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Officials Support $9 Billion Houston Highway Project

Tue December 27, 2022 - West Edition #1
Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) A more than $9 billion highway widening project that is being proposed in the Houston area has the support of local officials after many of their concerns were addressed.

The proposed construction project would take 10 years to complete and remake 24 mi. along Interstate 45 and several other roadways. Supporters said it would enhance driver safety, help to reduce traffic congestion and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs. But the project's critics — including community groups and some residents — said it won't improve the area's traffic woes and would subject mostly Black and Latino residents to increased pollution, displacement and flooding, while not improving public transportation options.

The project, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, has remained on hold since March 2021, when the Federal Highway Administration began reviewing civil rights and environmental justice concerns raised about the proposal. The dispute over the project comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equity a priority in his department. The project is considered an important test of the Biden administration's commitment to addressing a history of racial inequity in U.S. infrastructure projects.

During a news conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that after much discussion over nearly the past two years with the Texas Department of Transportation, which is in charge of the expansion project, local officials plan to back the proposal.

Turner said state officials have given commitments that the project will provide funding, including an additional $30 million, for affordable housing for those displaced by the project. The I-45 project is expected to displace more than 1,000 homes and apartments along with 344 businesses, two schools and five places of worship in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The transportation department, commonly known as TxDOT, has also agreed to provide more resources to address flooding, provide more green spaces and trail connections and limit the project's footprint by only taking what land and structures are needed for it, Turner said.

"There is no perfect design and it doesn't say that everyone will be pleased. But on balance, with the improvements ... I think you have an excellent project ... that will benefit the greater good of the Houston community, Harris County and the region," Turner said.

Turner recently signed an agreement with TxDOT on the project and officials with Harris County, where Houston is located, were expected to approve a similar agreement during a meeting Thursday.

Officials announced that Harris County also planned to drop a federal lawsuit over the project that the county had filed in March 2021 against the state.

Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he believes the changes to the project have focused on factors important to the community, including air quality, flood mitigation and inclusivity.

"And not all the things that we wanted materialized but that's compromise," Garcia said.

In a statement, the Federal Highway Administration said its civil rights and environmental reviews "are ongoing, as are discussions for a potential voluntary resolution agreement. We are working to resolve the matter soon."

Some environmental and transportation groups said they were disappointed that Houston area officials have given their blessing to the project and questioned whether local communities were fully consulted on the agreements with the state.

"LINK Houston firmly believes that increased highway capacity only leads to increased traffic and negates the ability of Houston residents and leaders to create a safe, multi-modal transportation system that mitigates climate change impacts and improves equitable outcomes for our communities,” said Gabe Cazares, executive director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit focused on transportation issues.

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