Local NewsTransportationCommissioner Ramsey Blasts Harris County Judge Hidalgo, Feds for Halting I-45 Project

After the Federal Highway Administration heeded Democrat calls to shut down the I-45 expansion project, Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey condemned the decision as one that would hurt underserved communities.
June 24, 2021
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Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) did not mince words Thursday in condemning a federally ordered halt to a long-planned improvement project for Interstate 45 in Houston.

“It is hard to deal with stupid,” said Ramsey.

Ramsey’s comments during an interview with talk radio host Michael Berry came the day after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) announced that the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) under President Biden had ordered the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to halt the project.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) had been in the works for 15 years and included collaborative work with the county, local partners, and TxDOT to expand the major artery that serves as an evacuation route for Houston and communities south of the city.

Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) voted last March to sue TxDOT to stop the project, and called on the federal government to intervene. They allege that the project violates the civil rights of residents who would need to be relocated for the expansion, and would hurt underserved communities of color. They also objected to any project that included widening the interstate to accommodate more vehicles.

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Ramsey, an engineer and former mayor of Spring Valley, noted that I-45 served as a major artery for the greater Houston area’s residents but had not kept up with the region’s population growth and would not be properly prepared for hurricane evacuation. 

“We have not added capacity to I-45 in 30 years,” said Ramsey. “All the underserved neighborhoods to the south of us now have a bottleneck to go through downtown and they won’t be able to get through. People will die because we don’t have adequate ability to get people out of the region.”

Ramsey also noted that a significant portion of the $7 billion project had been slated for flood mitigation work in Houston. The approved NHHIP plan included $2.5 billion to address significant drainage problems where Buffalo and White Oak Bayous intersect in the heart of the city.

He also lambasted NHHIP opponents who were advocating for an alternate plan to reduce the width of the freeway while calling for more “transit solutions.” An engineer by training, Ramsey explained that increased width, such as that included in the Interstate 10 expansion, included transit lanes in the middle.

In addition to flood mitigation, improved evacuation capacity, and continued ability to move materials from the Port of Houston, the number one U.S. port in total foreign and domestic waterborne tonnage, Ramsey said that transportation projects correlate with job creation to the tune of more than 21,000 jobs for every $1 billion spent on transportation.

“So, what we’re doing is kissing off 150,000 jobs,” said Ramsey, also noting that TxDOT could not be expected to sit on the $7 billion allocation and would likely move the funds to projects in other parts of the state.

Ramsey argued that NHHIP opponents did not understand the engineering required for creating more transit or how to help underserved communities.

“What you’re doing is you’re guaranteeing that those underserved neighborhoods will begin to continue to decay.”

The TxDOT Record of Decision released earlier this year included adding managed express lanes, rerouting portions of I-45 east of downtown, and realigning sections of I-10 and other highways. It also added bicycle and pedestrian sections, sidewalks, sound barriers, and pass-through lanes on I-10. 

A Final Environmental Impact Statement approved in August of 2020 reported that 1,079 residences would be relocated, along with 341 businesses, five churches, and two schools.

Hidalgo has insisted that the only acceptable plan would eliminate any displacement and would not allow for a wider highway. She, along with Ellis and Garcia, favors plans that de-emphasize vehicular traffic.

“Wider highways just mean more congestion,” she said last March.

The June 14 letter from FHWA Division Administrator Achille Alonzi instructs TxDOT to pause right-of-way acquisition efforts such as “solicitations, negotiations, and eminent domain, and final design activities.” Alonzi also writes that FHWA will not sign-off on the Interchange Justification Report required for NHHIP to proceed, and that there will be a Title VI investigation in accordance with the Civil Rights Act. 

In addition, FHWA says it will revisit a Memorandum of Understanding from December of 2019 but did not offer a time frame for completion of its investigations.

In response to a question from Berry, Ramsey acknowledged that the issue angered him.

“It took us 15 years to get this project to this point and for people to show up late in the game and have their own opinion based on zero experience and say inaccurate things and to literally shut it down? Yeah, that does make me angry, because it doesn’t serve the greater good.”

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.