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Central Houston Proposes $750M Package Of Upgrades To Make I-45 Project More Equitable

A Houston business group has put forward a $750M plan in hopes of making the contentious — and now stalled — North Houston Highway Improvement Project more equitable to communities previously devastated by highway development.

According to exclusive reporting by Axios, downtown business organization Central Houston is proposing 10 new amenities be installed in and around the downtown portion of the project, including a green loop around the downtown area featuring parks and trails, a community park that would sit above an East Downtown portion of the roadway, and the transformation of Pierce Elevated into a sky park on the west and south sides of downtown.

A cap park at Cleburne Street and Garden Bridge at Almeda Road is among a package of amenities aimed at sparing residents in and around a proposed Interstate 45 expansion project from the historic ravages of highway development.

"The transformational aspect is connecting communities that have been rent asunder under transportation projects in the ‘50s and ‘60s that destroyed communities," Central Houston General Counsel Allen Douglas told Axios of the project, for which Central Houston has offered to kick in a third of the cost.

The remainder is unfunded, though Central Houston officials said state and federal grants could make up the difference.

The NHHIP, a $10B project aimed at reducing congestion and improving safety along one of Houston’s biggest transportation arteries, Interstate 45, has been stuck on pause for more than a year pending a Federal Highway Administration investigation into civil rights and environmental justice concerns impacting mostly communities of color.

The project has also been a lightning rod of controversy, with groups like Stop TxDOT I-45 condemning its environmental impacts and its potential to displace low-income residents. More than 1,000 homes, 100 businesses and about a dozen schools and churches would be destroyed to make way for the interstate expansion, per Axios. Hundreds have already been demolished in East Downtown.

Central Houston hopes its proposal, submitted to FHWA this spring, will alleviate concerns and put the project back on track. 

In a letter to FHWA accompanying a cost analysis, Central Houston CEO Kristopher Larson said the plan has "transformative potential for Houston that can deliver on the promise of redeeming neighborhoods from transportation decisions of decades past that divided and separated formerly cohesive communities from one another."

But that isn’t pacifying NHHIP’s critics.

"No amount of 'beautification' can neutralize the devastating impacts of widening I-45," Stop TxDOT I-45 said in a statement to Axios. "These renderings are distractions from the fact that widening I-45 will result in worse traffic, worse air quality and catastrophic displacement."

Despite work grinding to a halt and the community outcry, the five-member Texas Transportation Commission voted last month to keep the project and its funding on the state's 10-year work schedule.