Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday celebrated a recent move from President Joe Biden’s Department of Transportation to attempt and stop the controversial plan to expand Houston’s I-45 highway from going forward.
In a press conference with fellow Democrat and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, Hidalgo shared the contents of a letter sent to the Texas Department of Transportation on June 14 by the Federal Highway Administration — an arm of the federal transportation department — forcefully requesting that TxDOT halt all activity around moving forward with its plan to widen I-45, including moves TxDOT has made behind the scenes to acquire land for the project despite a previous request from the feds to pause the project.
The highway administration’s letter also announced that the agency would hold back on issuing a required report TxDOT needs to ultimately go ahead with the I-45 project over concerns that the project as designed would disproportionately impact Black and brown county residents in largely minority communities like Fifth Ward and the East End, potentially in violation of the Civil Rights Act.
Back in early March, “County Attorney Menefee and I announced a lawsuit against TxDOT, which would require them to take these community concerns and environmental concerns into account,” Hidalgo said. “That same day, we received word that the Department of Transportation under the Biden administration was requesting that TxDOT pause the project over potential concerns that the Civil Rights Act may have been violated.”
TxDOT responded by sending its own letter to the Department of Transportation asking for more guidance on how best to address those concerns and expressed a willingness to work together on adjusting the project.
But in the weeks that followed, it turns out TxDOT was still aggressively moving to pressure landowners within the path of the project to sell their land to the state of Texas, and was using the state’s eminent domain powers to try and pry property away from folks who didn’t want to sell, according to Hidalgo and Menefee.
“The message from the Biden administration to TxDOT is very clear: you can’t bulldoze your way to a massive infrastructure project without community input, without considering smarter transportation options,” Hidalgo said. “And you can’t bulldoze your way through the Civil Rights Act.”
Based on the legally required environmental impact report on the current I-45 project commissioned by TxDOT, the highway expansion would displace 1,079 residences, 344 businesses, five places of worship and two schools. Houston and Harris County officials and community members also complained to TxDOT about the environmental impact the project would have on largely poor, minority neighborhoods due to increased air pollution from more cars driving on the widened lanes.
Hidalgo and Menefee contend that TxDOT ignored those complaints, which is why they sued TxDOT and asked the Biden administration to intervene. Menefee confirmed that the Biden administration is also conducting its own review of whether or not TxDOT’s current plan runs afoul of federal civil rights and environmental regulations while the Harris County lawsuit is underway.
“Consider its parallel tracks: our lawsuit here, and the government’s investigation,” Menefee said.
Hidalgo insisted that she and other local officials understand the need to improve I-45, but she vowed the county would only get behind a plan that doesn’t overemphasize widening highways, which she believes is an outdated “Eisenhower-era” way of thinking about highway infrastructure.
As for exactly what a Hidalgo-approved plan would look like, she said it’ll take some time — and cooperation between city, county, state and federal partners — to figure out.
“We can have a region with world-class transportation. We can have a region where people don’t have to spend hours in traffic every day just to get to work,” Hidalgo said. “We can have a region that doesn’t have the highest accident rate in the nation.”
“We can have that, but we need to be able to incorporate innovative plans, to dare to think creatively,” she continued. “I continue to be very eager to work with TxDOT.”
The Federal Highway Administration's most recent letter to TxDOT is embedded below.