HOUSTON — A $9 billion road widening project being proposed in the Houston area could prove a significant test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it believes is a history of racial inequality with infrastructure projects in The United States
Supporters oppose the proposed 10-year construction project that would reconstruct 24 miles along Interstate 45 and several other roads that would improve driver safety, help reduce traffic congestion and meet flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.
The project, nearly two decades in the making, has been on hold since March as the Federal Highway Administration assesses civil rights and environmental justice concerns raised over the proposal. Harris County, where Houston is located, has also filed a federal lawsuit in which state officials claimed to have ignored the effects of the project on neighborhoods.
The dispute over the project comes as Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equality a top priority in his department.
The fallout from “misguided transportation policies” is something that “has happened disproportionately in black and brown communities and neighborhoods,” Buttigieg said last December in response to a question from Rodney Ellis, a Harris County commissioner.
The I-45 project is expected to relocate 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 deeply racially unjust,” said Molly Cook of Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the community groups that opposed the project, as she stood on a dead-end street in north Houston where 10 homes were expected to be torn down due to the widening. “We’re going to spend all this money to make traffic worse and hurt a lot of people.”
Fabian Ramirez, 40, whose family has lived in a neighborhood near downtown Houston since the 1960s, said if the project goes ahead, he could be forced to sell his property.
“It has taken my family generations to get to this position where I can say, ‘This property right next to the center is mine.’ And to have (the) government come and take the property away as soon as I have 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 who govern it have pushed back claims the project promotes racial inequality. Agency spokesman Bob Kaufman said Tuesday that TxDOT has “worked extensively” with local governments and communities to “develop tangible solutions” to problems.
“This project cannot be everything everyone wants or believes in. However, it could be a transformation for the region and the state,” said committee member Laura Ryan at a meeting in August.
The commission has said that if the federal government does not complete its investigation by the end of this month, it could consider withdrawing state funding from the project at its December 9 meeting.
In a statement Tuesday, the Federal Highway Administration said the review is continuing.
Robert Bullard, 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 outnumbered wealth. have written off neighborhoods due to the loss of homes and businesses and increasing inequality.
Ines Sigel, interim director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit focusing on transportation issues that oppose the expansion of I-45, said what the federal government in Houston decides could lead to meaningful changes affecting communities across the country. improve.
Similar debates about highway and infrastructure projects are also taking place in other US cities, including Charleston, South Carolina, Mobile, Alabama and Los Angeles.
“Unless local and state governments start saying we want to change our whole approach, and that expanding highways can be bad for the environment and we want fewer cars, then the Biden administration’s goals will be very difficult to achieve.” says Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Last week, Harris County officials put their lawsuit against TxDOT on hold in hopes of allaying concerns about the project. The move surprised some community groups fighting the project.
But Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said last week that the hiatus is not an end to the lawsuit and she is committed to ensuring the project is “moving forward and … the health of the community.” respects.”
Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, a leading business group in the Houston area that supports the project, said his organization is optimistic the concerns will be resolved, “and ensure that this important project for the Houston area moves forward.” .”
Roger Panetta, a retired history professor at Fordham University in New York, said those opposed to the I-45 project will face an uphill battle, as racism and inequality have been so intractable in highway expansions that it’s “becoming very difficult to to expel.”
Yen reported from Washington.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70