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File - Traffic travels along the Pierce Elevated of I-45, in Houston.

What started as a plan in 2002, with the Texas Department of Transportation and other agencies aiming to analyze options to rebuild the I-45, is now set to begin. The department announced that it is yet to start the construction of the NHHIP.

The $9.7 billion project to rebuild Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, which includes the reconstruction of the downtown freeway system, was once expected to take until 2042 to complete.

“There is no perfect design.On balance, with the improvements… I think you have an excellent project that will move forward and move the greater good.”

mayor sylvester turner

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) aims to manage traffic and congestion and promote ridesharing on I‑45 from U.S. Highway 59/I‑69 to Beltway 8 North, including improvements along US 59/I‑69 between I‑45 and Spur 527 in Harris County.

An initial goal was to address flooding along the corridor.

The project that aims to widen the I-45 from downtown comprises three segments. Segment 1 includes Beltway 8 North to I-610. Segment 2 is I-610 to I-10. And Segment 3 is the Downtown Loop System: I-45, I-10, and US 59/I-69. The third segment, in turn, comprises nine individual projects and runs through downtown.

“Our focus presently is on Segment 3, which will be the area that we move forward with first,” Raquelle Lewis, the southeast Texas communications director for TxDOT, told abc13.

Segment 3, which is now funded and ready for construction, faced the most backlash for the demolition of houses, businesses, and places of worship.

A lawsuit filed by Harris County paused TxDOT’s project for two years, alleging state officials did not take into consideration the project’s impacts on certain neighborhoods. It was finally cleared for development once the lawsuit was lifted.

“I am willing to consider a pause,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia had said. “Not a dismissal, but I hope that will demonstrate our commitment.”

Following this, the rebuild plan was set to proceed, albeit with concessions that address the impacts of the project on low-income, minority neighborhoods. In December 2022, Houston city leaders and Harris County reached a consensus to support the project on the condition of TxDOT’s commitment to a set of assurances related to public health, safety, and housing.

“There is no perfect design,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “On balance, with the improvements… I think you have an excellent project that will move forward and move the greater good.”

Analyses predicted that the project could displace more than 1,000 homes and apartments, 344 businesses, two schools, and five places of worship in primarily Black and Latino neighborhoods, according to the Associated Press.

“It’s very racially unjust,” Molly Cook with Stop TxDOT I-45, a community group that opposed the project, had said then (2021). “We’re going to spend all this money to make the traffic worse and hurt a lot of people.”

Why the project was opposed

Residents of Woodland Heights and other neighborhoods near downtown opposed the project, especially TxDOT’s plan of widening the freeway to four lanes in each direction. They garnered support for their opposition from local leaders.

The primary critique came from communities who gauged that the project would not improve the traffic in the area and would, instead, lead to an increase in pollution and cause displacement and flooding for Black and Latino residents.

According to the Houston Chronicle, people started to support the project once the Texas Department of Transportation officials said they “would try to avoid taking new right of way.” Additionally, they talked about allocating four of the extra lanes to the nearby Hardy Toll Road instead of the freeway.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg had also pledged to make racial equity a top priority in his department.

Addressing concerns

Lewis said the first project in Segment 3 will begin in 2024, which will take seven to 10 years to complete. The project will take $86.1 million to improve drainage in EaDo from St. Emmannuel to Buffalo Bayou.

According to TxDOT’s website, the project would displace the residents of Clayton Homes and buildings at Kelly Village, which are public housing properties administered by the Houston Housing Authority (HHA). TxDOT claims that it will be coordinating with the HHA about the impact on these communities. HHA plans to build new subsidized housing in the area of the existing facilities.

Moreover, TxDOT’s Acquisition and Relocation Assistance Program plans to “provide assistance and counseling to residential property owners that would be required to relocate.

Apart from this, TxDOT’s air quality studies at five locations provided a basis for conducting a carbon monoxide traffic air quality analysis.

“Modeling to project future CO concentrations through the year 2040 indicated that concentrations are not expected to exceed national standards at any time along any segment of the project,” according to TxDOT.

Air quality is also expected to improve with reduced congestion on 12 segments of the “Texas 100 Most Congested Roadways,” as reported by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). The 12 segments annually comprise 39 million person-hours of delay, $788 million in congestion costs, and 11.9 million gallons of excess fuel used. Moreover, the wasted fuel produces an estimated 120,209 tons of excess carbon dioxide.

The proposed project will also include bicycle and pedestrian accommodations that would also contribute to improved air quality.

There will also be public meetings to share construction details on the project status, details regarding the Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA), and the construction schedule with the public.

TxDOT’s public meeting schedule to share construction details on the project status with the public.