The Texas Department of Transportation has been moving forward with its $7 billion plan to remake and expand Interstate 45 to lessen local traffic, but Harris County threw a wrench in that effort on Thursday by suing the state transportation agency.
The county hopes its lawsuit will lead the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to order TxDOT to pause the project and send it back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan that better addresses the concerns of county residents about pollution and all the homes and business that’ll be paved over if the expansion continues as currently designed.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday that despite all of TxDOT’s promises about factoring in community feedback, she’s frustrated that the most recent version of TxDOT’s plan doesn’t incorporate any recommendations from the county or from City of Houston officials about how to reduce the project’s footprint.
“Time after time, TxDOT has done nothing more than give us and our community lip service,” Hidalgo said. “They’ve made promises they can’t keep, bulldozing right through us with this process.”
Hidalgo said the federal lawsuit filed by Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee “asks our courts to have TxDOT go back and properly consider our concerns, and the impacts that this project will have.”
Harris County isn’t the only group that wants TxDOT to pump the brakes on the I-45 project; Hidalgo said that on Monday, the Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to TxDOT ordering that the project be put on hold after it received complaints from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Air Alliance Houston and Texas Housers, a low-income housing advocacy organization.
Menefee said the county had no choice but to go the lawsuit route. “Very early in the process,” Menefee said, “TxDOT ruled out alternatives that would have no land expansion that would not result in additional lanes… they also failed to properly consider environmental impacts and impacts on local neighborhoods, many of which are historically underserved neighborhoods.”
Not only will the current version of the I-45 project displace 1,079 residences, 344 businesses, five places of worship and two schools (many of which are in underserved, largely minority communities like Fifth Ward and the East End), according to an impact study commissioned by TxDOT, but Hidalgo warned about the air pollution risks the expansion plan poses to kids who go to school or daycare close to where the widened highway will sprawl out.
“Schools located near freeways already see much higher rates of asthma than other schools. At least 26 schools and daycares will be brought within 500 feet of the freeway. That will increase air and noise pollution, [and] it’ll increase the asthma rates,” Hidalgo said.
Menefee also argued that the project as designed could even cause headaches for folks further away from the expansion’s path as well.
“You have homes that won’t necessarily be displaced by the widening of lanes, but the flooding issues that can be created from expanding the highway can cause runoff into those homes and can increase their flooding issues… these are the types of impacts that we’re trying to make TxDOT go back and consider,” Menefee said.
On top of the homes and businesses that would be destroyed and the pollution and flood risks, Hidalgo also took issue with how TxDOT’s I-45 plan relies on adding extra highway lanes to squeeze more cars onto the road. It’s a tactic she said may reduce traffic somewhat, but would come at the cost of spending that money on better public transportation infrastructure, an area where the Houston region is firmly stuck in the past.
“We can prepare for the challenges of the future, rather than being stuck in a transportation model that the rest of the country and frankly, the rest of the world, outgrew decades ago,” Hidalgo argued.