Kenneth Fisher is a Shreveport resident and writer.
Over the past few weeks, some new developments on Shreveport’s Interstate 49 Innercity Connector (I-49 ICC) Project have come to light. Unfortunately, they show the depth to which the City of Shreveport has stooped to try to get the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to approve an I-49 ICC route directly through Shreveport’s Allendale neighborhood. Fortunately, however, the City government’s dishonest and petty actions may be the death of the I-49 ICC project.
Last February, Strong Towns generously devoted a week to discussing and analyzing Shreveport’s I-49 ICC controversy. The crux of the issue is that the city and local business leaders very much want an I-49 ICC to go through Allendale, while Allendale residents and others in Shreveport think such a route will not only devastate their neighborhood, but will also have far-reaching negative consequences for the city as a whole. Four of the five proposed connector routes cut through the Allendale neighborhood. At the time of Strong Towns’ week-long series on the issue, the I-49 ICC project was in limbo.
Updates on the Project
The project stalled out in September 2016. At a public meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC) that month, Providence Engineering, hired by the North Louisiana Council of Governments (NLCOG) to study the environmental and economic impacts of the I-49 ICC routes, announced that it could not recommend any of the five proposed routes to the FHWA. Providence explained that all five routes had public spaces or buildings on them, which, according to FHWA regulations, could not be destroyed or removed in order to build a federal highway.
A Catholic church was located on one route, a historic site on another, and SWEPCO Park was on two of the routes. The fifth route would entail an upgrade of State Highway 3132, which loops around the western periphery of Shreveport, to federal highway standards. It has been the defacto “I-49 connector” since the 1990s. However, Hwy. 3132 goes over Cross Lake, which FHWA considers to be a park and recreation area, so it would not approve that as an I-49 ICC route either.
Proponents of the I-49 ICC going through Allendale—mostly members of a highly respected group of Shreveport business leaders called the Committee of One Hundred (C100)—expressed outrage at the September 2016 meeting. They denounced the “delay” in getting I-49 ICC routes approved by the FHWA. C100 member Patrick Harrison, who owns Sound Fighter Systems, (which conveniently manufactures sound panels for highways to muffle traffic noise) told the MPC, “I would strongly encourage you to do what you can to support Providence and…move it forward.”
While they understood that Providence’s inability to recommend any of the routes to the FHWA was a serious setback, C100 members did not seem to realize it could be the death knell of the project. Given that $3 million from the state of Louisiana’s unclaimed property fund and eleven years had been spent already on the project, they may have also decided the stakes had become too high to admit they could lose.
At the meeting, Mayor Ollie Tyler pointedly said she would work with Shreveport Parks and Recreation (SPAR) to find a way to get the I-49 ICC project back on track. John Perkins, a vocal opponent of the I-49 ICC project and a local expert on the impacts of innercity highways, had a hunch that Mayor Tyler’s statement meant she was going to try to de-commission SWEPCO Park. If she got its “city park” status removed, the routes that passed through SWEPCO Park would meet FHWA regulations and one of them could be approved.
Un-Parking the Park?
There were outward signs that the City was trying to de-commission SWEPCO Park months before the September meeting. Perkins and another opponent of I-49 ICC, Brian Salvatore, observed that SWEPCO’s playground equipment had disappeared one day in February 2016. Soon after, the barbecue implements went away. SPAR never made or posted an announcement at the park to say that they were removing the equipment. When asked why the equipment was removed, SPAR said a lawsuit had been filed against them because the playground equipment was unsafe. The grass in SWEPCO park remained unmowed for months until some residents stepped up to mow it themselves, further adding to the aura of neglect. The Shreveport Times reported SPAR Director Shelly Raigle defending the lack of attention to the park because “activity at the SWEPCO Park had greatly decreased,” families “utilize the seven other parks easily accessible,” and SPAR was limited in “the amount of resources” it could provide each park.
In November 2016, an online magazine, Heliopolis, published an article on what seemed to be SPAR attempting to dismantle SWEPCO Park’s pavilion, speculating that the City may be trying to “un-park” the park. The claim could not be definitively proven until this past week, when evidence that the Mayor and SPAR were indeed trying to “un-park the park” emerged. John Perkins filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for city government documents on SWEPCO Park. Email correspondence among Mayor Tyler, SPAR employees and Providence Engineering dating back to at least April 2016 shows that the City was trying to close the park down for the purpose of getting an I-49 ICC route approved by the FHWA.
An April 2016 email from a SPAR employee said the SPAR Director wanted playground equipment, picnic tables, a walkway and the pavilion removed for “the demolition” of SWEPCO Park. Given that the playground equipment was removed in February 2016, Providence Engineering and the City anticipated the through-Allendale routes would not pass FHWA regulations at least seven months before Providence’s announcement at the September 2016 meeting, and began taking steps to remove public spaces from the routes.
On April 20th, 2017, NLCOG held a public meeting, so Providence Engineering could give the first update on the I-49 ICC since announcing last September that it couldn’t recommend any of the proposed routes. At the meeting, Providence announced it planned to complete the Environmental Impact phase of the project by further “studying” I-49 ICC Route 1, which has SWEPCO Park on it, in addition to Route 5, the upgraded Hwy. 3132 loop, which has Cross Lake below it. Specifically, Providence said it was examining the “significance” of SWEPCO Park and Cross Lake. “Significance” refers to one of the property criteria of public spaces or organizations in Section 4(f) of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966. If the FHWA determines the public space or organization meets all of the criteria, it will remove that proposed route from further consideration. The criteria are:
- It must be publicly owned.
- It must be open to the public.
- Its major purpose must be for park, recreation, or refuge activities.
- It must be significant as a park, recreation area, or refuge
Although the FHWA had already determined that the public spaces and organizations on all five proposed I-49 ICC routes fit all the property criteria in Section 4(f), Providence had clearly decided it would try to get the FHWA to change its ruling that SWEPCO Park constituted a “significant” property. Not by coincidence, Mayor Tyler finally openly announced that the city planned to close SWEPCO Park at that April 20 meeting.
The day after the meeting, the Louisiana Department of Transportation (LDOT), posted an update of the I-49 ICC project’s progress on its website. It summarized the reasons for closing SWEPCO Park:
The City of Shreveport has determined that SWEPCO Park is not significant and plans to close the park based on its assessment as unsafe, no equipment is on site, and the community is served by other multi-use parks managed by the City. (emphasis added)
Providence has requested the FHWA review and approve the City of Shreveport’s determination that SWEPCO Park and Cross Lake do not fit Section 4(f) because they are not significant.
Meanwhile, John Perkins believes the City and Providence’s attempt to close down SWEPCO Park will fail. For one, the FHWA’s ruling that the public spaces on all five proposed routes meet all 4(f) requirements has not changed over the past year. He pointed out that last year, SPAR deemed SWEPCO Park “underutilized”, but at the September 2016 meeting, Providence reported that the FHWA told them, even an underutilized park is still a park.
Perkins also said the FHWA does not take kindly to any sign of an entity “gaming the system.” He cited a case in Bossier City, which is just a couple of miles across the Red River from Shreveport. When Bossier placed signs along their preferred route for a road overpass before a route was chosen, the Feds rejected the project altogether. But in case the FHWA needs to be further persuaded the City is gaming the system, Perkins has sent the emails and news articles he received from his FOIA request.
The jig appears to be up, and it looks promising that the City will fail in its bid to have an I-49 ICC through Allendale. If the highway project is canceled, it will be partially due to the heavy-handed tactics used by Shreveport’s business and city leaders like removing playground equipment from a neighborhood park, which are unlikely to be viewed favorably by the FHWA. The halting of the project is also largely a result of the dedicated efforts of Allendale residents and community activists who have pressured NLCOG and the City of Shreveport to follow FHWA procedures, keep the public informed, and be neutral.
The I-49 inner city connector hasn't been shut down yet, but we're hopeful that the end is in sight.
(Top image by Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau)