Transportation

Could Central Houston’s proposed downtown amenities make the I-45 project more palatable for its critics?

As part of TxDOT’s plan to expand Interstate 45, which is largely paused pending an investigation by the Federal Highway Administration, a downtown economic development group is pushing a proposal to incorporate $737 million in multimodal and greenspace amenities.

I-45 Green Loop Rendering
Central Houston
Highlighted in green is Central Houston’s proposed “Green Loop,” a 5-mile, multimodal circuit around Downtown Houston that would coincide with the Interstate 45 expansion project. Also included in the graphic is a breakout of related amenities proposed by Central Houston.

A downtown economic development group hopes proposed “green” and multimodal amenities will make the controversial I-45 expansion plan more palatable for the project’s critics.

The multi-billion-dollar plan by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to widen and reroute the freeway between downtown Houston and Beltway 8 to the north has drawn vocal opposition from impacted residents, regional stakeholders and local elected officials.

The project is largely paused while the Federal Highway Administration investigates civil rights and environmental concerns that have been raised, which also prompted Harris County to sue the state agency last year and ask a federal judge to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to input from the community.

A series of related amenities proposed by Central Houston, an economic development organization representing the interests of the downtown area, is being billed as a way to address some criticism of the project. Central Houston's $737 million vision – which includes elevated parks, a 5-mile trail around downtown, stormwater detention basins and several bridges that connect downtown to nearby neighborhoods – might also ease some of the concerns being evaluated by the federal government and push the project forward.

The proposed amenities, first reported Tuesday by Axios Houston, have been in the works since 2012, according to Allen Douglas, general counsel and chief operating officer for Central Houston. He said the ideas as well as a cost estimate for executing them were presented earlier this year to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in response to its ongoing investigation and as testimony for why Central Houston supports the I-45 project.

"They're looking at the notion of or the question of whether the highway (project) unfairly impacts Black and brown communities," Douglas said of the FHWA. "We put these civic opportunities in front of them to show them what we've been doing for the last decade on behalf of the community, with the community and with the help of TxDOT."

Douglas said Central Houston has long provided input to TxDOT regarding its North Houston Highway Improvement Project, and that TxDOT has agreed to redesign and restructure I-45 in ways that will be conducive to Central Houston's ideas. Work on the proposed amenities would not necessarily be completed by TxDOT, Douglas said, but by other governmental entities and stakeholders, including Central Houston, which estimates it will have between $200-$250 million in incremental tax revenue to contribute to the effort.

Here is a rundown of what Central Houston is proposing, with an estimated overall cost of more than $737 million:

  • EaDo Cap Park: An elevated park above a depression in the freeway east of downtown.
  • Pierce Skypark Corridor: A transformation of the Pierce Elevated on the west and south edges of downtown into an expansive park with multimodal transportation amenities as well as the possibility for residential and commercial development.
  • Green Loop: A 5-mile trail circuit around downtown, touching on multiple neighboring communities, partly where the Pierce Elevated is now located.
  • Garden Bridges: Twenty-four street bridges throughout the downtown segment, with high-comfort passageways for pedestrians and cyclists, that would connect downtown to the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards.
  • Andrews Street Bridge: Would connect downtown to Freedmen's Town to the southwest.
  • Midtown Caps & Bridges: Three freeway cap parks and wider bridges over a depressed portion of I-69 south of Midtown.
  • Third Ward Signature Bridges: Scenic bridges connecting downtown to the Third Ward.
  • Northside Street Reconnections: Would reconnect communities north of downtown, with one of the reconnections being on North San Jacinto Street.
  • White Oak Bayou: Expanding the trail network and stormwater detention capacity along White Oak Bayou.
  • Westside: Crossings to the west of downtown, along with green space.
I-45 Transit Center Cap Park
Central Houston
Pictured is an artist’s rendering of a transit center cap park and garden bridge at Main Street where it would intersect with a rerouted Interstate 45.

Danny Perez, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Houston office, confirmed the agency has coordinated with Central Houston and other stakeholders and tailored its project design to mesh with some of the proposed amenities. They could be constructed at the same time as the freeway expansion or after the fact, Perez said.

“TxDOT has consistently maintained the project provides an opportunity for partnerships that could lead to the integration of amenities into the project,” Perez said. “TxDOT has also consistently maintained that such partnerships would require funding provided by third-party stakeholders for certain types of amenities.”

It is unclear how the ideas have been received by the FHWA and whether the federal agency, a wing of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will require TxDOT to implement them. The FHWA, in an emailed statement, said it “continues to make progress in the Title VI investigation of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and will be prepared to provide specifics once the investigation is completed.”

Douglas said Tuesday that Central Houston had not yet received a response from the FHWA. After initially presenting its ideas in March, Douglas said the FHWA asked for a detailed cost estimate, which Central Houston submitted in April.

"We hope and believe the Federal Highway Administration will make TxDOT do it," Douglas said. "What we called ‘civic opportunities,' they called ‘mitigation factors.' They said, ‘We like what you're proposing with these mitigation factors. We would like you to tell us what you think it will cost.' We took that to mean they need to have a picture of what they could ask for, what they could demand."

Central Houston's proposed amenities, which apply only to the downtown segment of the I-45 project, do not have the support of STOP TxDOT I-45, a local grassroots organization that opposes the plan. It said in a statement that Central Houston could execute its vision without a widening of I-45, which is expected to displace more than 1,000 homes and businesses in low-income communities of color and could create more air and noise pollution.

"This is a 25-mile-long project," STOP TxDOT I-45 said. "It is impossible to address congestion, infrastructural racism, our reliance on single-occupancy vehicles, flooding, pollution, and safety throughout the corridor with Central Houston's suggested changes to the downtown segment."

STOP TxDOT I-45 also said the proposed amenities are "being used to greenwash a bad project," and that it wants TxDOT to move away from a car-centric transportation philosophy and change the way it engages with impacted communities.

Douglas said Central Houston also "wants more" from TxDOT, both in terms of implementing its proposed amenities and in the way of a transportation paradigm shift that would focus less on alleviating freeway congestion and more on connecting impacted neighborhoods. He also said TxDOT deserves credit for incorporating some of the requests made by Central Houston, which Douglas said is now "in a position to do something we could not have done before."

Along those lines, Douglas said Central Houston's proposals are "not lipstick on a pig" and not in response to opposition expressed by STOP TxDOT I-45 and others. He also said he hopes what's happening with the downtown segment of the I-45 project can be replicated in other areas along the planned route, in the interest of equity.

"I'd like to think that it creates the opportunity for more conversations as to which changes could be made," Douglas said. "This is an opportunity to redeem the transportation mistakes from the past and reconnect communities."

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