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!