TxDOT gets OK to continue limited work on I-45 expansion
Local activists say the I-45 expansion would increase pollution, worsen traffic congestion, and displace hundreds located in underserved communities. Photo by Fujio Watanabe/Houston Public Media.

After months of back and forth, the Texas Department of Transportation is moving forward with a multi-billion dollar project to revitalize I-45. This comes after federal officials announced the signing of a Voluntary Resolution Agreement resolving the investigation of the I-45 North Houston Highway Improvement Project and lifting the pause on the project, which has been under fire from critics worried about the project’s impact on minority communities. 

Harris County sued TxDOT behind the proposal in 2021 – that’s the same time the Federal Highway Administration began an ongoing investigation into environmental and civil rights concerns about the project. Critics were partly concerned because it would displace more than 1,000 residences and businesses in low-income communities of color. The county asked a judge to compel TxDOT to work more closely with Houston-area stakeholders and give greater consideration to their concerns, which also include the potential for increased pollution and traffic congestion.

The federal government paused the project, which would widen and reroute Interstate 45 near and north of downtown. Their investigation, completed this week, found TxDOT followed guidelines.

The VRA is designed to address the project’s impact to the community and provides clear enforceable timelines that will be monitored by the federal government, including detailed design, stakeholder engagement, affordable housing initiatives, right-of-way acquisition, flood mitigation and construction activities. 

“This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves the North Houston Highway Improvement Project in ways that will make a real difference in people’s lives. Through this agreement the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project’s life cycle,” said Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt. “We have lifted the pause, and with FHWA oversight, TXDOT may proceed with design and construction.”

The $9 billion NHHIP is expected to take more than 10 years and will ultimately reconstruct I-45 North between Houston’s downtown and the North Sam Houston Tollway to bring the roadway up to federal safety standards and enhance mobility.

Improvements also include increased modal options through four non-tolled managed lanes, bicycle and pedestrian features along frontage roads and cross streets, and trails parallel to bayous within the right of way. Detention ponds, pump stations and other flood mitigation tools are also included in the project. TxDOT officials say air quality will also benefit from less congested traffic and idling cars along with various project mitigations.

“This portion of I-45 was built in stages in the 1950s and 1960s and the design remained essentially the same while the area population has doubled,” stated Marc Williams, TxDOT executive director.  “The reconstruction of I-45 will address mobility needs for people and freight, while also improving safety and a number of environmental mitigations that include critical measures to improve storm water drainage. Considering the recently executed agreements with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County and now the FHWA, we are excited to get this critical infrastructure project moving with our partnering agencies.”  

Officials say because of the length and cost of the project, it was important that the public and local officials have input from design through construction. TxDOT has committed to holding public engagement meetings at least twice a year throughout the life of the project. During those meetings, they’ll provide the community with up-to-date information regarding the project and give an open forum for the community to provide feedback, raise issues or ask questions about not just the projects, but also TxDOT’s compliance with the agreement.

City officials say the VRA gives them confidence as the project moves forward. With the VRA, stakeholders have the opportunity to remediate any improper activities or non-compliance with the terms of the agreement.

“The FHWA agreement announced today bolsters the county’s and city’s agreements with TxDOT from late last year. Many of the commitments TxDOT made to the county and the city are now subject to federal government monitoring and enforcement throughout the projects design and construction,” said Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee. “I’m glad the federal government ratified and built on the work done by local government – this agreement ensures the county’s and city’s interests will be considered during the life of the project.”

Added Mayor Sylvester Turner, “After years of negotiations, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project can now be the project Houston deserves it to be; a project that addresses I-45’s repeated flooding while maximizing the opportunities for people to stay in their homes and neighborhoods.

“It is a project that helps people and goods travel through the region while encouraging people to travel between our neighborhoods without impacting them. A project that can help knit back together our downtown and improve the air we all breathe. I thank the many project partners and stakeholders that have brought us to the point, including FHWA, TxDOT, Harris County, METRO and especially our residents.”