Just outside the gates of Bruce Elementary school in the Fifth Ward, over 30 community organizers, activists, and concerned citizens gathered Tuesday morning to call for delaying the approval of the proposed expansion and overhaul of I-45.
Advocates for the I-45 expansion claim that adding new lanes and restructuring large parts of the highway will reduce congestion and make the aging roadway more structurally secure. But those present at Tuesday’s press conference argued the current plan doesn’t adequately address concerns about adverse impacts on low-income and developing neighborhoods like Fifth Ward, East Downtown, and the Northside, and would primarily benefit more affluent commuters who don’t live in those communities.
Organized by Air Alliance Houston in conjunction with LINK Houston, the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, and the Make I-45 Better Coalition, the main goal of the event was to convince the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s (H-GAC) Transportation Policy Committee to postpone a vote scheduled for Friday to approve a $100 million down payment on the massive infrastructure project. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has asked H-GAC to allocate those funds in order “to demonstrate the region’s desire for advancing” with the I-45 expansion according to a recent resolution.
The I-45 expansion plan calls for lifting the highway from its existing route through the city and shifting it over to follow the alignment of U.S. I-69, running around the east side of the central business district, flowing alongside I-10 before going north again along the current path it is laid out on today.
The North Houston Highway Improvement Project, as the more than $7 billion I-45 makeover is known, has already made the list, compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group, of one of the nation's most unnecessary highway projects, even though it hasn't even started yet.
On Tuesday rally organizers made the case that a vote from this H-GAC committee to approve the $100 million payment to TxDOT would represent a green-light on the expansion plan as currently constructed. To Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, that’s unacceptable. "Voting now to fund the I-45 expansion condones the project as it is currently designed,” said Blair, who described TxDOT’s most recent proposal as “a project that is fraught with inequities.”
According to TxDOT’s Draft Environmental Impact Study on the plan, the expansion as currently designed “would cause disproportionately high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations,” particularly in neighborhoods such as Clayton Homes on the East Side and Kelly Village, located in the Fifth Ward. Blair cited several of these negative consequences as described in the report, including the loss of over 300 businesses and homes for thousands of area residents, and measurably worse air quality along the path of construction at locations like Bruce Elementary.
Cesar Espinoza, executive director of the local immigrant’s rights organization FIEL, claimed that these statistics raise the question of what groups stand to gain and lose the most from an I-45 overhaul.
“Who are these highways going to serve?” Espinoza asked. “To TxDOT in one voice, we want to say you can’t make decisions for us, without us.”
Overcast but mercifully dry and unseasonably cool in the low 80s, the morning’s conditions seemed great at first, but soon enough, waves of traffic speeding toward the nearby spaghetti-bowl intersection of I-10 and I-59 made it difficult for the cluster of about 30 in the elementary school parking lot to hear the assembled speakers for large stretches. All the noise made it easier to focus on the signs in the crowd, covered in slogans like “Freeway? NO WAY!,” “Not Needed, NOT WANTED!,” and “STOP TXDOT I-45” in bright red and white. City councilman and mayoral candidate Dwight Boykins was present, but did not speak.
TxDOT plans to continue to solicit local feedback on the plan, but the next meeting to do so is scheduled for late August, long after Friday’s scheduled vote to approve local funding. The H-GAC transportation committee vote isn’t the only domino left to fall for I-45 expansion to break ground—TxDOT is still waiting for federal approval to move forward. That could come as soon as the end of 2019, which would pave the way for construction on some highway segments to begin by 2021.
Alejandro Perez, 33, a Northside resident and UH Downtown student, rode his bicycle to participate in the rally. Perez believes that more time is needed to solicit community feedback on the project, and said that he thinks TxDOT might prove more responsive now that the level of local pushback has increased. “Now that the deadline is getting closer, people are starting to realize this is actually a reality,” said Perez. “Maybe now TxDOT will listen.”
Erin Eriksen, 34, a local social worker who attended the rally, told Houstonia that she’s been motivated by “looking over all of the right of way maps and all of the displacement that’s going to happen,” and is concerned that low-income communities would bear the brunt of issues related to I-45 expansion. “To me, that’s just not what creates a healthy city,” Eriksen said. “Delaying the vote is the ask that can get us to where we need to be.”