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Civil Rights Act

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

The Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas’ transportation department to halt construction on an Interstate 45 expansion project, citing civil rights concerns.

The news comes the same day Harris County announced it was suing the Texas Department of Transportation over the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.

In its letter to TxDOT, the FHWA said it was acting in response to public input on the state’s project — which would widen I-45 in three segments from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 — raising concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as environmental justice concerns.

The federal agency said it alone was responsible for such civil rights complaints, and asked for time to review them.

“To allow FHWA to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised…we request that TxDot pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the March 8 letter reads.

The agency added that it would “expedite its efforts to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.”

As noted, that happened the same day that Harris County filed a lawsuit to force a redo of the existing environmental review of the project. I mentioned it in an update but hadn’t seen any stories about the FHWA action, so didn’t give it much thought. More recently, I read this Observer story, which goes into more detail about the federal intervention.

FHWA’s intervention in Houston is perhaps the first sign of a significant sea change in the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Shortly after the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was nominated to the cabinet position, he told CNN, “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist. We have a chance to get that right.”

Houston is a test case for that commitment. Over the coming months, FHWA investigators plan to talk to community members, local officials, and advocates to determine, among other things, whether the highway expansion project “creates potential disparate, adverse impacts to the predominantly African American and Hispanic communities within the project area.” If the agency finds that discrimination occurred, it can refer the project to the U.S. Department of Justice to litigate or withhold some categories of funding allocated to Texas. More likely, the FHWA will try to mediate some kind of voluntary resolution with TxDOT.

“I think the really important thing is that it’s about whether there’s a disparate impact,” says Erin Gaines, an attorney at Earthjustice who has worked on Title VI complaints. “They may also be talking about intentional discrimination, but you don’t need intentional discrimination to violate Title VI in an administrative complaint. You need a disparate impact.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if TxDOT intentionally chose to expand a highway that runs through a predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhood; it only matters if Black and Hispanic people are unequally impacted by the highway being expanded.

“Many of these neighborhoods literally had no voice in the construction of this highway,” says Christof Spieler, the director of planning at the design firm Huitt-Zollars. When I-45 was completed in 1958, many “residents were not even able to vote for the government that was putting these projects in place.”

By the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, most urban highways across the United States had already been planned and built.

[…]

The FHWA is beginning the process of interviewing impacted residents and may conduct site visits this summer, but it’s still unclear what residents will be able to demand and what outcomes TxDOT will entertain.

The investigation could prompt TxDOT to reconsider how it approaches highway projects in cities across the state—the agency has just begun the NEPA process for a $7.5 billion expansion of I-35 through Austin. But ultimately, change will have to come from the state legislature, which has required that 97 percent of TxDOT’s funding be spent on roads.

It always comes down to winning more elections, doesn’t it? I have no idea what to expect from the FHWA here. Could be a game-changer (and if it is, I 100% expect a lawsuit from the state over it), could be mostly cosmetic. At least it’s something. For more, give a listen to Tuesday’s What Next podcast, in which Houston activists Tomaro Bell and Oni Blair are interviewed; a transcript of the latter is here. The Chron editorial board has more.

RIP, William Wayne Justice

One of the great protectors of civil rights has passed away.

U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice — beloved by some, loathed by others — changed Texas civil and inmate rights in ways few political figures have over the past half-century. Justice, who spent 30 years on the bench and once was dubbed “the real governor of Texas” for his rulings, died Tuesday at age 89.

Black children across Texas attend public schools because Justice enforced federal desegregation laws in 1970.

Hispanic children gained the same rights as blacks because of Justice’s rulings. His orders prompted bilingual education in Texas.

Texas must educate all children regardless of their immigration status because of a Justice decision.

Juveniles convicted of crimes were moved from incarceration in work camps to modern rehabilitation facilities at his command.

The most sweeping change of all was the Ruiz prison reform case that ended brutal conditions for inmates and prompted a massive building boom that gave Texas one of the largest and most modern incarceration systems in the nation.

Civil rights activists praised Justice during his lifetime, but in his hometown of Tyler he often was scorned.

“I’m basically a very shy, retiring person, but fate has put me in a situation where I’ve been in the midst of controversy,” Justice told biographer Frank Kemerer for a 1991 book. “Controversy is now kind of a way of life with me. But I have never particularly liked it.”

The Tyler Morning Telegraph, from his onetime hometown, has a nice writeup as well. They don’t make ’em like that any more. Rest in peace, Judge Justice. Stace and Harold Cook have more.

Metro passes civil rights review

Good.

The Federal Transit Administration told the Metropolitan Transit Authority in a letter last week that the civil rights review, which began in February, is complete. In July, the FTA informed Metro that it was deficient on two out of 12 requirements.

The agency needed better documentation in order to prove that recent fare and service changes, like the introduction of the electronic Q Fare Card, did not disproportionately affect low-income and minority customers. The FTA also told Metro that it needed to improve services to customers with limited English skills.

All transit agencies that receive federal money must comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and undergo periodic reviews of how its services affect low-income and minority communities.

Metro’s civil rights program has been deemed “in compliance” until September, 2012. At that point, the agency will have to submit a new report to the federal agency.

One focus of the review was recent changes to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s fare policy. Metro eliminated free route transfers for cash customers in early 2008. It later raised its basic fare from $1 to $1.25.

Metro told reviewers that the implementation of the Q card actually benefited low-income customers by automating discounts. Customers get five free rides on the card after 50 paid rides.

Metro also said that under the previous fare system, customers who could pay large sums up front got bigger discounts. The Q card system offers discounts to all riders, but more frequent riders—who tend to be low-income and minority—get more frequent discounts.

Just a thought here, but since Metro’s fare structure has been the subject of discussion lately, it seems to me that increasing the frequency of the free rides that Q cards can accumulate might be a decent way of reducing the cost of riding for low-income folks. Maybe for every other 50 paid rides you get 10 freebies instead of five, or something like that. I think the idea of rewarding total number of rides rather than an amount of up-front cash is a good one, and if the goal is to keep fares from getting too onerous for lower income riders, that’s the way to go. You could even index the number of free rides given to the fare, so that for the true frequent riders, the cost per ride never really goes up. Greg has an alternate suggestion to achieve the same goal. What do you think?