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What’s wrong with the I-45 expansion plan?

Urban planner Jeff Speck, in a recent lecture in Houston, lays out the following problems with the planned I-45 expansion:

The brief list of negatives include:

I-45 will wreck your bayou parks.
I-45 will destroy wildlife habitat.
I-45 will make flooding worse.
I-45will impede neighborhood connectivity and access.
I-45 will reduce city revenues.
I-45’s bike facilities are a cruel joke.
I-45’s caps are not likely to succeed.
I-45 is so much money.

Other than that, though, I’m sure it’s fine. Chron writer Allyn West digs a little deeper into that last point.

In 2012, Houstonians were asked to vote on a $166 million proposition to pay for 150 miles of greenways along our bayous. In 2018, Harris County residents were asked to vote on a $2.5 billion proposition to pay for hundreds of projects that would help the entire region with flood control. This year, Metro says it will ask us to vote on a $3 billion proposition to pay for 20 miles of light rail extensions, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and other “systemwide improvements.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, too, is planning to spend $7 billion (and maybe more than that) to rebuild about 24 miles of freeways. The project will reshape roads between Midtown and Beltway 8, some of the most congested stretches in Texas, by merging Interstate 45 with Interstate 69 and rerouting them together northwest around downtown. Unlike with those greenways, flood projects or transit plans, TxDOT never had to ask permission from voters.

Because TxDOT doesn’t have to do that, its massive projects often ignore the reality of people on the ground — the thousands of Houstonians whose neighborhoods will be impacted both directly and indirectly as a result of the I-45 expansion.

“There has never been the same (political) pressure for specificity for highway projects,” Kyle Shelton, the transportation historian and the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told me. Unlike transit, for example, freeways have historically been viewed and funded as a “public good.”

It should be noted that the city, the county, and Metro were and will be asking voters to authorize borrowing the money needed for those projects. Had they been funded out of their operating budgets, no vote would have been needed. The point West is making is that this makes the politics of these projects very different. TxDOT starts out with the assumption that it can do whatever it wants, as long as it goes through the regulatory approval process. TxDOT is required to solicit public feedback, and they do incorporate that into their designs, but it’s a lot harder to drum up public opposition and basically impossible to kill whatever it is they’re working on. That’s the nature of the system. It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the system might be different if, say, TxDOT and Metro – and we may as well throw in HCTRA and the other toll road authorities around the state – had identical hurdles to clear in order to build anything. I don’t know what that might look like, but it’s fair to say it would be different.

In the meantime, the final environmental impact statement for the I-45 project is now available on the project website. You have one last chance to give your feedback to TxDOT on it, so get moving before the 17th of March. Speck’s video will be available on the Kinder Institute YouTube channel, so go watch it when you can.

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