Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Federal Highway Administration

Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

Jill Rafferty proudly acknowledges she bothers a lot of people. Better to rub them the wrong way, she reasons, than let a lack of attention wash her Independence Heights neighborhood away.

Flood control efforts, mostly overseen by Harris County, have failed over the past dozen years to keep rain out of people’s homes in heavy storms. Houston workers hardly clean up nearby land the city owns, part of which is a park set on a former water treatment plant, and trash and debris clog the slim channels along 40½ Street, Rafferty said.

What worries her, she said, is the very entities she has been pleading with are holding up potential relief by challenging a $7 billion rebuild of I-45 that, at least on paper, will give the area better drainage. The Texas Department of Transportation, she said, laid out a better case to control flooding than city and county officials have.

“Number one, they listened to me,” Rafferty said of TxDOT officials. “Number two, they had a plan to do something.”

The increasing divide over the fate of the I-45 rebuild — notably the plan to add two managed lanes in the center of the freeway from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 that requires seizing properties and displacing low-income residents — also is putting the brakes on improvements in some of those same communities. For all the concerns of what is wrong about the project, supporters say, there also is a lot to like, such as better drainage, potential for parkland in key spots and more predictable travel times to downtown for commuters.

[…]

Concerns over whether TxDOT properly considered the project’s scope now are a matter for federal officials and the courts. The Federal Highway Administration, citing concerns raised about the project’s impact on minority communities, asked TxDOT on March 8 to pause activities, just days before Harris County filed a lawsuit saying transportation officials ignored the county’s comments on the project.

Supporters do not dispute the seismic changes the project will have on nearby residents, or even the historic levels of displacement caused by the project. The question, they said, is whether the improvements are worth it.

“These benefits vastly exceed the negatives,” said Oscar Slotboom, an advocate of adding managed lanes to I-45 and a northwest Houston resident.

Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.

For suburban drivers, the benefits are clear, supporters said, and the months of fighting leaves them further from relief.

“If the state wants to do something to make the freeway better for the entire area, why shouldn’t the city welcome that,” said Ben Darby, 48, of Spring. “If they are going to make it so people sit in less traffic, who wouldn’t celebrate that? Everything comes with trade-offs.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t doubt that there are some potential benefits from this project – the proposed bus lanes are a key aspect to Metro’s current expansion plans, for example – though “suburban drivers can get where they’re going faster” is not on my top 1,000 reasons to favor the plan. I just think the opponents have the better case right now, and while the advocates say TxDOT has listened to them, that’s not what the opponents say is their experience. People of good faith can come to different opinions about this project. For me, the benefits don’t come close to outweighing the costs. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

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.

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Next B-Cycle expansion announced

From the inbox:

Houston’s bike share system, Houston B-cycle, will more than triple in size over the next two years, adding 71 stations with 568 bikes. The expansion will be paid for with federal grant dollars.

“The expansion of the B-cycle system will bring bike sharing into new neighborhoods and to new users,” said Mayor Turner. “As I’ve said, we need a paradigm shift in transportation away from single-occupancy motor vehicles. Making cycling more accessible by building a strong bike sharing system is a critical component of that change.”

The City’s Planning and Development Department sponsored an application for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The grant will reimburse the City for $3.5 million of the cost of expanding the system. Houston Bike Share, a local nonprofit that administers Houston B-cycle, will provide the remaining $880,000.

Currently, the system has 31 stations with 225 bikes. The expansion will bring the total to 102 stations and 793 bikes. The grant will also pay for two new transportation vehicles.

Houston B-cycle is a membership-driven bike share system. Memberships are available by day, week or year. All members have unlimited access to the bikes for up to 60 minutes per trip. There is a charge of $2 for every additional half hour.

The expansion brings bike sharing into the Texas Medical Center with 14 stations and 107 bikes. The new stations will also serve Houston’s students, with 21 new stations and 248 bikes at the University of Houston Main Campus, Texas Southern University, UH-Downtown and Rice University.

Since January 1, cyclists have made 73,577 trips and traveled 508,044 miles. Houston Bike Share CEO Carter Stern estimates Houstonians are on track to exceed 100,000 trips by the end of 2016.

“We could not be more grateful for the Mayor and City Council’s unflagging support of the Houston B-Cycle program and our efforts to expand the program,” Stern said. “The expansion approved today will allow us to build on the immense success that B-Cycle has had in just 4 short years and bring this affordable, healthy, sustainable mobility option to more Houstonians than ever before.”

Sounds good to me. There isn’t an updated system map yet, but this does a lot to expand B-Cycle outside the borders of downtown/Midtown, in areas that are dense and proximate to light rail lines. You know how I feel about using the bike network to extend transit reach, and B-Cycle is a great fit for the rail stations because trains are often too crowded to bring a bike onto them. I can’t wait to see what the new map looks like. The Press has more.

SH 130 operator to give up its ownership stake

Another step on the road to bankruptcy.

Speed Limit 85

SH 130 Concession Co. filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan Friday that proposes transferring company ownership to its largest lenders, which include the Federal Highway Administration and a group of European banks. The company owes more than $1.6 billion. It is owned by Spanish road developer Cintra, the majority stakeholder, and San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure.

[…]

The company paid TxDOT $125 million upfront for the rights to operate the road, which was built to bypass Interstate 35 traffic between San Antonio and Austin and then became state property. It also agreed to share some of its toll revenue with the state as part of the lease agreement.

Texas 130’s southern section, which connects to a state-operated section that ends in Georgetown, opened in 2012 and became known for its 85-mph speed limit, the highest in the country. But it immediately missed the company’s traffic projections, and Moody’s Investors Service assigned its debt a junk-bond rating three years ago as a result.

The company issued a substantial amount of debt to finance the $1.3 billion project. It owes about $551 million on a Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation loan from the Federal Highway Administration, and about $721 million on its bank loans, according to court filings.

A FHWA spokeswoman was not available for comment Friday afternoon.

The reorganization plan proposes that SH 130 Concession Co., under its lenders’ ownership, would continue to operate and maintain the road. The plan has yet to be approved by the court.

“It’s important to understand that we don’t expect any sudden changes,” Guy Russell, SH 130’s chief operating officer, said in an email. “The plan calls for a smooth transition period of up to 18 months during which SH 130 Concession Company will continue to operate the facility per usual.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Cintra and Zachry will take a bath if this goes forward, which is fine by me. I’m less fine with the Federal Highway Administration getting stiffed, though it’s not clear from this story if that may happen. I’m not sure there’s any lesson to be learned here beyond the obvious one of not building roads where there are no people, but I hope we at least grasp that one.

Yale Street Bridge to get makeover

You may recall that last November the load limit on the Yale Street Bridge was reduced by TxDOT to 8,000 lbs per single axle and 10,000 lbs per tandem axle, which has resulted in truck traffic being forbidden on the bridge. That hasn’t stopped trucks from actually using it, of course, but they’re not supposed to. Anyway, since then a few more things have happened:

– An inspection and assessment of the bridge by Entech Civil Engineers says that it really should have a load limit of 7200 lbs, which is basically a full-size SUV with multiple passengers.

– Neighborhood leaders sent a letter to the city asking for Something To Be Done about this:

Necessary Action

As indicated above, based on the ratings of the Yale Street Bridge, corrective action is required; based on the current ratings, according to TXDOT, this bridge is either one of the top or the top bridge in Texas eligible for replacement based on TxDOT’s and the Federal Highway Administration’s criteria for distributing Federal and State Funds. The required corrective action is reconstruction of the Yale Street Bridge. Since this is a City-owned Bridge, the process to prioritize the Bridge for replacement and to solicit the necessary funding begins with the City. With City budget and CIP discussion now underway, this is the time to address it so that it will be included in the current CIP priority list. Eighty percent (80%) of the funding would come from the Federal Highway Administration, 10% from TXDOT and 10% from the
City’s budget. This means that this problem can be addressed promptly and with a limited impact on the City’s budget. The Bridge should be reconstructed BEFORE it has to be closed due to low ratings.

– The city sent a reply saying that the Department of Public Works and Engineering was working with TxDOT to apply for federal funds to help with the cost of fixing the bridge, for which candidate projects will be nominated to the Federal Highway Administration in 2012.

Not clear what happens if the project doesn’t get the federal funds, though the city did say that it would try to work it out through the District C Council office. See this press advisory, this letter from CM Cohen, and this story in The Leader for more.

UPDATE: Here’s a direct link to that story in The Leader.

Houston gets grant for bike paths

Nice.

It’s not a trail to nowhere, but the Heights Bike Path ends abruptly at McKee Street east of downtown, and from there cyclists have to share the road with four-wheeled vehicles.

A peloton of politicians gathered near that terminus Friday afternoon to celebrate an election year bring-home-the-bacon $15 million federal grant that will pay for six projects to link Houston’s fragmented patchwork of bike paths into something more closely resembling a network.

Once the 18 miles of off-street paths, widened sidewalks and roadway bike lanes are completed, pedestrians and cyclists will be able to move from Little York and Antoine in far northwest Houston to Brady’s Landing along Buffalo Bayou east of downtown without ever having to stray from a lane reserved for those biking or walking.

“It’s long past the time for us to what I like to say ‘string the beads’ to connect the trail segments to connect Houston,” Mayor Annise Parker said at a news conference with U.S. Reps. Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, both D-Houston. “We have focused a lot on hike and bike trails that keep cars and bikes separate, and we’d like to see more of that.”

The Houston Bikeways Facebook page has a list of the projects that will be funded.

– White Oak Bayou Path Alabonson Road Antoine Drive Link (where the extension of the White Oak Bayou ends)
– White Oak Bayou between 7th and 11th Streets
– MKT Spur Connector
– Heritage West to Main Street Connectors
– Buffalo Bayou to White Oak Bayou connector
– Great East End connections to Buffalo Bayou
– Brays Bayou gap filler between Ardmore Road and Old Spanish Trail

I wish I had a map to show you of all this, but I couldn’t find one. Item 2 on that list above is something I’ve noted before, so it’s good to see that happen. While both the story and the Facebook post talk a lot about bike commuting, I want to say that there’s more to this than that. It’s not practical for me to bike to work, but I can and do bring my bike with me to work – having a minivan is good for something – and I use it a couple of days a week to go to lunch. I use it getting around the neighborhood, too – it’s at least as convenient to hop on the White Oak Trail to get to Target than it is to drive there, and takes about the same amount of time. And it’s one less car crowding that stretch of Sawyer and jousting for a parking space. Making it easier for people to ride bikes for short trips will do a lot of good, too.