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Residents of Houston and elected officials have been trying to stop the largest urban highway project of their lifetimes. In 2017, the Texas Department of Transportation announced plans for the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which would expand Interstate 45—and displace more than 1,000 homes, hundreds of businesses, five houses of worship, and two schools in neighborhoods like Houston’s Independence Heights. It’s essentially a battle between the state government and Harris County: The former says the expansion is needed because traffic will go up 40 percent by 2040, while the latter says traffic has been falling on I-45 since 2008, and mass displacement will only inflict more damage, among other points of dispute. This conflict has delayed construction of the project for four years now—and this month, Pete Buttigieg’s U.S. Department of Transportation stepped in, asking Texas’ DOT to pause the project as it investigates civil rights concerns. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Oni Blair, who runs a transportation advocacy group called Link Houston, about what the fate of I-45 will tell us about 21st century infrastructure. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Grabar: Presumably, the new highway will be better for the people who drive on it. Who are those people?
Oni Blair: Beyond the highway, you’re moving toward the suburbs, which are generally whiter and higher-income, to a certain extent. Compare that with the communities that live along the highway, which are 67 percent minority communities, majority Black and Latino, majority low-income. There are tens of thousands of people living there. To accommodate the I-45 expansion, which will stretch several lanes depending on where you are in it, there will be the destruction of homes, most of them in affordable ranges. More than 300 businesses will be wiped out. Earlier estimates calculated that at least 24,000 jobs would be affected. If you think of 1,000 affordable housing units, that’s several thousand people who will have to move because of this project.
Another major complaint about the I-45 expansion is that it will make nearby neighborhoods flood. For people who aren’t familiar with Houston flooding problem, what’s the connection between a big highway project like this and flooding?
After Hurricane Harvey, people became familiar with the term impervious infrastructure, meaning concrete. The more concrete we add, especially by widening highways, the more work we have to do to adapt and create a level of drainage that we need. For some of the neighborhoods that are affected by this highway, their major concern is the flooding, because they were already devastated by Ike in 2008 and are still recovering from Harvey. Other communities, especially east of the highways, are concerned about being trapped. Some areas are food deserts or are otherwise isolated, which means that a rain event can become catastrophic and perhaps even deadly.
Add all of that onto the air quality aspect. [The Texas DOT says] that because cars will be moving faster and will eventually be more efficient, there are no air quality impacts that really need to be studied. We know that can’t be true, and people are not going to replace their cars immediately with more efficient vehicles. So you’re seeing that the impact on Black and brown communities is far different from the impact that will benefit downtown. That’s where people see the inequity in the project. It is very clear that this highway corridor needs to be improved. But at what risk, and to what extent, and who benefits, is where the challenge is.
Houston is also the home of I-10, the Katy Freeway, which was one of the widest freeways in the country. It is also used in planning schools as an example of induced demand, because while the highway was widened to accommodate more traffic and reduce congestion, the reality is that within three years we were already at the same point of congestion, and at the same time it took to travel from point A to point B as we had before the construction. Now, it is slower. Expanding freeways for the purpose of addressing congestion does not work.
The traffic doesn’t get better, because as the highway gets bigger, more people drive on it.
Exactly. You’re incentivized to live farther out. You’re incentivized to get out on the highway, because in the beginning you do have more room. But that is quickly taken away because not only do you believe that, but your neighbor believes that. It draws you in and fools you into thinking it’s going to work, and it doesn’t.
Tell me about your outlook before the Biden administration came into power. You’ve gotten this letter from the U.S. DOT and the Federal Highway Administration basically saying, let’s put a pause on this project. Did that surprise you?
It did surprise me because those sort of pauses from the federal government, we don’t see them here in Texas. When the Federal Highway Administration said it was pausing and investigating Title XI civil rights claims—that’s a big deal. It shows that it’s not business as usual. If nothing else comes of this, it shows that people are watching to make sure we are following the laws and the regulations as they are stated here in the region. Additionally, that same week in mid-March, the Harris County Attorney filed a lawsuit against the Texas DOT, largely on the basis of all of the concerns and disparities that the current project will have. It’s a broad-reaching lawsuit. so we will see what will come of that.
What does it mean for the federal government to ask that a highway expansion be evaluated on civil rights grounds? And what do you think that says about the Biden administration’s priorities going forward? It is announcing an infrastructure plan this week.
They’re announcing an infrastructure plan. They’ve already released new grants that were targeting projects that advance racial equity and climate justice. Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been on record, in print and in his words, talking about the impact of highways and their disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities. It is a different day, I hope, but we still need to wait and see what actually happens on the ground.
The civil rights claims that the Federal Highway Administration is investigating right now follow a very particular, very narrow process—so only those few claims that were explicitly provided under that procedure will be investigated. Those are different than the thousands of public comments that people submitted as part of the general process. Those are where the bulk of the concerns and recommendations for what community residents want to happen actually exist. And those are not being investigated right now.
If this highway were built better—not expanded, but maybe repaved and reallocated a little bit—what would that suggest about the future of the way people get around in Houston? To you, is a better project here a steppingstone to a future in Houston where people drive less, take transit more, spend more time in their own neighborhoods?
A better project would say, first of all, that we value people and their communities and neighborhoods, and that’s where we need to be investing. And then it would also say that we want a region that supports transportation options for people—not creating one option and then telling them they have a choice. Those choices don’t exist. As we get to a new age for our environment, for people of different ages, both young and older, who don’t or can’t drive, for people who don’t want to drive, for people who can’t afford to drive, for people who have disabilities—the car is not the only option that they have. For some of them, it’s not an option at all. Recognizing that and putting value in all people, and not just a particular group and giving them the power, is really important in how we think about our communities.