Houston highway project sparks racial equality debate
Houston — A proposed $9 billion highway expansion project in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it said was a history of racial inequality with infrastructure projects in the United States
Critics of the project, including community groups and some residents, say it will not improve the area’s traffic problems and will expose mostly black and Latino residents to increased pollution, displacement and flooding while not improving public transportation options.
Its proponents are facing a proposed 10-year construction project that would reconfigure 24 miles along Interstate 45 and many other roads that would enhance driver safety, help reduce traffic congestion and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.
The project, which has been in operation for nearly two decades, has been on hold since March as the Federal Highway Administration reviews civil rights and environmental justice concerns raised around the proposal. Harris County, where Houston is located, also filed a federal lawsuit alleging that state officials ignored the project’s effects on neighborhoods.
The row over the project comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equality a top priority in his department.
Buttigieg said last December in response to a question from Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis that the effects of a “misguided transportation policy” are something that “has occurred disproportionately in black and brown communities and neighborhoods.”
The I-45 project is expected to replace more than 1,000 homes and apartments along with 344 businesses, two schools and five places of worship in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods.
“It’s racially unfair,” said Molly Cook with Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the community groups opposing the project, standing at a dead end in North Houston, where 10 homes were expected to be demolished. iden. “We’re going to spend all that money to make the traffic worse and hurt a lot of people.”
Fabian Ramirez, 40, whose family has lived since the 1960s in a neighborhood near downtown Houston, said that if the project goes through, he may have to sell the properties he owns.
“It has taken my family generations to get to this position where I can say, ‘This downtown property is mine. “For them (the government) to come and take the property as soon as I get it, it’s nerve-wracking,” Ramirez said.
The Texas Department of Transportation, better known as TxDOT, and the five members of the Texas Transportation Commission that governs it, have rejected allegations that the project promotes racial inequality. Agency spokesman Bob Kaufman said Tuesday that TxDOT has “worked extensively” with governments and local communities to “develop concrete solutions” to the concerns.
“This project cannot be all that everyone wants or believes in. However, it can be transformative for the region and the country,” committee member Laura Ryan said during a meeting in August.
The commission said that if the federal government had not completed its investigation by the end of this month, it had reviewed at its December 9 meeting whether to withdraw state funding for the project.
The Federal Highway Administration said in a statement Tuesday that its review is continuing.
Robert Pollard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, believes the I-45 proposal continues a long history of infrastructure projects — including the construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s — that led to devaluation. Wealth is in the minority. neighborhoods by losing homes and businesses and exacerbating inequality.
What the federal government decides in Houston could lead to meaningful changes that improve communities across the country, said Ines Siegel, interim executive director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit focused on transportation issues that opposes the expansion of I-45.
Similar discussions are also underway about highway and infrastructure projects in other US cities, including Charleston, South Carolina, Mobile, Alabama and Los Angeles.
“Unless local and state governments start saying that we want to completely change our approach, that expanding the highway could be bad for the environment and we want fewer cars, it’s going to be really hard to achieve the Biden administration’s goals,” Yona Freemark said. Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Last week, Harris County officials dropped their lawsuit against TxDOT in hopes of resolving concerns about the project. This move caught some community groups fighting the project by surprise.
But Harris County Judge Lena Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said last week that the pause was not the end of the lawsuit and that she was committed to ensuring that the project “thinks ahead and … respects the health of the community.”
Bob Harvey, president and CEO of Greater Houston Partnership, a leading Houston-area business group supporting the project, said his organization is optimistic that concerns will be resolved, “to ensure that this important project for the Houston area moves forward.”
Those who oppose the I-45 project will face an uphill battle, said Roger Panetta, a retired history professor at Fordham University in New York, as issues of racism and injustice have been so persistent in the highway expansions that they are “hard to dislodge.”
Reported by Elaine from Washington.
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