Houston-area Officials Commit $100M to I-45 Widening Project
After five hours and nearly 60 residents -- as well as Harris County officials -- urging delay of the approval until the Texas Department of Transportation answered lingering questions, however, the go-ahead from the Houston-Galveston Area Council's Transportation Policy Council fell well short of full-throated support.
"It is one thing to listen, but it is very important we are responsive," Houston at-large Councilman and transportation council Vice Chairman David Robinson said, telling TxDOT the city's support comes with the expectation the concerns will be addressed.
"We will not support a project that is not in the interest of our citizens," Robinson said.
TxDOT officials requested $100 million from H-GAC for the center segment of the project, from Interstate 10 north to Loop 610 , estimated to cost $1.2 billion . TxDOT would cover the remainder of the cost. The local money would come from federal funding controlled by the transportation council.
Though the decision affects only the center segment, criticism is growing along the entire $7-billion -plus, 25-mile project from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. TxDOT proposes adding two managed lanes in each direction the length of the rebuild, which will require the acquisition of 319 residences and 264 businesses north of Interstate 10 ; another 916 residences and 68 businesses would be affected by the construction around the central business district, where the project would lead to a near-total redesign of the freeway system from Interstate 69 and Spur 527 to I-10 and I-45 .
A major part of the proposed project would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce Street and shift the freeway to flow along I-69 on the east end of the central business district and then follow I-10 along Buffalo Bayou back to where I-45 heads north of downtown.
Construction of downtown segments could start as early as 2021, while the center segment work is not expected to start until late 2023 or early 2024.
The sheer enormity of the project has led to widespread air quality concerns and neighborhood-specific fears along the 25-mile route. That has led some to encourage slow-going before local officials commit their money.
"If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo told colleagues on the transportation council Friday. "It is only responsible to wait."
Hidalgo was the sole no vote against the $100 million , after her proposal to delay the commitment to January 2020 was denied. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia abstained on the vote to commit the money.
They were hardly the only people in the H-GAC conference room opposed to moving forward, which grew so crowded an overflow room was opened. Sixty-five people spoke during public comment, 59 of whom urged officials to delay committing the money or reject the widening plan outright.
"This plan is not a good plan for the city of Houston and represents the past and not the future of transportation in the City of Houston ," former district judge and Metropolitan Transit Authority board member Dwight Jefferson said, noting how prior freeway projects -- including I-45 -- cut large gashes in black and Latino communities.
"The time has come to say no more," Jefferson said in a fiery speech that drew loud applause. "No more communities dissected, no more families displaced, no more businesses sacrificed."
Transit advocates, environmental groups and neighborhood groups have aligned to criticize how the project will claim 1,200 residences and exacerbate air quality and noise woes in communities already cut by the freeway.
"We need to be thinking not just about moving cars, but about connecting people to economic opportunity, creating great walkable places that people enjoy," said Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston.
More assurances and specifics must be provided to those who face displacement by the project, said Rhonda Skillern-Jones , a Houston Independent School District board member who works as a community liaison for Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis .
METRO MOVING FORWARD: Houston's long-range transit plan could go to voters without some specifics
Even many skeptics of the project agree TxDOT officials have done an unprecedented amount of listening to the community via years of public meetings and sessions with civic clubs, advocacy groups and neighborhood councils. Those efforts will continue, said Quincy Allen , district engineer for TxDOT in Houston .
"We haven't communicated as well as we needed to," Allen said, pledging the agency will redouble efforts to gather input and try to find solutions.
Allen pressed officials to offer the $100 million now because state officials are updating Texas' 10-year transportation plan, and Houston -area TxDOT officials want to make sure the project is included. The Texas Transportation Commission , eager to spend transportation money on major projects, can add the project this year to the 10-year plan.
A lack of support from local officials jeopardizes that, Allen and others said, which could mean getting back in line for funding.
"If we don't show the transportation commission we have an interest in this project, those dollars will be gone," said state Rep. Dennis Paul , whose wife is Eliza Paul , deputy district engineer of TxDOT's Houston district. "I think we need to get this process moving."
Friday's vote, while a major show of support and commitment of money, will not be the final time H-GAC's transportation council will debate widening I-45 . The money still must be added to the agency's upcoming plans. If the project stays on track to start construction in late 2023, it likely would need to be included in H-GAC's spending plan, which requires the transportation policy council to approve it, as part of a batch of projects in 2020 or 2021.
By then, the expectation is TxDOT will have more support from the community, or still face mounting criticism -- and however that goes will give local transportation officials more certainty on which way to vote, a handful said.
"If we do not do this right we will continue to perpetuate the distrust of big government in these communities," said Houston District K Councilwoman Martha Castex-Tatum .
(c)2019 the Houston Chronicle
Visit the Houston Chronicle at www.chron.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.