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A section of I-45 in Houston, the focus of a massive $7 billion downtown highway expansion.

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Houston’s $7 billion solution to gridlock is more highways

A “Texas-sized” expansion of highways finds the sprawling city laying out a blueprint for more cars

Like many American cities, Houston is encircled by rings of highways—nine major radial freeways, three ring freeways, and a 180-mile fourth outer ring on the way.

But Houston isn’t just encircled by roads, it’s symbolically, and literally, being choked by cars. It’s consistently ranked as a top city for traffic congestion, ninth-worst for ozone pollution according to the American Lung Association, and a tragic nexus for deaths from car crashes. The annual death toll, according to the Houston Chronicle, is equivalent to “three fully-loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all aboard.”

According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the solution is more roads, specifically, a multiyear, multibillion dollar project to widen and expand the city’s highway infrastructure in an attempt to ease persistent bottlenecks that clog downtown traffic.

This isn’t a small upgrade: in the name of accelerating commutes, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) will widen and rebuild nearly 25 miles of highways in the city’s downtown, expanding some to be as wide as the length of two football fields. In addition to years of construction, the “Texas-sized” expansion would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 homes, 1,067 multifamily units, and 331 businesses that account for just under 25,000 employees, impacting mostly people of color in low-income neighborhoods.

It would add more impermeable concrete and asphalt infrastructure, plus future maintenance costs, to a city that is still recovering from some of the worst floods in recent memory. Resilience is a serious concern post-Harvey, and as flood maps are updated as flood risks evolve, the addition of concrete to the landscape could make the next storm’s impact worse. Houstonians still recall how highways became channels of water that cut off neighborhoods from aid during the worst of the flooding.

To critics, the I-45 project, named after the main highway that will be impacted, is an urban renewal reboot, a modern version of the freeway expansion projects that wrecked neighborhoods and divided cities in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Why would more urban highways and lanes of traffic—especially at a time when many cities are actively removing or capping their highways—be a foregone conclusion in any effort to mitigate Houston’s serious congestion problem?

Why a “highway boondoggle” is business as usual

Transit and community activists have painted the project as a symbol of all that’s wrong with transportation planning, and a sign of how focusing on cars instead of more efficient, affordable ways to move residents across the Houston area, will cost the city in terms of air pollution, congestion, affordability, and even resiliency.

The Public Interest Research Group, or PIRG, a nationwide nonprofit declared the project one of its annual “highway boondoggles,” projects that define needless and wasteful spending. This highway project will not only not solve the problems it claims to solve, the group claims. Additionally, since it doesn’t include right-of-way costs (paying property owners for the right to travel through or above their land), the $7 billion price tag is simply a best-case scenario.

Houston recently became a poster child for what’s called induced demand—a transportation planner term that basically means if you add more roads, cars will fill them. The $2.2 billion widening of the Katy Freeway, making it one of the biggest in the world, ended up increasing average commute times for roughly 85 percent of drivers who used the 23-lane road.

“It’s ludicrous to me that with such a perfect case of induced demand sitting right in front of them, they’d come back to the same idea and think that would work better,” says Bay Scoggin, a member of Texas PIRG.

Recently, however, the project received a major vote of confidence. On July 26, the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s (H-GAC) Transportation Policy Council (TPC) approved a $100 million down payment to begin to rebuild Segment 2 of I-45, which runs from I-10 to North Loop 610. Despite this green light for redevelopment, community groups still believe they can push back against the plan and make needed changes to the infrastructure change, and make their voices heard at community meetings across Houston this summer.

“The community needs to know this isn’t going to improve Houston’s transportation, it is going to make the air worse, and it is going to displace families,” says Scoggin.

Houston highway interchanges.

Putting cars first

A big reason for the I-45 expansion is the philosophy behind TxDOT. The agency didn’t answer Curbed’s questions about the project, but has released a wealth of information and held numerous public meetings throughout the project’s long life, which dates back to 2002.

The agency has underscored that the project came about after an unprecedented amount of public engagement and meetings, including coordinating with local governments and transit agencies since the early 2000s.

It’s part and parcel of how TxDOT views transit in Texas. Agency studies suggest that 94 percent of Texans use a car as their predominant mode of transportation. Therefore, addressing all forms of road congestion, via the anti-congestion Clear Lanes Initiative, is the priority. If I-45, one of the 15 most congested highways in the state now, needs relief—average Daily Traffic (ADT) volumes are projected to increase along this already heavily traveled corridor by up to 30 percent by 2040, and the city’s population will double by 2050—why not build more lanes? The I-45 project also seeks to address safety concerns by straightening out some sections of roadway, and allow for more bike and pedestrian connections around the highways.

It’s the transit version of if you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When the incentives are geared toward building roads, that’s where the money tends to go, according to Leah Binkovitz, the senior editor at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. In addition, many local politicians don’t want to lose their opportunity to get funding to tackle the highway issue. As TxDOT moves ahead with its larger vision for regional transportation, Houston can’t risk losing billions, even if it’s billions with strings attached.

“We have to vote on it now so we don’t lose our place in line for TxDOT dollars,” says Binkovitz. “What would we do without these dollars? That kind of imagination just isn’t there.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who after entering office gave a 2016 speech where he called for a paradigm shift away from highway expansion, says that he supports going forward with the proposal. He has directed the city’s Planning Department to “elevate community concerns,” and recommend ways to improve the project: “It is TxDOT’s responsibility to design a project with positive impacts for the community, the City of Houston, and the greater region,” he recently wrote to the regional planning council. “We will, without hesitation, not support the project if these items are not accomplished.”

TxDOT says the project does include pedestrian and cyclist-friendly aspects, and points to a proposal to potentially cap part of I-45, creating a new neighborhood greenspace. But Binkovitz say that without including funding for the park in the budget, it’s not clear whether this will be built.

“It’s still a park between lots of fast-moving lanes of traffic,” she says.

What’s perhaps most frustrating to transit advocates is that so much money will be spent without a significant transit component, even as mass transit in the famously sprawl-centric region has seen some big recent victories. A 2015 bus realignment won plaudits nationwide for its effectiveness, and Metro Houston will vote on its plan for future expansion later this year.

For example, the project will add new lanes on I-45 includes new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in the middle of the highway. TxDOT, which has been a huge proponent of HOVs as a cheap way to cut down solo car trips, says the entire project is about multimodal solutions: “It is NOT based on a debate whether Houston needs more highways or transit or cars & buses over bike and pedestrian facilities. Houston needs it all,” writes Quincy D. Allen, TxDOT Houston District Engineer. Others look at lanes that could have potentially been used for a bus rapid transit system or even a rail line, and instead, see a project that locks in more highways, more emissions, and if history is any indication, even more congestion.

“These high-occupancy vehicle lanes are being sold as commuter rail on two wheels,” Oni Blair, executive director of Link Houston, a regional transit advocacy group, says of the new high-capacity lanes. “But a highway does not equal transit.”

How opponents plan to make I-45 better

A coalition of community groups formed the Make I-45 Better Coalition and plans to continue to push to change the project. They see a few major issues with TxDOT’s current plans, in addition to relocation and displacement.

TxDOT’s own Draft Environmental Impact Study says the highway expansion “would cause disproportionately high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” A Health Impact Assessment by Air Alliance Houston found that the expansion would bring at least 26 existing school and daycare campuses within 500 feet of the highway, “a distance that research has associated with increased risks of asthma, impaired lung development, and childhood leukemia.” The concentration of benzene, a carcinogen, would rise 175 percent for some of the impacted schools.

This plan will also lock the region, and more residents, in a car-centric future, Blair believes, which will exacerbate the housing crisis. Affordable units are increasing located far from jobs, and living in those areas, without public transit options to reach work, puts extra strain on low-income Houstonians. The AAA estimates it costs $8,000 a year on average to own and operate a car; for someone making $30,000 a year, that’s a significant investment.

“The challenge with investing in highways is that it requires a vehicle to utilize them,” says Blair. “We could be potentially making an investment in affordable things like transit to enable a better quality of life.”

Advocates plan to continue to challenge city government. Since the mayor has ordered regional transportation groups to come up with their own plans for the project and submit recommendations, it’s not clear what happens next if those recommendations conflict with TxDOT’s blueprint, which will be finalized by 2020.

This project represents a significant investment in Houston’s transportation future, as well as how it thinks about issues like flood resilience and climate change. The city’s leaders may talk about multimodal transportation, resilience, and cutting climate emissions. But it’s budgets and where resources are allocated that tell the full story

“We’re becoming more urban, and this is a good indicator of whether or not we’re changing how decisions get made, and the types of decisions we’re making,” says Binkovitz. “We’ve talked about flooding, worsening storms, climate change, and resilience every day since Harvey. But what does it mean if we’re making decisions like this?”

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