Twenty years ago, there would have been little debate. Maybe a few people would have complained, but the Texas Department of Transportation would have simply paved them over, if you'll excuse the metaphor. Expanding freeways is the business of TxDOT in Houston and, for as long as anyone can remember, business was good.
Old Texas, meet new Houston.
Just as droves of people turned out to comment on the bizarre and archaic plans from the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou, those affected by the plans to expand Interstate 45, and advocates of alternative forms of transportation and urban planning, aren't willing to be roadkill.
When the plans for the expansion of Interstate 45 from downtown north to the Beltway and beyond began to emerge a couple years ago, the initial focus was on the radical changes proposed to much of the area around downtown. After all, little work on the freeways around the city's urban hub had been done in decades and the plans were audacious with massive aesthetic changes to the cityscape including wiping out Pierce Elevated and green spaces on top of underground freeways.
It was as shocking as it was ambitious.
We even did a cover story on the planned changes to the east end and businesses were not thrilled.
But, as the dust settled on those plans, a new outcry came from the city's east and near north sides. For decades, both areas had mostly been neglected and, not surprisingly, predominantly populated by people of color. Their complaints generally fell on deaf ears for all the same reasons those sorts of things have always occurred.
This time around, however, there is a new alignment of interests that not only long time residents and business owners, but new investors in the area and a coalition of Houstonians tired of a city that favors widening freeways over alternatives. After all, METRORail's Red Line runs right through the heart of the near north side all the way to Airline.
It is precisely why TxDOT extended the comment deadline at the urging of Mayor Sylvester Turner and other area political leaders. The plan, which would destroy a number of homes and businesses, is still under consideration, but the final design phase is nearly complete. Of particular concern is the number of affordable housing units the city will lose in the construction. Given the limited number of affordable options for Houston residents, it's difficult to imagine losing any.
None of that is good for Houston, but one thing we imagine TxDOT was not ready for was the groundswell of support for taking a different approach to life on the road in the Bayou City.
Most Houstonians know that pouring more concrete will never solve the problem of traffic and growth in Houston even if it is fast and cheap. It's why the Army Corps was so quick to suggest widening Buffalo Bayou. The price was right. But, this is not our parents Houston. Those who live here now value quality of life over the ease of freeways.
The clamor for more rail — fought tooth and nail by anti-rail forces and business interests — the desire for more park space and bike trails, the urging of better and wider sidewalks for pedestrians, and even the call for closing of some streets to vehicles entirely are all part of the city's changing nature on a topic we most like to complain about: traffic.
It has come time for civic leaders, city, state and federal, to realize that the changing demographic of Houston must be considered when it comes to large scale projects that will impact the way we get around for decades to come. This is not the blue collar, refinery town it was when many of these freeways were created. This is particularly true inside the Loop where so much of the construction is heavily scrutinized.
It's also critically important that we address the needs of the less fortunate in Houston. We have a affordable housing crisis only worsened by a recession created by the pandemic. The last thing we need to be doing is demolishing those resources for a bigger freeway.
And we haven't even bothered to broach the subject of flooding, which more concrete will certainly exacerbate.
There are no easy solutions to the problems Houston faces and traffic is most certainly at the top of the list. It is why we must look at every possible option and not just stick with the same old plans we have relied on for decades. They may have worked years ago, but they cannot be the only option for a city poised to become the third largest in the country.
This is a young, vibrant city that wants better for itself and its future. Out with the old and in with the new.
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