‘Stop putting cars over people’: Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45 expansion project

HOUSTON – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee made a demand Thursday for TxDOT to take residents and the environment into consideration in the agency’s plan to expand Interstate 45.

The $7.5 billion expansion project aims to increase the capacity of the freeway to handle traffic through downtown up Greater Greenspoint.

A news conference by the leaders followed a lawsuit filed Thursday morning by Menefee over community concerns he said have not been addressed in TxDOT’s plans. The lawsuit seeks to have a court remand the project back to TxDOT to consider the environmental impact and add local community and stakeholder input into the process, according to a release.

Hidalgo said the county is taking action to help elevate the voices in the community. She said the county’s transportation policy has been stuck the in 50s and has not been a priority in a growing city. Hidalgo said putting down more lanes and concrete does not help the transportation problem but increases flooding problems, environmental problems and leads to the loss of homes and businesses.

“Stop putting cars over people,” she said.

Hidalgo said TxDOT should prioritize the quality of life instead of highways. She said the project would be bad for the community’s health and would create more traffic

“Wider highways means more congestion,” she said. ”It displaces communities and businesses, particularly lower-income neighborhoods.”

She also said there have been reports of an increase in asthma in schools located near these freeways.

Menefee said TxDOT is required to give a hard look into alternatives that would protect the environment and underserved neighborhoods and local businesses.

Commissioner Ellis said he’s had to interact with TxDOT for a long time and is glad to see leaders standing up to protect neighborhoods, people and property.

Members of the group know, as Stop TxDOT I-45 applauded the county attorney’s decision to file suit.

“Yippe, Hooray. Good for them,” said STOP TxDOT I-45 founder, Susan Graham. “Freeway expansions don’t go through River Oaks. They don’t go through Memorial. They go through low-income communities of color.”

If the current plan were to go forward, Clayton Homes, a low-income housing community, would be demolished, about a thousand homes lost, 300 businesses would be asked to relocate and acres of parkland would be gone.

“If you move these people far away, their transportation costs are going to increase significantly because they won’t be able to walk, bike and use Metro to get where they are going,” said Stop TxDOT I-45 group member, Neal Ehardt.

Federal authorities have asked the Texas Department of Transportation to pause the expansion project for Interstate 45 while civil rights complaints are investigated.

In a letter, officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration said they had received three letters raising concerns about environmental justice under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The letters came from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Air Alliance Houston and Texas Housers.

Federal authorities asked TxDOT officials to hold off on contract solicitations for the project while the FHWA completes its review.

The following is a statement, from TxDOT Executive Director James Bass, on the Harris County lawsuit regarding the NHHIP:

“TxDOT has not yet received a copy of the lawsuit. We were looking forward to continuing our work with stakeholders on refining the plans for the project, but these plans may now be in jeopardy due to the lawsuit. We look forward to discussing our efforts to mitigate concerns about implementing the HGAC’s vision for I-45.”


About the Authors:

Award-winning journalist, mother, YouTuber, social media guru, millennial, mentor, storyteller, University of Houston alumna and Houston-native.

Aaron Barker has been a senior digital editor at KPRC 2 since 2016. As a meteorologist, he specializes in stories about the weather. He has covered Hurricane Harvey, the Astros first World Series win, the Santa Fe High School shooting, the ITC fire and Tropical Storm Imelda.