A highway expansion project in Houston is the site of a battle over environmental justice

End Of The Road?

A highway expansion project in Houston is the site of a battle over environmental justice

The intersection between I-69/US-59 and the I-610 beltway, looking south (Iwan Baan)

On a Monday evening in May, members of Stop TxDOT I-45 gathered socially at the Saint Arnold brewery in Houston. After months of coordinated online efforts, the grassroots group met in person to visit and bond. They plan to continue their opposition to the controversial North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP), which aims to reshape and expand Interstate 45 around downtown and along the city’s northern corridor.

The coalition’s mood was rightfully celebratory. After years of study, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) issued its record of decision in February, paving the way for NHHIP’s implementation. The following month, however, the Federal Highway Administration directed TxDOT to halt further development of the NHHIP, citing possible violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Soon after, Harris County, which includes most of the city, announced it was suing TxDOT under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, arguing that TxDOT had “failed to properly consider and address impacts to the environment and quality of life for nearby neighborhoods.” This summarizes the main complaint against the expansion: that TxDOT ignored the concerns of residents—largely BIPOC Houstonians—who would be the ones most affected by highway improvement. Back at the brewery, Stop TxDOT I-45’s members recounted speaking out against the project before the state legislature in April and then packed in for a group photo.

Estimated to cost $7.5 billion and under study since 2002, the NHHIP would be broken out into three phases. Segments 1 and 2 would widen I-45 between Houston’s second beltway (there are three) and downtown, while Segment 3 would sink I-45 and I-69 around downtown, straighten two portions, and decommission an elevated highway that has been in place since 1967. The structure might not come down, as some have argued that it should be retained as a 1.3-mile-long elevated park. Portions of the buried highway could be also capped and beautified, but TxDOT cannot allocate money for such improvements, making them dependent on philanthropy.

A wide fan shaped stretch of roads leading to houston
The intersection of I-45 and I-69/US-59 at the south corner of downtown, looking north. This stretch falls within the NHHIP. (Iwan Baan)

The goal of the NHHIP is to reduce congestion and travel times for commuters. But while the proposal could substantially reconnect estranged parts of the city, the expanded rights-of-way and rerouted highways would also wreak havoc on communities. The effort would displace an estimated 1,079 residential units, 344 businesses, five places of worship, and two schools, according to the official response to TxDOT’s Final Environmental Impact Statement from the City of Houston and Harris County. (The response was prepared by Huitt-Zollars and the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.) The report also determined that the selected design doesn’t properly account for additional flood risks, increased air pollution, and traffic impacts on local streets. Critics of the project also argue that it doesn’t act on opportunities for increased mass transit, such as coordinating with local or regional transit plans to maintain or expand bus service. (Separately, METRO, the local transit authority, is studying how I-45 construction could undermine its own expansion efforts.) Alternatives were proposed, but none made it into TxDOT’s plans.

The opposition to the NHHIP is “one of the more successful infrastructure advocacy pushes in Texas that I’ve seen,” said Kyle Shelton, deputy director at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and author of Power Moves, a history of transportation politics in Houston. According to Shelton, NHHIP detractors are succeeding because they have gathered a broad coalition of advocates.

Houston’s history, both recent and distant, is full of cautionary tales about highways. For instance, when TxDOT spent $3 billion to widen the Katy Freeway to 26 lanes, upon completion in 2008 the ameliorating effects on congestion were negligible, lending dramatic proof to the principle of induced demand. Going back further, since the 1950s the city’s frenzy of highway construction has proceeded at the expense of its Black communities: historic Freedmen’s Town in the Fourth Ward was sliced in half by I-45; the Fifth Ward was a thriving district before I-69 and I-10 came along; and the Third Ward was carved up by I-45, I-69, and Highway 288. And as in other cities, the rise of individual car ownership doomed rail-based transit. From 1911 to 1936, there was even a Houston-Galveston interurban railway linking the two cities; the route took about 75 minutes, which is shorter than the same car trip in heavy traffic today.

The current campaign against the NHHIP is already historic, as it marks the first time that elected officials have resisted roadway improvements: Houston mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County judge Lina Hidalgo are active critics of the project. (In Harris County the role of judge is political, not judicial—the highest elected office in the county.) Neither official rejects the NHHIP outright, but rather, both are questioning the current proposal, which they say doesn’t do enough to support equity and mass transit. “We’ve been stuck in the ’50s with this idea that the best way to fight traffic is to build more highways and wider highways,” Hidalgo said in a recent interview with The Houston Chronicle. She went on: “We know that I-45 needs to change: It needs to carry more people. There’s an opportunity to have a highway that could have transit within it, perhaps bus rapid transit. There’s also an opportunity to have a highway that’s cognizant of the impacts it could have on the communities it passes through—a design that would keep a narrow footprint.” (If Hidalgo’s tone is critical, it’s not entirely out of character: local leaders often clash with state lawmakers, most powerfully on SB 7, a proposed bill that would further tighten voting regulations. Lately the Republican-led state government has been hard at work undermining the actions of Democratic county and city officials.)

A long river of elevated houston highways
This section of the highway stands to be straightened out in the NHHIP and would fully demolish Clayton Homes, visible at the left. (Iwan Baan)

This struggle is just one of many in Texas. In Dallas, TxDOT is planning to sink a portion of I-30 along the south side of downtown; a cap park similar to Klyde Warren Park to the north is being planned, though without funding. And in Austin, a $4.9 billion plan to sink I-35 through downtown is under study, but local entities already say the design doesn’t meet Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan. As in Houston, a showdown between local jurisdictions and TxDOT seems likely. The agency is a massive bureaucracy and needs to do a better job with early engagement, as that feedback is one of the “lots of little levers that can change things,” Shelton said.

Nationally, calls to recognize the racial bias that has shaped America’s transit networks gained support from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s remark that highways were “racist.” President Biden’s American Jobs Plan has earmarked $20 billion for a program that it says will “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.” The plan awaits congressional approval.

Meanwhile, TxDOT appears unwilling to address transit holistically—and even if it did, the agency remains constitutionally prohibited from using Texas’s State Highway Fund, which is restricted to roads and highways, for public transportation or rail projects. Additional state funding for public transit is abysmally low: of the $1.89 billion spent on public transit in the state in 2019, only about $37 million (or 2 percent) came from the state government, and of that, nearly 60 percent went to rural transit districts, even though most Texans live in cities.

A highway design that incorporates mass transit and contextual sensitivity would set the standard for how Texas might improve its freeways going forward. This could be achieved by deliberate updates while retaining worthwhile components of the NHHIP, such as its sinking of roadways near downtown. A more ambitious highway movement proposal would stand to have a major impact on many lives: with a population of 4.7 million, Harris County is the third-most populous county in the country, larger than half of U.S. states.

Instead, the direction set by TxDOT and state lawmakers continues to validate a model of sprawl made possible through cheap energy. The reality that TxDOT failed to deliver a more creative, responsive solution—even at the urging of Houstonians—is a failure of Texan imagination. Paradoxically, the dream of endless growth preferred by the oil industry is ultimately constraining, as it selfishly locks Texas cities into one urban model while ignoring the benefits of past and future ones.

TxDOT has spent nearly two decades on the NHHIP, only to emerge with a plan that falls short. Houston cannot afford to waste the coming decades accommodating a highway that doesn’t pave the way toward a better future for all. Local leaders and groups will continue to fight for a better solution, even as other residents voice their support. Despite this struggle, life in Houston goes on in the shadow of past urban cruelties: the brewery where Stop TxDOT I-45 met is next to I-10, so the night’s conversation took place above the background roar of the freeway.

Jack Murphy is editor of Cite. He lives in Houston.