Leaders voice concerns over I-45 expansion project in letters to TxDOT

HOUSTON – The proposed expansion of Interstate 45 was met with a chorus of questions Tuesday, as a public comment period for suggestions to an environmental impact study comes to an end.

A public comment period for North Houston Highway Improvement Project’s Final Environmental Impact Study, or FEIS, expires Wednesday. The deadline prompted multiple government agencies from the city of Houston and Harris County to issue letters to TxDOT, which oversees the project.  The correspondences call for changes to the state agency’s estimated $7 billion project.

About the project

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project aims to clear congestion along the I-45 corridor in downtown Houston by widening the freeway through Houston’s north side.  The proposal also includes a reshaping of on-ramps onto the North Freeway, from adjoining Interstate 10 and Interstate 69, also known as the Southwest Freeway.

The I-45 expansion project would be conducted in three phases: Beltway 8 North to Interstate 610, I-610 to I-10, and the downtown loop.

Leaders write letters

In separate letters addressed to TxDOT on Tuesday, both the Harris County Commissioners Court and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner suggested changes to the proposal, amid growing outcry that the project will displace too many residents and businesses while not promoting the usage of public transportation over single-occupancy vehicles.

Harris County Commissioners Court convened a special meeting Tuesday, voting 3-2 in support of its letter.  The letter includes a response to TxDot’s FEIS, commissioned by the county, and co-written by engineering firm Huitt-Zollars and the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston.

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle opposed the letter.

“As documented in the FEIS, the Project would continue this pattern by significantly widening the highway through the Near Northside and Independence Heights communities, which would displace a total of 1,079 residential housing units and 344 businesses, in order to add lanes,” the commissioners’ letter detailed.

The letter goes on to cite concerns with the relocation of homes and businesses, and it calls on TxDOT to offer additional details as to how the project’s proposed flood mitigation plan would work.

The county’s letter included input shared during public hearings held in the past.

“From this public input, Harris County learned that community members overwhelmingly support a vision of an improved I-45 that remains within the current right-of-way as much as possible in Segments 1 and 2 and provides for improved local connectivity and transit access, including implementing the voter-approved and funded METRONext Moving Forward Plan,” part of the letter read.

Voters approved METRO’s $3.5 billion bond request, designated for expansion, in November 2019.

Among the county letter’s other cited errors in TxDOT’s reporting is some of the state agency’s claims of easing congestion, and improving highway safety and air quality.  It also requests more information on how the proposal’s flood mitigation plan would work.

Turner’s letter requests TxDOT include more funding for the relocation of low-income residents while requesting additional information on flood mitigation plans.

“This project can be transformational and can achieve the City’s and TxDOT’s objectives,” Turner wrote in a prepared statement. “The project, however, has shortcomings that must be addressed and impacts that must be further mitigated to maintain my support,” he continued.

TxDOT’s perspective

TxDOT has said it continues to listen to community members as it hopes to begin construction and not lose out on federal dollars earmarked for the project.

“Our goal is to continue to work with our transportation partners including Harris County, the City of Houston and METRO to address congestion, improve mobility and enhance safety for the traveling public. We have certainly worked to listen to the concerns of the community and we will continue to do so,” Danny Perez, public information officer for the Texas Department of Transportation Houston District, wrote in an email Tuesday.

Perez pointed to the agency’s NHHIP Facts and Highlights findings, “to get a better understanding of how we are working with folks and how we are addressing the various concerns that have been presented to us over the years,” Perez’s email continued.