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Harris County Sues TxDOT to Stop I-45 Expansion

Harris County has filed a federal lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to halt a plan for expanding Interstate 45.

Unlike most other interstate highways, I-45 does not cross any state lines but stretches from Galveston to Dallas through downtown Houston. The busy freeway also serves as an important hurricane evacuation route but made news in 2005 when residents found themselves trapped on I-45 as traffic ground to a standstill due to the unprecedented numbers of vehicles attempting to flee Hurricane Rita that year.

In response to significant regional growth, plans for expansion and reconfiguration have been in the works for over a decade, and following years of studies and community meetings, this year TxDOT finally issued a Record of Decision for what is officially known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP).  

The $7.5 billion project will include adding managed express lanes, rerouting portions of I-45, and realigning sections of I-10 and other highways. It also adds bicycle and pedestrian sections, sidewalks, sound barriers, and pass-through lanes on I-10. 

Part of the realignment involves moving a heavily congested segment from midtown Houston to a route slightly to the east of midtown. Since the proposed route passes through residential neighborhoods, TxDOT must provide compensation and a plan for relocating impacted residents in homes and apartments in the expansion zones.

In a Thursday press conference, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo argued that expanded roadway capacity would merely lead to more congestion and she said that the county would press for a plan with comprehensive mass transit and no additional lanes for I-45.

“Wider highways just mean more congestion,” said Hidalgo.

Hidalgo added that TxDOT plans would not only be bad for traffic but would also unnecessarily displace communities and be bad for the health of residents due to air quality. 

“We cannot continue to support transportation policy that prioritizes policy over people.”

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee accused TxDOT of failing to fully consider environmental impacts and incorporate feedback from the community.

“Very early in the process, TxDOT ruled out alternatives that would have no land expansion, that would not result in additional lanes,” said Menefee. “They also failed to properly consider environmental impacts and impacts on local neighborhoods many of which are historically underserved neighborhoods.”

TxDOT released a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in August of 2020 that included revisions to a previous statement and statistics on how many residents would need to be relocated. 

The EIS reported that 1,079 residences would be impacted, along with 341 businesses, five churches, and two schools. Those to be displaced primarily reside in low-income neighborhoods along the interstate and Hidalgo explained that many residents in those communities do not have vehicles, but instead travel by foot or mass transit.

Hidalgo insisted that the only acceptable plan eliminates displacement. She and Menefee also referred to instructions from the U.S. Department of Transportation to TxDOT this week to halt proceeding with the NHHIP.

In a letter dated March 8, 2021, a division administrator with the Federal Highway Administration informed TxDOT that the agency has received a letter from Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX-18) raising concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that additional letters expressing concern came from Air Alliance Houston and Texas Housers.  

Harris County and Houston have both embraced Vision Zero for all future traffic and transit planning. The concept, based on the principle that “life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within society,” seeks to completely eliminate all traffic fatalities by the year 2030 and incorporates strategies to emphasize mass transit and reduce options to travel by private vehicles.

County commissioners approved proceeding with the lawsuit against TxDOT in a 3 to 2 party-line vote, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. 

When asked about how impacted residents would be compensated, Hidalgo said no displacement could be fair, and that the county preferred a plan that did not displace any residents.

TxDOT says that plans include relocation assistance, as well as the reformulation of drainage to help mitigate flooding issues. The state agency had also committed $27 million toward affordable housing initiatives in the Houston area.

Negotiations over contested aspects of the plan with the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) began to break down last year. The council had been planning to contribute $100 million to the I-45 project but could rescind the commitment. The H-GAC board of directors consists of 36 elected officials from 13 counties, and both Hidalgo and Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) represent Harris County.

TxDOT Executive Director James Bass, named as a plaintiff in the county’s lawsuit, said in a written statement, “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.”

At stake are also state transportation funds which officials may shift to other projects if the I-45 expansion is halted.

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