A one-sided public-relations offensive has been launched against the most important transportation project in the history of Houston, and somebody, somewhere, needs to get control of the conversation.
If you haven’t seen or read news reports about the I-45 expansion around downtown and north to Beltway 8, you should consider it a civic duty to get engaged. Nearly every person in The Leader’s coverage area (unless you’re one of our four readers in the UK) will be impacted by the enormity of the change.
Here’s the service-road version: For almost two decades – 18 years, to be exact – the Texas Department of Transportation has worked on a plan to alleviate the nightmarish congestion of I-45, both north of and all around downtown Houston. Every study imaginable has been done, including environmental, quality of life and alternative routes – like expanding the Hardy Toll Road rather than I-45.
The result is a real-life, 3-D plan that has a lot of people mumbling and a small fraction of the population screaming bloody asphalt.
In the TxDOT plan, which received $100 million from the Transportation Policy Council of the Houston-Galveston Area Council last week, the corridor of I-45 around downtown literally gets flipped on its head.
The most distinct section of the I-45 expansion involves a complete re-routing of I-45 to the east side of downtown. The Pierce Elevated, that strand of forsaken interstate west of downtown – the one that comes to a stand-still if the sun rises – would be pummeled. Gone. Good riddance.
Instead, I-45 would route along I-69 (59 for the old timers) and I-10 before heading back south for the coast of Galveston.
The expansion doesn’t just focus on downtown Houston. I-45 North, from I-10 to Beltway 8, would see two new, managed lanes headed north and south, specifically for use by rapid transit buses and HOV cars. Some on- and off-ramps of 45 would become more seamless, but the majority of the work promotes a future where multi-passenger vehicles (carpools and buses) have an easier time entering and leaving downtown.
So why would anyone be opposed to this plan? Well, there’s legitimate resistance to spending the next decade – at the least – ripping apart and pouring more concrete.
For starters, a project this size comes with a cost, and not just the $7-plus billion estimated to complete construction. Three neighborhoods, specifically, will lose all or some of their homes. Kelly Village and Clayton Homes, just north of downtown, would vanish. Independence Heights, our neighbor to the east, would lose homes situated along I-45.
These are family homes, especially in Independence Heights, that wouldn’t stand a chance against eminent domain.
Those opposed to the I-45 expansion also point to the loss of businesses all along the feeder roads of I-45 just north of the city. What makes it worse, at least from an optics perspective, is many of these businesses are minority owned and are being told to pack up and find another place of business.
One business owner who isn’t a minority, Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, has been one of the vocal critics, telling H-GAC its money should be invested in a flooding fix before an ounce of concrete is poured on a new interstate route. Of course, Mattress Mack also has a business that would be greatly impacted by construction on I-45, which means he’d start to understand how our local businesses along U.S. 290 have felt for the past decade.
The opposition to this project, by any measure, is legitimate. If a single home gets moved, much less 1,200 of them, that’s cause for concern. Especially if the public only sees the story through the emotional lens of displaced families.
And this is where TxDOT, Metro and H-GAC have failed miserably. This I-45 expansion, with more studies and more public hearings than any other transportation project in our city’s history, has not been positioned properly with the Greater Houston constituency. I don’t know, maybe in this age of correctness, there’s concern about offering some blunt answers. Then again, maybe it’s something different.
For instance, the Clayton Homes neighborhood – one of those likely displaced if and when construction begins – was devastated during Hurricane Harvey. It sits on a flood plain, and after Harvey, more than 100 homes were never rebuilt because they were unihabitable.
Why that’s not part of the conversation is beyond me. The residents of Clayton Homes (and Kelly Village) would get vouchers, payments and moving expenses. They’d have better lives in homes free from flooding.
And speaking of flooding, what supporters of the expansion haven’t communicated is that this I-45 project works hand-in-hand with flood mitigation projects to better protect downtown and the communities around it.
That’s not all proponents of the plan have botched when it comes to public relations. More than a month ago, I wrote a rather scathing column about MetroNext, the latest rendition of Metro to improve public transportation in our gigantic city.
When I wrote that column, I had no idea Metro’s plan of having rapid bus lanes was somewhat dependent on the I-45 expansion, where those buses would have their own lanes to zip through rush-hour traffic.
And what the organizers of this I-45 plan have let slide from the public discourse is that, after nearly 20 years, every single solution has been considered. If you think light rail to every business center is a solution, TxDOT has considered it. Unfortunately for us, the day Houston leaders built Beltway 8, scattering residents all over a 700-square-mile plain, we kissed a walkable, public transportation-friendly city goodbye.
Instead, no matter how bad we may want less concrete, Houston needs a solution to 65-minute, one-way commutes. No one – and definitely not TxDOT – is saying this is the perfect plan. But for goodness sakes, it’s about time the three organizations leading the push for this project get in a room, hire a PR consultant and make their case to the public of why this option for transportation efficiency is the best one we’ve got.