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I-49: Far more than a standard interstate

I was disappointed after reading an Editorial published by The Advertiser on Dec. 22, 2016, as the hard work of citizens and DOTD was dismissed by a failure to present facts and instead peddled misrepresentations.

It suggested “…a lack of interest from state officials about what local people have to say…”

FACT: We’ve held 30 Stakeholder Interviews, 29 Community, Technical, and Executive Meetings, 5 Public Meetings, and 24 structured interactions with various groups.  As of today, 1,164 Public Comments are recorded with 6,360 recorded participant responses from the Vision and Values Workshop.

We’ve responded in earnest to the community’s feedback, altering schedules, designs and concepts to better reflect the desires and concerns shared with us. Questions regarding how community input is being used strike me as odd; the design concepts now under consideration are based on community feedback. These are Lafayette’s ideas, not DOTD’s.

This came at a cost, in both time and money, and was a necessary step to advance the project.  If we were not interested, would we have undertaken such an effort just to reject all ideas?  Absolutely not.

It also suggested DOTD has already made up its mind about what I-49 will look like.

FACT:  Since inserting significant time in the process, in response to the community’s request, significant changes have occurred that will change the outcome.  The original plan now has 19 core area concepts with 25 potential design modifications being investigated for inclusion, many of which work well, add great value, and ALL of which have come from the public in this process. Some changes include eliminating interchanges and ramps, removing embankments, elevating structures, incorporating additional bike/pedestrian friendly elements, and enhanced protection of historic areas.

Based on the public response and technical evaluations, we narrowed the list of possible concepts down to two viable series: one based on an elevated structure and another based on a depressed/semi-depressed structure (proposed by a local advisory group).

As Secretary of DOTD, I assure you, we have not made decisions beyond what was originally approved in the original Record of Decision.  We are trusting the process to determine which of those decisions will change and what they will become. However, no one should perceive that their participation guarantees their preferred outcome.

It was suggested that “Too few people attend meetings, too little is known about how the information working group members provide to the DOTD is used.”

When compared to other communities with similar projects, public participation here is better than par, but par is never enough.  Like many other public decision processes, such as city councils and elections, we all struggle with participation, which is why we use volunteer, appointed, and elected leaders.

As we are now nearing the end of the Tier II phase of the project, the information we get is validated and considered by technical experts and professionals based on public safety, engineering standards, constructability, and its alignment with previous decisions.  The results of the technical analysis, both positive and negative, have all been shared with members of the CSS working groups, the bottom line being that semi- or fully depressed concepts are far more complex, expensive and problematic than an elevated mainline structure. This should not have come as a surprise, but it seems for those who preferred those designs, it has been a disappointment.

It stated, “…DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson should step in and show leadership…”

FACT:  Nearly one year ago, I agreed and authorized this process to become more open in its efforts. We expanded the process with the support of our federal partners. A characteristic of leadership is sharing decision-making responsibility and not dictating an individual opinion. Leadership is responsibly integrating data, best practices, and public opinion in a smart way to make a decision that is in the best interest for ALL involved.  The Community, Technical, and Executive committees are part of a leadership structure that is working. With Lafayette’s Parish President and APC CEO, we have jointly led a public engagement process that is unprecedented for Louisiana, one that is changing the trajectory of this project in a good way.

It’s also stated, “DOTD is building mistrust here.”

After a nearly three hour CWG meeting, the facilitator ended the meeting, as the agenda had been exhausted.  His closing of the meeting was not a rejection of ideas, just the end of a meeting that night.  If that offended you, we apologize.  Processes like these are not easy. They are frustrating and difficult, very complex.  A perfect public process where everyone is happy and satisfied is a unicorn standing next to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, yet to be found.  I will make judgment of DOTD’s effort and the process after all decisions are made.  I trust the process and I trust the people that are at the table.

FACT:  Trust in people and this process has already made this project better than when we started.

Shawn D. Wilson, Ph.D.
Secretary