State highway officials held fast to their plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 in Houston on Thursday, offering a litany of benefits the project will bring and pressing federal officials to lift a 12-month-and-counting pause on development.
Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, however, stopped short of imposing a deadline or considering shelving the project, as they have in the past when removing the $9 billion plan from the state’s short-range plan was a possibility.
Instead, commissioners complained Thursday that the lack of progress is having undue effects on their ability to remedy what almost everyone in Houston agrees is an outdated, congested, dangerous freeway corridor.
“We have had their lives in limbo for a year,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said of Houston-area drivers.
Opponents argue the project’s design further divides communities it crosses, exacerbating decades of freeway expansion that has worsened air quality and safe street access for those neighborhoods in order to deliver faster car and truck trips for suburban commuters.
Those against the project often note it will result in the demolition of more than 1,000 residences, nearly 350 businesses and a handful of schools and churches.
While remaining supportive of parts of the project, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city staff have suggested several changes to the project to eliminate some frontage road lanes, re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the freeway with better bike and pedestrian access, and increase commitments to community housing and flood control.
Turner sent a proposed agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, to Bugg last August.
TxDOT officials and supporters of the project, however, counter that benefits are built into the project that will mitigate the losses and leave many communities better off.
In Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by Black residents in Texas, the project proposes drainage improvements to alleviate persistent flooding in the area. That, coupled with $27 million in affordable housing assistance TxDOT must provide to make up for lost apartments and homes, will allow many residents to stay in the area despite risk of gentrification, said Tanya DeBose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, in a video about the project produced by TxDOT.
As the project has lingered, and faced opposition, some have argued it is forcing TxDOT to take a harder line, jeopardizing some of the gains. That has led some community leaders, such as activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad, to urge federal officials and local opponents to work to find solutions and not reasons to stop the project.
“Somebody has to be in the kitchen, or else we’re all on the menu,” he said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion with federal highway officials and local opponents.
Just to review the timeline a bit, the federal order to halt I-45 construction did indeed come one year ago, a couple of weeks after Harris County sued TxDOT over many of the previously expressed concerns about the project. (That lawsuit is now on hold as negotiations continue.) The feds later asked TxDOT to pause other work on the project as well. The Texas Transportation Commission kept I-45 in its funding plans a few months ago, and some design work was allowed to continue, but now there’s another federal complaint filed against the project by various opponents. I don’t see a quick path to a resolution here.
What would I like to see happen at this point? I’d like to see enough of the concerns raised by the plan opponents be addressed in a way that they’re willing to let the project move forward. I’d like to see a whole lot more money spent on non-highway expansion – transit, sidewalks and bike trails, flood mitigation, that sort of thing – and a whole lot more effort and resources put into designing and building urban and suburban environments where people can live closer to where the work and shop and eat and go to school so that highway driving is less necessary. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.