Transportation

TxDOT hosts I-45 expansion meeting in Conroe as opposition continues to voice concerns

TxDOT officials discussed the planned rebuilding and expanding I-45 from Beltway 8 North to Loop 336 in Conroe.

Gail Delaughter/Houston Public Media

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The Texas Department of Transportation hosted a public hearing on I-45 expansion in Conroe on Tuesday, and will host another in Spring on Thursday.

During the meeting, TxDOT discussed the planned rebuilding and expanding I-45 from Beltway 8 North to Loop 336 in Conroe. This makes the third round of public sessions, and is part of a preliminary process to show the public possible plans to rebuild the freeway, even before project designs are fully drawn.

The fresh set of public meetings comes as there is continuing opposition to the I-45 expansion project in Houston, officially known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. It has been paused by the Federal Highway Administration as it considers civil rights complaints.

Neal Ehardt is with Stop TxDOT I-45, a group that opposes the project. He attended Tuesday’s meeting and spoke to Houston Matters with Craig Cohen on Wednesday.

Ehardt said there were similarities to what was being proposed in Houston and Conroe. He said there were three alternatives that they discussed.

“Alternative one is to restripe the freeway without re-construction and that would add two at-grade Express/HOV lanes… Alternative two looks a lot like what we have in Houston, it is the at-grade option. And that adds four at-grade Express/ HOV lanes. This design, like the one that we see in Houston, or south of Beltway 8, would have significant displacement impacts, which is one of our key concerns with the project closer to home,” he said. “And then alternative three elevated for I-45 North, adds four elevated Express/HOV lanes. And it looks it looks a lot more similar to the design that Mayor Turner asked to be implemented in Houston.”

The hearings are, in theory, seeking public comment on if residents want public transit and in what form. Ehardt said the HOV lanes would support buses, but TxDOT eliminated rail options early in the process.

“They eliminated them all, before this meeting saying that the responsibility of building rail would need to fall to other agencies, TxDOT’s not willing to do it,” Ehardt said.

A TxDOT spokesperson reiterated that to Houston Public Media, saying in a statement “… the exploration, study and implementation of ‘rail options’ fall within the purview of the local metropolitan transit authority and/or the local rail district (Gulf Coast Rail District).”

“TxDOT cannot implement solutions that are not within our agency's scope, purview or authority. Our efforts to study improvements along our corridors must take into consideration alternatives within our purview to fund and implement,” the spokesperson said.

“The suggestion that ‘TxDOT is not willing to do it’ disregards the fact that 97% of TxDOT dollars are required by law to be spent on highways (building, maintaining and operating state roadways).”

The Houston project went through a series of hearings similar to this week’s meetings in 2005. But Ehardt said he does not believe TxDOT did a good job “meeting people where they are and telling them what’s going to happen to them.”

“In a lot of ways, the secrecy or I guess a lack of attention really tends to benefit TxDOT because these projects are often not popular when put to a popular survey,” he said.

TxDOT says it had an extensive, lengthy and proactive public involvement over the course of nearly two decades specific to the NHHIP, and “are well documented and very frequently referenced.” The spokesperson pointed to details at part of its website: www.txdot.gov/nhhip.

Ehardt said that he thinks the advocacy that his group and others who have spoken against the proposed project helped add extra scrutiny to the projects.

“I think there’s a growing realization in our region that we can’t just continue to build freeways. And there’s been a lot of work, a great work done before our group that that we’re building on,” he said. “The media presence wasn’t there until the past two or three years. So I think that’s the difference. And I think there is a much greater scrutiny on this project.”

He also said that he does not know if TxDOT is actually listening to the public or “if it’s the elected leaders and the business leaders they’re listening to.”

TxDOT believes its public hearings, meetings and notices allow citizens to participate and understand what is happening.

“TxDOT is committed to improving our transportation system through citizen participation. Through TxDOT's planning activities, TxDOT engage our partners and the public to deliver a system that serves all of Texas,” said a TxDOT spokesperson. “Public involvement and public input are important parts of the Texas Department of Transportation's goals and objectives to ‘incorporate customer feedback and comments into agency practices, project development, and policies.'”

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