Los Angeles Times

Highway plan is a test for Biden

$9-billion widening project in Houston is on hold as a federal agency reviews civil rights concerns.

- By Juan A. Lozano and Hope Yen Lozano and Yen write for the Associated Press.

HOUSTON — A $9-billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administra­tion’s commitment to addressing what it has said is a history of racial inequity with infrastruc­ture projects in the U.S.

The project’s critics, including community groups and some residents, say it won’t improve the area’s traffic woes and would subject mostly Black and Latino residents to increased pollution, displaceme­nt and flooding while not improving public transporta­tion options.

Its supporters say the proposed 10-year constructi­on project that would remake 24 miles along Interstate 45 and several other roadways would enhance driver safety, help reduce traffic congestion and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.

The project, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, has remained on hold since March as the Federal Highway Administra­tion reviews civil rights and environmen­tal justice concerns raised about the proposal. Harris County, where Houston is located, has also filed a federal lawsuit alleging state officials ignored the project’s impacts on neighborho­ods.

The dispute over the project comes as Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equity a top priority at his department.

The impacts of “misguided transporta­tion policy” have “disproport­ionately happened in Black and brown communitie­s and neighborho­ods,” Buttigieg said last December in response to a question from Rodney Ellis, a commission­er in Harris County.

The I-45 project is expected to displace more than 1,000 homes and apartments along with 344 businesses, two schools and five places of worship in mostly Black and Latino neighborho­ods.

“It’s very racially unjust,” said Molly Cook with Stop TxDOT I-45, a community group opposing the project, as she stood in a cul-de-sac in north Houston where 10 homes were expected to be torn down because of the widening. “We’re going to spend all this money to make the traffic worse and hurt a lot of people.”

Fabian Ramirez, 40, whose family has lived since the 1960s in a neighborho­od near downtown Houston, said if the project goes through, he could be forced to sell property he owns.

“It’s taken my family generation­s for me to get to this position where I can say, ‘This property right next to downtown is mine.’ And to have [the] government come and take the property away as soon as I obtain it, it’s nerve-racking,” Ramirez said.

The Texas Department of Transporta­tion, commonly known as TxDOT, and the five members of the Texas Transporta­tion Commission that govern it, have rejected assertions that the project promotes racial inequity. Agency spokesman Bob Kaufman said Tuesday that TxDOT “has worked extensivel­y” with local government­s and communitie­s to “develop tangible solutions” to concerns.

“This project cannot be everything that everybody wants or that everybody believes in. However, it can be transforma­tional for the region and the state,” commission member Laura Ryan said at an August meeting.

The commission has said that if the federal government does not complete its investigat­ion by the end of this month, it might review whether to pull the project’s state funding.

In a statement Tuesday, the Federal Highway Administra­tion said its review was continuing.

Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmen­tal policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, believes the I-45 proposal continues a long history of infrastruc­ture projects — including the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s — that have depreciate­d wealth in minority neighborho­ods through the loss of homes and businesses and exacerbate­d inequality.

Ines Sigel, interim executive director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit focused on transporta­tion issues that opposes the I-45 expansion, said that what the federal government decides in Houston could lead to meaningful changes that improve communitie­s across the country.

Similar debates about highway and infrastruc­ture projects are taking place in other U.S. cities, including Charleston, S.C., Mobile, Ala., and Los Angeles.

“Unless local and state government­s start saying we want to change our entire approach, and that highway expansion could be bad for the environmen­t and we want fewer cars, then the Biden administra­tion’s goals will be really difficult to achieve,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Last week, Harris County officials paused their lawsuit against the state Department of Transporta­tion in the hope of resolving concerns about the project. The move took some community groups by surprise.

But Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said last week that the pause is not an end to the lawsuit and she’s committed to ensuring the project is “forward thinking and … respects the health of the community.”

Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnershi­p, a leading Houston area business group that backs the project, said his organizati­on is optimistic that concerns will be resolved, “ensuring this important project for the Houston region will move forward.”

Roger Panetta, a retired history professor at Fordham University in New York, said those opposing the I-45 project will have an uphill battle, as issues of racism and inequity have been so persistent in highway expansions that it “gets very difficult to dislodge.”

 ?? Allen J. Schaben Los Angeles Times ?? A HOUSTON Housing Authority village, right, would be demolished if highway expansion plans go through.
Allen J. Schaben Los Angeles Times A HOUSTON Housing Authority village, right, would be demolished if highway expansion plans go through.

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