Exposed to air pollution from two busy interstates, students at Fifth Ward's Bruce Elementary suffer from asthma at twice the rate of their HISD peers. Illustration: Evan O'Neil.

TxDOT should protect all Houstonians. But their I-45 expansion would pave over some.

August 5th, 2021

Exposed to air pollution from two busy interstates, students at Fifth Ward's Bruce Elementary suffer from asthma at twice the rate of their HISD peers. Illustration: Evan O'Neil.

Kendra London spoke into a megaphone. I was kneeling on the sidewalk to listen in front of Bruce Elementary in Houston’s historically Black Fifth Ward.

She raised her voice over the roar from Interstates 10 and 69. She said that these students suffer from asthma at twice the rate of their HISD peers. That would only get worse, she said, if the Texas Department of Transportation goes forward with their plan to expand I-45, moving the air pollution even closer.

London, who grew up in Fifth Ward, was leading us on a community walk through the neighborhoods TxDOT would harm with their $10 billion project: hers and historically Hispanic Near Northside and the East End.

I didn’t grow up in these neighborhoods. As a transplant to Houston, I have learned the city slowly, sporadically. The history of formal and informal segregation has put physical limits on my opportunities as a white person to learn more about these neighborhoods. As I trained to become an educator, I wanted to learn as much as I could about any barriers to opportunity in our city. The more I looked, the more I found that environmental racism — flood risks, garbage dumps, industrial polluters, high-fatality roadways — separates and endangers some communities more than others and contributes to the segregation that keeps privileged people like me in place.

Over the years, hurricane after chemical fire after pedestrian fatality pushed me to learn more and care outside my neighborhood. When I realized the consequences of my freeway trips through the city, I could no longer conscience not acting in support of my neighbors. Why do I prefer a long bus ride to a quick car trip across town? It's because once I learned the real cost of freeways, I wanted to stop using them.

Listening to London, my neighbors and I started brushing red chalk into a stencil we had placed on the sidewalk outside Bruce Elementary. Her voice carried a deep, unquestionable love for the neighborhood where she grew up and a bottomless determination that it should, and would, be protected from more harm.

As her speech ended, I brushed the chalk from my hands and, together, we lifted our stencil, leaving our message behind: TxDOT WANTS A HIGHWAY HERE. WE WILL NOT BE PAVED OVER.

***

TxDOT started developing the I-45 project in 2002, and early documents show they aspired to start construction in 2018. I attended my first public meeting about it in January 2020. Transportation projects can be infamously long-winded, but this one has dragged on, facing stringent community opposition for years from impacted residents, allies and those who believe it does not meet one of the agency’s primary legal obligations: Executive Order 12898, Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

Since the project will receive federal money, this order binds TxDOT to protect neighborhoods just like Fifth Ward, Near Northside and the East End from disproportionate, adverse environmental impacts.

This is one of three essays written in response to the Texas Department of Transportation's proposed project to expand and reroute Interstate 45 through Houston. Read the others here and here.

And adverse impacts abound in any freeway project. People living next to them are at heightened risk for chronic respiratory illnesses and cancer. Over the years, TxDOT's own analysis showed that the bulk of the displacement and negative health impacts would be borne by the communities this executive order obligates TxDOT to protect. As residents and advocates have expressed their concern about this since at least 2017, when TxDOT published their impact statements, the same line has been repeated to them: “TxDOT followed all applicable regulatory procedures and best practices in conducting its analyses and feels the adequacy is sufficient to support the project decision.”

In other, more human words, TxDOT checked its regulatory boxes and feels that the impacts they have planned to bring down on the populations they're obligated to protect are worth their insistence that the project will lead to a faster commute for people they project could move here one day.

***

I have been organizing around this project for the better part of a year, designing direct actions like the community walk and helping others submit comments on key documents. That has helped me understand the project’s many failures. It’s not only a failure to protect, it’s a failure to connect.

TxDOT’s technical, deflective language has led me down dead-ends and feedback loops of documents: .PDFs of meeting notice flyers, meeting conclusion acknowledgement statements, cumulative impact technical reports, records of decisions, charts, graphs, schematics. But where was evidence of the people who attended the meetings? Who were they? What did they say? Were they listened to?

Were they engineers or contractors who might benefit professionally from the project, or the people who lived in the right-of-way?

In Houston, the right-of-way is never neutral, a history TxDOT buries in their impact statement, citing the work of transportation scholar Kyle Shelton. Our current I-45, for example, was built in the 1960s south toward Galveston intentionally to slice through Emancipation Avenue in Third Ward; I-69 later sliced through Lyons Avenue in Fifth Ward. Both projects permanently scarred these two local streets, which once bustled with Black-owned businesses, offices, theaters and clubs, creating an impassable barrier keeping families, friends, neighbors and customers apart. TxDOT’s I-45 expansion would scar over these two generational traumas with even more concrete and steel.

***

Though President Clinton’s executive order remains legally binding, scholars have argued that it lacks teeth and has little influence over governmental actions on the ground. The Houstonians I have met and heard from would be inclined to agree.

East End homeowner Sean Jefferson says in an interview with Rice University and LINK Houston that he has received only one letter and one survey in the mail from TxDOT. He says the few public meetings held in his neighborhood did not take residents’ comments into account. That failure to connect mirrors larger barriers to access inherent to the engagement process. It takes place largely through infrequent public meetings, mostly conducted in English, in which minute details of technical drawings and laws are discussed at length. Likewise, the paper trail documenting this process is a labyrinth of thousands of pages of multi-volume, table- and legalese-filled statements, appendices and comment matrices, tangled as the freeways that tie in our city into toxic knots.

For residents of public housing that face demolition from the project, Clayton Homes in the East End and Kelly Village in Fifth Ward, the process has been even more mystifying. Documents from every stage of the process claim that no person would be displaced from their homes until safe, affordable replacement housing is available. Though TxDOT has stated an “intent” to rehouse 70 percent of Clayton Homes residents within a mile and all Kelly Village residents in the “vicinity,” the new housing does not exist.

Still, Clayton Homes residents have been given displacement dates. Early estimates predicted a required move by December 2020; a new one this summer predicted the end of August. The experience of these residents contradicts TxDOT’s message, which states that a relocation assistance counselor would contact each resident to determine needs and desires, including needs for elderly or disabled residents.

Instead, it’s months of uncertainty. Should residents go ahead and change their children’s schools? Find new jobs? Start looking on their own for a new place to live? Their requests for maintenance now have gone largely unaddressed, since their community hangs in limbo, sold, but not demolished.

Other impacted Houstonians, Near Northside business ownerHasud Patel and London, both say that the amount TxDOT is offering to them for their properties is not anywhere close to compensating them for lost business, inheritance and the costs of moving, living and setting up business in other neighborhoods. “They are creating a domino effect of burdens,” London said. “TxDOT should be held accountable for every action.”

***

The City of Houston and Harris County hired a team of planning professionals to make TxDOT’s project better. Two years of collecting comments led them to a new design, which they called "Vision C."

The vision largely does not require additional property acquisition, adds no additional lanes, supports Houston’s voter-approved investment in more buses, light rail and improved transit infrastructure and redesigns on- and off-ramps to minimize disruptions to nearby neighborhoods. The vision would protect residents against the loss of their homes, decreased stability and increased risk of respiratory disease that come with the introduction of more air pollution.

Even more progressive solutions exist, too, which address the heart of the issue, like freeway removal. An aspiration across the country, the idea of replacing aging freeways like I-45 with transit-, pedestrian-, and bike-friendly boulevards is taking hold. If led by impacted communities and designed with their needs in mind, freeway removals could be an opportunity to heal past injustices. Even TxDOT has been studying this to reconnect the historically Black neighborhood Deep Ellum in Dallas.

TxDOT's Houston agents are choosing to ignore all these visions.

In February 2021, TxDOT approved its own plans to build what they always wanted to build. In March 2021, Harris County filed a federal lawsuit to force TxDOT to consider community-derived alternatives, like Vision C. Soon after, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sent letters announcing a formal investigation into civil rights violations, requesting TxDOT pause all work.

But TxDOT continued to obtain private properties along the right-of-way, leading to a second letter from the FHWA, stressing that TxDOT must pause and explaining that the FHWA could intervene in the project and revoke the self-certification ability that allowed TxDOT to approve their own plans.

Confronting this decades-long lack of protection and connection, a concerned Houstonian might feel one of two ways. She might feel a sense of bitterness, a sense of empty promises made. TxDOT has now set up an either-or survey, seeking more comments. Do you support the project as designed, or do you not?

But what, after all, could one more survey tell TxDOT what 19 years has not? Is this an acknowledgement at last of their legal obligation to protect some Texans, or is this another box checked, another regulatory procedure adequately fulfilled?

She might also sense a pattern emerging, though, a thread connecting the work of Dr. Robert Bullard and other advocates for environmental justice to those now walking through neighborhoods that could be harmed who see the I-45 expansion moving in the wrong direction. She might realize that the collective pressure of residents, just like those who pushed for the 1994 executive order, echoes upward into surges of support and power. A single comment on a design or a letter to a representative is small, but in the years that the expansion project has existed, they have added up, creating depth and quantity. We have tools TxDOT should use, but does not: listening, caring, loving, acting in our neighbors’ best interest. We are doing what TxDOT has not: coming together to protect our city from being any further paved over.

Hopper is a writer, artist and Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. Originally from Ohio, she has lived in Houston the last six years.

Take Action

  1. Take TxDOT's online poll
  2. Read an interview with Houston's new chief transportation planner
  3. Understand the connections between poor air quality and freeways

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