Saturday, June 11, 2016

Degrading Acadiana's cultural treasure-Vermilionville

Figure 1. This view across the pond at Vermilionville will look directly 
up at the University/Thruway/I-49 interchange and elevated interstate 49.
This photo was taken roughly 600 feet from the proposed Con alignment.
Since opening in 1990, Vermilionville has provided a serene location on the bank of Bayou Vermilion for Acadiana citizens and tourists to learn about and share the history of the Cajun culture. Providing the illusion of an isolated rural village, Vermilionville is a major part of the educational and cultural experience that is passing our culture on to both children and adults who participate in hands-on activities and celebrations. Vermilionville is truly our premier Acadiana cultural attraction.

But, how will constructing the proposed Lafayette I-49 Connector interstate impact this cultural jewel?

To answer this question, let's look at some pictures. Figure 1 is a photo taken from the parking lot of Vermilionville overlooking one of the small lakes at the site. The Evangeline Thruway is just 600 feet away on the other side of this lake ( see camera icon in Figure 2), but it is hidden by trees which also dampen the sound of the urban traffic and add to the illusion of isolation. The plan for the I-49 Connector project (the Con) is to build an elevated interstate above the current ground level path of the Thruway (wide red line at the top of Figure 2).

Currently, traffic moves at speeds at or below 50 mph along the Thruway; after the Con is completed, traffic will move at interstate speeds along an elevated roadway. Figure 3 shows the roadway elevation as it approaches and passes Vermilionville. At speeds below 50 mph, current Thruway traffic noise is dominated by the sound of car and truck engines, but above 50 highway noise is dominated by the higher frequency roar from tires rolling along the pavement. This high speed scream of the interstate will be focused at Vermilionville by northbound traffic dropping from the 45 foot elevation University/Surrey/Frontage Road/I-49 three-level interchange, and then climbing to stay elevated above the hill just north of the Bayou Vermilion bridge (Figure 3). The Vermilionville visitor center entrance is just 1000 feet from the proposed Con roadway, and 2000 feet from the peak of the planned University-Surrey interchange. Noise levels within Vermilionville will destroy all illusion of isolation, and at times may even make normal conversation difficult.

In addition to interstate's traffic noise, cars and trucks topping the interchange will be clearly visible to Vermilionville visitors. At night, the aircraft warning lighting atop the interchange, roadway lighting, and headlights will further reduce Vermilionville's illusion of isolation and serenity.

Figure 2. This is a Google Earth view of the Thruway and Vermilionville.
The path of the Con is plotted at the top, location of the photo (Figure 1),
The Vermilionville Visitor Center, and National Park Service are shown.
Note that north is rotated to the right in this aerial photo.                         
Figure 3. This drawing is adapted from EIS Plate 2a. A side view along the proposed roadway
is drawn here plotting elevation versus roadway distance going north. The red arrow indicates 
the location of Vermilionville which is on the bank of Bayou Vermilion. The shaded area at 
the bottom is below the ground; the solid black line graphs the road elevation. The blue line 
is drawn at 40 ft elevation. The numbers along the  bottom axis (300 and 325) are distances 
along the roadway in hundreds of feet (30,000 and 32,500 feet). Note again that in this figure
north is rotated to the right in this drawing. Elevation on the vertical axis is (I assume) NGVD.

So, how does the Con's Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) evaluate the impact to Vermilionville, and what does it propose as solutions? Answer: Not much!

EIS Section 3.2.6 describes legal requirements placed on DOTD and FHWA by a so-called "section 4(f) properties designation." The EIS states that
Under Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act 49 USC 1653(f), the Federal Highway Administration cannot approve any program or project which requires the use of land from a significant public park, recreation area, wildlife or waterfowl refuge, or historic sites (on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places) unless: (1) there is no feasible and prudent alternative to such use, and (2) the project includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the property from such use.
Speaking of Vermilionville, Beaver Park, and other impacted recreational areas, EIS Section 4.2.3 concludes "A slight noise increase would be expected at Beaver Park for the EA-1 and RR-4 alternatives." and "In general, recreation areas in the corridor would be positively impacted due to the improved accessibility, with increased usage possible once the project is complete." So, the answer is that no negative impact on Vermilionville is considered by the EIS, and nothing will be done to mitigate any impact.

Speaking solely of Beaver Park, section 4.2.3 of the EIS commits not to action, mitigation, or re-design, but rather it commits to the possibly needing to prepare more documents:
Should design details as subsequently developed cause impacts which are not currently apparent, 4(f) and 6(f) applicability would be reviewed by the FHWA and DOTD and statements prepared, if warranted.
So, what is the best alternative for Vermilionville, Beaver Park, all the other recreational, cultural, educational, and religious sites along the Con's alignment? Simply stated:

  • Don't build the Con! 
  • Build a bypass or complete loop!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The specter of tolls on the I-49 Connector

By SPUI [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Specter of Tolls on I-49 continues. On June 4, 2016, we learned in the Advertiser's report on the end of the legislative session that "The State... opened new possibilities for creating toll roads where they might spur construction." It appears from the article that One Acadiana had lobbied for this change. The Advocate (May 31, 2016) reported that State Secretary of Transportation, Shawn Wilson, told the state legislature that tolls on state highways and bridges are an option under consideration and that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is “very supportive of tolling as an option to fund transportation and to fund projects that are significant." We have also heard Secretary Wilson say that the Lafayette Connector which they are actively promoting is very significant. Could tolls on the Lafayette Connector be a part of the administration's plan? At this point it appears likely.

The specter of tolls on the I-49 Connector and all of I-49 South has been foreshadowed for years. Former Secretary of Transportation Kam Movassaghi was quoted (The Independent, April 14, 2009) saying that tolls must be considered for funding I-49 construction. An expert speaking to a meeting sponsored by One Acadiana (The Advocate, October 22, 2015) suggested that a toll of $0.19 per mile might be used to fund I-49 completion, and an Advocate article (September 22, 2014) reported that a state funded feasibility study looked at $0.18 per mile for I-49 funding. Former State Senator and then I-49 South Coalition Director, Mike Michot, was quoted in that same article saying about I-49 South "It seems unlikely a project of that magnitude will be built without the help of toll dollars."

However, tolls have been ruled to be outside the range of discussion in DOTD Community Work Group and Technical Work Group meetings held this year. When questioned, state DOTD employees and their contractors have typically refused to discuss just how the so-called Connector will be funded. The most we are now told is that the question of methods of financing will be considered at some future time after we make the decision to proceed with a selected design.

DOTD has not ruled out collecting tolls to finance the Connector, they have simply ruled it to be inappropriate as an item of discussion. Clearly charging tolls for use of the proposed I-49 Connector would impact many of the project's projected benefits, and could add new design constraints. Why has DOTD chosen to ignore this specter? We can imagine two reasons:

  1. DOTD recognizes that placing tolls on Lafayette citizens for local travel will increase the unpopularity of their already locally unpopular Connector plan.
  2. DOTD's excessively high planning projections of 100,000 vehicles per day would become even more suspect because many drivers, particularly those making frequent local trips would avoid the cost and inconvenience of tolls by taking alternative city street routes. 

A tolled I-49 in Lafayette would have significant impact on traffic levels on alternative city streets - Louisiana Avenue, University Avenue, and the degraded capacity Evangeline Thruway envisioned in most Connector alternatives.  The current traffic models being used to frighten us with onerous future projections assume free access to the proposed Connector. Until tolls are taken off the table, model projections should include tolled as well as free access alternatives in all planning projections.

Here is my own conceptual traffic model projection. A toll of $0.18 to $0.19 per mile will result in a toll of about $1.00 in each direction on the 5.5 mile Connector. For a commuting worker with a 250 day work year, this effectively adds a new $500 annual tax if they choose to commute on the toll way. Again, the Connector will become a Divider, allowing those who can afford the added cost to ride at high speed and with little traffic, while the common people of Lafayette Parish will be segregated onto the even more traffic congested city streets.

The option of tolls is clearly still on the table. Until DOTD makes the determination about whether this will be a toll road, all planning is simple fantasy.

References and further reading discussing the likelihood of tolls for Acadiana:

The Independent, April 14, 2009, Movassaghi: tolls must be considered for I-49

The Independent, January 12, 2012, Guest editorial: Public-private route for I-49 South?

The Independent, January 18, 2012, Southern Strategy

The Independent, November 13, 2012, La. 1 a good example for I-49 South

The Advocate, September 22, 2014, Tolls are possible to complete Interstate 49 South

The Advocate, October 22, 2015, Finance expert: I-49 Connector through Lafayette would require tolls, taxes or both to fund construction

The Advertiser, October 23, 2015, Citigroup and the Lafayette Loop — what's next?

Toll Road News, October 23, 2016, Tolling an Option for $750-800 Million Louisiana Project

The Advocate, May 31, 2016, Tolls a possibility to fund major road projects as state faces $12.7 billion backlog, DOTD leader says

The Advertiser, June 4, 2016, Session's end: What's won, what's left

Note: This is an updated and expanded version of a post first published on June 1, 2016.