Jennifer Hill is a Strong Towns member and resident of Shreveport, LA. Today, she shares an overview of the I-49 innercity connector project that is currently being proposed in Shreveport. You can join Jennifer and another Strong Towns member and Shreveport resident, Tim Wright, for a live online conversation this Thursday at 1pm central.
For the past seven years, a David & Goliath struggle has taken place in Shreveport—Louisiana’s third largest city—over a proposal to build a 3.6 mile long innercity connector (ICC) for Interstate 49 North. Building a short segment of a highway does not seem like an issue that would generate much interest, let alone a fierce debate, but both sides—those for its construction and those against it—see the I-49 ICC having long-term ramifications for Shreveport as a city.
On the pro-I-49 ICC side, Shreveport’s city leaders and business community believe that bridging the almost four-mile gap in I-49 will jumpstart Shreveport’s economy, which never fully recovered from the 1980s’ oil and gas bust. On the anti-I-49 ICC side, the residents of the low-income, mostly black Allendale neighborhood, which four of the five proposed ICC routes would cut through, vehemently oppose it. They and other community activists think it will not only decimate the neighborhood and community, but will adversely impact Shreveport as a whole for years to come.
Five Proposed Routes
To be sure, the gap in I-49 North in the middle of Shreveport is awkward and weird. It ends abruptly about a mile southwest of the downtown, at its intersection with Interstate 20 (which runs East-West.) There is no direct, obvious route to get back on it. You either have to know, about seven miles before it ends, to take Hwy. 3132, which loops you around Shreveport’s western rim before bringing you back to I-49 about twelve miles later, or you have to know where to pick up Route 71 in Shreveport’s downtown and take that for nine miles before getting back on I-49. There are no signs telling you where to go to pick up I-49 again. The lack of connection between the interstate’s ends and the lack of navigability make Shreveport seem behind the times.
The above map shows the five proposed routes for the ICC. The loop around the city is in yellow (zoom out to see it fully) and the blue, green, orange and purple routes go through the Allendale neighborhood. The bottom right corner of the map shows I-20 and the current dead-end of I-49
There were originally five routes proposed for the ICC. Four of the five routes go directly through Allendale and the city of Shreveport. The other route (which residents had to fight for the inclusion of) utilizes an existing highway “loop” around the southern edge of the city. Last September, the Shreveport Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) held a meeting, expecting to hear that the list had been narrowed down to two routes recommended by Providence Engineering Group, whom the Northwest Louisiana Council of Governments (NLCOG)—MPC’s transportation arm—hired to conduct in-depth studies. Providence would next submit the two chosen routes to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which would then determine if the routes complied with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). If one or both did, one would become the I-49 ICC.
NLCOG began the I-49 ICC Project in 2005. It did not complete the Project’s first stage (Stage 0 - Feasibility Study and Environmental Inventory) until May 2010. The September 2016 meeting would have brought the Project almost to the end of the second stage (the Planning and Environmental Stage). Since 2005, NLCOG has spent $3 million on the Project, which the city paid for with Louisiana’s unclaimed property fund. The city and business leaders at the September meeting had become increasingly concerned at the Project’s length, expense, and delays and were anxious to have a route settled on. The Allendale residents and activists awaited Providence’s announcement with dread; they expected the selected routes would be two of the through-Allendale ones and knew they would have a tough fight to prevent its construction in the coming years.
No Decision Made
Instead, Providence stunned everyone at the meeting when a spokeswoman announced the group could not recommend any of the five I-49 ICC routes. During her Power Point presentation, she explained the reasons that none of the routes would pass FHWA regulations: All five routes had public structures or spaces, such as historical landmarks, parks and churches, which cannot legally be removed, harmed or destroyed in order to allow a federal highway to be built. One route would have cut through a historic landmark (Ledbetter Heights). Another had a Catholic church in its path and its members declined the Shreveport Diocese’s offer to have it moved to a different area of the city.
A third option was the only route that did not cut through Allendale, keeping I-49 connected by the Hwy. 3132 loop. To become an official part of I-49, Hwy. 3132 would have to be upgraded to federal highway standards. However, that goes over Lake Cross, which is considered a public recreational area where people fish and swim.
The two through-Allendale center routes everyone at the meeting thought would be recommend for NEPA study have a public park in them, too (called SWEPCO Park since it is in sight of the electrical utilty.) The members of the anti-I-49 ICC group, #AllendaleStrong, have learned since the September meeting that SWEPCO Park also contains the remains of one of four Civil War forts built in Shreveport, named for Confederate States General Albert Sidney Johnston. Once the fort is certified as a historic landmark, it would also prevent the ICC from being built through there. (The irony of a Confederate fort saving a black neighborhood from its decimation is not lost on the #AllendaleStrong members.)
As of February 2017, the I-49 ICC Project has stalled, and as in the biblical story, David appears to have the upper hand for now. Goliath is not giving up, though. Shreveport’s city leaders and business groups believe there is too much at stake, both because of the time and money spent on the I-49 ICC Project already and because they think Shreveport stands to benefit greatly from the highway.
Do highways produce economic growth?
The conviction of Shreveport’s pro-ICC side that having I-49 run through its center will produce an economic windfall for the city is at odds with the current trend of cities all over the United States and the world. They are either dismantling their urban highways or planning to because their upkeep has become too expensive. In fact, cities that have taken down their innercity highways and replaced them with surface streets -- San Francisco, Milwaukee, Seoul, South Korea, for example – have seen their downtowns thrive. John Perkins, a Shreveport native who opposes the I-49 ICC, says cities using the “more permeable, multi-use routes such as boulevards and parkways” often revitalize neighborhoods along or near these types of roadways. Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans are all considering tearing down at least some of their innercity highways.
But the Shreveport groups who want the I-49 ICC look at the swirl of highways inside Dallas, the closest major city to Shreveport, and see it as a major reason for Dallas’ economic success. Their representatives have even suggested having inner city highways is a necessary stage for Shreveport to go through in order to have a strong economy. (Shreveport is not bereft of innercity highways; Interstate 20 already goes through its downtown.)
They believe a completed I-49 that goes through Shreveport’s center will attract businesses—not just gas stations and fast food restaurants along the highway—but ones that would move to Shreveport because it (finally) would have the “correct” infrastructure. NLCOG greatly bolstered their case by estimating the I-49 ICC’s annual economic impact would be $800 million, which anti-ICC people do not think is feasible. None of the people advocating for the I-49 ICC would lose their home or business or see their neighborhoods disrupted by a highway being built through it.
For Allendale residents, an elevated highway being built through their community would affect them personally. There are the people who would lose their homes. Even those who wouldn’t lose their homes would see the quality of their lives degraded. The I-49 ICC’s most obvious effects are the increase in traffic through the neighborhood, which would cause air and noise pollution. It would also be an eyesore.
Less obvious, though, is that the highway would produce a “border vacuum,” a barrier that discourages or even prevents people from crossing it, either on foot or in vehicles, to get from one area to another. (Few people will try to cross an interstate highway and not many like walking under them either.) The pollution and the border vacuum effect would cause property values to drop because few people want to live or run a business next to or under a highway. While residents forced to move out because of eminent domain will receive the “fair market value” for their property, once there is even a plan in place to build a highway, those affected residents will see their property values drop. The deteriorating quality of life and the drop in property values will lead to people moving out of Allendale, not just those pushed out by eminent domain. It would become a blighted, abandoned area, as it once was decades ago. We'll cover more of the history of this neighborhood later this week.
I49 Connector: Benefit or Boondoggle?
In addition to how the ICC would affect Allendale residents personally, evidence points to the ICC being an economic boondoggle instead of a benefit. The estimated cost of building the 3.6 mile long ICC is $500 million. The federal government will pay 80 percent for constructing a new federal highway and the state has to pay for the remaining 20 percent, in this case, $100 million. The state of Louisiana currently has a $304 million budget deficit and would be hard-pressed to pay its $100 million share of the tab. In addition, the I-49 ICC was ranked somewhere in the middle of a list of all highway projects prioritized in Louisiana. Even if the FHWA had given the green light to an ICC route, getting the needed state funds for it could have delayed its construction for years. In the meantime, the City of Shreveport would also have to spend money on maintaining I-49, I-20 and the state highways it uses.
The group #AllendaleStrong, which formed to stop the I-49 ICC from being built, are now trying to persuade the City of Shreveport to connect the ends of I-49 with a business boulevard, akin to the multiuse surface streets Milwaukee, San Francisco and other cities have built to replace their urban highways. #AllendaleStrong estimates that upgrading a part of Route 71 -- used already to get back on I-49 North now -- so it becomes an attractive, business boulevard, would cost $60 million. Drivers would have to drive more slowly on it than on the Hwy 3132 loop around the city, which would make it more likely they would see places they would want to visit. In #AllendaleStrong members’ minds, that would reap more economic benefits for the city than a through-highway with one exit that had a gas station and fast food place. A business boulevard would also not entail the high maintenance costs of a highway.
It seems unlikely that the I-49 ICC will be built, given that the FHWA will not approve any of the five proposed routes. The question now is, will Shreveport keep pushing for an innercity highway, when the evidence points to it doing more harm than good for the city? Or will Shreveport seize the opportunity to develop a city that serves its citizens in the future?
About the Author
Jennifer Hill grew up grew up overseas and in the Washington, DC area as the daughter of a diplomat. She has loved to write since she could write, so of course she double-majored in International Relations and English in college. After graduating from University of California at Davis, she lived in different parts of the United States and worked in a variety of economic sectors and industries (marketing for high-tech companies, teaching undergraduates academic writing, fundraising and marketing for non-profits). In 1996, she earned an MA in Russian Studies from Georgetown University. It was when she pursued a Masters in Public Administration from University of Pennsylvania that she began to learn about urban planning and city infrastructure issues. After earning her MPA in 2012, Jennifer moved to Shreveport when her husband was hired as a political science professor at Centenary College of Louisiana. Jennifer began writing about Shreveport's I-49 Innercity Connector controversy in late 2015 for Heliopolis.la.