A downtown economic development group hopes proposed “green” and multimodal amenities will make the controversial I-45 expansion plan more palatable for the project’s critics.
The multi-billion-dollar plan by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to widen and reroute the freeway between downtown Houston and Beltway 8 to the north has drawn vocal opposition from impacted residents, regional stakeholders and local elected officials.
The project is largely paused while the Federal Highway Administration investigates civil rights and environmental concerns that have been raised, which also prompted Harris County to sue the state agency last year and ask a federal judge to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to input from the community.
A series of related amenities proposed by Central Houston, an economic development organization representing the interests of the downtown area, is being billed as a way to address some criticism of the project. Central Houston’s $737 million vision – which includes elevated parks, a 5-mile trail around downtown, stormwater detention basins and several bridges that connect downtown to nearby neighborhoods – might also ease some of the concerns being evaluated by the federal government and push the project forward.
The proposed amenities, first reported Tuesday by Axios Houston, have been in the works since 2012, according to Allen Douglas, general counsel and chief operating officer for Central Houston. He said the ideas as well as a cost estimate for executing them were presented earlier this year to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in response to its ongoing investigation and as testimony for why Central Houston supports the I-45 project.
Here is a rundown of what Central Houston is proposing, with an estimated overall cost of more than $737 million:
- EaDo Cap Park: An elevated park above a depression in the freeway east of downtown.
- Pierce Skypark Corridor: A transformation of the Pierce Elevated on the west and south edges of downtown into an expansive park with multimodal transportation amenities as well as the possibility for residential and commercial development.
- Green Loop: A 5-mile trail circuit around downtown, touching on multiple neighboring communities, partly where the Pierce Elevated is now located.
- Garden Bridges: Twenty-four street bridges throughout the downtown segment, with high-comfort passageways for pedestrians and cyclists, that would connect downtown to the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards.
- Andrews Street Bridge: Would connect downtown to Freedmen’s Town to the southwest.
- Midtown Caps & Bridges: Three freeway cap parks and wider bridges over a depressed portion of I-69 south of Midtown.
- Third Ward Signature Bridges: Scenic bridges connecting downtown to the Third Ward.
- Northside Street Reconnections: Would reconnect communities north of downtown, with one of the reconnections being on North San Jacinto Street.
- White Oak Bayou: Expanding the trail network and stormwater detention capacity along White Oak Bayou.
- Westside: Crossings to the west of downtown, along with green space.
Danny Perez, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Houston office, confirmed the agency has coordinated with Central Houston and other stakeholders and tailored its project design to mesh with some of the proposed amenities. They could be constructed at the same time as the freeway expansion or after the fact, Perez said.
“TxDOT has consistently maintained the project provides an opportunity for partnerships that could lead to the integration of amenities into the project,” Perez said. “TxDOT has also consistently maintained that such partnerships would require funding provided by third-party stakeholders for certain types of amenities.”
It is unclear how the ideas have been received by the FHWA and whether the federal agency, a wing of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will require TxDOT to implement them. The FHWA, in an emailed statement, said it “continues to make progress in the Title VI investigation of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and will be prepared to provide specifics once the investigation is completed.”
Douglas said Tuesday that Central Houston had not yet received a response from the FHWA. After initially presenting its ideas in March, Douglas said the FHWA asked for a detailed cost estimate, which Central Houston submitted in April.
“We hope and believe the Federal Highway Administration will make TxDOT do it,” Douglas said. “What we called ‘civic opportunities,’ they called ‘mitigation factors.’ They said, ‘We like what you’re proposing with these mitigation factors. We would like you to tell us what you think it will cost.’ We took that to mean they need to have a picture of what they could ask for, what they could demand.”
The Axios Houston story is here, and the full proposal from Central Houston is here. I haven’t had a chance to fully review that, so I don’t have a good picture of what these proposals would actually mean. I will note that the Stop TxDOT I-45 folks are not in favor of this, so that should tell you something. We could have a world in which we got these improvements and an I-45 project that was acceptable to the people who will be directly affected by it, I’m just saying. By the way, my headline was written before I got all the way to the end of that HPM story and saw that Allen Douglas of Central Houston was quoted saying their proposal was “not lipstick on a pig”. Great minds do think alike.