Houston I-45 Expansion Still A Lightning Rod For Controversy 20 Years Later
After two decades of discussion, the fate of the $7B North Houston Highway Improvement Project remains as murky as ever.
Aimed at reducing congestion and improving safety along one of Houston’s biggest transportation arteries, the project’s finalized design has attracted both support and major pushback from government officials, business entities, planning experts and the general public.
Tensions reached a tipping point this year as federal and local governments moved to halt the project, citing civil rights and environmental justice concerns. The timeline for the project has tipped into even greater uncertainty, raising the question of whether the project will be obsolete before it even begins construction.
The Texas Department of Transportation published its final environmental impact statement for the North Houston Highway Improvement Project in August 2020, which highlighted the state agency’s preferred design. TxDOT then issued a decision of record in February, confirming that it would move forward with the same three-segment design.
In simple terms, the project would widen Interstate 45 between Downtown Houston and Beltway 8, primarily on the west side of the roadway, to accommodate additional lanes. TxDOT said it selected the specific design because it offered the best implementation of an integrated system of transportation improvements while minimizing and mitigating adverse impacts.
However, not everybody agrees. The North Houston Highway Improvement Project’s selected design has received considerable pushback from high-ranking city of Houston and Harris County officials, as well as a broad coalition of community advocacy groups.
One of the major points of contention is that more than a thousand households and hundreds of businesses would be displaced by the highway expansion. Most of those affected parties are low-income and minority populations, causing the project to become a battle over environmental justice.
Concerns over air quality, noise, flooding risk, increased traffic on local streets and inadequate public transport options have also been raised.
“This project can be transformational and can achieve the city's and TxDOT's objectives. The project, however, has shortcomings that must be addressed and impacts that must be further mitigated to maintain my support,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote in a letter dated Dec. 8 to TxDOT.
Efforts to block the project gained traction earlier this year when the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to TxDOT asking the state agency to pause work while it reviewed the project, in light of concerns over civil rights and environmental justice.
“To allow FHWA to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised … we request that TxDOT pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the federal agency wrote in a March 8 letter.
Adding to the pressure, Harris County filed a lawsuit against TxDOT on March 11, demanding that the agency reassess the environmental impact of the project and address community concerns, including the issue of displacement. Despite these actions, FHWA found that TxDOT continued to work on the I-45 highway expansion in the following months — prompting the federal agency to send another letter in June.
Former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is a fellow in energy and transportation policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He said the proposed I-45 expansion will ultimately have a positive impact on the Houston region, as it will reduce congestion and make the road safer as well as less susceptible to flooding.
There’s also the commercial aspect. Emmett noted that the lifeblood of any economy is to move goods, so if that section of I-45 becomes a bottleneck, it will hurt the city.
“It is a commercial artery that trucks need to use. People do like groceries on their shelves, and they do like things to be delivered to the Port of Houston. So all those have to be taken into consideration, it's not just the activists that live next to one little section of the highway,” Emmett said.
But the city of Houston says there are other ways of successfully expanding I-45 that would displace fewer people than TxDOT’s selected design.
Over the past two years, city officials developed alternative approaches and designs that could achieve both TxDOT’s and the city’s goals with fewer impacts. These approaches were developed through public engagement efforts and in consultation with stakeholders. One of them, Vision C, aims to maximize person capacity within existing right of way, leading to no single-family or multifamily displacements.
“The mayor [has] repeatedly said, we believe there is a good project to be had here. We think it can be done in a way that can get everybody what they're looking for,” Fields said.
In contrast, Emmett said that he hasn’t seen any properly publicized suggestions from the city and the county on how to improve the project, though he said that he does know at Harris County, there’s a strong desire for more sidewalks and bike lanes. However, he said those things don’t address the fundamental question of how to improve the highway itself.
“That's not the fundamental question. Either you're going to improve mobility on a highway, or you're not,” Emmett said.
University of Houston Professor of Architecture Bruce Race also serves as the director for the Center of Sustainability and Resilience, and he performed the transportation modeling for the city of Houston’s Climate Action Plan, which was launched in April 2020.
Race told Bisnow that TxDOT’s highway improvement plan is based on predictions of need from 20 years ago and doesn’t account for the newer transportation management tools and changes in technology.
“We're building highways for 1958. We're not building highways for 2038,” Race said. “We're just not standing back and having a holistic view of what the transportation needs of the future are going to be.”
Race pointed to the growing push in transportation automation, ride-sharing and the electrification of the fleet, which is all going to eventually increase efficiency, air quality and safety. As that happens, the demand for extra highway lanes is going to fall.
“The attorneys [are] the only thing keeping us from having automated driving systems now. So the technology's arrived. If we're planning highway infrastructure for what we were driving 10 years ago, that's not the kind of highway infrastructure we're going to need,” Race said.
“By the time it's built, it will be obsolete.”
The North Houston Highway Improvement Project is just one of several projects that fall within the Unified Transportation Program, TxDOT’s 10-year plan that guides the development of transportation work across the state. The Texas Transportation Commission approves the UTP annually, and TxDOT publishes the approved UTP each year.
The I-45 project is up for discussion during TTC’s next meeting on Aug. 31. The outcome of that meeting will determine whether the project is included in the state’s 2022 UTP.
Ahead of that meeting, TxDOT opened an online poll in late July, seeking public comment on several projects in the UTP, including one question regarding the I-45 project. That poll closed earlier this week, on Aug. 9.
Critics say the poll posed an “all or nothing” scenario on survey participants, asking them to choose between moving forward with the project as is or entirely removing the project and its funding from the UTP.
“A survey is not public engagement. Further, this survey is framing a false choice,” Turner said in a public statement issued on July 21. “We do not intend to play their game. There is a right way to do it, and if it is done right, it can be transformational.”
Though community pushback has been considerable, Emmett noted that in the past, transportation projects typically ended up affecting existing neighborhoods. If those projects always required everybody to be happy with the design, nothing would ever get built, he added.
“If you have one neighborhood that doesn't like something, does their opinion matter more than the opinion of everybody else who uses that highway?” Emmett said.
Race said that the I-45 expansion doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where traditional supply chain and business interests override the health and quality of life for communities. But the long planning timeline around major highway projects, coupled with Houston’s lack of a land use plan, has resulted in a backward-looking project that doesn’t adequately address the future.
“The EIS [environmental impact study] for the I-45 project claims, ‘Urban development trends are not likely to be substantially changed by this project.’ [But] an investment of $7B-$10B [in the] project will have an impact on development patterns and existing communities,” Race said.
“A modern transportation project will be transformational. The question on the table is, how can it be?”