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Written by: Leonard Parker | Houston Business News | 08th September
The Texas Transportation Commission voted unanimously Thursday to keep a controversial I-45 expansion project in the state’s long-term transportation plan — but warned that an ongoing federal investigation may permanently halt the project later this year.
TTC Chairman Bruce Bugg said the commission would give the Federal Highway Administration until Nov. 30 to finish its review of alleged civil rights and environmental violations, which has put the project on hold. If that pause is not lifted, the commission will remove the $7 billion project — and its funding — from TxDOT’s 2022 Unified Transportation Program.
“If no progress has been made and we’re still halted, and we have no viable path forward from FHWA, then our responsibility goes back to the taxpayers of the state of Texas,” Bugg said.
The transportation commission will reconvene on Dec. 9 to reevaluate the status of the project.
The I-45 North Houston Highway Improvement Project would widen I-45 from Downtown North to Beltway 8, in an effort to "enhance safety and mobility,” TxDOT says.
But the project has come under fire from local activists who say the expansion would increase pollution, worsen traffic congestion, and displace more than 1,000 homes located in underserved communities.
Those claims caught the attention of the Federal Highway Administration, which asked TxDOT to halt the construction process in March due to civil rights concerns. After TxDOT allegedly ignored the request, the federal agency sent out a second letter in June.
TxDOT released a SurveyMonkey poll in late July to gauge public opinion on several proposed projects outlined in the Unified Transportation Program, with one question focusing on the I-45 expansion.A public survey created by TxDOT to gauge public opinion regarding proposed transportation projects, including the I-45 NHHIP.
Several critics slammed TxDOT’s “take it or leave it” approach to public engagement during the Tuesday meeting, including Alexandra Smither with the group Stop TxDOT I-45, who pointed out that the survey was only available online in a limited number of languages.
“This scenario yet again exemplifies how this process has intentionally hindered the inclusion of community voices, without which no approval can be considered equitable or fair,” Smither said.
In total, the survey received 12,694 comments, with 8,170 specifically responding to the I-45 plan. Out of those comments, 5,529 supported the project, while 2,555 voted to remove it. Eighty-six people voted to keep the funding, but to use the money on a different project.
Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, along with Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey — the two Republicans on Harris County’s Commissioners Court — spoke in favor of the highway expansion during Tuesday’s meeting, and pointed to the results of the survey as they pleaded their case.
“This road, as it is now, is not a safe road,” Cagle said. “People need mobility. People need transportation.”
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, however, has been a vocal opponent of the plan. In March, the county sued TxDOT under the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law that mandates proper environmental consideration for all projects requiring federal action. Both Republican commissioners opposed the suit.
Cagle and Ramsey were joined by Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough, and Sugarland Mayor Joe Zimmerman — all of whom expressed their support for the expansion.
Houston-area business interests have also shown support for the expansion, including Transportation Advocacy Group Houston and the Greater Houston Partnership. The GHP, the region’s largest chamber of commerce, spent thousands of dollars on advertising in support of the expansion.
In a statement sent to Houston Public Media, GHP president and CEO Bob Harvey said that he was happy with the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting.
“We will work closely with local and state leaders to resolve any outstanding issues with the Federal Highway Administration over the next 90 days, as outlined by TxDOT, so that we can move this transformational project forward,” Harvey said.
Residents who would be impacted by the expansion spoke out against TxDOT’s plans at Tuesday’s meeting, including resident Jacob Castillo, who accused the commission of being willing to sacrifice the lives of low-income residents in order to “fatten the coffers of construction companies.”
“The voices that should be on the forefront of this project are the 1,235 families whose homes will be demolished when this project gets approved,” he said. “When it’s almost exclusively low-income Texans who will be displaced, I cannot help but call this project classist.”
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