HOUSTON (AP) — Federal authorities announced Tuesday they have lifted their hold of a more than $9 billion Houston area highway-widening project that has come under intense criticism from residents and activists who have argued the proposal would cause lasting economic and environmental damage to their communities.
The project to expand Interstate 45, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, had been delayed since March 2021, when the Federal Highway Administration began investigating civil rights and environmental justice concerns.
Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt announced his agency had reached an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation, commonly known as TxDOT, to settle the investigation.
“This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves the (project) in ways that will make a real difference in people’s lives,” Bhatt said in a statement.
Marc Williams, TxDOT’s executive director, said his agency was “excited to get this critical infrastructure project moving.”
Local officials welcomed the agreement. They said it will address many of their concerns about the project, including providing more resources to deal with flooding, creating more green spaces and trail connections, and limiting the project’s footprint and its effects on air quality.
“After years of negotiations, the ... (proposal) can now be the project Houston deserves it to be,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Tuesday.
In December, local officials announced they would back the project after getting assurances from TxDOT that their concerns would be addressed, including additional funding for affordable housing for those displaced by the proposed construction. Harris County, where Houston is located, dropped a federal lawsuit over the project.
The dispute over the project comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equity a priority in his department. The project was seen an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing a history of racial inequity in U.S. infrastructure projects.
Some community groups and residents said they were disappointed by the investigation’s settlement.
“President Joe Biden and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg promised to undo the past harms caused by freeway construction, but it seems they are doomed to repeat these harms in Houston,” Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the community groups opposing the project, said in a statement. “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.”
The proposed construction project would take 10 years to complete, and remake 24 miles along Interstate 45 and several other roadways.
Supporters say it would enhance driver safety, help to reduce traffic congestion, and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.
But the project’s critics say it won’t improve the area’s traffic woes and would subject mostly Black and Latino residents to increased pollution, displacement and flooding while not improving public transportation options.
Critics say it would continue a long history of infrastructure projects — including the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s — that have depreciated wealth in minority neighborhoods through the loss of homes and businesses and exacerbated inequality.
“No community engagement with enforced commitments, no truly fair housing, no true consideration for the communities they are coming into and plowing through,” said Kendra London, an activist with Our Afrikan Family, a community group.
The I-45 project is expected to displace more than 1,000 homes and apartments along with 344 businesses, two schools, and five places of worship in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods. ___ Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70