Controversial Houston highway expansion will resume following civil rights investigation

The 411 on I-45

Controversial Houston highway expansion will resume following civil rights investigation

View south along I-45 (North Freeway) from the ramp between westbound I-10 and southbound I-45 in Houston, Harris County, Texas. (Famartin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT)  and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) have signed an agreement that allows a controversial Houston highway project to move forward.

Signed on March 7, the Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA) between TxDOT and the FHWA resolves a March 2021 Title VI civil rights investigation that the FHWA instigated into the Interstate 45 (I-45) North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) where project opponents contended that the TxDOT’s plans for the highway would displace hundreds of vulnerable families and worsen air quality in adjacent neighborhoods.

Here is a quick summary of events, as reported by AN in 2021:

[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.

The just-signed VRA includes community outreach and support stipulations that TxDOT must follow before and during construction to mitigate harm or potential harm caused by construction. These include holding biannual public meetings through the design and construction process, improving drainage and stormwater management, installing structural highway caps where feasible, and a directive to mitigate displacements, relocations, housing, and other community impacts, among other actions. Notably, the first action item listed on the VRA is the reduction of the NHHIP footprint during subsequent design phases.

Local opposition groups worked to delay or cancel the highway project, citing concerns of displacement, environmental justice, and the proliferation of car-based urbanism when the threats of the climate crisis are well known. In 2021, Raj Mankad, deputy opinion editor at the Houston Chronicle, and design writer Karrie Jacobs walked the new highway’s proposed footprint to see what might be lost. AN contributor and creator of the popular Instagram account Segregation by Design Adam Paul Susaneck made the the project the subject of an op-ed in The New York Times last fall. A constant citation is the phenomenon of induced demand, which demonstrates how additional highway lanes are soon filled with traffic, as the expansion encourages people to drive more. A built example of this can be seen in the nearby Katy Freeway; in 2008, it was widened to 26 lanes in some stretches. The roadway was soon congested again.

TxDOT is planning to expand highways in Austin and El Paso and is facing similar pushbacks from local residents.

This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves the North Houston Highway Improvement Project in ways that will make a real difference in people’s lives. Through this agreement, the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project’s life cycle, Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said in a press release. We have lifted the pause, and with FHWA oversight, TXDOT may proceed with design and construction.

First proposed in 2002, the $9 billion NHHIP will widen I-45 from Houston’s downtown north up to the city’s northern corridors around Beltway 8.

An interesting opportunity lodged within the overall scope may be the forthcoming decommissioning of the Pierce Elevated, the portion of I-45 that runs along the southwest edge of downtown. The 1.3-mile stretch of aboveground freeway was cut through the city. Under the new design, I-45 will be rerouted around the other side of downtown, and this section of roadway will not be used, leading some to advocate for its conversion into an elevated park similar to New York’s High Line.

This portion of I-45 was built in stages in the 1950s and 1960s and the design remained essentially the same while the area population has doubled, TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said. The reconstruction of I-45 will address mobility needs for people and freight, while also improving safety and a number of environmental mitigations that include critical measures to improve stormwater drainage. Considering the recently executed agreements with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County, and now the FHWA, we are excited to get this critical infrastructure project moving with our partnering agencies.