The state transportation agency will continue limited work on the controversial Houston highway expansion plan that the federal government has previously stopped because of concerns about civil rights, agency officials said Tuesday.
Transportation officials have told the Texas Transportation Commission that they have received approval from the government to continue detailed planning work on parts of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project that will extend I-45 from downtown North to Beltway 8.
The Texas Department of Transportation is working with the Federal Highway Administration on resolving civil rights issues raised earlier this year, according to TxDOT CEO Mark Williams.
“This process is still evolving, and this time we have allows us an opportunity to continue working,” Williams told commissioners at the Texas Monthly Transportation Committee meeting.
The expansion was halted in March when the FHWA – in response to concerns from local activists and stakeholders – opened an investigation into the project, noting possible violations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act 1964 prohibiting discrimination in federal programs. The federal agency has also raised concerns about possible environmental violations.
It was later revealed that the state continued to move forward with the project, prompting FHWA to intervene again.
Despite the agreement between the federal government and the state to move forward with parts of the NHHIP, state transportation officials said they would now have to re-evaluate the project completion and implementation schedule.
Without much impetus, part of the project funding is threatened to be reallocated to other initiatives in the state’s overall transportation plan. The bidding process for contractors may also stall for the next two years, Williams said.
“Although a partial release of the project delay is good news, the project has been on hiatus by FHWA for nine months and still remains largely on hold,” he said. “This delay has put the project back on track for at least a few years.”
The NHHIP saw a significant boost from locals, who said the expansion plan would exacerbate noise and air pollution in low-income areas, reduce the park and lead to the displacement of homes and businesses.
In a letter sent to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Bootage on Tuesday, several local activists – including Stop TxDOT I-45, Air Alliance Houston and LINK Houston – called for a further “thorough investigation” into alleged civil rights violations by TxDOT.
“The purpose of this investigation is not to delay the project for the sake of delay; the FHWA must do its due diligence and investigate the real impacts on Houston residents,” the letter said. “Houston deserves a project that truly prioritizes safety, centralizes the life experience of those most affected and brings our city to the egalitarian transportation future it so desperately needs.”
However, the project has received backing from business groups including the Greater Houston Partnership – the largest Chamber of Commerce in the area – which has spent tens of thousands of dollars on project support ads. Supporters of the plan say it will be a blessing to businesses and ease traffic concerns.
Others disagreed on these benefits. According to one study, A $ 2.2 billion expansion of the Katie Highway has increased average travel times to 55% in the afternoon.
The expansion also angered Harris County, which sued TxDOT vigorously to prevent the agency from moving forward. Both the county and state are currently negotiating a break in this lawsuit to move forward in the hearings.
In a statement Tuesday, Harris County Attorney Christian Manphy confirmed that his office met with FHWA officials before they agreed to allow TxDOT to advance on a limited basis. He said he is also discussing the lawsuit with federal transportation officials.
“We expect TxDOT to participate in good faith and work alongside us to achieve a solution that will benefit all residents of the county,” Manfi said.
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