Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

In the face of vocal opposition, Houston City Council voted Wednesday to sell nearly three acres of land along the White Oak Bayou Greenway to the Texas Department of Transportation for a controversial realignment of Interstate 45.

The land sale revived a years-long debate over the project, which reached a turning point in 2022 with an agreement between the state and then-Mayor Sylvester Turner meant to address community concerns.

TxDOT says it plans to build over the popular trail – not demolish it – but opponents have warned of construction disruptions and the long-term harm of a towering freeway structure.

After delaying a vote on the sale last week, District H Councilmember Mario Castillo sought to craft an agreement that would keep Houston as the owner of the land while granting TxDOT an easement over it.

Mayor John Whitmire said the city intended to move ahead as planned, however, and Castillo called for a vote that sale opponents lost 11-4.

I-45 again

For more than 20 years, transportation officials have plotted an ambitious remaking of the city’s downtown highway network meant to reduce flooding and ease traffic congestion.

In 2015, the state unveiled plans to shift I-45 east of downtown that drew pushback from supporters of the White Oak Bayou Greenway.

Under TxDOT’s $11 billion plan, the new I-45 would jump over White Oak Bayou north of the University of Houston-Downtown, before turning south to run east of downtown in parallel with Interstate 69.

Renderings of the final product show an interlocking mass of highway overpasses swooping over the hike-and-bike trail and blocking views of downtown.

TxDOT has promised not to block the trail itself. That pledge is scarce comfort for trail users whose patch of green space will be turned into a noisy highway underpass, opponents say.

In an agreement with the federal government, TxDOT promised to maintain access to the trail or a comparable detour even during construction. Critics question whether the agency will follow through on that.

When the sale of the parcel for $261,000 appeared on last week’s council agenda, the Stop TxDOT I-45 coalition organized a campaign aimed at derailing it. The group says it wants the city to pursue an easement agreement that would allow Houston to maintain ultimate control over the land.

“Thirty-one lanes of freeway over White Oak Bayou does not sound like looking out for our community,” coalition member Erin Erikson said at City Council on Tuesday. “Selling this land to TxDOT is a bell that cannot be unrung. And with all due respect, any promises or assurances that TxDOT gives to this body or to the community will most likely be broken. We’ve seen that time and again. Highways are always more important to TxDOT than community wants and needs.”

Council moves

In response to a deluge of emails and phone calls last week, Castillo joined with other council members to push back a vote on the land sale to this week.

In the meantime, Castillo had a conversation with TxDOT officials where he broached the idea of an easement in lieu of a land sale, he said Tuesday. The agency made clear that it prefers to own the land outright, he said.

TxDOT declined an interview request, with a spokesperson saying the agency was busy responding to last week’s storms.

Going into Wednesday's council meeting, Castillo said he planned to delay the land sale vote to pursue the idea of an easement.

“This is not about stopping this project. This project is happening,” Castillo said. “The pollution, the noise, the impacts. That impacts my constituents. I’m trying to make sure that what we do is providing the least amount of impacts to District H.”

Castillo’s attempt to stop the sale soon ran into opposition from Whitmire, a longtime supporter of the I-45 realignment even when other politicians voiced doubts. Separately, Whitmire also has squared off with member organizations of Stop TxDOT I-45 on such issues as bike lanes and sidewalks.

Supporters of the sale noted that TxDOT can take the land even without the city’s approval via eminent domain. Whitmire also said that stopping the sale could pose risks to the city’s 2022 memorandum of understanding with TxDOT.

Under questioning from council members, City Attorney Arturo Michel said the agreement would remain in place if the city were forced to hand over the land under eminent domain, but the city could lose “leverage” over TxDOT.

Whitmire said that if Castillo wanted another week to communicate with constituents, he could have it, but he should not expect any changes to the overall plan.

“The project’s going forward. It’s just, do we take a week to inform folks, clear up any misinformation?” Whitmire said. “But I hope we don’t spend the week energizing those that were opposed to the project in any form or fashion.”

Sale approved

In the face of Whitmire’s opposition, Castillo said he wanted to move ahead with an up-or-down vote on the land sale. Whitmire went to a vote – but not without a jab at Castillo first.

“Man, I believed you, when I got to work this morning, that you wanted another week,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire voted in favor of the sale with council members Amy Peck, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, Fred Flickinger, Mary Nan Huffman, Joaquin Martinez, Martha Castex-Tatum, Julian Ramirez, Willie Davis, Twila Carter and Sallie Alcorn.

Voting against were Castillo, Abbie Kamin, Edward Pollard and Letitia Plummer.

Council members Tarsha Jackson and Tiffany Thomas were absent.

After the vote, Stop TxDOT I-45 issued a statement urging city officials to hold TxDOT to its promise to maintain access to the trail.

“We are disappointed with today’s vote and we urge the mayor and city council to remain vigilant to ensure TxDOT follows through with the assurance to keep the White Oak Bayou trail open during and after construction,” the group said.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...