Houston, Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation have an agreed path forward for rebuilding Interstate 45, and a lot of steps to get there.
Details big and small remain works in progress and a federal pause looms as the last big hurdle, for now, as officials move ahead after last month’s agreements.
“We are doing everything we can to move this project forward,” James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT in Houston, told a North Houston Association luncheon on Wednesday.
The group, focused on economic development north of the city, is a vocal supporter of the widening project because of its potential to improve access to downtown and revitalize sagging areas along the I-45 freeway corridor.
To get some of those benefits, officials first have to iron out technical issue that not only affect the $10 billion rebuild of I-45 and the downtown freeway system, but numerous other mobility projects that cross it. Among them:
- How TxDOT will rebuild Interstate 69 beneath Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail in Midtown while keeping the trains moving as much as possible.
- Addressing changes sought by the Harris County Flood Control District that improve drainage for neighborhoods north and south of the Loop 610 interchange with I-45.
- Design specifics of the future I-45 interchange with Interstate 10 that accommodate Metro’s planned Inner Katy bus rapid transit line along I-10 and proposed managed lanes access to downtown streets.
- Adding sidewalks and bike amenities to areas where TxDOT has committed to trying to reduce the number of properties it will take.
- Determining how a proposed downtown connection for the Hardy Toll Road will enter the area near Buffalo Bayou and cross a remade I-10.
- Reconsidering how the project will incorporate Metro’s plans for bus rapid transit into its overall design.
“I think the next steps are sitting down in a room and working out all the details,” Metro board Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said of the work ahead.
Those details are not the only obstacles to construction, which officials will consider moving from 2024 to 2027 later this month in the region’s four-year transportation plan. TxDOT still must acquire some property, Koch said, and the pending Federal Highway Administration review that the local agreements do not affect must be resolved.
Hailed by elected officials as a breakthrough that salvaged a desperately-needed freeway rebuild, the deals surprised critics of the initial design. They noted many of the details give TxDOT room to renege while others fall short of the changes some neighborhood advocates had sought.
In a statement, Air Alliance Houston said the agreements “will do very little to protect Houston communities from the harms posed by this project,” specifically related to air pollution caused by the larger freeway in many neighborhoods around the central business district.
“It would be difficult to overstate our disappointment in the contents of these two (agreements), the closed-door manner in which they were created and signed, the lack of sufficient time for the public to read and respond to them, and the tone with which they were presented,” the group said.
Officials have defended the deals as the best way to change the project but still maintain the benefits that will come with it, including faster and safer commutes and the creation of two-way managed lanes that can improve transit in the I-45 corridor.
See here for the background. I believe that’s the first I’ve heard of the construction timeline being pushed back to 2027, which is a modest benefit no matter what else happens. We still need to know what all these details are, and I definitely agree that there is room for TxDOT to weasel out on a lot of promises. But I have always believed that one way or another this was going to happen, so any improvements or modifications to the original plan have to be considered with that in mind. Metro is probably as eager as anyone to get this going, as their MetroNext plans depend on various items in the I-45 rebuild. I hope that as long as things are still being worked out there’s still room to get assurances and confirmations about the things that Metro has agreed to.