The SwampRaT: how a UL District Rapid Transit-- an innovative monorail+trolley system-- could unite the UL, SLCC & LTC campuses; tie several major medical centers together; allow Lafayette to host major conventions & conferences; and serve as a mascot for our city's surge into high technology.

One day when I was an undergrad at UL, I was looking at the map of Lafayette, and noticed that Cajun Field, Lourdes, the Old Charity (now the parking lot catercorner from Olde Tyme) and UL lay on a straight line. I also realized that a 90º turn on the campus put UL, Girard Park, LGMC and the Heymann on another straight line. So I proposed a monorail connecting these facilities.

A reporter for The Vermilion made wild fun of the idea.

Over the years I kept talking about it, however. More facilities have come into existence around campus to strengthen the need for a transit system to move people quickly: UMC, the CajunDome & Convention Center, SLCC, the Technical College, and the UL Research Park. Recently, the concept of the UL District is gaining traction, which is an approach recognizing the central role of the University and surrounding areas play in education, culture, law, medicine, retail and even religion.

With that, there is a very real need for our land-locked University to move student parking to Cajun Field, and transport students to campus. Doubtless, the hassle of the current bus system is a deterrent to recruiting more and better students. A more comfortable, modern and efficient system would address some of that. If the solution were also cutting edge, then it would turn our lemons into lemonade: a high-speed monorail could actually take our on-campus parking shortage and turn it into an asset, to make UL more attractive as a University.

Over the years, with input from students, administrators and civic leaders, the proposal has grown into a proposed two-limb service. Running from SLCC through UL to the Heymann would be an elevated rapid transit system. Running from the train station and the coming multimodal transit center, through the downtown, the Freetown area, into UL, the Oil Center and out to Vermilionville and the Airport, would be a trolley system. This would be a very nice reflection of the contradictions in our culture: by day, we maximize our production by flying around in 21st Century style. In the evening, we sit outside at bars and cafés, while 19th Century street cars rumble by.

It's how we market ourselves: we work hard, we relax hard.

This system would tie together, and augment, our key industries. First of all, the largest industry in Lafayette is health care. The monorail would tie together UMC, Lourdes, UL and LGMC into a large complex. The system would not only allow for the sharing of facilities, personnel and expertise, but it would also allow us to ramp up medical education and research here.

However, I'm not sure that health care is, in fact, our #1 industry, because no one looks at education in these comparisons. When you consider that we have private schools, parochial schools, parish schools, and state facilities in education, and on top of those, that professional education is an ongoing concern at almost every business, anywhere, then we might make the case that education is our #1 industry. Either way, this system ties together UL, the Research Park, SLCC, and the Technical College. Moreover, as the trolley is designed to connect to the Airport, it would be little trouble to extend it another 100 yards to the Lafayette Parish School Board, tying in that critical educational service.

Tourism is supposed to be our #2 industry. This system would tie together the CajunDome, Convention Center, the Heymann, and possibly Blackham, with UL. It isn't usually viewed in this way, but a university is largely a collection of meeting spaces. Certainly UL has a great number and broad range of rooms suitable as meeting and exhibiting facilities, which are largely empty on weekends and during breaks. To my knowledge, no city uses their university as part of their meeting & convention facilities. A monorail would tie UL into our other assets, to offer meeting accommodations that very few cities anywhere-- certainly no cities our size-- could match. Such a system would not only advance the local economy through increased convention bookings, but would give UL another source of revenue. In addition, it would also expose one of UL's key recruiting assets-- the beauty of our campus-- to an ever-increasing number of visitors.

If we add to that a trolley tying in the transportation hubs and our clubs and restaurants, the system becomes all the more powerful. Local hotels can then run shuttle services to any part of the system, and Lafayette will be able to offer conventions and conferences a wide variety of services and amenities that would probably put us among the top 50 meeting centers in the US.

Then there are the retail sector, the energy industry, and the many other professional and service industries that are key to our economy. Connecting the Oil Center and the Downtown into this system not only makes the entities that already exist there more profitable, it would attract more new industry into all of the UL District.

There are a number of reasons that we are ideally suited for such an innovative transit system. Again, our lemons become lemonade: the fact that UL and the Downtown are so physically small given the populations that both serve, means that transportation is not only badly needed, but much easier and cheaper to deliver. With that, one of the largest costs to building monorails is right-of-way access. This system, however, can be almost entirely built over property that either belongs to government, or to the same medical centers that would be served by the rapid transit (see map below).

It also turns out that almost all federal transportation dollars for demonstration products are spent in the Northeast. The South gets almost none of this money, which increases our chances of getting some of it.  Making this proposal all the more attractive is that the largest expense with these sorts of projects is right-of-way acquisitions necessary.  For this monorail, almost the entire line would be built on University, state, city or hospital property.  So acquiring private right-of-way concessions would comprise a negligible portion of the cost.

As for the trolley, that can be built along our existing streets. The City-Parish Administration is very interested in this possibility; New Orleans has shown that property values actually increase around trolley systems.

There has been some discussion around the community about the potential for developing the UL District. It makes sense for UL; we have a small campus serving a large population, and that requires innovative solutions. Most of our non-commuters live within the UL District.

Well, not all college "campuses" fit the traditional mold. In large urban centers-- NYU is probably the most dramatic example-- a university "campus" may in fact be a series of properties, or even non-adjacent city buildings, clustered in a general area. By reconsidering UL as a series of non-contiguous properties (which we are), we can look for other, perhaps more innovative solutions as to how we can bring the university experience to our extended campus.

If so, then transit is obviously key. This monorail+trolley would not only advance UL, it would enhance medicine, tourism, retail, the arts, and the professions in Acadiana. That, in turn, would expand our economy as it attracts more high-end industry to our community.

Finally, there is simply the marketing aspect of such an innovative transit system. Lafayette & UL are investing in many hi-tech initiatives that have attracted the attention of industry & media, and our civic leaders are already casting about for future initiatives. But consider that fiber, computers, and research facilities don't always make for good photo-ops. On the other hand, the monorails in Seattle, Las Vegas and even Disneyland have immediately become mascots of progressiveness, as well as sources of civic pride. Those intrinsic benefits may prove every bit as valuable to Lafayette & UL, as the measurable benefits listed above.

As one community leader commented about building a monorail, "If we want to really convince the world that we are committed to hi tech, this would do it."

An article on mass transit by UL students can be read here.