The Oklahoman

Texas, feds settle probe over $9 billion Houston highway widening

- Juan A. Lozano

HOUSTON – Federal authoritie­s announced Tuesday they have lifted their hold of a more than $9 billion Houston area highway-widening project that has come under intense criticism from residents and activists who have argued the proposal would cause lasting economic and environmen­tal damage to their communitie­s.

The project to expand Interstate 45, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, had been delayed since March 2021, when the Federal Highway Administra­tion began investigat­ing civil rights and environmen­tal justice concerns.

Federal Highway Administra­tor Shailen Bhatt announced his agency had reached an agreement with the Texas Department of Transporta­tion, also known as TxDOT.

“This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves the (project) in ways that will make a real difference in people’s lives,” Bhatt said in a statement.

Local officials said the agreement will address many of their concerns, including providing more resources to deal with flooding, creating more green spaces and trail connection­s, and limiting the project’s footprint and its effects on air quality.

“After years of negotiatio­ns, the … (proposal) can now be the project Houston deserves it to be,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Tuesday.

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

The project was seen an important test of the Biden administra­tion’s commitment to addressing a history of racial inequity in U.S. infrastruc­ture projects.

Some community groups and residents said they were disappoint­ed by the investigat­ion’s settlement.

“President Joe Biden and U.S. Department of Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg promised to undo the past harms caused by freeway constructi­on, but it seems they are doomed to repeat these harms in Houston,” Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the community groups opposing the project, said in a statement.

The proposed constructi­on project would take 10 years to complete, and remake 24 miles along Interstate 45 and several other roadways.

Supporters say it would enhance driver safety, help to reduce traffic congestion, and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.

But the project’s critics say it won’t improve the area’s traffic woes and would subject mostly Black and Latino residents to increased pollution, displaceme­nt and flooding while not improving public transporta­tion options.

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