Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

When the Texas Department of Transportation reached an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration in March over the planned expansion of Interstate 45, grassroots organizers thought the project would become more responsive to community concerns.

As part of the agreement, the Federal Highway Administration would lift the pause on the project’s progress and resolve the pending civil rights investigation into the expansion’s potential negative impact on predominantly minority neighborhoods. 

Coming out of a set of six federally mandated public meetings hosted by TxDOT on the project, organizers said the state transportation agency was not living up to its end of the bargain.

“We were expecting a meeting where community engagement was a little bit more intimate,” said Stephany Valdez, an organizer with STOP TxDOT I-45, a coalition of activists and concerned residents who have been working against I-45 expansion for years.

For those who couldn’t attend the meetings, the materials are available online. TxDOT’s deadline for public comment is Jan. 5 in order to be included in the community involvement summary. Comments must be postmarked or sent via email by the deadline. 

The proposed interstate expansion, also known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, would span from the northern outskirts of Houston’s city limits near Aldine to downtown and into Third Ward. The project is divided into three segments, which TxDOT says will alleviate congestion, address flooding and update aging infrastructure. Construction, according to TxDOT, will begin in Segment 3 sometime in the next 12 months. 

Segment 3 is centered around the downtown highway loop and surrounding areas. It is the only segment that is currently funded. Segment 1 is the northern portion of the project, originating near Greenspoint and Aldine and running south through Independence Heights along I-45 right up to Interstate 610. Segment 2 includes the I-45/I-610 interchange, and runs south along I-45 through Near Northside and Greater Heights. 

While the crowd at the Segment 3 meeting downtown certainly got close with one another, it was much harder to get that from TxDOT representatives.

People squirmed around, jockeying for space in the small room. Small crowds formed and then slowly melded into each other as Houstonians tried to read posters surrounding the room. Four tables in the center of the room were constantly surrounded, and the sound of a video being played on loop could barely be heard over the buzzing of conversation. While TxDOT employees were scattered throughout the room, the overwhelming number of attendees made it hard for everyone to get their questions answered.

“It was just a video with a bunch of technical terms that people don’t often understand, you know? It was nothing but billboards around, like nothing but posters,” Valdez said.

She took issue with the lack of true community accessibility throughout the meetings, saying that interpretation options for Spanish speakers were not good enough and nonexistent for Vietnamese speakers.

Chris Parma was one person looking for space in the crowded room to ask questions about the project. While Parma doesn’t live in the footprint, he lives close enough that he came to the meeting and spoke with a TxDOT representative about the project.

“I feel like there’s a lot of better ways to spend $10 billion,” Parma said, “I think there are a lot of issues with the project at the very least.”

Parma, a mechanical engineer, said that despite his apprehension, he conceded the project will likely happen. With that understanding, he thought it was important to still show up and provide feedback. He wanted to see the expansion’s footprint reduced further to minimize displacements. The project is currently estimated to displace 1,400 homes, apartments and businesses.

Organizers also raised concerns about the virtual meetings held in each segment, saying TxDOT was selective in which questions officials answered. Organizers told the Abdelraoufsinno that they had submitted questions under their own names that were not answered. When they submitted their questions anonymously or under a different name, they got more responses.

The Abdelraoufsinno sent a series of questions to TxDOT, and has not yet received answers.

Those online meetings had much of the same technical jargon that put off Valdez about the in-person meetings, and the two-hour meetings at times felt like university lectures about the project’s future.

“The overall feeling I got is that people were getting talked at and told things, rather than, like, being engaged and being included in these conversations,” Valdez said. “That’s not what community outreach looks like.”

While attendance overwhelmed the small room for the Segment 3 meeting, attendance tapered off the further the meetings got from downtown. The Segment 2 meeting had plenty of space available, but a seemingly thinner crowd who attended. The Segment 1 meeting had incredibly low attendance, according to organizers.

The overwhelming takeaway from organizers was simple: TxDOT will do whatever they want to do.

“Our complaints before (the pause) were that it’s essentially textbook going through the motions without any genuine intention to take feedback on the project,” said Harrison Humphreys, a research and policy coordinator with Air Alliance Houston, an advocacy organization working for environmental justice and to reduce harm from air pollution. “And this was even more so in that direction.”

Humphreys pointed to TxDOT’s constant referral to the voluntary resolution agreement between the state agency and the Federal Highway Administration throughout the meetings. He said TxDOT officials used the agreement to say that a decision had already been made on the project.

The agreement has provisions that hold TxDOT accountable for things like holding public meetings, monitoring air quality throughout the project, and using the least amount of right-of-way to reduce the project’s footprint.

Humphreys conceded that per the agreement, TxDOT was doing what was required of it. However, he felt that the way TxDOT has been fulfilling the voluntary agreement isn’t within the spirit of the deal

He used a recently installed air monitor in Segment 3 as an example. TxDOT is required to install the monitor within the footprint of each of the project’s three segments, and it did just that. Humphreys said TxDOT chose to put the monitor at the southernmost part of the expansion plan, away from downtown and Fifth Ward and a majority of the rest of the project.

“They are covering their bases,” Humphreys said. “They’re doing the bare minimum of what was laid out but without any, you know, good faith attempts to meet what the VRA is trying to achieve.”

Humphreys said that TxDOT was clear that it would not consider any lane reductions on the project. TxDOT’s posters at the public meetings said the agency was committed to evaluating opportunities to reduce the plan’s footprint in ways that would not compromise the project’s purpose, namely to reduce highway congestion.

That purpose and need, per Humphreys, is based on data from prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which influenced traffic patterns and car usage throughout the United States. Segment 1 is not slated to begin construction until 2032, and he asked Varuna Singh, TxDOT’s deputy district engineer for Houston, if there would be any reconsideration of those congestion issues. Humphreys said Singh told him that TxDOT had no directive to update its data or consider newer traffic patterns.

The meetings have energized organizers, who understand the need to mobilize in the coming year.

“This is still a terrible project,” Humphreys said. “At the very least, it needs to be drastically reimagined if not stopped altogether.”

But facing down a state agency and attempting to stop a project mere months from breaking ground will be difficult. Organizers say the path forward will be through utilizing agreements with TxDOT like the voluntary resolution agreement, as well as memoranda of understanding that were signed with the city of Houston and Harris County. Each of those agreements outlined potential issues with the project, and how TxDOT would work to mitigate those issues.

“If they’re not, following up with the next step to try and get the Federal Highway Administration, their attention to the things that (TxDOT) have been slipping on,” Valdez said. She said that STOP TxDOT I-45 is working on a series of reports coming out of the meetings that evaluated what TxDOT presented to the public.

Organizers are forming strategies for what’s to come in the next year, but they are committed to the grassroots parts of their campaign. Door-knocking and community events will always be part of their strategy, especially for communities who struggle to access resources.

“What we do in contrast to TxDOT is we think about the things that make it easy for people to be able to connect, and to get that information,” said STOP organizer Erin Eriksen.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Akhil Ganesh is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. He was previously a local government watchdog reporter in Staunton, Virginia, where he focused on providing community-centric...