Local NewsTransportationHarris County to End Lawsuit Blocking I-45 Expansion Project

Initially approved by the Texas Department of Transportation in 2021, the I-45 expansion project had been on hold due to the county’s federal lawsuit.
December 27, 2022
A long-debated multibillion-dollar update to one of the state’s most dangerous roadways has been resurrected after local leaders reached some compromises regarding the Interstate 45 improvement project.

Both the City of Houston and Harris County have adopted separate Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) that will allow the project to move forward, but at a significantly higher cost than originally stated.

In 2021, after more than 15 years of planning in collaboration with counties and other local leaders along the I-45 corridor, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) issued a Record of Decision for what is officially known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP).

But that March, Harris County responded with a federal lawsuit to stop the project.

On top of objections to adding traffic lanes, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo said would only lead to more congestion, critics opposed the movement of a heavily congested segment that would have displaced more than 1,000 residences in primarily low-income areas.

The Texan Tumbler

The county’s Democratic commissioners and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) also appealed to federal authorities. In June 2021, the Federal Highway Administration ordered TxDOT to pause right-of-way acquisitions and launched a Title VI investigation in accordance with the Civil Rights Act, since the project would impact minority communities.

Last week, however, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) to announce the MOUs with concessions from TxDOT.

“Let me say there is no perfect design; not everyone will be pleased,” said Turner.

According to the MOUs, TxDOT committed to minimizing the footprint and rebuilding within the current footprint for Segments 1 and 2 “where feasible;” installing air monitors; and incorporating noise mitigation. Other concessions include adding pedestrian and bike elements along all frontage road segments and adding more bus and train stations for mass transit.

In addition, TxDOT’s agreement with the City of Houston states the agency will increase funding to replace housing units taken for the project by $30 million.

During a special meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court last Thursday, multiple members of the Stop TxDOT I-45 organization urged commissioners to vote against accepting the MOU, with some claiming the agreements had been negotiated behind closed doors without enough community input.

“We need a project that doesn’t displace anyone, that makes air quality better, not worse, and installing air monitors is not going to cut it,” said Stop TxDOT I-45 member Zach Hamburg.

Ellis, who supported the federal lawsuit to block the project in 2021, defended the MOU, saying, “You ask for what you want and take as much as you can get.”

Ellis added that the lawsuit had been about leverage but had “run its course.”

“Did we get everything we want? No. Can we control it? No,” said Ellis.

Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) noted that he had opposed the lawsuit but was pleased to see the agreement, especially with significant drainage project funding included in the original agreement.

“This will contribute to solving one of our region’s biggest problems: flooding. With $2.5 billion worth of drainage improvements included in the plans, this was a project we could not afford to lose,” said Ramsey in a statement.

Both Ramsey and outgoing Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) emphasized the importance of I-45 as a hurricane evacuation route.

“Everybody that is south of Harris County is dependent upon I-45 for their safety and their livelihood,” said Cagle. “It is not just about us that live here, it is about those that live in our region, and we are our brother’s keeper.”

Cagle also referred to the Vision Zero resolutions adopted by both the county and the city that seek to have zero traffic deaths, noting that improvements for I-45 would increase public safety.

Garcia also referred to the safety issues posed by I-45: “Doing nothing was not acceptable.”

Commissioners voted 4 to 0 to accept the MOU and withdraw the lawsuit. Hidalgo was not present for the meeting.

Originally estimated to cost $7 billion, officials announced earlier this year that due to delays and inflation, some segments of the project had increased by as much as 77 percent. TxDOT now says costs are expected to reach nearly $10 billion.

Opposition to roadways built in the mid-twentieth century has gained momentum in other parts of the country. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Michigan $105 million to assist in dismantling the I-375 expressway. The roadway crossing Detroit will be transformed into a six-lane boulevard with sidewalks and bike lanes.

With the city and county withdrawing opposition to the I-45 project, the Federal Highway Administration is expected to end the civil rights investigation and permit TxDOT to proceed with right-of-way acquisitions. If so, construction could begin within two years.

A copy of the Memorandum of Understanding between TxDOT and Harris County can be found below.


Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.

Get “KB's Hot Take”

A free bi-weekly commentary on current events by Konni Burton.

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.