Like many U.S. cities, Houston has a history of dividing and displacing communities of color to accommodate highways designed to serve higher-wealth, suburban neighborhoods. Today the past is present, with the Texas Department of Transportation’s nearly $10 billion plan to widen Interstate 45 set to displace several thousand residents and over three hundred businesses, as well as local churches and schools serving the mostly Black and Brown communities along the freeway corridor. In addition, studies show that neighborhoods near the expanded freeway will experience adverse impacts from air pollution due to the increased number of cars on the road, which will also contribute to an increase in climate-warming emissions.
Local advocates worked alongside residents to call for a more just and equitable I-45 that would maintain communities, reduce impacts from pollution and ensure high-quality mobility infrastructure for all Houstonians, whether walking, biking, riding transit or traveling by car. For example, Air Alliance Houston’s research on air quality impacts led to commitments to install air filters at schools along the corridor, and LINK Houston co-organized residents to successfully convince the Houston-Galveston Area Council to allocate over $50 million in mitigation funds for impacted communities.
However, recognizing the lack of meaningful change as construction neared, and with support from the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, these advocates collaborated with Texas Appleseed to file a civil rights complaint with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), making the case that the project constitutes racial discrimination and violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The FHWA accepted the complaint and paused the project for almost two years as it proceeded with its investigation.
In March 2023, the FHWA announced a voluntary resolution agreement with TxDOT that outlines actions – with timelines – that must be taken to provide more equitable treatment of residents along the corridor, as well as to ensure access to important community amenities. It also includes commitments to evaluate opportunities to reduce the overall footprint of the project. These commitments will be overseen by the FHWA, which has the authority to pause the project again if there is not meaningful progress.
Importantly, the resolution provides advocates with a clear roadmap to watchdog implementation and collaborate with local officials on ensuring a more equitable, less polluting project. According to Gabe Cazares, Executive Director of LINK Houston, “To truly build a more sustainable and equitable nation, transportation policies and projects must promote accessibility as well as racial and environmental justice. The federal government must hold TxDOT accountable to that standard. LINK Houston and its partners remain committed to ensuring that the eventual project is transformational and reflects Houston’s ambition and commitment to equity and justice.”
Photos courtesy of LINK Houston