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The plan to expand Interstate 45 hit a pair of roadblocks last week, when Harris County sued the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) asked the state agency to pause the project while it investigates environmental and civil rights concerns.In a March 8 letter to TxDOT executive director James Bass, the FHWA said it was reviewing concerns raised under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “related environmental justice concerns” regarding TxDOT’s proposed North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which is expected to cost more than $7 billion and displace more than 1,000 residents and businesses near and north of downtown.In a lawsuit filed three days later in federal district court, Harris County asked the court to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to concerns raised by the county and City of Houston. TxDOT announced in early February that it had satisfied the requirements outlined by the National Environmental Policy Act and was moving to the detailed design phase of the project.Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said TxDOT “cut corners” when looking at the potential environmental impacts of the project and has disregarded recommendations made by the city, county and other community stakeholders.”This is not to kill the I-45 expansion project but to say, ‘Residents deserve a voice in this process,'” Menefee said. “They’re up there in Austin, but we’re here in Harris County, and we’re fighting for residents.”On March 11, the day the lawsuit was filed, a TxDOT spokesperson said the agency was discussing the matter internally and did not yet have a comment.Among other changes to the existing freeway, which was built more than 50 years ago, TxDOT’s plan calls for expanded express-lane capacity on I-45 between downtown and Beltway 8 along with re-routing the freeway near downtown, including making it parallel with I-10 on the north side.TxDOT has said the purpose of the project is to improve traffic flow, hurricane evacuation routes and stormwater drainage, along with accommodating high-occupancy, electric and self-driving vehicles.But the plan has drawn widespread criticism because it will displace homes and businesses in low-income communities of color, such as Independence Heights and Near Northside, and because of its high cost at a time when the city is taking steps to expand alternate modes of transportation and reduce its reliance on gasoline-powered automobiles.“Our region’s complex transportation challenges require innovation and creative thinking,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a March 11 news release from the county. “So far, TxDOT’s vision for I-45 lacks both. Instead, this proposal relies on an antiquated approach that continues the counterproductive legacy of freeway expansions that unnecessarily harm families and businesses and ultimately fail to improve our quality of life. Throwing more concrete at this problem is not going to solve it. We are calling on TxDOT to innovate and lead, rather than repeating the same flawed approach that put us in this situation.”Menefee said city and county leaders, after months of consultation with community members, previously proposed alternative designs to TxDOT that “would minimize the expansion of the freeway in certain areas, but would still meet the goals of safety and expanding transportation in our region.” He also said recommendations were made to TxDOT that aim to minimize the amount of resident displacement as well as impacts on air and water quality, noise and connectivity during construction.”We provided recommendations to TxDOT, and from what we’ve seen in their documents … it doesn’t look like they gave that full and fair consideration,” Menefee said. “That’s why we’re filing this lawsuit.”
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