HOUSTON – The Texas Department of Transportation has given itself approval to move into the next phase of a $7.5 billion proposal to rebuild Interstate 45 in downtown Houston, despite community concerns that the highway expansion’s disadvantages outweigh its proposed benefits.
TxDOT announced a “record of decision” Thursday, a formality that moves the proposed expansion from the environmental phase to the design phase.
“The (record of decision) is a necessary step in moving into the detailed design phases of project development, which is where we will have the opportunity to fully explore many of the project refinements requested since the release of the Draft EIS and subsequent public hearings,” said TxDOT Houston District Engineer Eliza Paul.
While TxDOT said the step is an important one in its push to replace aging infrastructure and ease congestion in downtown Houston, critics blasted the move as aggressive.
“TxDOT is in a position where they are getting more antagonistic in how they approach handling the politics around this project,” said Harrison Humphreys, a transportation policy advocate for Air Alliance Houston.
The increased tension follows growing concerns from county and city leaders that TxDOT’s proposal is out of step with the region’s current needs -- a reality critics accuse TxDOT of ignoring.
“It’s sort of a pattern TxDOT has been taking, no pun intended, but our way or the highway,” Humphreys said. “If you want to continue to raise concerns about the displacements, about the environmental impacts, we will pull money from the region.”
According to TxDOT’s final environmental impact study:
“It is estimated that approximately 160 single-family residences, 433 multi-family residential units, 486 public and low-income housing multifamily units, 344 businesses, 58 billboards, five places of worship, two schools/universities, five parking business and 11 other displacements would be required. Five historic properties and two historic districts would be directly adversely affected”
TxDOT’s proposal includes $27 million toward helping to re-house those living in roughly 1,100 residential dwellings, however, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has said that amount is not enough.
“This project can be transformational and can achieve the City’s and TxDOT’s objectives,” Turner wrote in a letter sent to TxDOT on Dec. 8. “The project, however, has shortcomings that must be addressed and impacts that must be further mitigated to maintain my support.”
TxDOT maintains the move into the design phase will allow it to consider the many changes critics have raised. Along with housing displacement, public transportation advocates have called on the agency to provide better infrastructure to accommodate rapid-transit lanes, as opposed to single-occupancy vehicles.
“Public transit is a great choice for moving people a long way,” said Neal Ehardt, a representative from the group Stop TxDOT I-45.
Ehardt said clearing congestion throughout downtown Houston should include alternatives to driving.
“They have to be walkable and bikeable, as well,” he said. “So we need a project that allows regular pedestrian crossings.”
For its part, TxDOT maintains it will continue to consider its critics.
“TxDOT is committed to continuing to meet with stakeholders and accepting public input as it proceeds through future project development phases,” TxDOT’s Eliza Paul continued in a statement.