The Federal Highway Administration has agreed to let a $9-billion Texas highway reconstruction project proceed after a two-year pause over concerns linked to the project’s potential impact on communities along the route, including a lawsuit filed by Harris County to halt contracting, pending a new environmental impact review.
The agency and the Texas Dept. of Transportation signed a voluntary resolution agreement to satisfy the federal civil rights investigation of the I-45 North Houston Highway Improvement Project, officials announced March 7. The agreement includes mitigation steps to address project impacts and a schedule of milestones for TxDOT to implement.
The state agency had completed its environmental clearance process for the project in February 2021. The next month, the county sued in federal court and U.S. highway officials started their investigation into the project, with TxDOT asked to hold off on contracting, property acquisition and final design work.
Under terms of the deal, TxDOT agreed to reduce the highway project footprint during design. The agency will minimize displacements and provide relocation services for anyone who must be displaced for the project, and will also provide $27 million to support affordable housing initiatives.
TxDOT will also complete drainage studies and build drainage basins as requested by the county Flood Control District, according to the agreement. It will also fund city of Houston canal projects aimed at reducing flood risks. Other mitigations in the deal include air quality monitoring, support for trail development and reduced impacts to public transit during construction.
Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said in a statement that the “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.”
TxDOT reached consensus agreements with Houston and Harris County officials late last year, with the new pact coming as the Biden administration has prioritized undoing harm to neighborhoods that were split by highways and other infrastructure. Last month, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation announced the first $185 million in grant awards for neighborhood restoration projects through its $1-billion Reconnecting Communities program.
However, some Houston-area activists who had raised concerns over civil rights and environmental issues caused by the project still are critical despite the FHWA agreement. One group called Stop TxDOT I-45 said in a statement that the agreement “holds no guarantees for displaced community members and reneges on [the] Biden administration’s commitment to transformational racial justice on transportation."
The I-45 plan calls for reconstruction of the highway between downtown Houston and the North Sam Houston Tollway to enhance mobility and meet modern federal safety standards. The area’s population has doubled since this portion of the highway was built in the 1950s and 1960s, according to TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams.
The three-phase project would add four express lanes on I-45, reroute sections to run parallel to I-10 and US59/I-69 in downtown Houston, realign sections of I-10 and I-69 to eliminate capacity-limiting reverse curves and lower a portion of I-69 to eliminate unsafe weaving.
“The reconstruction of I-45 will address mobility needs for people and freight, while also improving safety and a number of environmental mitigations that include critical measures to improve stormwater drainage,” Williams said in a statement.