Expansion of I-45 in Downtown Houston Is on Hold, for Now, in a Traffic-Choked, Divided Region

Termaria Bartley waited nearly three years for an apartment in Kelly Village, a public housing complex in Houston’s predominantly Black and Hispanic Fifth Ward. In July 2018, she moved in —and received her first eviction notice from the Texas Department of Transportation a little over a year later.

Kelly Village was among 1,000 homes and housing units in the path of TxDOT’s $7 billion expansion and rerouting of Interstate 45 through the city’s traffic-choked downtown.

A decade in the making, the project has triggered extensive controversy involving alleged civil rights violations, neighborhood access, mass transit interfaces and the overarching question of whether, in the age of climate change, building even bigger freeways is really the best solution for Houston’s legendary traffic jams.

The project is on hold for now, after the Biden administration, through the Federal Highway Administration, asked March 8 for a “pause” to consider possible violations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition, newly Democratic Harris County filed a lawsuit March 11 in federal court seeking a new environmental impact assessment.

“Urban freeways across America are monuments to environmental racism, and the Expansion of I-45 would be iconic,” said Molly Cook, an organizer with a community group called Stop TxDOT I-45. “By TxDOT’s own measures and admission, the project will encroach upon or displace people’s homes, green spaces, places of worship, businesses, and schools in the same Black and brown neighborhoods that were torn apart by its original building.”

Danny Perez, a TxDOT spokesman declined to comment, beyond saying the department “cannot comment on pending litigation or open investigations.”

The final tally of properties in the path of the expanded highway, according to TxDOT’s environmental impact statement, is more than 1,000 homes and housing units, 344 businesses, five places of worship and two schools.

Further analysis by Houston-based nonprofits suggests at least 26 schools and daycare centers will be brought within 500 feet of the freeway, leading to increased asthma rates among the children they serve.

The construction would heavily impact not only Fifth Ward but Independence Heights, both of which are known for their rich Black history. Also marked for demolition are the affordable housing complexes Clayton Homes and Kelly Village, home to hundreds of low-income families, including Bartley’s. TxDOT is required to provide compensation and plan the relocation of displaced residents.

But so far, Bartley, 37, who is Black, said no one has told her anything about whether the FHWA-requested “pause” or Harris County’s lawsuit might save her home.

“The last eviction notices came in October and November last year. The only thing I know is that 2021 is the year when the construction is going to begin,” said the mother of four, who lives on disability assistance and was operated on last month for cervical cancer. “Nothing is going to stop them from building this highway.”

TxDOT Ploughs Ahead

Like many big American cities, Houston is crisscrossed by a web of highways—nine in all, plus three ring freeways and a fourth in the works. And more highways have put more cars on the roads, proportionately increasing fatal road accidents, traffic congestion and air pollution.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the annual death toll from traffic accidents is equivalent to “three fully-loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all aboard.”

Community opponents of the highway expansion said TxDOT’s only solution to ease traffic problems and congestion is to build more highways, which, besides allowing more cars on the road, also covers more city area with asphalt and concrete. This has considerably increased flooding in areas surrounding highways, many of which have suffered disproportionately since Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, they said.

Michael Skelly, a local activist with the Make I-45 Better Coalition, said TxDOT has consistently ignored residents’ input on project design despite several public hearings. “In 2015, a few of us residents got together and submitted our comments to TxDOT on a 2017 draft project,” he said. “It soon became clear they were not going to commit to anything.”

Skelly said 2018 was important in the scheme of things, as that year Democrats wrested political control of Harris County after three decades, bringing renewed focus on eminent domain and civil rights considerations.

“In 2019, Houstonians approved $3.5 billion bond to fund BRT (Bus Rail Transit) projects with two-thirds majority. But TxDOT did not incorporate transit plans in I-45 expansion. They just wanted to build I-45,” he said.       

Cook, the Stop TxDOT I-45 organizer, said the demographics of the neighborhoods most affected by the expansion are overwhelmingly those that have always been hurt by highways: Black, brown and working class or low-income earners.

Cook said the project benefits no one because the commute times will get longer, air quality will get worse and it will be even harder not to own a car in Houston. “People living along the freeway are forced to move or endure intensified exposures to environmental hazards,” she said. “We are not sure how many may already have moved, but we are in contact with residents every day who do not want to leave their neighborhoods or their homes.

Instead of adding lanes to I-45, she said, the solution should involve “reliable, accessible mass transit options.” 

Separately, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a December 2020 letter to TxDOT that the project had shortcomings that must be addressed. Turner wanted communities kept intact and residents relocated within neighborhoods. He also wanted expanded transit options in view of existing metro rail projects and improved connections to local streets, among other things.

Instead, on Feb. 4, TxDOT issued the Record of Decision (ROD) that allowed it to proceed to advanced design and planning stages. The ROD also signaled that the project had completed the federally required environmental impact studies and cleared one of the last big hurdles.

Bartley, at Kelly Villages, is anxious and upset. “I thought this would be the foundation for me to build on. I wanted to make my life better,” she said. “When I moved here, no one told me about the expansion. I found out about the plan towards the end of 2019. And then they started sending eviction notices telling me I will have to move.”

Now, she said she finds it strange that her neighbors keep moving out and getting evicted and yet no one has reached out to her with any information about relocation prospects. “I only know I’m here,” she said. “Every day is a standstill as I wait to see what happens next. How hard is it for them to tell me what I should expect in the coming months?”

A Legacy of Highway Racism that Keeps Displacing Communities of Color

Not far from Bartley’s apartment at Kelly Village, James Caldwell, 67, a Black minister, still lives in the Fifth Ward, where he grew up. He said highway projects have displaced communities of color for decades.

“The community I knew growing up was lost to the I-10 expansion back in the late 1960s and early 70s,” he said. “Before that, it was a community…there were neighborhoods, schools, local businesses.”

Founder of the Coalition of Community Organizations, Caldwell said there’s been a continuing cycle of highway construction, expansion and widening since the 1950s.

“Houston’s growth as a city has dictated a lot of that because it has grown so quickly. And I’m in favor of that. But why is it necessary to destroy our history, our culture and identity in the process?” he asked.

Between 2010 and 2040, the Houston region’s population is projected to grow from 5.8 million to 9.6 million people. According to TxDOT, daily traffic on average will have grown by about 39 percent from 2011 to 2035 in and around downtown.

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Caldwell said the Black and brown communities have been taken advantage of many times over through such expansions. “Most of the times people who are displaced by these projects are not offered fair compensations, which don’t take into account the cost of moving, settling into new environments, finding schools for kids, etc. And this is not to mention the environmental problems all the dredging, concrete and air pollution pile on the communities.”      

According to a 2017 study by the city of Houston, the Houston Independent School District and Rice University, African American children comprised over 70 percent of the ambulance-treated asthma cases. A 2019 study done by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found nitrogen dioxide levels were already 48 percent higher in Houston’s Fifth Ward than the rest of the city.

“The expansion of I-45 highway will only compound these existing problems by putting more cars on the road, making air pollution worse, and contributing to the learning disability in the children,” Caldwell said. “We were not given the opportunity to be on the table when this project was planned. The community was expected to live with it.”

Dr. Earthea Nance, an associate professor in Texas Southern University’s Department of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy, said racism is entrenched in decision-making and rears its head in public projects such as I-45 expansion.

“But we’re in a moment of racial reckoning and people are beginning to see this is happening,” she said. “It took a while to shine a light on the environmental injustices projects like I-45 expansion are causing. It took a lot of pressure from the grassroots and the federal authorities to pause this project.” 

An Avalanche of Civil Rights Complaints 

Those grassroots run deep in the Fifth Ward, where residents and nonprofit groups have filed numerous complaints against the I-45 expansion with the FHWA’s Office of Civil Rights, arguing it violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Act stipulates that “[n]o person in the United States, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Modesti Cooper, 37, a Black woman whose house is in the expanded highway’s right of way, has filed a civil rights complaint with the FHWA as the last resort. An IT engineer with a decade-long career as an Army civilian, Cooper served in Iraq and Afghanistan maintaining computer networks at U.S. military bases.

From inside the reinforced walls of Joint Base Balad in Iraq, Cooper contemplated a peaceful life in her newly built townhouse in Houston’s Fifth Ward after her duty tour. Having to find a place to live when she got home was the furthest thing from her mind.

But upon her return in July 2019, barely unpacked, Cooper started getting notices from TxDOT about the city’s I-45 Highway expansion project. Her house, a modern townhome in a neighborhood of houses from the 1930s and ‘40s, had to be taken down, she was told.

“I bought the property in 2015 when I was in Iraq. I had to ask my grandmother to buy the land for me because I wasn’t here,” she said. “And the Houston City Planning Department… never mentioned anything about any highway expansion at the time.”  She said eviction notices keep lining her doorstep. “This is harassment. My neighbors are gone. They just want to buy us out,” she said.

Houston-based nonprofit groups, including Air Alliance Houston and Texas Housers, have also filed Title VI complaints, which require federal authorities to make an assessment whether infrastructure projects receiving federal dollars are going to adversely impact marginalized groups and communities of color.

U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sylvia Garcia, both Houston Democrats, have sent letters to the Texas Transportation Commission, putting political weight behind concerns about the myriad environmental problems the project piles on the communities of color along the I-45 corridor. 

Responding to the litany of public complaints, Achille Alonzi, the FHWA’s Texas division administrator, asked in a March 8 letter to TxDOT to “allow FHWA time to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised in the letters.” The agency also asked TxDOT “pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project.”

Despite the pause, Cook of the Stop I-45 Coalition, said TxDOT continues to reach out to residents in the proposed right of way attempting to acquire their property. “We are unsure exactly what the request to halt the process means. From our perspective, TxDOT is still moving forward,” she said, “Gaining clarity on this is paramount and time-sensitive. If the highway is not widened, these folks may lose their homes and their communities for no reason.” 

The situation has also prompted the Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit environmental organization, to write Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg at the end of March requesting urgent action to ensure TxDOT complies with the FHWA letter and stops efforts to acquire residential property. “We are seeking clarity from the U.S. Department of Transportation about what TxDOT should and shouldn’t do in view of our letters,” said Bakeyah Nelson, the air alliance’s executive director.

“It is long overdue for the federal government to address Title VI concerns before they occur. It’s too late after people have been displaced, trauma has occurred, and peoples’ lives have been changed,” she added.

Asked whether TxDOT is required to halt the expansion project, an FHWA spokesperson said that TxDOT “has been a good partner to the Federal Highway Administration over the years, and we appreciate its cooperation in this matter.”

The spokesman said the requested “pause” is not a ban on the project. “The Federal Highway Administration considers environmental justice and transportation equity very important,” the spokesman said, “and will be working with states to find ways to promote greater sensitivity to such issues.”

As this tug of war continues, residents like Turmaria Bartley and Modesti Cooper still don’t know what lies ahead. Recovering from her surgery, Bartley said she is waiting on a new voucher from the Houston Housing Authority—the ticket to her next apartment in public housing, should she lose her current home to the highway expansion. She said she is having to accept the agonizing reality that getting a voucher does not guarantee she will get an apartment.

Cooper, meanwhile, continues to field the phone calls and offers from TxDOT agents to buy her out. Having seen life in the combat zones across Iraq and Afghanistan, she said this is one fight she might not win.