The bottleneck of design differences that has divided officials about remaking Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston is easing, officials said Monday, clearing the way for construction on the $10 billion project, perhaps in less than two years.
“There is no perfect design,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “On balance, with the improvements … I think you have an excellent project that will move forward and move the greater good.”
The agreement outlines plans for widening the freeway by adding two managed lanes in each direction from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, along with various frontage road and interchange alterations.
“We are ready to move forward together,” said Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan.
After spending months at loggerheads, but working on some consensus, the Texas Department of Transportation committed to a handful of concessions, such as increasing the money it will pay the Houston Housing Authority for relocation and development of affordable housing, and assurances to design the project as much within the current freeway footprint as possible. The project also connects to trails for running and biking, adds air monitoring in certain areas, adds features aimed at encouraging transit use and commits to stormwater design changes sought by the Harris County Flood Control District.
“Not all the things we wanted materialized, but that is compromise,” said Harris County Pct. 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.
The agreement announced Monday does not remove the pause the Federal Highway Administration placed on the project in March 2021. But with blessing of local, state and federal elected officials, it is likely TxDOT and the FHWA could come to a separate agreement and work could proceed, people involved in the deal said.
The agreements are a rare case of a major Texas highway project receiving major changes, prompted by community opposition, after officials had essentially greenlit its construction. The deals, however, also give TxDOT room to consider alternatives that reduce the number of homes and businesses displaced, but also do not hold them to any specific reductions.
“We expect TxDOT to uphold its end of this historic agreement, and not only to evaluate the impacts over the next year but to agree to and fund real solutions that address concerns about displacement, pollution, flooding and impacts on the public transportation network,” said Harris County Pct. 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
The difference in visions has dogged the project for more than two years, but progress on remaking the freeway hit two large potholes in March 2021, after critics of the widening convinced some local officials to step in and federal highway officials paused work. Around the same time, Harris County sued TxDOT, saying the designs did not adequately address the impacts of noise and pollution in some communities, notably the North Side and Independence Heights.
In the roughly 20 months since, officials chipped away at the differences, postponing action on the county’s lawsuit and awaiting the federal review, while exploring what changes TxDOT could make to appease concerns. In the interim, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Garcia, who both were outspoken about the need for changes to the design, were reelected.
The two new agreements, one between TxDOT and the city and another between TxDOT and Harris County, specify the commitments both sides are making. Turner signed the city’s agreement Monday, after it was signed by TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. The county’s agreement can only be approved after a Commissioners’ Court meeting, scheduled for Thursday. Approval of the deal would automatically trigger a request by county officials drop the lawsuit against TxDOT.
Most of the new details are similar to requests Turner made in August 2021, and correspond with requests county officials raised more than a year ago, which state highway officials said they could not approve because they locked TxDOT into commitments on side ventures that were not included in the project.
Opponents of TxDOT’s design, finalized in 2019, said they needed to review specifics of the two agreements, but remained opposed to some of the fundamental features included in the plans.
“TxDOT has yet to adequately respond to community concerns about induced demand — the phenomenon by which wider highways make traffic worse,” the group Stop TxDOT I-45 said in a statement.
“We want a project that does not displace, and we know that wide freeways do not relieve traffic,” the group said. “We are excited to remain an active partner in this planning and development process.”
The city’s press release is here. On the one hand, I have faith that local political leaders who have been vocal in their opposition to TxDOT’s previous plans have done their best to get as good a deal as they can. They couldn’t hold out forever – there’s a lot of pressure to make I-45 renovation and expansion happen – and no one gets everything they want in a negotiation. If I trusted them before I have no reason not to trust them now. That doesn’t mean I’ll agree with every decision they made, but I start out with the belief that they did their best to act in our interest.
On the other hand, I and others who live close to I-45 and will be directly affected by whatever does happen in some way – and let’s be clear, lots of people will be much more directly affected than I will – are under no obligation to like this agreement, no matter how reasonable it may be and no matter how unprecedented it may be for TxDOT to bend as much as they apparently did. I don’t care how long it takes some dude to drive into town from The Woodlands. I’m perfectly happy telling them all to take one of the commuter buses in, and if the service for that is inadequate to push for it to be improved. I have no interest in prioritizing those needs over anyone else’s. I appreciate that Mayor Turner, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, Judge Hidalgo, Commissioners Ellis and Garcia, County Attorney Menefee, and everyone I’m forgetting eventually had to say Yes to a sincere and meaningful counteroffer. I really do believe they did the best they could and that we’re overall in a much better place than when we started and that we worked hard for it. But I still don’t have to like it. I’ll try to learn to live with it. That’s the best I can do. CultureMap has more.