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Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.

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12 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    Houstonians have been getting warning signs for years and shrugging them off. This article by Doug Begley seems to have attained the psychic pain threshold of a diagnosis of terminal disease being delivered to the unbelieving patient. This is happening because other choices were jettisoned decades ago.

  2. Jules says:

    “One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is.”

    I would guess NIMBYism is part of it. There was a group of smart committed people who were against the hsr coming through the inner city neighborhoods, and when that was killed, they pivoted and started working to help solve Texas Central’s “last mile” problem.

    People worked for years on the I45 issue, which was quiet for a while but now is back again with the new documents. The effect on my neighborhood has not changed from the previous documents (stays inside TxDOT ROW) but I think some people are trying to get sound walls put in.

    The new docs just came out, people should be getting fired up and speaking out.

  3. Jules says:

    Although it is surprising how hard some people have worked against the hsr even after they were out of the path (myself included). It’s a bad project and I hope it never gets eminent domain.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Sound walls do little for road noise, although they help with privacy and security. Criminals aren’t scaling sound walls to break into houses. Reforested medians work better for noise, but if the roadway takes up the full ROW, then that’s not really an option.

    My proposed solution to the downtown freeway bottleneck would be express lane decks, as they have in Austin. Are you on 45, 59 (69) or 10 and just passing through? You should have no exit express lanes that allow you to do just that. Part of the bottleneck is last minute lane changers. Physically prevent that, and you’ll keep that very first car from braking to slow down everyone else behind him for the next 12 hours.

    I realize that would be an expensive undertaking and an engineering challenge, but the proposed work already seems expensive and disruptive to property owners.

  5. voter_worker says:

    Doug Begley has another piece out today about this project having made a list of national boondoggles. The comment thread is quite spirited and suggests that there might be a nascent opposition in need of mobilization. In my opinion this project should be a top issue in the Houston election.

  6. Jules says:

    I have never understood the I45 project or what it’s supposed to make better.

  7. Jules says:

    Charles, you mention 1,400 homes being taken for the I45 project while talking about the proposed hsr. Do you know how many homes will be taken for the hsr? Thanks!

  8. C.L. says:

    Jules, none.

  9. Jules says:

    CL, lol, no! From the DEIS:

    “Build Alternative C would result in the least number of homes acquired by the Project
    compared to Build Alternative A (29 more homes) and Build Alternative B (49 more homes)” . However, the chart shows 65 homes for Alt A, 69 homes for B and 56 for C so that math doesn’t make sense.

    Other quotes: “Within Dallas County, one neighborhood of 34 homes on 40 lots
    located between Illinois Avenue and Loop 12 would be directly affected by the Build Alternatives.”

    “White Oak Falls is a neighborhood development located in Cypress, Texas adjacent to Cy-Falls Senior High School. The community contains more than 700 homes. Approximately 40 homes (5.3 percent), adjacent to the existing UPRR ROW, would be displaced by Segment 5.”

    “Nineteen (19) residences along Plantation Drive would be displaced by all of the Build Alternatives.”

  10. Jules says:

    Plus there’s this brag they repeat over and over “Properties or portions of properties currently receiving homestead, over-65, or disabled homeowner exemptions would not be exempt once acquired by TCRR, leading to an increase in tax revenue.”

    They seem to think that the old and disabled will not be buying another home and getting another exemption. Suck it, war widows!

  11. C.L. says:

    Too date, no homes have been displaced by HSR in South Texas.

  12. Jules says:

    CL, let’s keep it that way. 🙂