I know it may sound a bit off – a publisher of a “competing” newspaper giving kudos to the Chronicle – but our readers should know we at The Leader don’t view our big-city friends as competitors. They do a great job covering big issues in this Greater Houston area, and I feel their journalism has gotten better over the past few years. In the same way, the Chronicle can’t hold a candle to our coverage of this community, and that’s a good thing.
One of the issues the Chronicle has covered well is TxDOT’s proposed expansion of I-45, and transportation reporter Dug Begley has done an outstanding job providing an in-depth look at the issues surrounding the expansion.
And that’s the Chronicle online headline that grabbed my attention:
“A $7 billion freeway rebuild looms. Not everyone in Houston is happy about it.”
In case you don’t know the background of the I-45 expansion project, here’s the abridged version: For nearly two decades, TxDOT has analyzed every possible scenario for widening I-45 leading into and out of downtown Houston. The plan they’ve settled on – and the plan that has caused such great consternation – involves a route that moves I-45 from running west of downtown and shifts it to the eastern side of downtown.
By doing this, among other things, TxDOT can use segments of I-10, I-69 and Texas 288 to improve the flow of traffic through the heart of the city. And to the north of downtown, where I-45 seemingly stands still from dusk ’til dawn, TxDOT wants to widen the freeway just enough to add new, managed lanes that can be used for rapid bus transit.
There are all sorts of details to the proposal (like a tunnel), and you’d be well served to read Begley’s reporting on the plans. You also might consider visiting the TxDOT website to look at specifics of the expansion as the draft stands today.
But the point of this column isn’t to bullet-point the proposed changes. Instead, it’s to suggest that maybe we shouldn’t make any changes at all.
Back to that headline for a minute. TxDOT wants to spend $7 billion to re-imagine I-45, and some people aren’t happy about it.
That’s something of an understatement. There are groups lining the stairs at City Hall (even though City Hall has very little say in the matter), and they’re demanding the expansion be halted in its tracks. Among the myriad reasons for the protest is the fact that expanding I-45 will lead to the destruction of residential homes, remove long-established businesses, and place school children perilously close to freeway traffic.
If you visit www.StopTxDOTI-45.com, and click on the “Effects” page, you’ll see some of the problems residents have. Or as the Chronicle headline states, why “not everyone in Houston is happy about it.”
I’m not the foremost expert on this expansion plan, and I certainly don’t want readers to believe I’m the end-all on the opinions that should shape the conversation, but I want to throw out an idea that hasn’t been discussed publicly, as far as I can tell.
I say we cancel the entire thing. Don’t change one strip of concrete on I-45. Don’t widen a single lane. Don’t spend a penny of that $7 billion on widening I-45.
That may sound absolutely asinine, and in a way, I suppose it’s something of a flippant response to the controversy surrounding the issue, but consider the paradox in this entire project.
The reason we want improvements to I-45 is because so many cars are coming to downtown Houston, and that number isn’t going to get smaller. By 2030, estimates are that Greater Houston’s population will be 8.4 million. In 20 years, projections are that we reach 9.6 million. It seems logical that we do something to improve traffic flow.
There are other reasons we want to improve I-45. We say we want more people visiting downtown, and we need to make it easier to get here. We also want to make this a more walkable and bike-friendly city, especially inside the 610 Loop.
Those are all wonderful plans, but there’s no way that will happen unless we make it easier for the millions of people who want to drive to the center of the city.
And there are tax advantages, too. The more we get money back into the city limits, the more revenue our city has to increase services or, cough, pay firefighters.
But there’s such great irony in what we want, because an enormous faction of people in the city – starting from the administration on down – don’t want there to be any impact on the homes and businesses that would be removed in order to make room for the expansion. Sure, these are the same people who want a more walkable and bike-able city, but the consequences are forcing them to oppose the solution.
So I’m not really sure what we want. When 610 was built 65 years ago, homes and businesses were moved. Any time any major transportation artery is changed, homes and businesses stand in the way, and no matter what plan TxDOT presents, there will be casualties (hopefully not in the mortal manner).
To me, it seems like the only option is to scrap the whole thing. Let’s just allow Greater Houston to continue on its path of having urban centers further and further away. Let’s build a downtown in Katy and Sugar Land and The Woodlands (they nearly have one already). Then, let’s move east and turn Dayton into the next metropolis.
We can’t have it both ways in this argument, and while it would be nice – and we should – mitigate the damage done to homes and businesses, there isn’t going to be a perfect solution.
And besides, by the time TxDOT finishes the project, maybe in 2035, the expansion won’t be big enough anyway, and we’ll have to start all over.