Connecting The Dots
● By Robert Frey
The Potential Economic Impact Of The I-49 Connector
By Scott Brazda
“What would the economic impact be in our eight-parish service area, through the I-49 route?”
– Raymond Hebert, Executive Director, Community Foundation of Acadiana
Those were the primary reasons behind Community Foundation of Acadiana’s decision… not to get involved, not to take a side… but to ask a question about what’s been one of Acadiana’s hottest topics for decades:
If I-49 South was built today, will the economic impact for St. Mary, Iberia, Lafayette, St. Landry and Evangeline Parishes be positive….or…. negative?
“We looked at that as more of a regional project, not exclusive to Lafayette,” explains Hebert. “Our position was not advocacy; we are not advocating for or against where the route should be, or where the design should be. But funding this kind of study, our board decided, was to exercise the civic leadership component of CFA’s mission.”
Community Foundation of Acadiana contracted with Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI) and CDM Smith to examine the ‘what if’ scenario, and, study data suggesting that completing the five-and-a-half segment from Interstate 10 to I-49 just south of the Lafayette Regional Airport would, for the most part, provide a number of short-and-long-term benefits.
“It would mean more jobs, pure and simple,” responds St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot. “Completing the connector would be good for I-10, good for I-49 and most importantly, good for the people of Acadiana. Lafayette is the core, and every day we see folks coming down to New Iberia, especially in the oil field.” But the Connector’s true benefit, continues Fontenot, is essentially that of a doorway. “It will give another entry to our region, and increased standing on a national scale for a region that has great value and culture. It will simply allow more business opportunities to occur here.”
If we’re going strictly by numbers, the study tells us some big things could happen: 6,000 more jobs in just over 25 years. $2.3 billion added to the state’s gross domestic product (GDP) when the Lafayette Connector is done, and nearly $10 million more if everything is completed. Plus, the study tells us your time behind the wheel would be drastically reduced, if you follow that route, reduced to the a savings of 5.5 million trip hours (if the Lafayette Connector is finished) and 27.2 million trip hours if both the Connector and the other I-49 segments are completed. Those are big numbers, and some of the area’s movers-and-shakers—heads of a many civic organizations--- are solidly behind them.
“Upgrading Highway 90 to Interstate 49 south will greatly improve transportation time resulting in more job opportunities for our Parish,” agrees Mike Tarantino, president and CEO of Iberia Industrial Development. “We are also home to the Port of Iberia and the Acadiana Regional Airport; I-49 South will better connect these vital economic engines to the markets that need them resulting in more job opportunities and faster connections for our citizens.”
Time behind the steering wheel was a recurring theme in every discussion I had regarding the study and this article. In fact, when I asked Tarantino to compare life now with life after the (possible) Connector, here’s how he responded: “Today, it takes at least an hour to get people and products through Lafayette to I10 and the wider market. Completing I-49 south and the accompanying connector will result in much faster travel times and more cost effective transportation helping make our businesses more competitive.”
Much of the focus, both pro-Connector and con-Connector, zeroes in on the Evangeline Thruway, which runs from the junction at I-10 southward to Lafayette Regional Airport, and is used by 50,000-to-60,000 cars per day. The Thruway’s implementation/construction/beginnings in the early 1960s meant well, says Lafayette Economic Development director Gregg Gothreaux, but it’s time has passed. In fact, he believes Thruway may have done more harm than good.
“The number one thing a community can do for economic development is build a road. While some roads advance economic development, some roads, if built wrong, can hurt a community. The I-49 connector is a chance to right a wrong,” Gothreaux says. “In 1963, the Evangeline Thruway sliced through our community like a knife- one side prospered and one side did not. I have confidence that the will of the people is there to right that wrong and build a connector that will improve the city and help revitalize the Evangeline Corridor, allowing both sides to prosper.”
Fontenot agrees, adding that project designers have heard the concerns and critics, and have worked extremely hard to take into account social, economic and historic desires of those who live along the Evangeline Thruway. “They don’t want to adversely affect people. It’s a very great opportunity to bring neighborhoods together again, using a bridge with unique features, lots of natural light and common areas for the people. We will not allow this to be like the Claiborne area in New Orleans.”
The nine parties –including officials from the St. Mary Parish Economic Development, One Acadiana and the Port of Iberia--who teamed to fund the study came from a variety of vantage points. But nearly every group stresses the word ‘need’, as in, the need for the Connector to happen, be it from I-10 to Lafayette, or (big picture) all the way to the 310 loop near New Orleans.
“Infrastructure is vital to maintain connectivity within the region and with other markets- particularly for our energy, transportation, distribution and tourism sectors,” explains Gothreaux. “If our region wishes to remain a leader in the south, there is a substantial need to improve our public infrastructure, including the I-49 connector and I-49 South. I-49 South will provide economic development and commerce opportunities, in addition to addressing public safety with hurricane evacuation routes and alternate routes and traffic relief for I-10.”
Hurricane evacuation is also an important reason Fontenot, the former head of the State Department of Transportation and Development, in backing the project. “Say when there’s a large-scale evacuation because of a hurricane, people will be able to move quickly to the north and not disrupt neighborhoods.”
Realization of the I-49 Connector is within reach, says Jason El Koubi, President and CEO of One Acadiana, adding that this will be a game-changer. “More than 100 of the planned 160 miles of I-49 South are complete or under construction. The CFA study illustrates the transformational return on investment from finally finishing the job and realizing a fully functional interstate.”
Hebert says the findings from the study are available to everyone—regardless of his or her stance on the I-49 Connector--- on the Community Foundation of Acadiana website (www.cfacadiana.org). And what’s next?
“Next?” asks Hebert aloud. “The data is important for many people, and candidly that kind of data has come under scrutiny as well. There are some detractors that suggest even an objective study like this can be scrutinized and, what is the value. But I suspect policy makers are going to look at that data.” And the goal of such a study, one on the economic impact of a long-debated, long-discussed roadway?
“What we’re trying to provide is objective data, so educated decisions can be made.”