The Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas to delay issuing requests for proposals and pause ongoing contracting on a $7-billion, three-phased highway expansion project in metropolitan Houston as it evaluates complaints that up to 1,000 homes and multifamily buildings and 350 businesses would be condemned to build the project.

The agency sent the March 8 notice to the Texas Dept. of Transportation as Harris County sued the state in federal court on March 11 to halt contracting of the Interstate-45 project, pending a new environmental impact review.

The project, to be built over 10 years on a 24-mile stretch of I-45, is one of the the city’s largest infrastructure projects in a generation, according to TxDOT.

“We are in contact with FHWA seeking clarity around what a pause might mean as far as timing is concerned for future contract solicitation efforts,” agency Executive Director James Bass said in a statement to ENR.

TxDOT selected the project’s scope on Feb. 4 after completing its final environmental impact statement last year. A spokesman did not provide additional detail on the status of contract awards.

The expansion, set to improve traffic congestion around Houston, includes four new managed express lanes from downtown to Beltway 8 North, and rerouting I-45 to parallel I-10 on the city’s north side and parallel I-69 on the east side of downtown. Sections of I-10 and I-69 would be rerouted. The approved project also includes reconstruction of main lanes and frontage roads and added bicycle and pedestrian capacity along streets that cross freeways. 

In its letter to state DOT officials, FHWA said it has received complaints over Title VI violations of the federal Civil Rights Act from Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, the Air Alliance of Houston and another community group. Title VI prohibits race-based and other forms of discrimination on federally-funded projects and programs. 

The federal agency, which noted its authority to evaluate Title VI concerns on federal-aid projects, seeks the pause in future contract actions until it completes its review. The final state EIS says the preferred alternative project route would affect low-income and minority populations.

In the county's March 11 suit, filed under the National Environmental Policy Act in U.S. district court in the southern district of Texas, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee claims TxDOT failed to look at alternatives before selecting the final project and asked the court to require more impact review.

The suit says the TxDOT project plan "ignored serious harms, disregarded concerns of communities impacted and brushed off the numerous comments they received" during the environmental review. It says officials "already made their minds up about what they were going to do and then simply did it."

The county wants the project "more carefully considered and designed to meet the diverse needs of the region’s future," reflecting altered work patterns and new transit initiatives, and to "learn from the region's past experience that wider freeways cause more traffic, not less, and without unnecessarily displacing hundreds of families and businesses."

TxDOT has not yet received a copy of the lawsuit, said Bass. “We were looking forward to continuing our work with stakeholders on refining the plans for the project, but these plans may now be in jeopardy due to the lawsuit." he said. "We look forward to discussing our efforts to mitigate concerns.”

The I-45 highway, all in Texas, stretches from Galveston through Houston to Dallas.