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Texas agency approves Houston freeway expansion, with one caveat

A plan to expand Interstate 45 in Houston got final approval Tuesday from state transportation officials. It now faces one final hurdle: the blessing of the federal government.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Transportation Commission voted Tuesday to proceed with a $9 billion Houston freeway expansion project but said it will consider removing funding if the Federal Highway Administration does not release a hold it has imposed due to environmental and civil rights concerns.

The Texas Department of Transportation, TxDOT, launched the North Houston Highway Improvement Project in 2006 to expand Interstate 45 and ease traffic congestion in a city where the most prevalent mode of transportation is single-occupancy vehicles.

Without the expansion, TxDOT claimed in an environmental impact statement a trip on the freeway of a few miles, from just north of downtown to central Houston, would take more than 100 minutes.

That’s alarming even by Houston standards, where a car trip across town and back can take a few hours, especially if a wreck or rainstorm further slows traffic.

Harris County and Houston, the county seat, held several public workshops in 2019 and 2020 in which residents offered alternatives to TxDOT’s preferred design.

They raised concerns about Black- and Hispanic-majority neighborhoods along the freeway as it called for razing homes and businesses to free up hundreds of acres TxDOT needs for the project.

“If it’s done right it can be transformational,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in October 2019. “It can connect communities and not divide them. But I’ve told TxDOT the footprint needs to be reduced.”

Others said they were worried it would increase flooding as heavy rains, let alone tropical storms, often turn a section of the freeway north of downtown into an impassable moat.

Many said they wanted to use the project, projected to be finished in 2040, to “re-imagine” the highway to benefit all modes of transportation and “shift the paradigm from a car-centric focus.”

Public officials complained TxDOT had not incorporated a regional transit plan Harris County voters approved in 2019, authorizing $3.5 billion in bonds to expand Houston’s 22 miles of light rail and build new transit centers and park-and-ride lots from which commuters could hop on Metro buses and be whisked downtown in bus-only lanes.

Despite all the feedback, TxDOT allegedly made few changes, leading Harris County to sue it on March 11.

The suit came three days after the Federal Highway Administration asked TxDOT to halt the project, in response to civil rights and environmental justice concerns raised by U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, and two nonprofits.

Harris County claims in court documents TxDOT has provided no documentation for its claim the project will have a positive impact on the region’s economy and has ignored several adverse effects, namely, “It would displace 1,079 residential housing units and 344 businesses, resulting in the loss of significant tax base and revenues to the county.”

In what critics derided as an all-or-nothing choice, TxDOT issued an online poll in July asking people to choose between keeping the project as is or removing it from the agency’s 2022 Unified Transportation Program that will guide its projects for the next 10 years.

Public testimony at the Texas Transportation Commission’s meeting Tuesday revealed the deep divide between proponents and detractors that falls along familiar political lines. The commission oversees TxDOT.

Interstate 45 runs north from Galveston through Houston and on to Dallas.

Galveston County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken Clark, a Republican, said he believes the expansion is needed to ease hurricane evacuations.

“It’s just not about the corridor where the traffic goes through,” Clark said. “It’s about all of us that are in the region because we rely on that roadway, number one as an evacuation route. Many of you may recall in 2005 we had Hurricane Rita. It was a disaster.”

Fearing Rita would cause as much destruction as Hurricane Katrina had a month earlier, in late September 2005 more than 3 million people in the Houston area fled north and west and the traffic overwhelmed freeways.

Many drivers were stranded on I-45 when they ran out of gas as temperatures climbed into the triple digits and more than 100 people died from hyperthermia and other ailments in the evacuation.

Mark Keough, a Republican and former state representative, is the chief elected official of Montgomery County, called a “county judge” in Texas.

Montgomery County borders Harris County to the north and is divided by I-45.

He cited a comment from his counterpart, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat and advocate for more mass transit. In opposition to the project, she said, “Wider highways just mean more congestion.”

“Ask yourself what alternative universe these people are living in where they make statements like that,” Keough told the transportation commission Tuesday.

Other proponents stressed they believe the expansion is needed to move freight picked up by truckers at the Port of Houston.

One man testified for eliminating the highway altogether.

“For urban freeway corridors like I-45, please explore freeway removal,” said Neal Ēhardt, a software engineer and member of the Houston group Stop TxDOT I-45.

“We can build elevated mass transit to move commuters quickly and safely between their homes and their jobs and we will have land left over that can be used for flood mitigation,” he added.

Doris Brown, a Black woman who is co-founder of the Houston group Northeast Action Collective, framed her opposition in racial terms.

“Does TxDOT consider our communities, businesses, homes and our very lives expendable?" she asked. "Why are our communities considered sacrifice zones?"

On the defensive, commission member Laura Ryan said 25% of the project’s budget is mitigation in response to public comments, including $27 million for construction of affordable replacement housing “to make sure that people whose homes are being impacted can stay in the communities they want to stay in.”

She said another $945 million will go to owners of impacted properties, $587 million for flood mitigation and soil erosion control, $361 million for light rail and Metro bus transit improvements, $32 million for bike-and-pedestrian paths, $26.5 million for noise mitigation and $5.7 million for air quality monitoring and weatherization.

The commission’s chairman, Bruce Bugg, dispelled doubts about TxDOT’s commitment to the project.

“It’s crystal clear to me TxDOT is ready to build the NHHIP [North Houston Highway Improvement Project]. No question about it,” he said. “But we can’t do it until FHWA releases the hold. That’s the elephant in the room that hasn’t been discussed today.”

The commission unanimously approved Bugg’s motion to include the project in its 10-year spending plan but give the FHWA 90 days to release its hold. Should that not happen, Bugg said, the commission will discuss pulling funding at its Dec. 9 meeting.

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