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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Construction

I-45 expansion faces multiple setbacks, students weigh in


The Texas Department of Transportation has plans of rebuilding I-45 in hopes of reducing traffic and motor accidents. However, the $7 billion project is facing multiple setbacks as it tries to proceed. | Juana Garcia/The Cougar

The Texas Department of Transportation has plans of rebuilding I-45 in hopes of reducing traffic and motor accidents. However, the $7 billion project is facing multiple setbacks as it tries to proceed. | Juana Garcia/The Cougar

One of Texas’ most dangerous freeways, Interstate 45, is facing a massive $7 billion rebuild.

As Houston’s largest and most expensive project, plans of rebuilding I-45 have been in the making for more than 15 years by the Texas Department of Transportation. 

Officially coined as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, the $7 billion rebuild will result in a near redesign in downtown commute.

In their plans, TxDOT will move I-45 from its current route to run parallel with U.S. 59.

It will also eliminate the elevated portion along Pierce Street. The freeway will flow around the east side of the central business district before pairing up with Interstate 10 and splitting to continue its current path northbound.

Additional changes will include rebuilding the interchange between I-45 and the Interstate 610 North Loop, as well as the widening and adding of lanes.

The massive and expensive changes are divided into three segments, with construction around the downtown portion of I-45 beginning first.

Although it will take years for the total rebuild to complete, the state agency believes the NHHIP will improve safety and the city’s infrastructure.

It also believes the changes will reduce traffic tremendously for downtown commuters, who comprise many UH students and faculty members.

“I’m a commuter, and I take I-10 and I-45 to get to school,” said psychology sophomore Zania Boriek. “IH-45 is the only way I can get there, so it is very important for me as a commuter.”

As a critical route for commuters like her, Boriek fears the construction might increase her travel time.

“I think expanding the freeway is great,” she said. “However, if construction causes more traffic until it is completed, then I don’t know if it’s a good idea. In the long run, however, it will definitely help UH commuters.”

While changes enthuse many commuters, there has been backlash from Houston officials and community members about TxDOT’s plans.

At the price of renovating the freeway, TxDOT reports 1,079 residences would be impacted, along with 341 businesses, five churches and two schools in their Final Environmental Impact report.

To accommodate those who will be affected, the agency allocated $27 million of the budget to relocate displaced Houstonians in low-income housing neighborhoods, according to The Texan.

In response to the report, local grassroots organizations protested against construction, arguing the expansion will affect the lives of many people. 

Additionally, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo weighed in, suggesting the state agency revise designs to impact fewer houses and businesses.

Noting the expansion as a good thing, biochemistry junior Rose Alhajiri believes there are other ways for transportation pathways to improve without uprooting people from their homes.

“There has to be another way in which they can efficiently upgrade transportation pathways to reduce traffic congestion,” Alhajiri said. 

“Perhaps there could be a strong initiative to upgrade public transport, that way Houston won’t rely as much on cars as a method of transportation.”

However, Boriek believes with the expansion happening, the displacement of Houstonians is inevitable.

“I cannot think of a way they can do this without displacing people,” she said. “However, if they can fund new homes for those displaced, then I don’t see the issue.”

Despite suggestions from community members and officials, TxDOT failed to approve a resolution implementing the suggested alterations and continued to proceed with its original plans, according to their record of decision.

However, it came to a halt as the Federal Highway Administration asked the state agency to pause construction in a letter, citing civil rights and environmental concerns from public outcry.

TxDOT is also facing a lawsuit from Harris County, which sued them under the National Environmental Policy Act, a 1969 federal law mandating proper environmental consideration for all projects requiring federal action.

Currently, the NHHIP is on pause as the project is investigated for any possible violations. 

However, as it remains in limbo, agency officials fear the longer the project waits, funds will relocate to other pressing needs in Texas.

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