HOUSTON — Federal officials investigating a disputed $9 billion Houston area highway widening project heard the complaints of residents and activists on Monday who argued the proposal would cause lasting economic and environmental damage to their communities.
Federal Highway Administration investigators are in Houston this week to review complaints about a proposal that would remake 24 miles along Interstate 45 and other roadways in the Houston area. The project was stalled in March when the federal agency began its probe.
Supporters, including the Texas Transportation Commission, say the project would enhance driver safety, reduce traffic congestion, and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.
But its 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 more pollution, displacement and flooding while not improving public transportation options.
Joetta Stevenson, president of the Greater Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood, a community group, was one of about 70 people who attended a meeting Monday at a Houston church and expressed concerns about the project to Stephanie Pollack, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration.
Stevenson and others talked about the long history of infrastructure projects that have depreciated wealth and exacerbated inequality in minority neighborhoods.
“Every time a freeway is widened or created, once you leave, you leave nothing more than destruction and a bunch of people who can’t have a place to live. We have lost residents. We lost businesses,” Stevenson said. She said previous highways projects have “sliced and diced” Fifth Ward, a historically Black neighborhood.
U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, said she would not support the project until the concerns and questions of residents and community groups are answered.
Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation, in charge of the expansion project, have said the agency “has worked extensively” with local governments and communities to “develop tangible solutions” to concerns.
At the end of the meeting, Pollack said her agency is serious about making sure that federal transportation dollars are not used in a way that violates environmental or anti-discrimination laws. Following the meeting, Pollack and others toured several areas that would be affected by the project, including an elementary school and a public housing community.
Pollack said she could not give residents and others answers to questions they had on Monday because the investigation was ongoing.
“But I can tell you that we hear you, that what you’re saying will be taken into account as we complete those investigations,” she said.
The Federal Highway Administration hasn’t indicated when its review might be finished.
The dispute over the project comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equity a priority in his department. The project is considered an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing a history of racial inequity in U.S. infrastructure projects.
Last week, the Texas Transportation Commission announced it had reached an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration allowing the state to resume design work on parts of a disputed project, which has been in the works for nearly two decades.
Harris County, which includes Houston, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that state officials ignored the project’s impact on neighborhoods. Last month, the county paused its lawsuit in the hopes of resolving concerns about the project.
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