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Bolstered by racial justice debate, critics of I-45 project call for protection of vulnerable communities

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6/19/2020 By Dug Begley, Staff writer

Bolstered by the ongoing national discussion on race and public policies, critics of a planned redesign of Interstate 45 are seeking more assurances that vulnerable communities are protected as the $7 billion project approaches a key milestone.

Members of the Houston Galveston Area Council’s transportation advisory council this week voted to keep portions of the I-45 project in the area’s short-term transportation plan, but with a host of caveats. Chief among those conditions is that the Texas Department of Transportation respond in detail to a set of requests from Houston planners outlining exactly what they can and cannot do to stay within the freeway’s existing boundary and agree in writing to protect displaced residents and businesses.

The lack of clear commitments worries skeptics, who fear neighborhoods affected by the massive redesign from downtown north to Beltway 8, such as Northside, Independence Heights and Fifth Ward, will continue to bear the brunt of TxDOT and Houston’s highway expansion. For decades, neighborhoods along I-45, Interstate 69 and Interstate 10 north and east of downtown have felt the effects of living within shouting distance of the freeways, as mostly-white officials routed the thoroughfares through black and Hispanic communities.

“A vote on this project that continues those very systems of oppression, disparity and racial inequities without addressing the real problems is only supporting and continuing that system of racism,” said Oni Blair, a member of the transportation advisory committee and executive director of LINK Houston, an advocacy group that has organized opposition to the I-45 plan.

Approval from the advisory committee, made up of various interest groups and government appointees, precedes a discussion scheduled for June 26 by HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, the board that sets regional transportation policy and submits Houston-area projects for the state’s transportation plan.

Under the current design, more than 1,000 residences and 300 businesses could be displaced by the project to widen the freeway north of I-10 and re-route it around the east side of downtown. It would be the single largest displacement of people by a freeway project in the Houston area since federal laws were tightened to protect low-income and minority communities in the 1970s, including 158 single family homes mostly in the Near Northside and Independence Heights.

A growing chorus of community groups have accused the project’s designers of sacrificing homes and businesses in minority communities already sliced up or cut off by the freeway to improve commutes for suburban residents and freight movement along I-45.

Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston and transportation advisory committee member, said during the Wednesday discussion that TxDOT must address what it is doing to neighborhoods, such as those along Buffalo Bayou east of downtown where asthma rates are higher than normal.

“I find this project disgusting and I cannot in good conscience support a vote … until all parties involved reckon with the damage they are going to inflict,” Nelson told other committee members.

Blair and Nelson voted against the short-term transportation plan, citing the lack of written assurances that TxDOT will solve the issues raised and not simply charge ahead with the current designs.

The project has received an unprecedented level of public comment and community scrutiny, which has included the city of Houston organizing its own meetings so officials could deliver a set of proposed changes to the project north of Interstate 10. TxDOT still is assessing the city’s request, officials said, and has pledged to continue working on changes to the project so it is acceptable to as many people as possible.

“I don’t think there is an either/or to this project,” state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said. “We have a find a way to bring all of these goals together in this project.”

Transportation officials, however, said those efforts will play out over time beyond the project’s final environmental analysis — expected by the end of July — and a federal approval expected to follow six-to-nine months beyond that.

“I do not think we have ever had a schematic presented on a project and that project built exactly as the schematic,” said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT's Houston office. “We are not approving the project as it stands on paper today.”

No single decision on the project decides its fate, but procedures to use federal money require a series of analyses, as well as local and state approvals, any of which could delay construction. To remain on TxDOT’s timeline, the project’s first phases — rebuilding the freeway system around the central business district and Midtown and moving I-45 to follow Interstate 69 along the east side of downtown — must be included in HGAC’s 2021-24 transportation plan. That plan then will be submitted to the Texas Transportation Commission which approves a statewide short-term plan.

Despite the project taking more than 15 years to get to this point, the recent discussions of race and public policy have prompted skeptics to urge everyone to tread carefully. Even supporters of the overall project are arguing for careful consideration of the project as it proceeds.

“To leave I-45 as it is currently configured would be a mistake,” said Carol Lewis, director of Texas Southern University's Center of Transportation Training and Research.

Ignoring the issue of social justice would be, too, she said. TxDOT has gone to historic lengths to solicit comment, but must now reconcile those concerns with its plans and the engineering analysis of how the new freeway and changes to it will affect how people and freight move.

What is clear, Lewis said, is that TxDOT cannot brush aside how the freeways got where they are now.

“I think historically TxDOT has been 100 percent guilty of being 100 percent insensitive,” Lewis said, noting what is now I-69 along the east side of downtown gutted Fifth Ward.

dug.begley@chron.com

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