Bloomberg Law
March 7, 2023, 8:02 PM

Texas Highway Project Proceeds Despite Neighborhood Backlash

Lillianna Byington
Lillianna Byington

A controversial highway project in Houston is moving forward after the Biden administration delayed it to probe concerns from environmental and social justice advocates.

The Federal Highway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation said the $9 billion North Houston Highway Improvement Project is allowed to proceed, after Texas agreed to public meetings, enforceable timelines, and mitigation measures following a federal investigation. Critics say the agreement doesn’t go far enough.

The administration has been challenged in its efforts to limit highway expansion, recently pulling back its memo that encouraged repairing over building new roads after Republicans and states pushed back. The Houston decision further complicates President Joe Biden’s promises for highway policy, meant in part to limit emissions and address equity concerns.

Advocacy groups filed a Title VI civil rights complaint with FHWA against the Texas department in 2021, alleging the proposed expansion discriminates against communities of color by tearing down the area and causing air pollution. Groups wrote to FHWA about their concerns again in January.

“They are doing what federal agencies do, using the term enforcement when historically we have seen no follow through,” Joetta Stevenson, president of Super Neighborhood 55, said Tuesday about the agreement. “Trust has been broken for generations, and by signing off on the choices of the state, only enforcing after harm has been done, they continue a painful legacy.”

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The FHWA wrote to the Texas Department of Transportation in March 2021, asking it to pause the project until the agency could review it further. State officials say the reconstruction of I-45N between Houston’s downtown and a tollway will benefit the community including addressing mobility needs and helping to mitigate damage from flooding, which paralyzed the city in 2017.

Motorists drive on I-45 toward the Houston skyline as heavy rain stops during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey Aug. 29, 2017. The agreement to expand the highway includes measures to mitigate storm damage.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

“Through this agreement the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project’s life cycle,” Federal Highway Administrator Shailen Bhatt said Tuesday in a statement. “We have lifted the pause, and with FHWA oversight, TXDOT may proceed with design and construction.”

‘Again Ignored’

Super Neighborhood 55’s Stevenson said so far the only tangible changes rely on the Texas department’s “good faith participation.” The first place the freeway will be expanded would reroute gas-belching vehicles near an elementary school, Stevenson said.

“We are again ignored in the same manner” as in the past, Kendra London, founder of community group Our Afrikan Family, said in a statement. Federal highway construction has displaced more than 475,000 households, often communities of color, in decades past, according to estimates from the Transportation Department.

The decision comes a week after the Biden administration rolled out its first awards for a new program aimed at reconnecting neighborhoods that have been split by highways, an equity priority for the administration. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said last week that “transportation should connect, not divide, people and communities.”

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Biden and Buttigieg “promised to undo the past harms caused by freeway construction, but it seems they are doomed to repeat these harms in Houston,” the group Stop TxDOT I-45 said Tuesday, calling the agreement weak.

Some community advocates and lawmakers are more optimistic about the agreement. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said she was glad the FHWA put in “enforcement elements,” and that it requires public meetings and an ombudsman.

“We all remain cautious and diligent in determining TxDOT’s compliance,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at; Anna Yukhananov at