Controversial $9.7B I-45 expansion in Houston to resume

Dive Brief:

  • The controversial $9.7 billion I-45 highway expansion in Houston is moving forward, after Texas DOT and the Federal Highway Administration signed an agreement to resolve a civil rights investigation into the project. Opponents had raised concerns that the expansion would displace hundreds of residents — in historically Black and Latino neighborhoods in particular — and worsen air quality in the area.
  • The March 7 Voluntary Resolution Agreement between the two agencies resolves the FHWA’s Title VI investigation and lifts the pause, with the agreement that Texas DOT will mitigate impact on communities living near the highway.
  • First proposed in 2002, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project will rebuild nearly the entire downtown freeway network, widening I-45 from Houston’s downtown to the North Sam Houston Tollway. Many planners say the project is needed to accommodate the area’s population growth, while others argue highway expansion ultimately leads to more traffic.

Dive Insight:

The FHWA directed Texas DOT to halt further development in March 2021, before the project had broken ground, due to the potential civil rights violations.

The new agreement includes community outreach and other stipulations that Texas DOT must follow before and during construction to minimize harm. These include holding public meetings through the design and construction process twice a year, better drainage and stormwater management, installing highway caps and a directive to mitigate “displacements, relocations, housing and other community impacts,” according to the Texas DOT release.

The FHWA will monitor the project as Texas DOT proceeds.

“This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves the North Houston Highway Improvement Project in ways that will make a real difference in people’s lives,” said Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt in the release. “Through this agreement the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project’s life cycle.”

While final designs still have to be hammered out, some construction work could start in the next few years, the Houston Chronicle reported. Construction Dive reached out to Texas DOT about next steps for the project and when bidding will begin, but the agency did not respond in time for publication.

Flush with funding from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as well as voter-approved initiatives, Texas is going big on road building in the next decade. Last year, Texas DOT announced a record $85 billion for roadway construction and other transportation efforts over the next 10 years as part of its 2023 Unified Transportation Program, which directs federal and state funding to projects.

Such highway expansion efforts are not always welcome, however: Texas DOT is also facing pushback from some residents over similar projects in Austin, Dallas and El Paso. They say the state should invest in transit and other more climate-friendly infrastructure instead of wider highways.

In addition to more road capacity, the I-45 project also entails adding detention ponds, pump stations and other flood mitigation efforts. Parks, trails and pedestrian and bicycle facilities will also be built.

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