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I-49 committee goes with elevated design over submerged option

If the Interstate 49 Connector through Lafayette is ever built, it will likely be elevated.

A committee overseeing the design of the planned interstate decided Friday to narrow down the options, casting aside the idea of cutting a path for the road below ground level and allowing local streets to pass over it.

The decision on Friday was made despite the recommendation of a citizens group formed to give input on the project.

At a Wednesday meeting, a majority of the citizens group voted to keep both the elevated and submerged options on the table and not make a decision until a more careful evaluation of each.

That strategy was clearly at odds with the thinking of state Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson and his staff.

Wilson said at Friday’s meeting that the design team must eventually focus on one concept and that an elevated interstate seemed to be the clear choice: It requires less right-of-way, fewer homes and businesses would have to be moved, and it doesn’t present the safety and drainage challenges of a submerged highway.

Supporters of the submerged option argue it would be less of a dividing line cut through the city and would not bring the same disruption as a big elevated interstate, which many cities are now tearing down.

Lafayette city-parish Director of Planning, Zoning and Development Carlee Alm-LaBar was the lone member of I-49 Executive Committee who sought to keep both options on the table, arguing that many residents were surprised the alternatives were being narrowed so soon and have questions about the process used to rank to the two options.

“I feel like there is not a lot of trust in this,” she said.

But another city-parish department head on the Executive Committee, Public Works Director Tom Carroll, said he felt the choices needed to be narrowed at some point because of the time and expense of drilling down into two dramatically different design options.

“Sooner or later, we have to make a decision,” he said.

City-Parish President Joel Robideaux acknowledged “a house divided” among his staff but ultimately said he was OK with moving forward with one option.

But Robideaux also said he expects the final outcome to live up to what DOTD has touted as a model interstate project that will enhance the community.

“I want the best interstate in the state,” Robideaux said.

The 5.5-mile stretch of I-49 through Lafayette would roughly follow the path of the Evangeline Thruway, a large road built decades ago that divided Lafayette and that most acknowledge needs to be replaced with something, even if there is disagreement on what that should be.

The planned interstate has been in the works for decades but had lost momentum for several years.

DOTD revived planning for the project in 2015.

Construction of the road, assuming the state can find the more than $700 million it is expected to cost, is still several years off and much work remains to develop a detailed design.