Houston freeway project gets green light from Fed. [Editorial]

Houston freeway project gets green light from Fed. [Editorial]
Houston freeway project gets green light from Fed. [Editorial]

Are we there yet? The stop-and-go pace of the proposed I-45 widening has felt a bit like, well, I-45 itself in rush-hour Houston traffic — after a lane construction, two wrecks and a stalled 18-wheeler.

However, after two long years of bitterness and struggle, leaders have agreed to move. We’re further than we’ve ever been toward securing the kind of community gains we’ve long supported, but not there yet.

Harris County sued the state back in March 2021, and only withdraws the lawsuit when the two sides reached an agreement back in December. The federal government, meanwhile, responded to complaints from community groups and launched a civil rights investigation. Even as officials battled in public, they assured voters they were still talking behind closed doors. This week, the plan officially known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project got the green light again after federal and state transportation officials announced they had reached new voluntary agreement.

So, did TxDOT listen to Houston’s concerns about the 25-mile project’s impact on displacement, flooding, air pollution and more?

It looks that way. While the new federal agreement with the state mirrors previous agreements with the county and city, this one has teeth because federal authorities, unlike local officials, actually have the power to enforce the provisions.

That’s important because at this point there is a lack of confidence among local officials and residents about whether TxDOT will keep its promises to avoid demolishing homes and businesses; improve flood management; add air monitors; building sidewalks and bike paths; and replace parks and housing.

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The agreement makes clear that there will be consequences — including legal action or even the withholding of federal dollars — if the state does not keep commitments such as trying to keep the project’s design within the current footprint.

In addition to pledging an additional $3 million for the Houston Housing Authority and a meager $1.5 million for parks and trails, the agreement also requires TxDOT to hold regular public meetings and provide project updates.

LINK Houston CEO Gabe Cazares, who represented one of the groups that filed the first civil rights complaint, gave a cautious endorsement says in a statement that the latest agreement with the Federal Highway Administration seemed “much more robust, with firm deadlines and expectations” and that it was “enforceable as the federal government has authority over TxDOT.”

At a moment when national transportation leaders appear to be rethinking the destructive role freeway construction has historically played in too many low-income and black and Hispanic neighborhoods, a promise of more oversight is welcome.

Still, others were skeptical that the federal government would actually take action if the state waives.

“They’re doing what federal agencies do, using the term ‘enforcement’ when historically we’ve seen no enforcement,” said Joetta Stevenson, president of the Greater Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood who joined the first civil rights complaint against the project. Chronicle.

There is a danger that everything will fall apart. It took decades for TxDOT to develop the I-45 proposal and changing the basic parameters — how big it is, how transit is integrated, meeting new flood standards — is a huge task. With many years to go before construction even begins, it is possible that administrations change and so do priorities.

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“We have to take the structures we’re given and work within those frameworks,” County Attorney Christian Menefee said.

While state and federal officials seem to be increasingly aware of the potential negative impacts of ever-expanding freeways, what really encourages us is the continued work of community groups that exercise what historian Kyle Shelton called “infrastructural citizenship,” using decisions about the built environment to assert its rights.

“To truly reconnect communities and build a more sustainable and just nation, the Biden administration must ensure that transportation policies and projects promote accessibility as well as racial and environmental justice,” Cazares said Tuesday. “Without accountability and active oversight, TxDOT will continue to cause maximum damage to communities already exploited by previous freeway expansions.”

We share these concerns, but believe that this agreement, with the promise of continued public involvement, can help turn the tide.

Tuesday’s news is good news, but it’s the community’s work that will make it meaningful.

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