 2015 and is scheduled to run for at least 18 months. That gives everyone involved about a year and a half to figure out how to build a road that doesn’t crush a city.

Toward a “common vision”

The mere existence of a context-sensitive planning program, as Mader points out, demonstrates “the destructive potential of urban freeways.” The concept dates back to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, a law put in place in the post-interstate era to protect people and places from (among other things) big transportation projects, but it didn’t gain traction until the late 1990s. The basic goal, says FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox, is to deliver a road that’s “responsive to the unique character of the communities it serves.”

Responding to unique community needs also sounds like the sort of thing public officials should do for any public project. The difference between a context-sensitive process and a normal one, according to FHWA, is that project leaders spend more time understanding potential impacts and desired outcomes, and work with residents and locals to craft a more detailed project design than usual. While a context-sensitive approach can be used for any project, says Hecox, it’s typically saved for high-profile or complex ones.

Whether the process is appropriate for a project quite as massive as I-49 is another question. The Congress for the New Urbanism helped to develop a manual guiding context-sensitive approaches to urban thoroughfares, with the goal of designing roads that promote walkability, compact development, and alternative transportation. But that’s typically for a modest three-lane arterial, says Lynn Richards, the CEO and president of CNU, not an interstate highway. (Since 2008 CNU has published a biannual list of urban freeways that should be torn down.)

“I just don’t see how a highway can use a context-sensitive street approach,” Richards tells CityLab. “The idea of a context-sensitive approach is about mobility—the ability to move people more quickly from Point A to Point B. Highways are designed solely to move cars.”

Jan Grenfell, the environmental impact manager at Louisiana DOTD, says the agency has had a context-sensitive strategy in place since 2001 but that it’s never been applied to a project of “this scale.” For the I-49 connector, the process involves three decision-making bodies that meet every month. The first—a “community work group” made up of about 50 local leaders—offers input on dozens of design elements, from interstate bridge beams and retaining walls to pedestrian overlooks and lighting to bike racks, trees, and trash cans in adjacent areas. A technical advisory committee then reviews that input for feasibility and consistency and sends it to an executive committee made up of FHWA, DOTD, the regional metropolitan planning organization, and the city of Lafayette.

If the three-tiered process works as planned, the end result will be a standards manual and functional plan that reflects a “common vision” of the community and gets incorporated into the final project design. DOTD’s Toby Picard describes the effort as a sort of public feedback process on steroids. A typical transportation project might have a small handful of public meetings, he says. When the dust settles on the connector project, he estimates there will have been 50 to 100 total outreach sessions—workshops, design charrettes, and community “walkabouts” among them.

“It’s a far, far greater depth of interaction with the public,” he says.

How much of the design is “predestined”?

A planning process this intricate naturally works on a learning curve. Kate Durio, who serves on the I-49 community work group as a representative of a young professionals group called The705, says there’s been a notable shift in tone from the project officials since monthly meetings began in October 2015. “The first meeting was: ‘Here’s where we are, and we can’t change anything,’” she says. “Then it was: ‘Well, we might be able to change some stuff. We think it’s important maybe to understand the history of the project.’”

In December, connector leaders hit the pause button. (Mader reports they were “spooked” by the opposition; the official email to the community work group cites a hope to “refine” the process, to “get backgrounded” on the community history, and to avoid holiday conflicts.) The public engagement effort seems to have reemerged stronger. Durio says officials were “listening finally” during the January meeting, when the community ranked its biggest concern as I-49’s giant interchanges. At the February meeting—which “went great!,” Durio says—some planning officials presented an option that removed them.

There’s still an intense amount of skepticism. The “overall satisfaction” with the community workshop group was 54 percent as of the January meeting. Specific fears about interchanges and the like reflect a larger uncertainty about just how much about I-49 can really change through the context-sensitive process. DOTD officials say the final project must adhere to the conceptual design outlined in the final environmental impact statement and official record of decision from 2003, or must be approvable by FHWA “through a minor amendment agreement.”

An aerial view of the Evangeline Thruway at Taft and Fourteen streets, in the I-49 corridor. (University of Louisiana-Lafayette / LCG/MPO)

In other words, as Mader has asked: “How much of the Corridor is predestined by its historical documents?”

DOTD’s Picard insists there’s legitimate wiggle room. As one example, he mentions the interstate’s “vertical alignment”—the height of the elevated highway, which ranges from seven feet on embankment to 22 feet at its peak, according to the conceptual design. The prospect of a literal wall separating two sides of town is understandably a big concern in Lafayette. Picard says the context-sensitive process will address that matter and will also entertain other substantial changes, like the geometry of the intersections and the placement of ramps.

“That’s why we’ve established, or are in the process of establishing, the values of the community,” he says. “There’s not a definitive answer. It’s a process you have to try to manage: impacts versus community desire. We’re going to do that to the best of our ability to meet the community’s value of what they want this to be.”

But he admits that ability only goes so far. Moving the elevated parts of the highway up or down are one thing; moving it to another part of town, even just 100 feet away, might introduce enough new significant impacts to jeopardize all the official approvals. “We can’t start all over from scratch,” he says, “because FHWA has already approved the project.” In that sense, the biggest question a community could have is also one that’s off the table: Does the highway have to run through our part of town at all?

A “cautious excitement”

In late January, DOTD announced it was adding five months to the context-sensitive process—a nod to the depth of change that’s occurred in Lafayette over the project’s long life. The revised schedule means the design phase will end in summer of 2017. At some point between then and when construction would break ground several years later, officials will have to come up with the funding to pay for the actual road. By some estimates the price will reach $1 billion.

“They have no money for it yet,” says Donlon, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette dean who has opposed the connector for years. “But we don’t want them to get too far along.”

The environmental report calls for at least 100 residential displacements. Project leaders are going to buy people out at fair market value, says Donlon, but compensation for a home in a struggling part of town might not leave residents with enough money to buy a new place elsewhere in the city, disrupting families and social networks. “They want this road—they think it’s going to be economic development for the community,” she says. “But just about everyone who’s pushing it, of course, doesn’t live in this part of the community.”

Donlon is among a group of activists pushing an alternative plan that would construct a bypass several miles outside town. This Teche Ridge route would have “very little impact,” Harold Schoeffler of the Sierra Club, an advocate of that options, tells CityLab, and cost about half as much. If officials chose that route, says Donlon, then maybe locals could scale down the Evangeline Thruway as an urban boulevard.

Durio, who also works for Lafayette’s downtown development office, prefers to work within the boundaries of the context-sensitive process than to tout an alternative that’s never received serious consideration. It’s an optimistic mindset that seems becoming of a metro area that, for all its struggles, was recently ranked one of the happiest cities in the U.S. So long as it’s done right, she says, the connector could be a unique chance to celebrate a community left for lost.

“I like to think we can build something that’s never been built before,” she says. “I think there are reasons to be excited, but that’s a cautious excitement.”

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