River crossing eyed to ease Ambassador Caffery traffic

Imagine every day was like Christmas season on Ambassador Caffery Parkway — bumper-to-bumper traffic as drivers hit the road for holiday shopping.

Gridlock could be the norm year-round within two or three decades, according to projections by city-parish planners who hope a new crossing over the Vermilion River in south Lafayette might relieve a strained Ambassador Caffery.

The idea is to extend South City Parkway through a relatively undeveloped area in south Lafayette, running from Robley Drive across the Vermilion River to Verot School Road. It’s an idea that’s been attracting more attention in recent months.

“When you look at the map and traffic data, we need a new crossing south of the mall, and that’s practically the only place left,” said City-Parish Chief Development Officer Kevin Blanchard.

The project would cost tens of million of dollars, has no timeline and, ultimately, may never be built. But, the Lafayette region’s Metropolitan Planning Organization voted this week to identify the South City Parkway extension on the area’s long-range transportation plan, opening the door for feasibility studies, serious planning and the purchase of property to preserve a path for the road.

Residents in the area already have spoken out about the possibility of having a major thoroughfare in their backyard — or through their house.

City-parish officials acknowledge the potential problems but also point to the traffic demands of a growing city, particularly in south Lafayette, where infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with brisk residential and commercial development.

“Obviously, it’s a disruptive thing, but our thought was, ‘Let’s begin this discussion now instead of five years from now,’ ” Blanchard said.

The idea of another major road crossing the Vermilion River in south Lafayette has been talked about for years. City-Parish Councilman Don Bertrand said he feels the time to start planning is now because vacant land in the area being eyed for the parkway extension is beginning to develop.

“The sense of urgency has come up because the opportunity has arisen,” he said.

The most recent new road to cross the Vermilion River was Camellia Boulevard, finished in 2003.

City-parish government had to buy more than 80 homes between Johnston Street and the river to secure right-of-way for the road.

City-Parish President Joey Durel said it’s an expense for South City Parkway that could be avoided if action is taken now to purchase undeveloped property in the area.

“We have an opportunity to preserve a significant portion of the corridor,” Durel said. “We can buy that land.”

The discussions about the South City Parkway project have been pushed forward by computer models that predict ever-worsening traffic along some sections of Ambassador Caffery.

In 1997, the average daily traffic count for Ambassador Caffery near the Vermilion River bridge was 42,785, according to the state Department of Transportation and Development.

As of Wednesday, the traffic count near the bridge was at 55,660, an increase of more than 10,000, according to the city-parish Public Works Department.

City-parish planners predict that by 2040, the average daily traffic count on Ambassador Caffery at the bridge will be 69,000, assuming existing projects in that area are finished and no new roads are built.

“For all intents and purposes, gridlock,” said Chris Cole, an engineer with city-parish government who gave a presentation on Ambassador Caffery traffic Wednesday to the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The relief provided by building the South City Parkway extension is projected to bring the 2040 daily traffic count projection down to 57,000, essentially holding traffic at the present level even with the new development expected in south Lafayette over the next three decades.

Those projections are little comfort to residents who worry about the prospect of a major road being built through their quiet neighborhood.

“I’m sure it looks good on a computer,” said Jim Diehl, whose home on Bonner Drive skirts the area being considered for the parkway extension and who questions the need for the road and any plans to put it near his home.

He worries about the traffic, the noise and the likelihood that some homes would have to be moved to make way for the project.

“I don’t see any residents in the area being for it,” he said.

Diehl said even if the road is never built, or not built for decades, the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s vote this week to effectively put it on a list of possible projects makes people uneasy about the future of their homes and could impact plans to sell their property.

“Just by putting it on a map, they don’t realize what they’ve done,” Diehl said.

Durel acknowledged the issue.

He lamented that even though the project might never be built, identifying a possible route could have an impact on future development in that area.

But Durel sees no other way, because it’s hard to do all the necessary studies to determine if the project is feasible and to look at alternatives without first identifying, in a general sense, where the road might be.

“It’s such a terrible part of the process,” he said.