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The next phase of the I-45 fight is about to begin

Where it goes from here is still up in the air. The opening of this story was at a rally on Sunday that opposed the current I-45 plan.

The rally, part of a flurry of events from concerts to block-walking that members of Stop I-45 have organized, comes days before the deadline for comments on the $7 billion plan to remake I-45 and the downtown freeway system. Comments on the final environmental report are due to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston office by Wednesday.

Construction on segments, starting downtown, could start as soon as late 2021.

In advance of the deadline, groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston that have opposed the project have mobilized online efforts to solicit comments and even petition local elected officials to oppose it.

“We’re going to do whatever we can,” said Susan Graham, organizer of the Stop I-45 group. “We’re calling elected officials. We’re set to speak at City Council on Tuesday. If there’s something we can do, we’re going to do it, but we can’t do anything unless people show up.”

Scores of groups and individuals, including the city’s planning department, plan responses in their last chance to comment. Elected officials, notably County Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis, are also increasing their criticism of the plan.

“They want to continue to do the same old, same old, but that dog won’t hunt,” Garcia said of TxDOT’s plan. “We need to make sure they understand it is about the future, not what used to be.”

TxDOT and some supporters also have coalesced, with TxDOT releasing its own documents online and groups such as the NAACP and North Houston Association submitting comments at recent meetings in the Houston area and with the Texas Transportation Commission in Austin, which oversees TxDOT.

Certification of the project’s environmental process is not the end of the discussions or opportunities to address concerns, but it largely gives TxDOT the approval to proceed. Most of the money comes from state transportation funds, though about $100 million in locally controlled money is budgeted; members of the the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council can rescind it.

To address concerns raised by Harris County and Houston officials — who in the past year began to rethink their support of the project — H-GAC sought to craft a deal outlining what state and local officials hope to accomplish with the freeway rebuild. That memorandum of agreement between TxDOT, Houston, Harris County, H-GAC and the Metropolitan Transit Authority would allow all of the groups to have a single set of goals to achieve.

As that agreement has taken shape, however, much of the binding language H-GAC staff started with has been watered down, at the behest of TxDOT lawyers. For example, the original introduction said areas where the freeway fails to meet modern standards “must be corrected.” Now it reads “should be improved.”

TxDOT lawyers also inserted language stating the environmental review supersedes any agreements, in effect noting that the federal process governs how a freeway is designed.

“TxDOT’s legal obligations under the (federal environmental) process remain unchanged, and nothing in this document commits or obligates any party to any action against, or in addition, to those obligations,” lawyers wrote.

Susan Graham, quoted in the excerpt above, had a recent op-ed that outlined the opposition to the project, the bulk of which is that TxDOT has not adequately taken into account the concerns and the input from the people and communities that would be most directly affected by the rebuild. I’m sure TxDOT would say they’ve bent over backwards to provide opportunities to give feedback and that they have listened and adjusted as much as they can. I feel like this project has been looming over all of us who live within a mile or so of I-45, and while it has gotten better, there’s only so much you can do to mitigate its effects. I think the opposition has the stronger argument, and if TxDOT can’t stick to the agreement that H-GAC hammered out about consensus goals for the project, then maybe this project isn’t worth doing. Or at least, it’s not worth doing the way it’s currently set up to be done.

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5 Comments

  1. David Fagan says:

    Well, kuff, not supporting the I-45 expansion like you’re supporting the train from Dallas to Houston? I guess it’s only O.K. for governments taking peoples’ property when it’s out in the country where peoples’ efforts are worth less? Or, it’s just not next door.

    Funny thing is, I-45 is done through the state without international partnerships. The train involves companies outside the U.S. to take U.S. citizens’ land to build their project, go figure.

  2. Jules says:

    David, also the FRA allowed financial considerations of Texas Central to trump every single other consideration in determining route – including social justice issues (taking land from minorities or poor people), air quality, flooding, protected species, etc.

    And Texas Central is extremely bad at financial considerations, as the cost of the HSR has ballooned from 10-12 billion to 30 billion, before they have obtained a single permit.

    The social justice issues of the HSR could of course expand over time, like they have for I45, where the solution is to raze Independence Heights but erect a sign to what was. Both projects are bad.

  3. C.L. says:

    If only the Texas State Government was run by fiscally responsible, small government-minded conservatives that were keen on letting local authorities decide…

    Hold on…I’ve got someone talking in my ear…

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Perhaps the better thing to do is to make the Pierce Elevated a double decker freeway, with the upper deck being express lanes, similar to what they have in Austin on I-35? I realize that poses some engineering challenges, and would have some impact on downtown surface streets. That can’t possibly be worse than what is being proposed now.

  5. David Fagan says:

    Right or wrong, I think downtown should be closed to traffic. Commuter lines of rail and bus should be made available and people can park and ride into downtown. The downtown district tries to balance driving and pedestrian/ foot traffic, but it should choose one or the other. This would make the existing freeways going around downtown into Express ways and free up real estate in the downtown area, in the form of not needing huge swaths of over priced parking decks and areas. Downtown rail and bus lines would be better supported and designed to serve the downtown, but also outlying areas. Parking would be moved to the beltway and highway six and 99 areas.

    The build something for now, then tear it down to build something else later style of planning is expensive in the long run, but people make money with it.