Drivers on Houston freeways likely can relate: Facing a slowdown when it comes to rebuilding Interstate 45, state transportation leaders are shifting gears and changing lanes.
Unable to significantly move ahead with the controversial rebuild until probably 2027, the Texas Transportation Commission is considering taking money it planned to spend in the next four years on I-45 and dedicating it to other projects in the Houston area, citing the need to keep spending now with the expectation that the funding for I-45 will come later.
“I am looking at it as an opportunity to get projects funded,” transportation commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg said Thursday during the board’s monthly Austin meeting.
While no projects have been advanced, there are a handful in the Houston area that are substantially planned and set for construction in the coming years, but not fully funded. They range from small projects on nearly every farm-to-market road in Houston, adding two lanes to major routes such as Texas 36 in Fort Bend County and FM 359 in Harris and Waller counties, to the $2.4 billion rebuild of Loop 610 north from Texas 225, including replacement of the Sidney Sherman Bridge across the Houston Ship Channel with one much higher in elevation. Other planned work includes:
• expansion of Spur 5 near the University of Houston and Texas 35 south of Loop 610 into a new freeway segment
• widening of Texas 6, FM 1960 and FM 2100 in various locations
• elevating I-10 out of the floodway near White Oak Bayou
Commission members urged Texas Department of Transportation leadership to examine projects in the Houston area and make possible changes to timelines for moving some to the construction phase. The first step, part of the state’s annual process of revising its 10-year-plan, would be to adjust the dates in the Unified Transportation Program during revisions planned for June. The commission typically approves updates to the UTP in late August.
Officials stressed that shuffling money between projects and away from I-45 was not an indication the massive project is less of a priority, or that other parts of the state will capture the funding.
“This is not a choice of ice cream or cake,” Bugg said. “This is, we want to give the Houston area ice cream and cake, but the timing is the cake is not coming out of the oven for a long, long time. We might as well serve them ice cream in the meantime.”
“Ice cream or cake” would not be the metaphor I or any other skeptic/opponent of the I-45 project would use here. Maybe the second choice is appetizing, but honestly just not being force-fed works. That said, please, just no to the I-10 elevation proposal, at least not without addressing the neighborhood’s concerns. Given that that remains the crux of the disagreement over the I-45 project, I’m not terribly optimistic.
The project will be the largest freeway rebuild ever in Houston, replacing the aging I-45 from downtown to Beltway 8 north of Greenspoint and redesigning the entire freeway system around the central business district. The project will move I-45 to follow Interstate 69 along the east side of downtown, removing the elevated portion of the freeway along Pierce but maintaining many of the downtown connections.
None of that will happen, however, until construction starts in 2027, as the project has faced years of delay that has pushed breaking ground years beyond what officials had hoped. Since 2017, the project has faced criticism, including opposition from Houston and Harris County officials who sought some changes to the design.
Some, but not all, of the concerns came to conclusion in December, when TxDOT, the city and county announced they had reached some agreements, which also ended a lawsuit filed by Harris County.
Still unresolved, however, is a federal pause, placed in March 2021, that halted most development of the project.
“Right now, we are just stuck,” Bugg said.
Officials are working on an agreement, essentially a contract between TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, that would lift the federal hold, TxDOT Deputy Executive Director Brandye Hendrickson said.
“We believe we have come to terms,” Hendrickson said, adding that final approval of the deal rests with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Resolving the issues, however, still puts most parts of the project years from construction as the design is refined. While some portions of I-69 could see construction, many major areas, such as I-69 at Main and Fannin and construction along I-45, Texas 288 and Interstate 10, are not scheduled until 2027.
Take your time. Seriously, no rush. We’re all fine over here.