TxDOT’s I-45 expansion project will resume after federal officials resolve civil rights investigation

The agreement between state and federal transportation leaders will allow the North Houston Highway Improvement Project to move forward while addressing the expansion’s impacts on surrounding communities.

By Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public MediaMarch 15, 2023 9:24 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

A controversial project to expand Interstate 45 North, which was the subject of a nearly two-year federal civil rights investigation, is set to move forward with several revisions after state and federal transportation leaders agreed to rebuild the highway while taking steps to mitigate impacts on surrounding communities.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reached an agreement Tuesday, allowing the $9.7 billion North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) to move forward.

The project aims to widen I-45 from downtown north to Beltway 8 in an effort to “enhance mobility,” according to TxDOT. In a statement, Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said the new agreement between TxDOT and the FHWA would give the community “a greater voice” throughout the project’s design process.

“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,” Bhatt said.

As part of the agreement, TxDOT will:

– Hold two annual public meetings throughout the project’s design and construction process;

– Ensure that air quality monitors are placed along the route one year before construction begins;

– Submit progress reports to FHWA every 180 days;

– Allocate $30 million to affordable housing for those who are displaced;

– Fund, design and construct new trails, bike paths and green space.

The agreement resolves the FHWA’s Title VI investigation, which began in March 2021 after critics accused TxDOT of planning to needlessly displacing hundreds of families in underserved communities and worsening air quality in the area due to heavy construction and increased vehicle presence.

Additionally, a review of TxDOT’s responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act concluded with no findings, according to the FHWA.

However, according to Tiffany Valle, an organizer with Stop TxDOT I-45, the outlined mitigations aren’t enough to outweigh the negative repercussions of the expansion.

“The agreement that TxDOT and the FHWA have voluntarily agreed upon, it’s really just more of the same,” Valle said. “They are continuing to allow the destruction of Black and brown communities, something that has been done for decades.”

Harris County initially filed a lawsuit in an attempt to halt the expansion in March 2021 under the National Environmental Policy Act — a federal law that mandates proper environmental consideration for all projects requiring federal action. The lawsuit came the same day the FHWA asked TxDOT to pause the project, citing civil rights concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In December, a compromise was reached between TxDOT and Houston and Harris County leaders after TxDOT ensured that housing in the path of the project would be replaced elsewhere. The agreement also included promises of flood mitigation projects, connected neighborhoods, green space and enhanced public transit.

Now, the agreement between the FHWA and TxDOT will ensure federal oversight over mitigation actions promised to local leaders.

“After years of negotiations, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project can now be the project Houston deserves it to be,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement.

Local business interests, like the Greater Houston Partnership, also praised the decision to move forward with the project. The GHP has endorsed the highway expansion for years — previously spending thousands of dollars requesting supportfor the project.

“The I-45 project is key to improving the mobility of people and goods across the entire region, while also creating jobs, reconnecting neighborhoods, expanding greenspaces, and addressing flood mitigation,” said GHP President and CEO Bob Harvey in a statement on Tuesday.

Critics like Valle with Stop TxDOT I-45 have accused the GHP of trying to profit off the displacement of local communities and businesses.

“It feels like they have their corporate interests in mind,” Valle said. “A lot of that time, that can mean paving over the little guys.”

The project is now set to resume without federal opposition, but Valle says they’ll continue to push for what they consider a more equitable path forward.

“It’s super disheartening,” she said. “People will have to move away from their jobs, from their places of worship, children will be exposed to more air pollution. One of the concessions from the agreement was that TxDOT will have to have two public engagement meetings a year for public input, so you can bet that we will be there.”

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