The hotly-debated I-45 expansion project has received the green light to move forward after the Texas Department of Transportation, or TxDOT, and the Federal Highway Administration reached an agreement, the latter agency announced Tuesday.

In a statement, the entities said they signed a Voluntary Resolution Agreement, which resolved the FHWA’s Title VI investigation into the project and ultimately lifts the pause on it.

That means TxDOT can proceed with design and construction of the $9 billion plan.

“This VRA takes significant steps to address project impacts to the community and provides clear enforceable timelines that will be monitored by FHWA as TxDOT proceeds with the NHHIP, including detailed design, stakeholder engagement, affordable housing initiatives, right-of-way acquisition, flood mitigation and construction activities,” the statement said.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project, commonly known as the I-45 expansion project, is one of the largest construction projects in the state. It’s designed to widen I-45 through downtown to Beltway 8 to address congestion. Some of it would run parallel to I-69 on the east side of downtown.

The plan also entails providing more pedestrian and bike trails along green spaces, such as in White Oak Bayou, Buffalo Bayou, and Emancipation Trail, and the minimization of the highway’s current presence in green spaces, in addition to flood mitigation, and the reduction of historic flood patterns.

But an issue has been its potential impact on the communities in the area, especially with regard to fairness and equity.

As of April 2022, more than 1,000 homes in its path would be affected.

The group Stop TxDOT I-45 opposes the project, saying it supports the voices of local businesses and families that the construct could impact.

Harris County also sued to stop the project, but a judge dismissed the lawsuit.

According to the FHWA, the actions specifically outlined under the VRA include:

  • Twice annual public meetings through design and construction
  • Mitigating displacements, relocations, housing, and other community impacts
  • Drainage improvements to reduce flooding
  • Parks, open space, trails, pedestrian and bicycle facilities
  • Community access during construction
  • Highway “footprint” reduction
  • Structural highway caps
  • Air quality mitigation
  • Meaningful access for persons with limited English proficiency (LEP)

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner released a statement after the FHWA’s announcement, saying that the city is prepared to reengage TxDOT on all segments of the project.

“After years of negotiations, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project can now be the project Houston deserves it to be. A project that addresses I-45’s repeated flooding while maximizing the opportunities for people to stay in their homes and neighborhoods. It is a project that helps people and goods travel through the region while encouraging people to travel between our neighborhoods without impacting them. A project that can help knit back together our downtown and improve the air we all breathe. I thank the many project partners and stakeholders that have brought us to the point, including FHWA, TxDOT, Harris County, METRO, and especially our residents,” the mayor said.

Greater Houston Partnership president and CEO Bob Harvey also weighed in.

“Houston is a region focused on creating growth and providing opportunity, both of which depend on modern public infrastructure. The I-45 project is key to improving the mobility of people and goods across the entire region, while also creating jobs, reconnecting neighborhoods, expanding greenspaces, and addressing flood mitigation. We are grateful to officials at the Federal Highway Administration, TxDOT and the Texas Transportation Commission particularly former Commissioner Laura Ryan, the City of Houston and Harris County who worked together to resolve the remaining issues and to move this transformational project forward,” Harvey said.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Houston’s 18th district, also shared her reaction to the end of the project’s pause.

“In the review given to me by the U.S. Federal Highway Administrator, it is evident that the detailed work and efforts made by the U.S. Department of Transportation to ensure enforcement of provisions that will provide a better quality of life, a better project and a better response to the needs of our communities in the path of I-45,” the Congresswoman said.

“I have worked on this issue from its beginning as I sought to represent constituents’ views that there must be a better way, a smaller footprint, a better design, and an elimination of the huge destruction of housing,” she continued. “I am grateful for the attention that the U.S. Department of Transportation gave, and I am grateful to the community members and organizations who appropriately filed a Title VI complaint. Following the submission of those complaints, the Federal Highway Administration followed best practices to answer the concerns. However, we all remain cautious and diligent in determining TxDOT’s compliance. So, I was particularly glad that the Federal Highway Administration listened and put in very strong enforcement elements between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Justice. The agreement includes required public meetings every year. It requires an Ombudsman to be established so that all the aspects of the agreement will be noticed and remembered and that TxDOT will have to comply based upon the enforcement mechanism. Additionally, we are glad for required public meetings. Our work is not completed. I will remain available to my constituents.”

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