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After a two-year pause, feds give Texas the go-ahead to resume a major Houston highway expansion

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

After a two-year pause, feds give Texas the go-ahead to resume a major Houston highway expansion” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas has resolved a two-year federal civil rights complaint and will move forward with a major highway expansion in Houston, a project neighborhood groups fear will displace residents and lead to more pollution.

The Federal Highway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation said Thursday they’ve struck a deal to allow the state to resume work on its $9 billion plan to add several lanes to Interstate 45 and expand other freeways around the city’s urban core — which state transportation planners say is needed as more people move to the region.

As part of the agreement, TxDOT agreed to take steps to mitigate the construction’s impact on communities of color living near the highway. TxDOT must commit to more engagement with neighbors, including holding community meetings twice a year as they design and build the project. They also must pump more funds into affordable housing and help design parts of the road that can reconnect areas separated by the highway with green space, among other stipulations.

“This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves [it] in ways that will make a real difference in people’s lives,” Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said in a statement. “Through this agreement the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project’s life cycle.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner lauded the agreement and said the project “can now be the project Houston deserves it to be,” pointing to a provision that “addresses I-45’s repeated flooding while maximizing the opportunities for people to stay in their homes and neighborhoods.”

Texas transportation planners hope projects like the Houston highway expansion will help reduce vehicular traffic as the state’s major metro areas balloon and congestion worsens.

“This portion of I-45 was built in stages in the 1950s and 1960s and the design remained essentially the same while the area population has doubled,” TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams said in a statement. “The reconstruction of I-45 will address mobility needs for people and freight, while also improving safety and a number of environmental mitigations that include critical measures to improve storm water drainage.”

However, transportation experts have argued for decades that highway expansions don’t actually reduce vehicular traffic in the long term — and that the wider a road grows, the more drivers will use it.

To activists who opposed the project and started the federal civil rights complaint, the outcome was a disappointment — and advocates urged federal officials to hold the state agency accountable. But with the Federal Highway Administration giving the state the go-ahead, activists have little recourse left to oppose the project and will have to try to shape the process through the community feedback mechanisms laid out in the agreement.

“Houston deserves a project that prioritizes safety, centers the lived experience of those most impacted by the project, actually relieves traffic and moves us toward a more equitable future,” the opposition group Stop TxDOT I-45 said in a statement. “We will not stop fighting for our city and our lives.”

Across the state, major highway projects have drawn fierce opposition in recent years amid a reckoning with how highway construction in the mid-20th century created and exacerbated racial and economic segregation. In major Texas cities such as Austin, Dallas and El Paso, residents and community activists have pushed back against projects they fear will disproportionately harm communities of color through displacement and exacerbate climate change through rising carbon emissions.

In Houston, residents and community leaders warn that the negative side effects of the I-45 expansion will fall hardest on historically Black neighborhoods like Independence Heights and the Fifth Ward, areas already dealing with rising housing costs, gentrification and displacement. The highway expansion project is expected to displace more than 1,000 residents and 300 businesses.

As community opposition to the project grew, some local elected officials joined in. Last March, Harris County sued TxDOT in federal court over the planned highway expansions.

But the opposition virtually abated late last year. Harris County dropped its lawsuit in December as the state agency reached compromises with the county and the city of Houston over the project, such as agreeing to try to keep the road within its current footprint. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Tuesday’s agreement between the state and federal agencies adds teeth to the bargain struck with the county by giving those provisions the backing of the federal government.

In the wake of the agreement, activists expressed frustration with the Federal Highway Administration and doubted that the agency would hold TxDOT to the terms of the deal.

“They are doing what federal agencies do: using the term ‘enforcement’ when historically we have seen no follow-through,” said Joetta Stevenson, president of Houston’s SuperNeighborhood 55, who signed on to the complaint. “Trust has been broken for generations, and by signing off on the choices of the state, only enforcing after harm has been done, they continue a painful legacy.”

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