While there’s a lot of work ahead of us, thanks to our collective efforts over the past months and years, we’ve no doubt moved the needle in a positive direction on the behemoth $7 billion I-45 Expansion – also known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP).
Last month, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) closed the public comment period on the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the project. Per federal rules, TxDOT can now self-issue a Record of Decision (ROD) which gives the expansion environmental clearance to move forward. A favorable ROD would allow TxDOT to condemn land in the right-of-way (footprint) of the project and begin construction.
As many of you know, if the project moves forward as currently designed, hundreds of residents and business owners who live, work, learn and play along the northern stretch of freeway will be displaced from homes, lose their jobs, and be exposed to more harmful air pollution, among many other devastating impacts. The impacts disproportionately burden Black and Brown communities adjacent to the corridor, perpetuating a long history of environmental racism caused by highway expansion projects. TxDOT has to date not listened to the community concerns and has proposed few commitments towards mitigating the adverse impacts of the project.
Over the past several months, TxDOT and local leaders have kept negotiating and attempting to agree on a Memorandum of Understanding about the project’s objectives that would supplement the FEIS. TxDOT has continued to show an unwillingness to commit to any tangible cooperation and no agreement between the parties has been reached.
While we await TxDOT’s next move, our collective efforts are nonetheless paying off: Following the public outcry, both the City and the County have indicated that they will not continue to lend their support to the project unless its shortcomings are addressed. At the end of last year, both submitted scathing comments to TxDOT on the FEIS. These comments stated that the FEIS was deficient in several areas and requested that TxDOT not issue a Record of Decision until the document is updated or a robust Memorandum of Understanding has been signed. You can read here the full letters from the City and the County and our reactions to them.
A lot has happened over just the past couple of weeks, too.
Two weeks ago, along with partner organizations, we submitted a letter to TxDOT warning that issuing a ROD without addressing the civil rights and environmental justice issues identified in the FEIS would be violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We’re calling on TxDOT not to issue a ROD until it takes sufficient action to address the many violations.
In addition, earlier this month, Harris County Commissioners Court approved retaining the law firm Irvine & Conner to explore their legal options in regards to the project. While Harris County officials have made clear that they have not taken any decisions on pursuing legal action, this is an encouraging development. Judge Hidalgo also recently submitted a letter to the Federal Highway Administration asking them to immediately halt the project approval process and conduct a review of the FEIS because of the alarming number of deficiencies and inconsistencies in the document.
One more piece of good news: We’ve seen a number of encouraging comments at the Federal level, particularly from Pete Buttigieg, the Biden administration’s nominated Transportation Secretary. You can find some of them listed here below:
- “Biden’s pathbreaking pick for Transportation Secretary says he’ll reverse decades of discriminatory planning by expanding public transit and, most important, dismantling urban freeways that were built to destroy Black communities and led to decades of health and wealth inequity,” reports Streetsblog USA.
- Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg has announced his support for more progressive, sustainable transportation policies multiple times, including during an interview with Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis in which the I-45 expansion was discussed.
- The Biden team has also stated their commitment to integrating environmental and racial justice through their climate and transportation policies, including signaling their support for a transportation funding bill that would contain more funding for transit and funds tied to greenhouse gas emissions targets.
Onward and upward!
Join us for a virtual event about the I-45 Expansion on February 25 to learn more about where the project currently stands following the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement; what the next steps are in the process; and what you can do. More information to follow!