Teche Ridge route study sought

Interstate 49 plan revisited  10 years after initial push

An alternate route for Interstate 49 South that would bypass Lafayette could be revived for discussion after being considered but dismissed a decade ago.

State Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, and state Rep. Mike Huval, R-Breaux Bridge, have asked the state Department of Transportation and Development to study the so-called “Teche Ridge” route, which would push I-49 to the east of Lafayette through mostly undeveloped rural areas in St. Martin Parish.

The Teche Ridge route was proposed years ago by opponents of a proposed elevated interstate through Lafayette and by St. Martin Parish officials who welcomed the prospect of a new interstate running through their parish.

But officials involved in a renewed push to complete I-49 south worry that revisiting the Teche Ridge alternative would only further delay the interstate project.

“My goal is to expedite this thing as soon as possible,” said state Sen. Brett Allain, R-Franklin, who has been working to pull together political and business leaders for the new I-49 South Coalition. “We have waited 25 years, and we need the connector through Lafayette.”

The current plan for I-49 South calls for an elevated highway that would roughly follow the path of Evangeline Thruway through Lafayette.

The Federal Highway Administration approved that route in 2003 after years of public hearings, and DOTD officials have said they are preparing to begin the design work for that section, dubbed the “connector.”

“I just think we ought to have something else on the table to look at,” Landry said. “I look at it from a practical standpoint — less expensive, less intrusive.”

It would cost more than $1 billion to complete the elevated I-49 connector in Lafayette and to upgrade U.S. 90 to interstate standards all the way to Iberia Parish, according to the most recent estimates.

Landry said he suspects the Teche Ridge route would be cheaper because it cuts through mostly vacant land, breaking away from I-49 near Carencro, skirting around Lafayette to the east and then reconnecting with U.S. 90 just south of Youngsville near the Iberia Parish line.

St. Martin Parish officials had floated the Teche Ridge idea about 12 years ago and hired Houma-based engineering firm T. Baker Smith to map out the route and develop a rough cost estimate — $460 million in 2001.

St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier said the proposal for a new DOTD study offers hope for an idea that had long seemed dead.

“We are not saying this a fix, but let’s study it,” Cormier said. “I just think if we are going to wait for a billion dollars to pass through Lafayette, it won’t be built in my or your lifetime.”

Kam Movassaghi, who was DOTD secretary when the current path for I-49 was approved, said federal officials considered the Teche Ridge route and other alternatives before they signed off on the plan to build I-49 through Lafayette.

“All of those routes have been looked at and been analyzed,” said Movassaghi, who is now president of the Lafayette engineering and consulting firm Fenstermaker.

He has been active in efforts to complete I-49 south.

A key factor in the approval of the current route for I-49 through Lafayette was the reduction of traffic along Evangeline Thruway.

Lafayette’s traffic planners have said that bypassing Lafayette would do nothing to alleviate congestion, because most of traffic on the Thruway is local, as opposed to drivers travelling through the parish.

But opponents of building I-49 through Lafayette have argued that the elevated highway would destroy the character of neighborhoods in its shadow, including the historic Sterling Grove Historic District.

Opponents filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration in 2003, alleging the agency failed to consider reasonable alternatives for the route of I-49 South, such as Teche Ridge.

Lafayette resident Harold Schoeffler, one of the more vocal critics of building I-49 through Lafayette, said the Teche Ridge route was mapped out to be built with minimal disruption.

“It didn’t take out anybody’s business. It didn’t take out anybody’s home,” he said.

Representatives Landry and Huval’s request for the Teche Ridge study does not require a legislative vote unless another legislator objects.

So far, no one has.

DOTD declined comment on whether the proposed Teche Ridge study, if done, would impact other work related to the I-49 south project.

The agency is “open to conducting a feasibility study for an alternate route” if directed to do so by the Legislature, DOTD spokeswoman Deidra Lockhart said in a written statement.

Allain said he suspects DOTD would rather avoid the study, considering the current route has already been approved by federal highway officials and has survived a legal challenge.

“There is a lot of reluctance by them to change anything,” he said.