Something interesting is happening in Houston.
The Texas Department of Transportation wants to spend $7 billion expanding and re-routing Interstate 45 around downtown and points north. According to the Houston Chronicle, the 25-mile project would require seizing land that contains housing for about 1,000 mostly Black, Brown, and low-income Houstonians. It would also eliminate businesses that collectively employ about 25,000 people.
Harris County sued TxDOT to stop the project last week, citing violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because the project, which receives federal funding, would have a disproportionate impact on people of color. The county has also sued the state over the project’s environmental impact, arguing that TxDOT misrepresented the damage such an expansion would have on the targeted neighborhoods, therefore violating the National Environmental Policy Act. Almost immediately, the Federal Highway Administration wrote the state asking it to pause issuing any requests for contract proposals while the agency investigates the claims. Streetsblog has the full story right here.
Harris County’s concerns are specific to this project. There isn’t a highway overhaul in Dallas that would require such an extreme seizure of land. But it’s alarming that TxDOT let the project get this far despite significant local opposition, including from Houston’s mayor and the county judge. Dallas’ recent highway projects—namely the planned Interstate 30 overhaul through downtown and East Dallas, as well as the Southern Gateway Interstate 35 project in Oak Cliff—didn’t require significant property takings through eminent domain, and they seem to at least adhere to the existing highway’s footprint. (A TxDOT spokesman says the state acquired three acres of land for the Southern Gateway project, which included one residence.)
This is also why TxDOT’s CityMAP assessment from 2017 is so important. Led by TxDOT in partnership with the city and our region’s metropolitan planning organization, the City Master Assessment Process analyzed how highway projects in Dallas could better stitch together the communities they tore apart. It’s not a formalized plan, but it set parameters for each freeway. If the state ever proposed something counter to its findings for a major highway expansion, there is at least a guiding document the City Council could point to in contesting the details. We’ve already seen that come up once, with the I-30 expansion.
Houston doesn’t seem to have that backstop. But now they appear to have the feds on their side. After the lawsuit, the FHWA moved quickly to review the alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Environmental Policy Act. The investigation is in line with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s recent public comments.
“Misguided transportation policy has had a track record in our country of dividing neighborhoods, cutting them up, and even wrecking them altogether,” Buttigieg recently said in response to a question posed in a streamed forum by Rodney Ellis, a Harris County Commissioner and retired state senator. “It’s not just a question of the quantity of the investment. I think we can all agree we want more dollars to go into infrastructure, but it is what is actually being done with those dollars. It’s one of many reasons why local concerns have to be taken on board.”
In Dallas, those “local concerns” are generally worked out between city staff and TxDOT’s Dallas engineers, with input from the North Central Texas Council of Governments. (That’s the metropolitan planning organization mentioned above.) Recent City Council members haven’t been afraid to wade into these matters. Even in 2015, TxDOT’s top Dallas engineer was quoted as saying the agency “implements policy” set by elected officials. That, obviously, can be rocky. You’ll recall in 2019, when the Dallas City Council passed a resolution advising TxDOT on what it wanted in the I-30 redo. They called them “guiding principles” in response to a draft plan that appeared to show a bloated I-30 widening and expanding frontage roads.
According to both the city and TxDOT, that conflict was a result of poor communication. After that blowup, the two parties started having regular meetings to hash things out. By the time the public saw TxDOT’s plan for I-30, it had been amended to remove many of those frontage roads and to shrink and bury the freeway where possible. The work happened behind the scenes, with TxDOT’s engineers collaborating with city staff to design a freeway overhaul that tried to stitch neighborhoods together that the freeway once tore apart.
I know nothing about the relationship between the city of Houston and TxDOT. But it’s clear the state has progressed a plan with substantial local opposition that includes questions about whether it violates federal law. It seems now that the FHWA is willing to play ball. This process could result in a far more amenable plan, with a smaller footprint that causes less pain for residents. Having a federal backstop could help give local governments more power in stopping massive, state-run transportation projects that run roughshod over more progressive, locally driven transportation planning efforts.
In Austin, where TxDOT is floating expanding I-35 near downtown and the east side, there is now perhaps a case study for how to push back.
In Dallas, it may mean that there’s an ally at the federal level that could elevate projects that improve connectivity instead of funneling money toward building out the highways that damaged the city. We already have a framework that TxDOT actually created for us. CityMAP reimagined how our freeways could better link the city together. Perhaps now the feds will be willing to spend their transit dollars implementing those very principles.