Nearly two years to the day that federal officials paused TxDOT’s plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 and downtown Houston’s freeway system, national and state highway leaders have come to an agreement that will let the rebuild proceed, but with several concessions aimed at addressing the project’s impacts on low-income and minority neighborhoods.
The Federal Highway Administration and Texas Department of Transportation announced Tuesday they had reached an agreement, similar to those TxDOT reached with Harris County and Houston in December, outlining commitments related to the planned $9.7 billion rebuild of I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8.
The agreement immediately lifts the federal pause placed on the project on March 8, 2021, and resolves the audit conducted by federal officials related to TxDOT’s adherence to federal environmental rules.
“This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves (I-45) in ways that will make a real difference in people’s lives. Through this agreement the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project’s life cycle,” said Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt, in a statement.
Unlike the agreements with the city and county, the deal reached with federal officials holds TxDOT to both oversight and enforcement of many of the specifics. As part of the agreement, TxDOT will:
- conduct twice-annual public meetings during development and construction, expected to take more than a decade, to update the community on the progress and plans for detours during construction.
- add another $3 million to the $27 million TxDOT already committed to help the Houston Housing Authority develop new affordable housing opportunities, mirroring the promise TxDOT previously made to the city.
- commit $1.5 million to create parks and trails, in particular to replace park space near the Kelly Village public housing complex.
- support the creation of the Emancipation National Historic Trail, a proposed federally-sponsored historical route chronicling the journey of freed slaves from Galveston to Houston, including trail links and planning for historical displays along the footprint of I-45.
- coordinate detours near two Houston Independent School District schools to take students’ bicycle and pedestrian routes into account during construction
Longtime skeptics of the project, however, said they fear the promises of partnership will erode as TxDOT proceeds.
“They are doing what federal agencies do, using the term enforcement when historically we have seen no follow-through,” said Joetta Stevenson, president of Houston’s Super-neighborhood 55 and one of those who had accused TxDOT of skirting federal civil rights laws, prompting the review by FHWA. “Trust has been broken for generations, and by signing off on the choices of the state, only enforcing after harm has been done, they continue a painful legacy. So far, I see no tangible changes that don’t rely on TxDOT’s good faith participation.”
In a statement the group formed to oppose the project, Stop TxDOT I-45, said “Houston deserves a project that prioritizes safety, centers the lived experience of those most impacted by the project, actually relieves traffic, and moves us toward a more equitable future. We will not stop fighting for our city and our lives.”
Air Alliance Houston and LINKHouston, which have advocated for sweeping changes to the plans, said they were reviewing the details but initially indicated the details alone leave the project short of expectations.
“While we hoped the federal government would maximize its leverage over TxDOT to push for a more equitable project, we are encouraged to see that the Federal Highway Administration will hold TxDOT accountable in ways that the City of Houston and Harris County memorandums of understanding could not,” LINKHouston Executive Director Gabe Cazares said.
Parts of the agreement commit TxDOT to elements that are less specific, for now, but eventually could have sweeping effects on the communities impacted by the freeway. TxDOT has agreed to re-evaluate drainage studies for the freeway rebuild to reflect ATLAS-14, the national rainfall analysis released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2018 that places more of Houston in areas at flood risk. TxDOT already had agreed to do this as part of its agreements with the city and county. The change potentially could mean more flood control, such as detention ponds or channels for neighborhoods near the freeway.
See here and here for the background on the city/county deal with TxDOT. If the skeptics and opponents remain unconvinced, then there continues to be reason to not want this to happen. If it mostly comes down to how close the federal oversight and enforcement of the deal will be, then at least we know where to concentrate future efforts. A statement from County Attorney Christian Menefee is beneath the fold, a statement from Commissioner Adrian Garcia is here, a Chron story recapping the saga so far is here, and the Trib and Campos have more.
From County Attorney Menefee:
Today the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) regarding the state’s plan on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP). FHWA had previously asked the state to halt construction on the project as they evaluated concerns raised under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The FHWA agreement announced today bolsters the county’s and city’s agreements with TxDOT from late last year. Many of the commitments TxDOT made to the county and the city are now subject to federal government monitoring and enforcement throughout the projects design and construction,” said Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee. “I’m glad the federal government ratified and built on the work done by local government – this agreement ensures the county’s and city’s interests will be considered during the life of the project”.
Late last year, Harris County announced a resolution of its lawsuit against TxDOT under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Memorandum of Understanding between the county and TxDOT is available here, and is also available in Spanish, Mandarin, and Vietnamese.