The I-45 Expansion Is Happening, So Get Out of the Way

Despite the protests, the I-45 expansion is a go once again.
Despite the protests, the I-45 expansion is a go once again. Photo by Doogie Roux

The Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration announced this week that they have struck a deal regarding the federal civil rights complaint that has had the $9 billion I-45 project idling for the past two years.

And just like that, the controversial I-45 Houston expansion project is back on.

“Through this agreement the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project’s life cycle,” Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Batt stated in a release.

“After years of negotiations, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project can now be the project Houston deserves it to be,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement echoing Batt’s enthusiasm.

But what does the agreement that has inspired all this officially stated enthusiasm actually mean regarding the many issues around this mammoth construction project?

Well, it’s complicated.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project, as it is more formally known, is a planned expansion and overhaul that TXDOT has been percolating since at least 2005. The expansion will run from the start of I-45 North in downtown Houston to Beltway 8 (aka the North Sam Houston Tollway). The project will include adding lanes to parts of I-45, and significant alterations to the section of 45 that runs from I-10 to Beltway 8.

The part of I-45 that currently runs alongside downtown will be rerouted along I-10 and I-59/I-69. In addition to that, parts of I-10 and I-59/I-69 will be having a little work done, so to speak. It’s expected construction will take at least a decade to complete.

In other words, it’s going to be a lot. But that’s not the main reason these plans are so contentious. We all experience a slight feeling of existential dread at the thought of dealing with years (a decade or more) of Houston highway construction once this thing gets underway. But the community members who find themselves directly in the path of the planned expansion are the ones who really have reason to be upset.

Why? Well, mainly because the planned expansion is going to roll right over any homes and businesses in its path. TXDOT estimates that by the time it is completed the project will displace more than 1,300 families, 300 businesses, and at least five places of worship. And it just so happens that most of these homes and businesses are in Independence Heights and Fifth Ward.

Decades ago, these two historically Black communities were bifurcated by freeways that were routed directly through each neighborhood, damaging them both. More troublingly, the fact that I-45 and the 610 Loop were built going through Independence Heights while I-10 was mapped out slicing into Fifth Ward probably wasn’t an accident.

Starting in the late 1950s highways were being constructed across the country as part of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and a lot of these new highways ran directly and sometimes deliberately through minority and low-income neighborhoods. (Highway planning was even used as a physical tool for de facto segregation as legal segregation began to be struck down, as Deborah Archer, a New York University Law professor and president of the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR back in 2021.

Despite this history, residents of these communities will once again see homes, stores and churches sacrificed to bring noisy pollution-clouded roadways even closer to remaining structures—and all in the name of progress. Maybe.

Because to be clear the reasons for this $9 billion endeavor to overhaul sections of I-45 and other key urban arteries are up for debate. Local and state officials have maintained that the expansion makes sense as it will be the first significant update that some portions of our freeway system have received since they were first built in the late 1950s and 1960s. That part seems to track. (Not keeping up your roads and bridges can have serious fallout, as the 2018 Genoa bridge collapse has demonstrated.)

But these same officials also cite the fact that more people are moving to both Houston and Texas, clogging our already clogged roadways as the other big motivator here. With Houston’s population expected to only keep growing in the coming decades, it’s supposedly smart to go ahead and expand our roadway capacity now.

The Public Interest Research Group, a national nonprofit, maintains that expanding highways increases pollution, harms communities, and it doesn’t fix the main issue: the traffic.

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This too kind of makes sense—except that experts have been saying for years and studies have shown that highway expansion doesn’t solve congestion issues. The Public Interest Research Group, a national nonprofit, maintains that expanding highways increases pollution, harms communities, and it doesn’t fix the main issue: the traffic.

If you want proof, look no further than the Katy Freeway. The Katy Freeway expansion was a $2.2 billion modern marvel of engineering with 23 lanes that aimed to make the 2004 second worst bottleneck in the nation, according to American Highway Users Alliance, into a smooth-running freeway. Except, of course, it infamously didn’t. In fact, Houston’s own traffic data has showed that the travel time increased.

As the I-45 project has gone from nascent planning stages back in 2005 to issuing its final environmental impact statement in 2019, community members have grown increasingly vocal about their concerns of how the project will further erode their communities and expose residents to even more pollution, potentially without even addressing the problem that it’s supposed to solve.

Opponents of the plan have formed Stop TXDOT I-45, and as they’ve organized and become increasingly vocal about their concerns, they’ve been able to gain some traction. Even as TXDO continued to push forward with its plans in recent years, Turner and other city and county officials started raising these issues with the state.

Finally in March 2021, Harris County filed a federal lawsuit under the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law that requires environmental consideration for any projects that need federal action. The day the suit was filed the FHA asked TXDOT to put the project on hold due to civil rights concerns under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

However, last December Harris County abruptly dropped the lawsuit after TXDOT made an agreement with Houston and Harris County officials that the state agency will replace any housing that is destroyed due to the expansion. TXDOT officials also promised flood mitigation projects, more green space, and improved public transit, a lovely deal that the city and county don’t have the authority to make binding.

Then this week, after a pause one day shy of two years, the FHA and TXDOT announced their agreement. And it’s fine.

Now the state must do a number of things to ensure that community members are being heard throughout this process. That includes holding two public meetings a year throughout the design and construction of the project. The state must also place air quality monitors along the route a year before construction begins; update FHA every 180 days about the project’s status; allocate $30 million to affordable housing; and fund, design and construct new trails, biking paths, and green space. TXDOT’s December deal also requires the state to try not to expand its footprint while building out the expansion.

So, this is something. This agreement will be federally monitored, which should keep TXDOT accountable. It includes air monitors to ensure that there will at least be measurements about how much worse the air gets. More greenspace is a plus. And lord knows we need more affordable housing. But it doesn’t do anything to address the main reason people are upset about the project.

The air quality will be watched, community members will have public meetings to put forth their concerns, there will be more parks and biking lanes, and more housing will be built within a two-mile radius to replace 80 percent of whatever is lost.

But in the end, even with projections of economic benefits (more than 90,000 direct jobs and nearly as many indirectly related jobs), even with the promised flood mitigation (flood mitigation projects will be added for the North and South Canals), even with all of the many promises, it’s hard to miss what isn’t promised.

Although the circumstances may be better, as things stand now, once again the people who are going to be impacted the most by the I-45 expansion are still going to simply have to get out of the way.
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray