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.

The state’s transportation agency will continue limited work on a controversial Houston highway expansion plan that the federal government had previously paused over civil rights concerns, agency officials said on Tuesday.

Transportation officials told the Texas Transportation Commission they had been given the OK from the government to continue detailed design work on some sections of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which would widen I-45 from downtown up north to Beltway 8.

The Texas Department of Transportation is working with the Federal Highway Administration on resolving civil rights concerns raised earlier this year, according to TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams.

“This process is still evolving, and this time that we have is allowing us an opportunity for this work to continue,” Williams told commissioners at the monthly Texas Transportation Commission meeting.

The expansion was put on hold in March when the FHWA — in response to concerns from local activists and stakeholders — opened an investigation into the project, citing possible violations under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in federal programs. The federal agency also raised concerns over possible environmental violations.

It was later revealed that the state continued to move forward with the project, prompting the FHWA to again intervene.

Despite the agreement between the federal government and the state to move forward with parts of the NHHIP, top state transportation officials said they would now have to reassess the schedule for the project’s completion and implementation.

Without much momentum, part of the project’s funding is threatened to be reallocated to other initiatives in the state’s overall transportation plan. The bid process for contractors was also likely to be put on hold for the next two years, Williams said.

“While a partial release of the pause on the project is good news, the project has been on pause by FHWA now for nine months and still largely remains under pause,” he said. “This delay has set the project back a couple of years at least.”

The NHHIP has seen significant pushback from locals, who have said the expansion plan would exacerbate noise and air pollution in low-income areas, decrease parkland and lead to the displacement of homes and businesses.

In a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday, several local activists — including Stop TxDOT I-45, Air Alliance Houston, and LINK Houston — urged the continuation of “a thorough investigation” into alleged civil rights violations by TxDOT.

“The purpose of this investigation is not to draw out the project for the sake of delay; the FHWA must do its due diligence and investigate the very real impacts on the people of Houston,” the letter read. “Houston deserves a project that truly prioritizes safety, centers the lived experience of those most impacted, and brings our city into the equitable transportation future it so desperately needs.”

However, the project has received the backing of businesses groups including the Greater Houston Partnership — the region’s largest chamber of commerce — which has spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads in support of the project. Proponents of the plan say it would be a boon for business and alleviate traffic concerns.

Others have disputed those benefits. According to one study, a $2.2 billion widening of the Katy Freeway increased average commute times by up to 55% during afternoons.

The expansion also drew the ire of Harris County, which sued TxDOT in March to stop the agency from moving forward. Both the county and the state are now negotiating a pause on that suit in order to move forward with discussions.

In a statement Tuesday, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee confirmed his office met with FHWA officials before they agreed to let TxDOT move forward on a limited basis. He said he has also discussed the suit with federal transportation officials.

“We expect TxDOT to participate in good faith and work alongside us to achieve a resolution that benefits all County residents,” Menefee said.