Critics Say $9B Houston Highway Project Racially Unjust, Will Impact Diverse Neighborhoods

Critics of a $9 billion highway project in Houston say it's racially unjust and will affect diverse neighborhoods in the area, the Associated Press reported.

Increased pollution, displacement, and flooding could trouble Black and Latino residents if the project comes to fruition without improving traffic issues, critics composed of community groups and residents said.

The project, which has been planned for almost 20 years, would be enacted over 10 years, reconstructing 24 miles on Interstate 45 and other roadways. Supporters said the construction would decrease traffic, improve driver safety, and fix flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.

However many benefits there may be, the construction done to I-45 would displace over 1,000 homes and apartments, 344 businesses, two schools, and five places of worship in predominantly Black and Latino communities.

"This project cannot be everything that everybody wants or that everybody believes in. However, it can be transformational for the region and the state," Laura Ryan, a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, said during an August meeting.

The Federal Highway Administration is currently reviewing concerns about the project regarding civil rights and environmental justice, causing it to be paused since March. A lawsuit claiming state officials overlooked the effect the project would have on neighborhoods has also been filed by Harris County, where Houston is.

The effects of "misguided transportation policy" is something that has "disproportionately happened in Black and brown communities and neighborhoods," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in answer to a question asked by Rodney Ellis, a commissioner in Harris County.

Buttigieg has recently promised his department would prioritize racial equity.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Fabian Ramirez, I-45 Expansion, Lawsuit, Issues
Fabian Ramirez stands next to Interstate 45 while traffic flows behind him November 19, 2021, in Houston. The current plans take the I-45 expansion over Fabian's home. Predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods would be affected by the project, prompting critics to call it racially unjust. Justin Rex/AP Photo

"It's very racially unjust," Molly Cook with Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the community groups opposing the project, said 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-wracking," Ramirez said.

The Texas Department of Transportation, commonly known as TxDOT, and the five members of the Texas Transportation Commission that govern it have pushed back on claims 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.

The commission has said if the federal government does not complete its investigation by the end of this month, it might review at its December 9 meeting 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 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 also taking place in other U.S. cities, including Charleston, South Carolina, Mobile, Alabama, 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 TxDOT in the hope of resolving concerns about the project. The move took some community groups fighting the project 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."

I-45 Project, Houston, Criticisms, Racial Injustice
Plans to expand I-45 and other roadways have been paused since March while Federal Highway Administration reviews concerns regarding civil rights and environmental justice. In this 2005 photo, traffic backs up on Interstate 45 north bound in north Houston. Daniel J. Barry/WireImage