Business Groups Stand To Profit From Controversial I-45 Expansion, Critics Say

The Greater Houston Partnership spent about $10,000 on social media advertisements in support of the controversial project last month.

Local activists say the I-45 expansion would increase pollution, worsen traffic congestion, and displace hundreds located in underserved communities.
Fujio Watanabe / Houston Public Media
Portions of the I-45 main lanes will be affected this weekend as crews prepare to demolish ramp.

Critics of a controversial I-45 expansion plan blasted the project at a public meeting Monday afternoon, accusing powerful business interests of trying to profit off the displacement of local communities.

The I-45 North Houston Highway Improvement Project would widen I-45 from Downtown North to Beltway 8 in an effort to “enhance safety and mobility,” according to a spokesperson with the Texas Department of Transportation.

But the project has come under fire from local activists and the Federal Highway Administration, which asked TxDOT to halt the construction process in March due to civil rights concerns — a request that TxDOT apparently ignored, prompting a second request from the federal agency in June.

Molly Cook, a nurse and organizer with the group Stop TxDOT I-45, criticized TxDOT’s approach to public engagement during the public hearing on Monday, and said that access to the survey is limited since it’s only available online — effectively cutting access for those who may be most impacted, according to Cook.

"It is very clear that there are two sides to this issue,” Cook said. “One side stands to benefit financially, and one side stands to lose their homes, or stands to lose major parts of their city that they know and love.”

The Greater Houston Partnership has spent thousands in support of the controversial plan, as local officials and activists continue to push against the $7 billion project.

In an email to Houston Public Media, a GHP spokesperson said the project would “enhance safety, expand transit options, improve air quality, and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.”

GHP president and CEO Bob Harvey requested support for the project via an email sent to members in late July, claiming the proposed plan would attract “new investment and economic development” to Houston.

“The Partnership requests your formal support of TxDOT's continued funding for the NHHIP,” the email read. “Your voice as members of the business community will send a clear signal that this project is supported in our region.”

Included in the email was a link to a TxDOT survey, created by the state transportation agency in order to gauge public opinion regarding proposed transportation projects. One question focuses on the I-45 NHHIP, but critics say it turns a complex topic into a simplistic one.

"I want to reject a yes-no vote on something that is this important, that is this expensive, that is this monumental for generations to come,” Cook said Monday. “I want to die in Houston. I don't want to be a climate refugee. I don't want to have to work on my car, own a car, drive a car every single place that I go for the rest of my entire life. I want to live here happily with walkability, with a concern for the climate, with a concern for those who cannot afford to own cars."

A public survey created by TxDOT to gauge public opinion regarding proposed transportation projects, including the I-45 NHHIP.
A public survey created by TxDOT to gauge public opinion regarding proposed transportation projects, including the I-45 NHHIP.

The GHP began running Facebook and Instagram ads in July — spending about $10,000 on seven separate ads requesting support for the project, according to analytics from Facebook. The July ads were shown on screen more than 520,000 times by the end of the month, and the GHP began promoting a new ad in support of the project on Monday.

Critics say the GHP-backed advertisements were spreading inaccurate information, and slammed the proposed project for threatening to displace hundreds of families and worsen air quality due to heavy construction and increased vehicle presence.

“This project limits Houstonians’ choices instead of expanding them, and it specifically and disproportionally limits choices for Black and brown Houstonians,” said Zoe Middleton, co-director at the housing policy nonprofit Texas Housers.

In an email to Houston Public Media, a GHP spokesperson acknowledged that the expansion would impact several Houston communities, and added that the plan has been modified in order to “mitigate the impacts to these neighborhoods.”

In March, right after the federal government told TxDOT to pause the project, Harris County sued the agency under the National Environmental Policy Act, a federal law that mandates proper environmental consideration for all projects requiring federal action.

But four months later, it was revealed that TxDOT was moving forward with the project despite the warning from the FHA, prompting the federal agency to again issue a letter telling the state to halt.

Both Harris County and the city of Houston have provided alternate designs for the project, but those suggestions have gone unheard, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

"We do not intend to play their game,” Turner wrote in a July statement. “There is a right way to do it, and if it is done right it can be transformational.”

The Texas Transportation Commission is currently seeking public input on the project, which the commission will consider when deciding whether to include it in the state’s 2022 Unified Transportation Program.

If the project is not approved, TxDOT could take the money raised for the expansion project and potentially use it elsewhere, including outside of the region, according to a spokesperson for the agency.

Several community members criticized TxDOT’s “take it or leave it” position, as well as what they said was the agency’s lack of transparency in relation to the expansion project.

“There are people that live here, people that deserve a say,” said resident Matthew Chisari. “For TxDOT to then give a binary choice between what amounts to a tantrum from a billion-dollar government agency — ‘either you have what we give you or you have nothing at all’ — is pretty unacceptable.”