I-45 Expansion Northside

Businesses such as H.E.R.O. Performance, which operates an exercise gym at 4114 North Fwy., figures to be impacted by the I-45 expansion project proposed by the Texas Department of Transportation. (Photo by Adam Zuvanich)

The controversial plan to overhaul Interstate 45 near and north of downtown is inching forward but remains largely stuck in a traffic jam of local, state and federal interests, which has pushed back the timeline for the project by at least two years.

According to a community advocacy group called Stop TxDOT I-45, Stephanie Pollack of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and U.S. Department of Transportation visited Houston earlier this week to continue the FHWA's investigation into complaints about the Texas Department of Transportation's North Houston Highway Improvement Project, an estimated $7 billion initiative that calls for widening I-45 between downtown and Beltway 8 while displacing more than 1,000 homes and businesses in communities such as Acres Homes, Independence Heights and Northside. The FHWA in March asked the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to pause the project while it investigates complaints made under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and audits TxDOT's implementation of federal environmental review requirements.

The FHWA said in a Nov. 29 letter to TxDOT, which was publicized by Stop TxDOT I-45, that it is open to a voluntary resolution of the concerns raised about the project. The letter also says the FHWA is "comfortable allowing TxDOT to proceed with detailed design work" for one segment of the project, although TxDOT must continue to refrain from any right-of-way acquisition activities or discussions.

"While the partial release on the pause is good news, the project has been on pause by the FHWA now for nine months and still largely remains under pause," TxDOT executive director Marc Williams said during the Nov. 30 meeting of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT. "This delay has set the project back a couple of years, at least. The original design-build procurement from last year has been cancelled. TxDOT is reassessing our schedule and delivery approach."

Among other changes to the existing freeway, which was built more than 50 years ago, TxDOT's plan calls for expanded express-lane capacity on I-45 between downtown and Beltway 8 along with re-routing the freeway near downtown, including making it parallel with I-10 on the north side. TxDOT has said the purpose of the project is to improve traffic flow, hurricane evacuation routes and stormwater drainage, along with accommodating high-occupancy, electric and self-driving vehicles.

But the plan has drawn criticism because it will displace homes and businesses in low-income communities of color, and because of its high cost at a time when the Houston region is taking steps to expand alternate modes of transportation and reduce its reliance on gasoline-powered automobiles. Concerns also have been raised about the project's potential impacts on air quality and flood mitigation.

Texas Transportation Commission chairman Bruce Bugg said during an August meeting that if the FHWA's pause was not lifted before Nov. 30, then the commission would remove the I-45 project and its funding from TxDOT's 10-year plan for the state's highway system. Bugg backtracked from that statement during the Nov. 30 meeting, saying the project would remain on the long-term plan for the time being because discussions are ongoing between TxDOT, the FHWA and local leaders in the Houston region.

Harris County sued TxDOT over the project in March, asking a federal judge to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to environmental and civil rights concerns raised by the county and its residents. But Harris County Commissioners Court voted in November to direct county attorney Christian D. Menefee to negotiate a temporary pause of the lawsuit so county and TxDOT officials could discuss the project.

Menefee and Pollack were among the officials to attend a Monday public meeting about the project that was facilitated by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, according to Stop TxDOT I-45. Also in attendance, according to the project opposition group, were local elected officials such as Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros, Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, State Reps. Christina Morales and Senfronia Thompson and State Sen. Borris Miles.

"Expanding I-45 is important, but it has to be done thoughtfully with minimal repercussions to the surrounding area," Miles said Monday on Twitter.

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