On August 30, dozens of people from across the state converged on Austin to protest the passage of the highway-centric 2023 Unified Transportation Plan (UTP), the state’s 10-year transportation plan, by the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC). The TTC is the governor-appointed board that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
While not explicitly a budget, the UTP contains mission statements, overviews of transportation financing, and many other items that represent TxDOT’s vision and plans for the state’s transportation system in the coming decade. The 2023 UTP contains $34.58 billion for highway widening projects alone, including the plans for the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP or I-45 Expansion).
Over 80 commenters spoke over the course of several hours at the TTC meeting. Despite this outpouring of opposition, the commissioners approved the plan in a matter of seconds, refusing to even acknowledge concerns raised by residents.
The North Houston Highway Improvement Project
While the passage of this budget does not change much for the I-45 project itself, it reaffirms TxDOT’s commitment to and designs for the project, and continues to reinforce our car-centric culture. Overall, the I-45 project remains under investigation by Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) due to Title VI Civil Rights complaints. The ‘pause’ on the project by the federal government will remain in place until FHWA concludes its investigation.
While it is ultimately disappointing that communities’ concerns were not addressed by the TTC, we were able to see other Texas cities combatting a TxDOT highway expansion in their own hometowns. We met groups from Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and El Paso. The gathering of local groups in such numbers to pointedly criticize TxDOT for its highway building agenda is unprecedented, as Dug Begley of the Houston Chronicle recently reported.
State leaders and policymakers are beginning to take notice of this growing movement, and AAH is happy to help direct this movement and articulate policies to address the roots of the constant freeway expansion plaguing the state.
Why are we still building highways?
We also released a new report, “Why are we still building highways?,” which we submitted to the TTC in response to the 2023 UTP and distributed copies of in Austin. In this report, we examine many of the flawed data and planning practices that underwrite TxDOT’s highway planning apparatus. We also detail the intersection of highways and transportation emissions with climate change. The report concludes with a number of policy recommendations that TxDOT and the Texas Legislature can undertake to reverse our greenhouse gas emissions output. Our team is excited to continue articulating the transportation and climate arguments at the state and regional levels. Read it here.
We should be furious that our state leaders continue to ignore us. It is unacceptable that the TTC can so blatantly ignore the concerns of Texans across the state and continue pushing policies that will harm the state. However, we should be motivated by the momentum that we and our allies have gained on this issue. Turning out over 80 commenters on the Unified Transportation Plan is not something we could have dreamed of in years past.
Harrison Humphreys, Climate Programs Manager
Not only are Texans increasingly paying attention and getting involved in these decisions, our ability to upset the policy conversation is making news at the local, state, and national levels.
Opinion: Mr Biden, tear down this highway (The New York Times, Sept 8, 2022)
Texas is skirting federal environmental law to push for highway expansion (Grist & Texas Tribune, Jul 27, 2022)
TxDOT approves $85 billion, 10-year plan to widen and maintain highways despite widespread opposition (Houston Chronicle, Aug 31, 2022)
At AAH, we are not discouraged, and we will not give up. We will continue our advocacy around the I-45 project until it is better for Houston and our communities. We encourage you to urge your elected officials to support sustainable transportation going forward and to move away from decades of failed highway widenings.