In a 4 to 1 vote Tuesday, Galveston County Commissioners Court approved a resolution acknowledging the more than 15 years of planning and community input for a plan to update the I-45 corridor. Commissioners said the project would enhance safety and travel in the region and noted that the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council had also adopted a statement in support earlier this year.
Although the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) will directly address portions of the interstate outside of Galveston, Commissioner Kenneth Clark (R-Pct. 4) said the project carries economic and safety implications for the entire region.
“This particular project has regional significance to our economy,” said Clark.
Clark, who also serves as chair of the Transportation Policy Council for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, explained to The Texan that cancelation of the project will make the region less desirable for corporate business investment and will continue handicap transportation of freight in and out of the ports of Houston and Texas City, but he also emphasized the safety issues at stake.
Some of the opposition to the NHHIP stems from adverse impact to low-income communities lying to the east of downtown Houston where portions of the interstate will be re-routed to relieve congestion. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) reports that 1,079 residences, 341 businesses, five churches, and two schools will be displaced by the project.
“It is very unfortunate that some people will be displaced,” said Clark. “But anytime you live in the city and near the freeway, that is a possibility.”
TxDOT planners included funds to compensate and relocate residents in the impacted areas, but also allocated $27 million to expand public housing options in the vicinity.
While some critics such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) say that NHHIP will hurt poor and minority communities, other groups such as the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have voiced support for the way the project has addressed local housing and transportation needs.
Although NHHIP opponents such as Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) have argued that “wider highways just mean more congestion,” additional lanes included in the TxDOT plan are for High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) and mass transit traffic.
The project will also improve service road design, remove perilous “left exits,” construct bicycle and pedestrian sections, add sound barriers, update chronically congested interchanges with other highways, and create pass-through lanes on Interstate 10 in Houston.
Among sections of I-45 to be relocated are those cutting through the University of Houston’s Downtown campus, and the chronically congested and dangerous segment known to locals as the “Pierce Elevated.” Some portions of elevated highway will be submerged underground with parks and green spaces constructed at ground level, and NHHIP includes $2.5 billion to address drainage and flood mitigation.
The improvements proposed in the NHHIP also have safety implications for the region’s residents outside of the city since I-45 is an essential evacuation route for Galveston Island and the surrounding coastal communities.
“We in Galveston County are the first to evacuate in a staged evacuation to get people out of harm’s way, and if I-45 is not up to snuff, that presents some significant problems,” said Clark.
Beyond facilitating evacuations, Clark also noted that there are concerns over the age of the concrete structure and updating safety standards to address the high rate of traffic fatalities on I-45, which according to one recent study is now the most dangerous road in the U.S.
“Interstate 45 was built according to the safety standards of the 1950s and 1960s,” said Clark.
Clark’s concerns echo those recently expressed by Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) who last month lambasted efforts to thwart the NHHIP project.
“I do not understand how leaders in this community can just sit there idly by and let $7.5 billion leave the area, because that’s what they’re doing,” Ramsey told The Texan.
In March of this year, Harris County filed a federal lawsuit against TxDOT and asked the Biden Administration to intervene. Last month the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sent a letter instructing TxDOT to pause the NHHIP pending an investigation of potential civil rights violations of residents to be displaced and while the agency reconsiders a Memorandum of Understanding approved by the Trump Administration in 2019.
As a result of the federally ordered pause, TxDOT is considering shifting funds from NHHIP to needs in other parts of the state. The agency recently reopened public comment on the issue in preparation for the adoption of a 2022 Unified Transportation Program (UTP) that will lay out funding for projects over the next decade.
On Monday, August 2 at 3 p.m., TxDOT will hold another virtual public hearing on the I-45 project. Those wishing to speak are asked to register by Friday, July 30.
TxDOT has also created an online comment form that asks participants to state whether they “support maintaining project and funding as proposed” or “support removing project and funding.” The survey will be open until 4 p.m. on August 9.
The NHHIP is restricted to purposes established at the onset of the project in 2005, but if those purposes of alleviating congestion and improving safety are to be changed, the process must start over.
Due to the years it takes to evaluate, study, and execute major revisions such as those outlined in NHHIP, Clark predicts that if the project is canceled it could be decades before residents see major improvements to the I-45 corridor.
“If TxDOT moves the dollars elsewhere, it could be 15 to 20 years before any new I-45 project is funded.”
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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.