Can a Highway Be Racist?

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S1: Yes, very historic neighborhood Debbie Allen lived on McGregor, Beyoncé rode a bike, they lived on the next street over here, the producer of Empire, Attica Locke, they lived on Parkwood. So, I mean, I it’s a very well, talented neighborhood as well.

S2: I called up Tamara Bell because she knows just about everything there is to know about her neighborhood and quite a bit about her city as well.

S1: I’ve lived in Houston for 40 years. I live in 3rd Ward. I live in what’s called Riverside Terrace. African-Americans moved in in the late 50s, early 60s. Ebony magazine and PBS television did a special called This House is Not for Sale in the early 80s, because when this neighborhood transition,

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S2: when Tamar moved to Third Ward 40 years ago, it was a couple decades after the neighborhood had been divided by the construction of Texas Highway 288. The road wiped out churches, houses and local businesses. It literally split a community into. So in 2017, when the Texas Department of Transportation announced plans for the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which would expand Interstate 45 and displaced more than a thousand homes, hundreds of businesses, five houses of worship and two schools in neighborhoods like Houston’s Independence Heights, tomorrow immediately knew

S1: it was going to kill history. You’re talking about historical communities that have been around the independent heights community was built by the freed slaves. And what this project would do, I mean, it would leave, I mean, fragments, not remnants, fragments of that community because it would take them out. I mean, they obliterated an entire community with the expansion of two eighty eight. And before when they did the Eytan expansion, they did the same thing over there when they cut through Sunnyside with a 16 loop. And so it’s like, you know, you get to a community, you do what you’re supposed to do. That’s, you know, my home, build up your family and then takes Dotcom’s as well. You know what? Not as many well-heeled wealthy people are here in this area. They have a new community that we want to make sure they get home to quicker. So we’ll kill your black neighborhood or your Hispanic neighborhood to make sure they can get home quicker.

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S2: The Texas Department of Transportation, or texta, says traffic Armageddon will arrive in two decades if they don’t expand the highway. Like most state highway agencies, they have usually gotten their way. But in Houston over the past four years, opposition to paving over a neighborhood in service of a slightly faster commute for someone else has swelled into a movement, bringing together residents, activists and elected officials from around the region. Tomorrow remembers a regional planning meeting on funding the expansion, where people came out and overwhelmed the public comment portion.

S1: They all came to speak out against it. Maxus Mack, who was one of the wealthiest furniture manufacturers in the state of Texas. He came out. We had all kind of paediatrician’s. We had doctors that came in from all manner of allergies talking about the asthma rates. They looked at us and literally were like, Jimmy Hate Jaman. We don’t give a damn. What can you do as a senior citizen living in your house that belonged to your mother or grandmother? Since the eighteen hundreds on land you have owned that long, what are you to do? I mean, it, it was so discouraging. But you cannot get discouraged when you end these battles. I mean it. You don’t leave a fight until the fighting is over.

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S2: The fighting is not over. In March, the US Department of Transportation asked Texas to hold the project the same day. Harris County, which includes Houston and its suburbs, filed a lawsuit for the first time in years. Activists like Bell are feeling cautiously optimistic.

S1: And the way Texas came in at the end of the last administration and just swooped in and said, OK, we’re going past everything and we good to go. I was so proud of the new administration for saying hold on. No, no, you’re not. You’re not going to do this.

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S2: Today on the show, the freeway revolt is back. Residents of Houston and elected officials are trying to stop the largest urban highway project of their lifetimes. They are joined by peers in other cities doing similar things. And they have a powerful new ally in Washington. As the Biden administration sets its sights on building back better, the fate of 45 may tell us something about what 21st century infrastructure will look like. I’m Henry Garba Infirmary. Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Another person who knows a ton about Houston is Bonnie Blair.

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S3: Houston is not a new city, but it’s major development happened after World War Two, so it is largely dependent on a car. The city is made for cars. People give directions by highways and highways don’t avoid downtown. They crisscross downtown currently, which is far different than communities in the northeast or perhaps even on parts of the West Coast.

S2: Arnie runs a transportation advocacy group called Link Houston. She says what’s happening with I-40 five in Houston is similar to highway projects around the country with one key difference. It’s a much bigger scale.

S3: I think the major difference between this project and other projects is really the level of displacement that you see. And so in other projects, like in Maryland, there’s a project that people talk about. And in L.A., the projects that sort of displacement is around three hundred, you know, homes that you’ll see, not a thousand homes. This is of the proportions of the nineteen fifties and sixties that you really just don’t see every day.

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S2: Mm hmm. Yeah, I saw Harris County say that this may be the largest highway construction project any of us sees in our lifetimes.

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S3: Exactly. It is a once in a generation level project.

S2: Can you talk about some of the key features of this project? What parts of Houston does it affect and how and who is it supposed to benefit?

S3: So the downtown area of Houston definitely benefits the economic development that the downtown has estimated is about nine billion dollars and economic development and revival that will go into downtown.

S2: But the other part of it, I imagine, is that presumably the new highway will be better for the people who drive on it. Who are those people?

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S3: So beyond the highway, you’re moving towards the suburbs, which are generally whiter and higher income to a certain extent. Now, compare that with the communities that live along the highway. So stretching north from downtown all the way to Beltway eight, there are several communities in those communities range from sixty seven percent minority communities. So black and Latino communities to 92 percent black and Latino communities and majority low income in those areas. Now, those communities see a different sort of aspect of the project. So with this expansion of the highway, which will stretch several lanes depending on where you are in it, and add more into entrance and exit ramps, there will be to accommodate that acquisition of the right away to accommodate that extra land. There will be destruction of homes, most of them in the affordable range, up to over a thousand homes estimated by the Texas Department of Transportation. Over three hundred businesses will be wiped out because of this, and there are tens of thousands of people there. Earlier estimates calculated that it would be at least twenty four thousand jobs that would be impacted. And if you think of a thousand affordable housing units, you’re thinking, you know, several thousand people that will have to move because of this project.

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S2: Another major complaint about the I-40 five expansion is that it will make nearby neighborhoods flood. Now, for people who aren’t familiar with Houston’s flooding problem. What’s the connection between a big highway project like this and flooding?

S3: So after Harvey in Houston, people became familiar with the term impervious infrastructure, meaning concrete doesn’t let the water pass through. It just sits on top of it. And so the more concrete we add, especially by widening highways, the more work that we have to do to adapt and create the level of drainage that we need. So for some of the neighborhoods that are impacted by this highway, their major concern is the flooding. For some, they’re concerned about what the flooding may mean for homes because they’ve already been devastated from Ike, from two thousand eight were still recovering when Hurricane Harvey hit and now just are continuously in the recovery mode. Other communities, especially east of the highways, are concerned about being trapped. And because they in some areas are food deserts or otherwise isolated, the further isolation, if there is a rain event, becomes catastrophic and perhaps even deadly. And then add all that on to the air quality aspect. And we don’t know what that will be because the studies actually don’t do a good job of the air quality impacts. They say that because cars will be moving faster and will eventually be more efficient, that there are no air quality impacts that really need to be studied. The reality is 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 impacts on the black and brown communities are far different from the impact that will benefit downtown, and 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 challenges.

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S2: One of the things that the text says is that traffic on the new expanded highway will move faster and that will mean less air pollution because you won’t have a bunch of cars sitting in gridlock. What do you make of that?

S3: So Houston is also the home of ITN, the Katy Freeway, which was still technically is the whitest freeway 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 to reduce congestion, the reality is that within three years we were already at the same point of congestion and time that it took to travel from point A to point B as before, or the highway construction. And now it is slower. Expanding freeways for the purpose of addressing congestion does not work. And we have an example literally that intersects this highway. That is the the point of conversation, the I-40 five north expansion. So that explanation doesn’t really land with people.

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S2: This Katee Freeway project you’re talking about, you’re saying that this demonstrates a concept called induced demand, which is that the highway gets bigger, but the traffic doesn’t get better because as the highway gets bigger, more people drive on it.

S3: Exactly. You’re incentivized to live farther out. You’re incentivized to get on the highway because in the beginning you do have more room. But that is quickly taken away because not only you believe that, but your neighbor believes that. And your new neighbor and your new neighbor, new neighbor. So it draws you in and then it fools you into thinking that it’s going to work and it doesn’t.

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S2: When we come back, opponents of the forty five expansion have started to gain support from local officials and the Biden administration. What that signals about the future of transportation. Basically, the situation in Houston is state versus county state wants to build a big road, eight billion dollars the size of the state budget in Vermont, state says traffic will go up by 40 percent by 20, 40 counties, says traffic has been falling on I-40 five since 2008. State says the highway will preserve a 16 minute trip from the city’s north side to downtown in 2040. If they don’t build it, they say that trip of just a few miles will take an hour and 40 minutes. The county says those calculations have been grossly exaggerated in this fight, with the state on one side and the county and its residents on the other has been playing out for just about four years now, delaying the project. But this month, the opponents of expanding I-40 have got a big win. Pizzuti judges USDOT stepped in asking Texas to pause the project while it investigated civil rights concerns. Tell me about your outlook before the Biden administration came into power. And now that you’ve gotten this letter from the US DOT and the Federal Highway Administration basically saying, let’s put a pause on this project to Texas DOT. Did that surprise you?

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S3: Yes, it did surprise me because those sort of pauses from the federal government. I understand that they have happened in other places across the country, but we don’t see those here in Texas. So when the Federal Highway Administration, that’s the agency of the US Department of Transportation intervened and sent that letter and said that they are pausing and investigating Title six civil rights claims. That’s a big deal here. It shows that it’s not business as usual. And if nothing else comes of this, it shows that that people are watching and the federal government to make sure that we are following the law and the regulations as they are stated here in the region. Additionally, that same week in mid-March, the Harris County county attorney filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation, largely on the basis of the concerns and disparities that the current project will have. And it’s a broad reaching lawsuit. It’s not narrowly focused like many are. And so we will see what will come of that as well.

S2: Right. What does it mean for the federal government to ask for a highway expansion to be evaluated on civil rights grounds? And what do you think that says about the Biden administration’s priorities going forward? They’re announcing an infrastructure plan this week.

S3: They’re announcing an infrastructure plan. They’ve already released new grants that were targeting projects that advance racial equity and climate justice. The secretary, Secretary Goodge, 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. And 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 that that happens with a public project and the public engagement process. Those are where the bulk of the concerns and recommendations for what went for what community residents wanted to happen actually exist. And those are not being investigated right now.

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S2: 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? I mean, to you is a better project here, a stepping stone to a future in Houston where people drive less, take transit more, spend more time in their own neighborhoods? I mean, what does it say about the future of the region and the way people get around?

S3: 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, but really those choices don’t exist. And I think those options 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 or 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, or even for some of them, it’s not an option. And so recognizing that and putting a value in all people and not just a particular group and giving them the power is really important and how we think about our communities.

S2: I know that US dot Secretary Ridge has said he wants to repair the damage done by highways to black communities. Do you trust him? Do you believe that such a thing can be done?

S3: I think the bigger thing is whether something like this can be done. And it can it really can. We we we need highways to move goods. That is important. How we do those is dependent on the priorities of the people making decisions. It’s not that it’s a can or can’t or there’s a money or there’s not. It’s about priorities and where we value the people and the communities that are going to be impacted.

S2: Thank you so much for coming on and talking with us, Henry.

S3: Thanks for having me and for considering this perspective from, like you said.

S2: Tony Blair is executive director of Link Houston, a transit advocacy organization. That’s the show What Next is produced by Davis Lane Lane Schwartz from El Delshad Wilson and Danielle Hewitt. Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery lead the way. And I’m Henry Glover Infirmary. Harris, tomorrow, Lizzie O’Leary takes over the feed.

S4: Thanks for listening.