I-45 expansion project paused for civil rights and environmental concerns

by | Aug 16, 2021 | Houston, Policy

In accordance with an ongoing investigation, the Federal Highway Administration has instructed Texas to pause all construction for the I-45 expansion because of possible civil rights violations and environmental concerns. 

The Federal Highway Administration cited Title VI of the Civil Rights Act which bars recipients of federal aid from discriminating against people on the basis of race, color, and national origin.

As proposed, the I-45 expansion design would displace over 1,079 residential houses, 344 businesses and schools in predominantly minority communities, according to a lawsuit filed by Harris County against the Texas Department of Transportation. 

Harris County is suing TxDot for not legally complying with the National Environmental Protection Act and not providing accurate information on all aspects of the project. 

Executive Director of TxDot Marc Williams wrote this statement to the Signal in response to the investigation: 

“Currently, TxDOT has suspended work on the project in response to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) requesting a ‘pause’ in project activities as it investigates Title VI complaints related to the development of the project. While TxDOT is confident in our due diligence and compliance with federal standards and regulations in the development of the NHHIP, we are committed to working with FHWA as it conducts its investigation. Furthermore, key local agencies and officials have now voiced opposition to the project as approved by the MPO and even initiated legal action to prevent TxDOT from moving ahead with this regionally approved project.”

In a press conference, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the Biden Administration has the same concerns about the project as she and the community. 

“The message from the Biden administration to TxDot is very clear,” Hidalgo said. “You can’t bulldoze your way to a massive infrastructure project without community impact, without considering smarter transportation options.”

The I-45 expansion or commonly known as the North Houston Highway Project design adds additional lanes to the north and south sides of the highway. For example, according to TxDot documents this project would widen some areas in the highway from 6 lanes to 10 depending on the area. 

TxDot’s design would also require hundreds of acres to follow in compliance with more highway lanes, more frontage roads, and elevated highways. 

Hidalgo also said Harris County sent TxDot an alternative design that improves public transportation and is safer for the environment, but TxDot doesn’t want to compromise on their original plan. 

“We can have a region where people don’t have to spend hours in traffic just to get to work everyday,” Hidalgo said. “We can have a region that doesn’t have the highest accident rate in the nation. The proposed project would not decrease traffic, but increase air pollution.” 

According to the lawsuit, Harris County voters approved a METRONext Moving Forward Plan which would add 10 new transit centers and 11 new park-and-rides facilities for better access to public transportation. 

However, TxDot didn’t add any provisions from the approved plan in their design. 

In addition to the non-response with the alternative design, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee said after the city filed the lawsuit, TxDot was working to take people’s property to start construction of the project. 

“It’s not often you see a state department of transportation attempt to push through a massive infrastructure highway expansion project without buy-in from the local government entities most affected from that project,” Menefee said at a press conference. 

But Williams wrote that the project will in fact help Harris County and its growing population. 

“The NHHIP is more than a decade in the making with extensive local input and regional support. It will bring much-needed and significant improvements to I-45 to enhance safety and mobility as our state continues to see robust population growth and freight traffic. The project will also replace aging infrastructure and help with flooding issues along the corridor while improving routes that could be used during an evacuation.” 

Additionally, Williams wrote that the Unified Transportation Program is set to decide on the construction of the project this month and welcomes public input. 

“It is a critical tool in guiding transportation project development and deals with the selection of which projects to move forward at this time. Through the annual UTP public comment period, the Commission sought public input on keeping the money allocated to this project in the 2022 UTP for planning purposes — as evaluated and approved by the Commission and the Houston-Galveston MPO — or not. This input will help inform the Commission’s decisions when it considers the approval of the 2022 UTP, which is scheduled to take place at the August Commission meeting.” 

The $7 billion dollar project was set to start construction this fall, but is on hold until the end of the federal investigation.

Photo: Trong Nguyen/Getty Images

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Kennedy is a recent graduate of the University of St.Thomas in Houston where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the Celt Independent. Kennedy brings her experience of writing about social justice issues to the Texas Signal where she serves as our Political Reporter. She does everything from covering crime beats, Texas politics, and community activism. Kennedy is a passionate reporter, avid reader, coffee enthusiast, and loves to travel.

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