Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

Missed this in the barrage of news from the last few days.

Critics of the plan to remake Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston filed a nearly 100-page complaint to federal officials Thursday, urging even greater scrutiny of the project’s effects on minority communities, an analysis they say state highway officials consistently have avoided.

In the complaint, filed with the Federal Highway Administration, opponents of the current project accuse the Texas Department of Transportation of spending years promoting and designing a project that residents consistently told them would tear the fabric of nearby neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods are majority Black and Latino communities, the complaint notes, which TxDOT failed to adequately consider.

“Throughout the… planning process, which has gone on for almost 20 years, less-discriminatory alternatives have been raised by multiple stakeholders, but TxDOT has repeatedly rejected those alternatives and clung to a project that imposes highly disproportionate and adverse effects on Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods, compounding its previous discriminatory actions and the disproportionate effects of bulldozing highways through these neighborhoods originally,” the complaint stated.

The complaint was filed by Air Alliance Houston, LINK Houston, Stop TxDOT I-45, Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed. All have been active with residents in opposing the I-45 project, estimated to cost at least $10 billion.

In a statement, TxDOT Chief Communications Officer Bob Kaufman said officials were “continuing to work with FHWA to resolve any areas of concern that they may have.”

“That said,” Kaufman continued in an emailed statement, “most people who have been following this project know that the I-45 improvement project will create major safety and operational improvements to an old and congested corridor along with quality of life enhancements for residents, businesses and others.”

In addition to halting the project and asking for reconsideration of many of TxDOT’s findings and proposals to remedy the environmental effects of the project — including its effect on minority communities — the complaint asks for the Department of Justice to “play an active role in coordinating this federal investigation and any enforcement actions.”

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had wondered what the purpose of this was, given that the FHWA is already doing an investigation, and my questions were answered in the press release.

This additional complaint is necessary because TxDOT has continued to discriminate on the basis of race, color, and national origin — even after FHWA initiated a Title VI investigation — and has retaliated against persons and groups for filing previous civil rights complaints by threatening to remove funding from the Houston-Galveston region altogether if the agency is not allowed to construct its preferred version of the NHHIP.

“TxDOT has known for more than a decade that this project would severely and disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic-Latinx communities,” said Madison Sloan, Director of Disaster Recovery and Fair Housing at Texas Appleseed, “yet it has deliberately continued to approve this discriminatory project over and over. Now TxDOT is threatening to reallocate billions of dollars because local communities dared to push back.”

TxDOT’s planned expansion will demolish thousands of homes and businesses, and displace thousands of families. “It’s racially unjust,” said Susan Graham, co-founder of Stop TxDOT I-45. “Families have worked for generations to own their homes, and TxDOT is just going to strip away the wealth they worked so hard for. You can’t find affordable housing in Houston as it is. Where are people going to go?”

“The health impact of increased traffic air pollution will last for generations,” Harrison Humphreys, Transportation Program Manager with Air Alliance Houston, said. “Children are particularly vulnerable to negative health effects like asthma, and the expansion of I-45 will increase the number of cars on the road while moving the highway closer to schools and day care centers. In addition to deeply affecting the lived environment of adjacent communities, TxDOT’s designs are antithetical to the City’s and the country’s climate change mitigation goals.”

Those are some serious allegations. I have no idea how this will be handled, what the timeline might be, whether there have been similar complaints lodged against transportation agencies with other projects, or how this may affect this project. It sure would be nice to know more about those and other questions.

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4 Responses to Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

  1. David Fagan says:

    29 days and counting……

  2. David Fagan says:

    Dear Counsel:
    The Supreme Court of Texas requests responses to both petitions for review in the above-
    referenced case. The responses are due in this office on January 18, 2022. PLEASE NOTE
    pursuant to TEX. R. APP. P. 9.2(c)(2) all documents (except documents submitted under seal)
    must be e-filed through eFileTexas.gov. You may file up to midnight on the due date.

    I don’t know what this means, but sounds like a longer wait.

  3. mollusk says:

    It means that both sides asked the Texas Supreme Court to take up the case, and the Supreme Court gave them until January 18 to respond to the other side’s request. It does not mean that the Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the case; they may still let the lower court(s) ruling(s) stand. If they do grant review, then there are several more procedural steps along the way, and even if they don’t then the aggrieved party(ies) can ask them to reconsider.

    There are no particular deadlines that I know of for the Supreme Court to make the particular decision(s), so countdowns and shot clocks are pretty pointless.

  4. Kibitzer Curiae says:

    Amen, Mollusk, pointless indeed, and not germane to the topic of the post either, as usual.

    Continuing in that vein, the SCOTX scheduling and docket activity in the Texas Central RR-or-not case is more remarkable.

    There, the Supremes first denied discretionary review (which in Texas is sought by Petition for Review or PFR, rather than a cert petition), then withdraw the denial, granted the petition, and set the case for oral argument. That makes it what they call a “cause”, i.e. a case selected to be decided on the merits after full briefing and video-recorded (now-again) in-courtroom presentations with a fully-reasoned opinion to accompany the forthcoming judgment.

    The denial, then withdrawal & reistatement, and then merits disposition recently happened in another case in which a current justice was previously an attorney on one of the parties’ briefs: Apache Corp. v. Davis, 627 S.W.3d 324 (2021) (She recused herself). https://search.txcourts.gov/Case.aspx?cn=19-0410&coa=cossup

    Also remarkable in Central: A large number of friend-of-the-court “lobbying” briefs including several by local government entitites, and the fact that the SCOTX will play a key role in Texas intrastructure/transportation policy by deciding rather arcane issues about how to “correctly” interpret statutory language.

    So, don’t underestimate the importance of the high courts as policymakers, protestations to the contrary (“we are not a political branch”) notwithstanding.

    Whichever way they rule, it will be a big deal.

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