The current effort to force the so-called I-49 South through downtown Lafayette has been fascinating to behold. This iteration of the effort (at least the third try of proponents) has been the slickest – and in some ways most deceptive effort – thus far.
The road has been branded – “The Connector” – and marketed with the intensity of the rollout of a new commercial district on the south side. It was wordsmithed. This massive elevated road was going to connect not only the northern stretch of I-49 to that future part south of the city, it was going to repair the divide that proponents say the Evangeline Thruway had created by creating an even bigger divide in its place.
Proponents argued that the Evangeline Thruway corridor did not put Lafayette’s best foot forward. The corridor — particularly near downtown – was blighted. Proponents willfully ignored the fact that the ‘right of first refusal’ on property sales they had won for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (LADOTD) in the footprint of the road earlier in this century was responsible for that blight by cutting off private investment in the corridor. Having short-circuited the real estate in the corridor, proponents used the result as one basis for their argument in favor of their contract.
OneAcadiana is the new player in this round, having replaced the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce which apparently was considered too compact a vehicle to carry the ambitions of some in Lafayette’s business community who apparently have visions of empire dancing in their heads.
OneAcadiana clearly has as one of its missions getting this road built through Lafayette. They have brought in outsiders, embedded them in the discussion and review process in what has proven to be a futile attempt to blow a fast one by the community and get this road done. I believe that jobs at OneAcadiana ride on the success or failure of this effort. It’s not looking good for them.
What has become clear to anyone who has attended some of the countless meetings that have been held on this project in the past 15 months is that the people pushing this project are being paid to do so. They are directly connected to the project in one official capacity or another. They work for OneAcadiana, a planning group, consulting firms, or are being paid through the TIGER grant.
Proponents have discredited the charrette process, hiring designers and artists to confect fanciful images of what Lafayette could be if the road was built, deliberately neglecting the fact that there is no money available to convert those pretty pictures to reality. LCG President Joel Robideaux has been upfront about that, in a refreshing display of honesty, if not leadership.
Community opposition to the project has grown as the meeting process has advanced. The sense of desperation among proponents is palpable. When the were ridiculed and rejected, proponents floated the idea of a signature bridge over nothing in particular, apparently hoping they could throw traffic high enough above the city that people would forget about the road. Surprisingly, no offer was made to sell the community a bridge in Brooklyn.
When the signature bridge idea was all but laughed off the stage, the idea de jour became a semi-buried road that would be below ground level for most of its route through the city. The floods of August reminded people that south Louisiana in general and Lafayette in particular has issues with moving water out of our mostly flat terrain once it gets here. The fact that this idea remains alive at all reveals yet another level of dishonesty on the part of proponents. While hurricane evacuation is supposedly one of the main purposes of this gash through Lafayette, the fact that they are willing to overlook the hydrologic foolishness of the buried road option reveals the evacuation route argument to have been false all along.
The I-49 South project (of which the Lafayette Gash would be the northwestern entrance) is the oil and gas industry’s fever dream. It is about connecting ‘America’s Energy Corridor’ with the rest of the country. That’s it. That’s all it’s ever been. The 2015 revival of the project was likely tied to what proponents believed to be the sure thing election of David Vitter as governor. Then-LCG President Joey Durel‘s daughter and son-in-law served as state directors for Vitter’s Senate office. There were rumors that presumed Governor Vitter would appoint Durel to fill his un-expired term upon taking office in January. Reality failed to conform to the fantasies of the proponents. It would not be the last time.
I-49 South and the Lafayette Gash represent two examples of the oil and gas industry’s attempt to force taxpayers to bear the cost of its operation in Louisiana. The state and federal government have already built half of an elevated roadway over open water (that was once marsh) to connect Port Fourchon, replacing LA 1, which is being abandoned to coastal wetlands loss. Leeville will be given up to the Gulf. Eventually, so too will Grand Isle. The price tag on that stretch of elevated road from inside the protection levee at Golden Meadow to Port Fourchon is in excess of $1 Billion, most of it at taxpayer expense.
The oil and gas industry wants taxpayers to fund I-49 while it thumbs its nose at calls for it to help pay for its fair share of the damage oil and gas activity has inflicted on our wetlands and coast. It does so with the support of some in the business community even as evidence contained in the reports of the Louisiana Legislative Auditor that the industry has cheated the state out of severance tax and royalty money for years.
In the great meeting at Immaculate Heart of Mary’s gymnasium during the summer after the charrettes charade had been completed, it was clear from architect Steve Oubre’s presentation that proponents were counting on private investors to be drawn to the new corridor using zoning changes as inducements. That unremarked upon (at the time) admission signaled the true intent of I-49’s proponents: to push out residents who now live in and near the corridor and replace them with commercial operations. Having shut off the private investment spigot in order to create the blight that they would cite as a need for their road, proponents (including their local banking friends) would be willing to re-open it for investment by the right people.
The current push for I-49 has been an exercise in bad faith by the proponents and their front people. Good people have leant their names and reputations to a project that is not worthy of this city, nor them. The hired outsiders are just that. They have no attachment to the community and their actions on this project have proven it.
Olivier Chatelain de Pronville has watched this process unfold from his home in the Sterling Grove National Historic District with alarm and dismay. In conversations and comments at public meetings, he has challenged the intellectual dishonesty behind the arguments of proponents. When he realized that his neighborhood, which would be in the shadow of the elevated roadway or at the foot of an off-ramp, he joined with his neighbors to form the Sterling Grove Neighborhood Association.
His greatest fear is that proponents will use eminent domain to make land grabs along the corridor that can then be turned over to private developers. He’s vigilant and gearing up for a fight.
Chatelain de Pronville, a native of France who earned a Ph.D. at UL Lafayette, is determined to save his historic neighborhood and, in his view, Lafayette from the hazards of this road in the hope that doing so will help the city remain connected to its history and its roots.
We talk about Sterling Grove, Lafayette and the I-49 in this podcast of the Where The Alligators Roam program that aired on Sunday, October 9.