December 5, 2022



State transportation leaders urge feds to end year-long pause on I-45 project

State highway officials held fast to their plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 in Houston on Thursday, offering a litany of benefits the project will bring and pressing federal officials to lift a 12-month-and-counting pause on development.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, however, stopped short of imposing a deadline or considering shelving the project, as they have in the past when removing the $9 billion plan from the state’s short-range plan was a possibility.

Instead, commissioners complained Thursday that the lack of progress is having undue effects on their ability to remedy what almost everyone in Houston agrees is an outdated, congested, dangerous freeway corridor.

“We have had their lives in limbo for a year,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said of Houston-area drivers.

The project, a $9 billion-plus rebuild of I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, was expected to start construction this year, but opposition and concerns raised by various groups and elected officials slowed its progress. It then stopped entirely when opponents raised a civil rights complaint to the Federal Highway Administration, which told TxDOT to halt development last March.

The subsequent pause by FHWA remains the largest hurdle, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman J. Bruce Bugg said.

“We have extended the olive branch in every way we know how,” Bugg said during the commission’s monthly meeting Thursday.

Since initiating the review a year ago, federal officials have said they are making progress, but have not responded to any public pleas by Texas officials to expedite or resolve the matter by state-imposed deadlines. Federal officials in December allowed some development, on a limited basis, to proceed.

The halt was intended to give federal officials time to investigate concerns TxDOT failed to consider the project’s effects on low-income and minority communities. That led to a round of community meetings in December, in which critics of the plan outlined their concerns.

“We are not against the expansion of 45,” State Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, said at a Dec. 8 meeting. “We are against the expansion of 45 under this plan. This plan has too many negatives.”

Opponents argue the project’s design further divides communities it crosses, exacerbating decades of freeway expansion that has worsened air quality and safe street access for those neighborhoods in order to deliver faster car and truck trips for suburban commuters.

Those against the project often note it will result in the demolition of more than 1,000 residences, nearly 350 businesses and a handful of schools and churches.

While remaining supportive of parts of the project, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city staff have suggested several changes to the project to eliminate some frontage road lanes, re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the freeway with better bike and pedestrian access, and increase commitments to community housing and flood control.

Turner sent a proposed agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, to Bugg last August.

TxDOT officials and supporters of the project, however, counter that benefits are built into the project that will mitigate the losses and leave many communities better off.

In Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by Black residents in Texas, the project proposes drainage improvements to alleviate persistent flooding in the area. That, coupled with $27 million in affordable housing assistance TxDOT must provide to make up for lost apartments and homes, will allow many residents to stay in the area despite risk of gentrification, said Tanya DeBose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, in a video about the project produced by TxDOT.

As the project has lingered, and faced opposition, some have argued it is forcing TxDOT to take a harder line, jeopardizing some of the gains. That has led some community leaders, such as activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad, to urge federal officials and local opponents to work to find solutions and not reasons to stop the project.

“Somebody has to be in the kitchen, or else we’re all on the menu,” he said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion with federal highway officials and local opponents.

At some point, if the community and officials cannot come to some consensus, the project could find itself off the list of projects Texas plans to pay for in the next decade, a move transportation commissioners considered last year, only to pull back and urge more cooperation.

Now the time has come to start work on the 2022 Unified Transportation Program and I-45 is virtually where it was a year ago: On hold, waiting for federal clearance and still divisive for local and state leaders.

Through a spokeswoman, Bugg on Thursday declined to say if he would seek to remove the project from the upcoming transportation plan, or if progress needs to be made by a certain date to avoid that.

Meanwhile, costs continue to climb for the segments as inflation and changes to the project add to the price tag. According to the revised estimates developed by the Houston-Galveston Council for its Houston-area highway plan for the state, downtown segments of the project that rebuild I-45, Interstate 69 and local bridges will cost $750 million than initially budgeted.

The cost increases are related to changes to the design — some of which are aimed at addressing concerns of the project’s critics — and to the ongoing delay which will make future construction more expensive.

Critics of the plan, however, note TxDOT can proceed just as soon as it accommodates the concerns and devises a better project.

“I encourage TxDOT to move forward utilizing the memorandum of understanding I sent,” Turner said in a statement on Tuesday. “The MOU provides a path forward to a project beneficial to all.”

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