Q&A: Plans for rerouting I-45 from west to east side of downtown

By Vincent Crivelli - Reporter, Brittany Taylor - Digital News Editor, Sally Mamdooh - Reporter

HOUSTON - It’s no secret, Houston has a traffic problem -- one the Texas Department of Transportation is trying to solve.

Texas Department of Public Transportation is hoping to eliminate congestion through the expansion of I-45 through the middle of the city, calling the project the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. But there are voices of opposition who say the billion dollar project is unnecessary.

Here's what you need to know:

What is the project? 

A TxDOT project that will cost billions and is years in the making, would redirect I-45 from the west side of downtown to the east side. So behind Minute Maid Park, drivers would have I-69/U.S. 59 and I-45 side by side, as opposed to having I-45 on the west and I-69/U.S. 59 on the east side.

How long is it expected to take? 

TxDOT said the project will be years in the making. 

How long has this project been in the works? Does it have the public's approval? 

We have been working on this project for over 15 years. These efforts have included significant stakeholder involvement including multiple public meetings, speaking engagements and various communications with the public.

We began with various alternatives for each of the three segments, and through this public engagement, we were able to determine the preferred alignment for each segment. 

When does the project go into effect?

TxDOT expects to issue a Record of Decision (ROD) for the NHHIP in early 2020, after completion of the Final Environmental Impact Statement later this year. 

Is it the resolution to congestion in the city? How bad is the congestion in the city? 

The need for the proposed project is to address significant growth in the Houston area and remedy the “bottleneck” that regularly impacts those driving through the downtown area. In addition, the project will address future traffic growth and bring the system into current design and safety standards.

This project will move traffic more efficiently including during evacuation events such as an evacuation for a hurricane. Another major improvement that the project offers is increasing the number of lanes that are dedicated to high-occupancy and transit vehicles that will aid in relieving congestion. 

How much will it cost? 

The entire project is anticipated to cost about $7 billion.

What is TxDot saying? 

Its plan is to address the infrastructure of the highway system, envision how surface streets reconnect neighborhoods and create catalysts for new development. TxDOT says the plan will allow pedestrian and bicycle access to surrounding neighborhoods. 

How does TxDOT factor in air quality in its expansion projects? 

We work with the general public and we partner with local, state and federal entities to address air quality concerns. We fund a variety of programs that help improve air quality and support Clean Air Act goals such as traffic management systems through our partnership at Houston Transtar and travel demand programs such as transit, carpool, and bicycles/pedestrian initiatives.

Moreover, we work to incorporate greenery along our roads through our Green Ribbon program. The purpose of the TXDOT Green Ribbon Program is to improve the visual character of highway corridors and minimize the negative impacts of air pollution through the planting of trees and shrubs.

With North Houston Highway Improvement we will continue to look into ways to mitigate air quality issues as we move forward on the project. 

The group is claiming in their report that the I-45 expansion project will displace schools, churches and businesses. Is this true and how are they compensated if any?

The proposed project would displace multiple residences including some public and low-income housing units, multiple businesses as well as several places of worship and a couple of schools. In order to assist those who are required to move, TxDOT provides, through our relocation assistance program, payments and services to aid in movement to a new location.

You can get more information on this program here.

What are the opponents saying? 

The Texas Public Interest Research Group says the expensive project will worsen the city’s congestion problem and negatively impact climate change and public health from dirty air.

The group claims the I-45 expansion project will displace four houses of worship, two schools and hundreds of homes. Instead, the group says the public money should be spent on repairing roads and expanding mass transit. 

Bey Scoggin, director of the Texas Public Interest Research Group Education fund, held a press conference Tuesday morning to speak out against the project. 

“When the Katy freeway was built and expanded to one of the nation's largest highways commute times increased by 40 percent,” Scoggin said. 

Scoggin said Houston has the second-most expensive commute in the country, the deadliest roads in the nation and ranked ninth for the highest smog days in the country. 

“This money (for the project), which is $7 billion of taxpayer funds, should be spent on things like public transportation and bike lanes. These are things that reduce the overall amount of cars on the road,” Scoggin said.

In addition, Air Alliance Houston says with more cars on the road comes health risks for those who live nearby.

“Research studies show that people living or going to school within 500 feet of a high traffic roadway have increased risk of asthma, lung development and childhood leukemia among other illnesses,” said Air Alliance Houston executive director. 

Here are the proposals:

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