Texas approves funding for controversial I-45 project in Houston
September 10, 2021
Despite vocal opposition from resident and local government officials, Texas state transportation officials gave the controversial North Houston Highway Improvement Project on I-45 the green light to move forward pending federal approval.
On Aug. 31, the Texas Transportation Commission unanimously approved of the Texas Department of Transportation’s 2022 Unified Transportation Program. Included in the program is the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. Approval sets aside funding for the project on Interstate 45.
However, the commission plans to revisit the decision in December. Currently, the I-45 project is on hold indefinitely by the Federal Highway Administration. If there is no progress with FHWA’s investigation within 90 days, the commission will consider striking the project from the 2022 Unified Transportation Program.
Strong support drowned out by vocal opposition
During the meeting, the commission heard public comments for about two hours. Comments were a mix of support and opposition.
About 10 people spoke in support of the inclusion of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, most of whom were government officials or representatives of a group. Many of those commenters pointed out that a survey revealed that about two-thirds of residents support the project on I-45. Other common themes included a dire need to lower congestion, safety improvements regarding evacuation routes, and the fact this project has been in the making for 15 years.
Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough warned the commission of the claims being made by the opposition, which have halted the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.
“These people, being people of color and various minorities, have drawn the attention of the federal government through the work of Stop TxDOT I-45, Air Alliance Houston and Black environmental justice networks to put the project on hold so that they could address potential violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” Judge Keough said.
On the other side of the fence, more than a dozen people spoke out against the inclusion of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, nearly all of whom were either residents or representatives of the opposition group Stop TxDOT I-45.
Opponents claim that the project with neither improve safety nor reduce congestion. Furthermore, they also claim that project adversely affects low-income residents and communities of color. Ines Sigel, interim executive director of LINK Houston, made statements regarding racial inequity that Keough warned the commission about.
“Some of the elected officials commenting today are uncomfortable with this, but this is precisely what systemic racism looks like: business as usual,” Sigel said.
North Houston Highway Improvement Project approved for now
By unanimous decision, the Texas Transportation Commission approved of the Unified Transportation Program with the North Houston Highway Improvement Project included. However, opponents still have a chance of nixing the project.
Chairman J. Bruce Bugg pointed out that two-thirds of the public that submitted comments during public outreach support the North Houston Highway Improvement Project as planned. In addition to receiving 16 unanimous votes by the metropolitan planning organization, all environmental requirements are in good standing.
However, the program is in limbo due to the FHWA looking into claims of violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. In June, FHWA issued a second letter to TxDOT that puts the department on notice for moving forward with its North Houston Highway Improvement Project despite being told to stop. In March, FHWA told TxDOT to put the project on pause as it looks into civil rights and environmental issues expressed during the public comment period.
“There are numerous environmental and civil rights issues involved, and FHWA believes that no further actions be taken on this project that might impact our Title VI investigation and any proposed remedies should the agency find that a violation has occurred,” the letter stated.
The nearly $9 billion North Houston Highway Improvement Project makes up about 12% of the $74 billion allocated in the Unified Transportation Program. Bugg said that money cannot be on hold indefinitely with many projects around the state needing that funding. The chairman gave supporters of the project 90 days to voice their support to FHWA. If there is no progress by Nov. 30, Bugg will put the issue on the December meeting agenda for possible exclusion fromthe Unified Transportation Program.
For more information about the project, click here. LL