Updated 6:24 a.m. CT Thursday
The state’s transportation department has continued a controversial downtown Houston expansion of Interstate 45 despite requests from the federal government to pause the project, according to a letter from the Federal Highway Administration.
TxDOT was told in March to pause its North Houston Highway Improvement Project over civil rights and environmental concerns raised through the public input process.
But county and federal officials believe the agency continued its work on the project with “right-of-way” acquisitions of surrounding property, “including solicitations, negotiations and eminent domain,” despite an investigation into possible violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“There are numerous environmental and civil rights issues involved and FHWA believes that no further actions be taken on this project that might impact our Title VI investigation and any proposed remedies should the agency find that a violation has occurred,” FHWA Division Administrator Achille Alonzi wrote in a letter to the state.
Alonzi also said the FHWA would review whether TxDOT was in compliance with a memorandum of understanding between the state and federal government.
“FHWA will similarly pause any of its activities and approvals, including but not limited to sign-off on the submitted Interchange Justification Report,” Alonzi wrote. “There are numerous environmental and civil rights issues involved and FHWA believes that no further actions be taken on this project that might impact our Title VI investigation and any proposed remedies should the agency find that a violation has occurred.”
In a statement, TxDOT spokesperson Bob Kaufman confirmed receipt of the letter, and said the agency was reviewing FHWA’s requests.
“It's unfortunate there is an expanded delay on this project, but TxDOT remains fully committed to working with FHWA and local officials on an appropriate path forward,” Kaufman said. “We know that many in the community are anxious to seethis project advance. This FHWA action indefinitely suspends key steps for this project.”
The agency claims the project — which would widen parts of I-45 from downtown to Beltway 8 — reduces congestion and lessens commute times on a corridor that’s been stressed by a growing population.
But Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday dismissed those claims, saying that the project actually wouldn’t address traffic problems at all. Instead, it threatened to displace vulnerable communities while making air quality worse across the region, she said.
"The message from the Biden administration to TxDOT is very clear: You can't bulldoze your way to a massive infrastructure project without community input, without considering smarter transportation poptions,” Hidalgo said. “And you can't bulldoze your way through the Civil Rights Act."
According to Susan Graham, co-founder of Stop-TxDOT I-45, the state agency regularly reached out to residents and asked them to sell their properties over the last few months. Some of the homeowners were told that if they didn't sell, the land would be taken by eminent domain, she said.
The process was “needlessly stressful for residents,” Graham said.
“Disappointed but not surprised that TxDOT continues to work against the communities it’s purporting to serve,” Graham wrote in an email to Houston Public Media. “We were alarmed about the reports of TxDOT moving forward with aspects of the project, and we’re frustrated that it’s taken the federal government stepping in to get TxDOT to do the right thing/cooperate with local elected officials/listen to community concerns.”
The FHWA sent its first letter to the state on March 8, requesting the pause to address “serious Title VI concerns.” That statute prohibits discrimination in federal programs on the basis of race, color or national origin.
Harris County also announced in March that it was suing the agency to stop the project from moving forward. That legal action is ongoing, according to Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee.
“If you have a massive highway project that displaces Black and brown people in underserved communities, that pushes them out of their homes, that increases the amount of dust that come into their schools, that increases their air quality and noise impacts — then you have a real Title VI federal civil law problem,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lucio Vasquez