Buttigieg Interstate Expansion Houston
FILE - Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 10, 2021. Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equity a top priority. His department is reviewing civil rights and environmental justice concerns raised about a $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, File)
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Houston highway project sparks debate over racial equity

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By JUAN A. LOZANO and HOPE YEN

A $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it has said is a history of racial inequity with infrastructure projects in the U.S.

The project’s critics, including community groups and some residents, say it won’t improve the area’s traffic woes and would subject mostly Black and Latino residents to increased pollution, displacement and flooding while not improving public transportation options.

Its supporters counter the proposed 10-year construction project that would remake 24 miles along Interstate 45 and several other roadways would enhance driver safety, help reduce traffic congestion and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.

The project, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, has remained on hold since March as the Federal Highway Administration reviews civil rights and environmental justice concerns raised about the proposal. Harris County, where Houston is located, has also filed a federal lawsuit alleging state officials ignored the project’s impacts on neighborhoods.

The dispute over the project comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equity a top priority at his department.

The impacts of “misguided transportation policy” is something that has “disproportionately happened in Black and brown communities and neighborhoods,” Buttigieg said last December in response to a question from Rodney Ellis, a commissioner in Harris County.

The I-45 project is expected to displace more than 1,000 homes and apartments along with 344 businesses, two schools and five places of worship in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

“It’s very racially unjust,” Molly Cook with Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the community groups opposing the project, said as she stood in a cul-de-sac in north Houston where 10 homes were expected to be torn down because of the widening. “We’re going to spend all this money to make the traffic worse and hurt a lot of people.”

Fabian Ramirez, 40, whose family has lived since the 1960s in a neighborhood near downtown Houston, said if the project goes through, he could be forced to sell property he owns.

“It’s taken my family generations for me to get to this position where I can say, ‘This property right next to downtown is mine.’ And to have (the) government come and take the property away as soon as I obtain it, it’s nerve-wracking,” Ramirez said.

The Texas Department of Transportation, commonly known as TxDOT, and the five members of the Texas Transportation Commission that govern it, have pushed back on claims the project promotes racial inequity. Agency spokesman Bob Kaufman said Tuesday that TxDOT “has worked extensively” with local governments and communities to “develop tangible solutions” to concerns.

“This project cannot be everything that everybody wants or that everybody believes in. However, it can be transformational for the region and the state,” commission member Laura Ryan said during an August meeting.

The commission has said if the federal government does not complete its investigation by the end of this month, it might review at its Dec. 9 meeting whether to pull the project’s state funding.

In a statement Tuesday, the Federal Highway Administration said its review was continuing.

Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, believes the I-45 proposal continues a long history of infrastructure projects — including the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s — that have depreciated wealth in minority neighborhoods through the loss of homes and businesses and exacerbated inequality.

Ines Sigel, interim executive director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit focused on transportation issues that opposes the I-45 expansion, said what the federal government decides in Houston could lead to meaningful changes that improve communities across the country.

Similar debates about highway and infrastructure projects are also taking place in other U.S. cities, including Charleston, South Carolina, Mobile, Alabama, and Los Angeles.

“Unless local and state governments start saying we want to change our entire approach, and that highway expansion could be bad for the environment and we want fewer cars, then the Biden administration’s goals will be really difficult to achieve,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Last week, Harris County officials paused their lawsuit against TxDOT in the hope of resolving concerns about the project. The move took some community groups fighting the project by surprise.

But Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top elected official, said last week that the pause is not an end to the lawsuit and she’s committed to ensuring the project is “forward thinking and … respects the health of the community.”

Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, a leading Houston area business group that backs the project, said his organization is optimistic that concerns will be resolved, “ensuring this important project for the Houston region will move forward.”

Roger Panetta, a retired history professor at Fordham University in New York, said those opposing the I-45 project will have an uphill battle, as issues of racism and inequity have been so persistent in highway expansions that it “gets very difficult to dislodge.”


Yen reported from Washington.


Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

© Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

8 Comments

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Why am I not surprised that "go it alone Texas" is so willing to accept federal dollars for a project that sounds like it would primarily benefit big oil and big auto while bringing even more problems like worse air quality to lower income neighborhoods. US highways since the days of Eisenhower have a history of ripping up poorer neighborhoods while benefitting richer ones.

It looks like Biden is just maintaining the status quo, which probably is to be expected from a centrist politician like him, one who knows that the fossils running the US fossil economy are still in charge. Biden is probably politically unable to budge the establishment, but at least so far he has not given them huge tax breaks. Biden knows the establishment will get even richer off the infrastructure projects. But I am disappointed so much money is still being given to highway projects, hopefully more money will be given to improve the US's limited, so limited it's near non-existent public transportation systems.

Long passed time to stop burning such huge amounts of fossil fuels.

Let Texans go it alone, stop subsidizing big oil. If Texans want to continue to breathe eshaust fumes let them deal with the messes they have made for themselves. Many Texan politicians want little to do with the country. Look at Texan kooks like Ted Cancun Cruz. Louie Gohmert, Dan Crenshaw and other far far right Republicans, many deep inside the crackpot QGOP big tent.

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Yes this was the roads and bridges are “racist”comments from few weeks ago that followed the Vice President telling us that trees are also racist.

who knew?

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Yes this was the roads and bridges are “racist”comments from few weeks ago that followed the Vice President telling us that trees are also racist.

who knew?

Anyone who knows what's going on inside the right wing bubble want to give some context to the above quote? I'm not knowing this bubblespeak.

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Racist trees:

Vice President asks NASA if it can ‘track’ trees in different neighborhoods to combat racial inequality

racist roads and bridges:

"Buttigieg Says U.S. Will Use Infrastructure Bill to Address Racist Highway Design"

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-11-08/buttigieg-targets-racist-road-design-with-public-works-bill

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A $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it has said is a history of racial inequity with infrastructure projects in the U.S. 

So the Biden Administration is funneling a $9B project to the Houston area, but “It’s very racially unjust,” Molly Cook with Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the community groups opposing the project,

Ok, let's ride with that narrative---the Biden Administration engages in racially unjust practices.

Of course, if the Trump Administration withheld the same $9B and such project could not go forward, he would be racist for not appropriating that money to the Houston area.

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Vice President asks NASA if it can ‘track’ trees in different neighborhoods to combat racial inequality

This doesn't say that trees are racist.

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It looks like Biden is just maintaining the status quo, which probably is to be expected from a centrist politician like him

Centrist??? ROFL!!  

Let Texans go it alone, stop subsidizing big oil.

Sounds good to me!

If Texans want to continue to breathe eshaust fumes let them deal with the messes they have made for themselves. Many Texan politicians want little to do with the country. Look at Texan kooks like Ted Cancun Cruz. Louie Gohmert, Dan Crenshaw and other far far right Republicans, many deep inside the crackpot QGOP big tent.

I’m sure about the other rant but I will say this, there is no way we’re going to give up cars right now, there’s no way we’re going to give a paint, there’s no way we’re going to give up our bowling balls, our computers, our toothpaste, our shampoos, our disposable dinner plates, oil is not going anywhere at least for the foreseeable future and if people are telling you it is, they’re lying to you, the best thing that we can do is the drill for all the natural resources that we have at home and at the same time we can figure out and work on better and more cleaner and sustainable energy sources, but right now we need to use what we have and not rely on foreign adversaries and people that hate us or want to kill us for oil

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It looks like Biden is just maintaining the status quo, which probably is to be expected from a centrist politician like him

Huge deficits. Yes indeed - status quo. The raging inflation is a different story. biden and his family are spending Thanksgiving at a billionaire private equity investor pals place in Nantucket. This passes on the Left for Scranton Joe getting back to his blue color roots.

https://nypost.com/2021/11/24/biden-spending-thanksgiving-at-private-equity-billionaires-home/

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