FOR THE I-45 PROJECT AS IS
Marc Williams, TxDOT Executive Director
The Texas Department of Transportation wants to know: Should they proceed with the I-45 North Houston Highway Improvement project or not. Currently, TxDOT has asked the public to tell them whether they should invest the $7.9 billion earmarked for the project considering some have raised concerns.
With one week remaining in the 30 days set aside for online comments, Houston area residents have four ways of submitting their opinions: Online – Visit www.TxDot.gov and search the keyword “UTP public involvement” to access the online comment form; Email – Comments can be sent to UTP-PublicComments@txdot.gov; Phone – 800-687-8108; Mail – Texas Department of Transportation, Attn: TPP-UTP, P.O. Box 149217, Austin, Tx 78714-9217.
In an interview with the Houston Defender Network, TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams stated that the biggest benefits of the I-45 project are providing traffic congestion relief, addressing flooding along the corridor and connecting different types of transportation modes from bicycle, pedestrian and transit.
“It’s been over 15 years in the making that has brought us to this point where we have a project that has gone through the environmental review process, the planning review process, and that TxDOT is ready to move forward with. Now we’re hearing from some in the local community, important voices in the local community, that want us to potentially reassess what has been done over the past 15 years,” stated Williams.
“What we’re trying to make sure that the community understands is that to go back and begin to reassess these issues is going to be a significant delay, an undetermined delay in the project. But we’re continuing to have good dialogue with different elected officials, different voices in the community and the metropolitan planning organization working hard to try to find a good path forward, so that we can hopefully move forward with this project sooner, rather than later.”
Williams explained there has been about $5.5 billion in funding already committed to the project, but admits, “There are many needs in the region. There are many needs throughout the state, and if the region is not ready to move forward with the project that has been part of their plan for a number of years, and the region wants to reassess and reevaluate how they may want the project built, we’ll work with them on that. But we can’t leave that amount of money potentially sitting there for an undetermined outcome.”
Traditionally, highway expansion has a major impact on Black and Brown neighborhoods displacing residents and oftentimes failing to gain input from those impacted by the highway project.
“It affects people’s homes, businesses and communities. We want to make sure that we’re doing not just what we are required to do, but more than what we’re required to do to help address those areas. So first of all, we’ve looked at anything that we can to reduce the footprint of the project, the size of the project, and still address the objectives of the project,” explained Williams.
“Where we do have homes and businesses that have been impacted, we have focused on going above and beyond in offering relocation benefits, offering fair market value or above fair market value in many cases to relocate people and look for ways to allow people to relocate back into the community that they live in.”
Working with the local housing authority, Williams contends families have been relocated to better housing units replacing units that were uninhabitable or destroyed during Hurricane Harvey.
Expressing gratitude to the community partners in the Black community who have worked with TxDOT, Williams stated, “We work with the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council. Tanya DeVos has been a very important advocate for that particular community. We worked with the NAACP Houston Branch and their housing committee in this effort, the Southeast Management District Transportation Committee.
”We’ve also engaged with Texas Southern University, Gulf Coast Community Services Association, the Houston Area Urban League and the Houston Housing Authority. It’s a really broad cross section of individuals that are engaged and active in the local communities along this important highway corridor. And we’ve really valued and benefited from the input that we’ve received from those organizations”
AGAINST THE I-45 PROJECT AS IS
Mayor Sylvester Turner
The fact that the public comment initiative of TxDOT is a survey that gives you only two options: support maintaining the project and funding as proposed or support removing the project and funding is a sticking point that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says does not give the community a real choice.
“A survey is not public engagement. Further, this survey is framing a false choice,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “We do not intend to play their game. There is a right way to do it, and if it is done right, it can be transformational,” Mayor Turner said of TxDOT’s planned reconstruction of I-45.”
As early as May 2020, Mayor Turner made it clear there are key priorities for a successful project: alternatives to use only the right of way needed; dedicated transit lanes with stations that serve adjacent communities; frontage roads, crossings, and other points of neighborhood interface as City streets; and keeping communities whole by allowing residents and businesses to remain in their neighborhood while increasing funding for housing construction to maintain the supply of affordable unit.
“There is a path forward for this project,” said Mayor Turner. “It entails making commitments related to housing, connectivity, flooding, parks and green space, and multimodal forms of transportation. It can even work within TxDOT’s existing Record of Decision. But it requires TxDOT to take a different approach. The take it or lose it position being offered by TxDOT is not helpful in getting this project done.”
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee
The forces against the current I-45 plan have taken serious measures to confront the project head-on with a lawsuit filed by Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee demanding that TxDOT take residents and environment into consideration.
Earlier this week at a public hearing on the TxDOT’S Unified Transportation Project (UTP), the 10-year plan that guides the development of transportation work across Texas, residents were invited to give comments. Also in attendance virtually was County Attorney Menefee.
When asked his opinion of the TxDOT meeting, Menefee agreed with Mayor Turner stating, “TxDOT set up a sham ‘public input’ survey. The question on expanding I-45 gives residents only two options: keep the current design or remove the project and funding from TxDOT’s 10-year plan. This is a false choice, designed to trick residents into supporting TxDOT’s attempt to ram this project through. Thankfully, the residents participating in Monday night’s meeting saw through it and made it clear they reject this false choice. Residents deserve a meaningful public input process that allows them to express whether they want the project designed in a way that minimizes the impact to surrounding communities.”
Recently the Federal government told TxDOT to stand down and the project was placed on hold due to a series of letters from elected officials including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and other concerned citizens. As a result, a federal investigation was launched focused on the environmental impact or compliance with the National Environment Policy Act and the Civil Rights Laws Title 6 addressing discrimination in the expenditure of federal dollars.
With the lawsuit pending until mid-2022, TxDOT decided to take the project to the public and have them give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. County Attorney Menefee expressed concern about this approach.
“We want the funding. We want a project. We want to increase transit options however we want it to be done the right way,” said Menefee. “We felt as though TxDOT cut corners in meeting the environmental impact and that’s the premise of our lawsuit.”
Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Goal
13.5% Construction | 22% Engineering & Design