“I think this project is the figurehead for [the administration’s] Politics, “said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston-area Democrat who has joined local officials to question the project.
In a March 8 letter to the state, citing complaints from local activists and Jackson Lee, the Federal Highway Administration asked the Texas Department of Transportation to postpone the expansion of I-45, including the initiation of further contract inquiries, to the federal DOT has time to review civil rights and environmental justice concerns.
Federal officials might ultimately allow the project to continue, but the move to freeze it in the first place, and in particular DOT’s application of civil rights laws to underpin that decision, has assisted local activists and even surprised veteran Washington regulators.
“This is a big deal,” said Fred Wagner, an attorney who served as general counsel with FHWA for three years during the Obama administration. “It just doesn’t happen very often.”
Known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, the proposal would expand I-45 into three sections. TxDOT’s environmental review of the project, completed in February, found it would have a massive impact on the communities it would roll through, displacing more than 1,000 homes and apartments, 344 businesses, five places of worship, and two schools.
Local activists say the communities that would be harmed have a disproportionately large number of black and Hispanic residents. And the impact goes beyond the direct shifts: twenty-six schools would be within 500 feet of the freeway, adding to the children’s exposure to pollution in a metropolitan area that already exists full of car exhaust.
“How can we accept such a project? It stays with us for at least a generation, ”Lina Hidalgo, the district judge elected for Harris County, which mainly includes the Houston metropolitan area and its suburbs, said in an interview.
Opponents of the project have proposed an alternative that Hidalgo says has a tighter footprint and allows transit. The county recently sued TxDOTand said it did not consider the environmental impact in its planning and review.
“I can’t tell you how many discussions we have had with the state about it,” she said, adding that she received “nothing but lip service”.
“You can imagine the frustration,” she said. “It was also so much time, effort, and heartbreak for the community.”
DOT’s intervention comes as a welcome surprise, Hidalgo said, adding that it gives opponents of the project a “more realistic opportunity” to appeal.
“In my opinion [Buttigieg] was engaging, interested and fair, “said Jackson Lee, who said she recently spoke to the DOT leader about the project.” And I think he was upset that federal dollars are being used in disregard for the views of the community. “
The Houston Project, with its promises of eviction and disenfranchisement mirroring the destructive historic freeway building Buttigieg has repeatedly cited, is a test case for Buttigieg, Wagner said.
“It will be the new government’s first type of test to demonstrate how it will apply its fairer transportation standards to a mega-project like this,” said the former FHWA attorney.
The project has been in progress for years. So it would be a really big deal if DOT could step in and say, ‘We don’t think this is an adequate solution. “
One reason the situation is so unique is that Texas is a so-called “state of operations,” one of seven states that can serve as the federal government’s representative in administering the National Environmental Policy Act.
In most federal states, the federal government could raise problems with disproportionate impacts through the normal federal environmental assessment process. But Texas as an allocation state has already completed this process leading to Record the decision completed in February.
Hence, the federal DOT has turned to Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act to justify its pause, which states, “No one in the United States should be excluded from participating in the benefits of any race, color, or national origin because of their race, color, or national origin Programs or activities that receive federal financial support are denied or discriminated against. “
“Obviously, the TXDOT has blatantly and ruthlessly violated this,” said Jackson Lee.
The next steps could be for DOT to instruct Texas to repeat its analysis of the project or, more drastically, refuse to reject it entirely under civil rights laws.
“You didn’t necessarily play your hand when you said we were going to take a break,” said Wagner.
Neither FHWA nor TxDOT answered certain questions.
“FHWA and USDOT officials are evaluating various Title VI concerns raised by community groups in the Houston area regarding the project,” a federal agency spokesman said.
And TxDOT spokesman Adam Hammons said the agency is “in contact with the FHWA to clarify what a pause in timing for future contract inquiries might mean.” He would not go into details and quote the pending laws.