Could Houston I-45 expansion be upended under a Biden presidency?
A proposed highway expansion threatens to disproportionately displace communities of colour, but Biden’s infrastructure plans could change that.
Prevention specialist Elda Reyes lives in a modest, three-bedroom home nestled in the corner of a small residential street in north Houston, close to Interstate 45 (I-45).
She bought the house 17 years ago, building a life on the tree-lined street with her husband Jesus, a groundskeeper, and their three children, one of whom – a 22-year-old daughter – still lives with them.
The Reyes family would like to spend the rest of their days there, but a planned expansion of the I-45 highway could see their house appropriated for public use through eminent domain.
The family has been receiving letters from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) offering to purchase their property. But they don’t want to sell.
“Our children grew up here. I wanted to hand this house down to them,” Reyes told Al Jazeera. “I will fight this.”
Elda Reyes is not alone. She is one of thousands of people who could be displaced by plans to expand three interconnecting segments of I-45 over 39km (24 miles) stretching from the city’s central business district to its northernmost neighbourhoods.
Though the reconstruction of I-45 has yet to begin, expansion plans for segments two and three are fully funded by the state and federal governments, a TxDOT spokesperson said. The plan for segment one, where Reyes and her family live, is still pending, and the public comment period for the project ended December 18.
Those opposed to the expansion would like to see I-45 reconfigured to upgrade drainage, pavement and lighting – solutions that won’t forcibly displace communities.
But the city of Houston does not enjoy total autonomy over the highway’s fate. States own and operate highways and upgrading them is usually done with federal funds.
That top-down system, though, could be poised for a shake-up under the incoming administration of United States President-elect Joe Biden.
In dire need of an upgrade
Few argue that highway I-45 – a half-century old in its newest sections, and named one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the US by Popular Mechanics magazine – is in dire need of an upgrade.
But a growing chorus of people, including some city officials, believe expanding the road is the wrong fix.
“There are too many crashes… it floods too much and it needs to be redesigned,” Carol Lewis, professor and director of the Center for Transportation, Training and Research at Texas Southern University, told Al Jazeera.
Lewis points to I-10 in the western part of Houston – a 26-lane highway that is one the most congested roadways in the state, according to data compiled by Texas A&M University.
I-45 is also a major trucking route, and adding more carpool lanes won’t address an anticipated increase in commercial freight traffic.
“As our population increases, your freight increases at a bigger and faster, higher rate,” said Lewis, who also served as the director of planning for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO, Houston’s transit agency), for 15 years.
Widening highways is also known to backfire by actually encouraging more traffic, a report by advocacy group Transportation for America found.
But one of the biggest downsides is the impact on low-income communities that often end up paying the highest price when highways get the go-ahead from regulators.
“There are virtually countless examples of this, so certainly people who look with suspicion at further highway building plans are absolutely right because there is so much precedent for the poor, the working class, the powerless and the marginalised having their homes condemned or seized through eminent domain,” said Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, associate professor and director of the Latina/o Studies Program at Penn State University.
Impact on communities of colour
“According to our analysis of the TxDOT’s own findings, 92 percent of those displaced come from communities of colour,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a non-profit that advocates for a more equitable transportation network for the city.
“What has happened is that, like any economically oriented decision, the negative pressure comes on communities of colour largely because we live where land is less expensive,” Lewis said.
The planned expansion of I-45 will knock out the affordable housing developments Clayton Homes, which has 296 units, and Kelly Village, which has 333 units.
A spokesperson for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told Al Jazeera: “Mayor Turner is working with TxDOT to minimise the disruption the project may create. He has spoken to TxDOT and shared his belief that the agency should relocate every displaced resident or housing unit in the same general vicinity.”
Relocation plans have been implemented. The city is offering to buy out homeowners like the Reyes family, and relocate public housing residents who will lose their homes if the expansion goes ahead.
“We’ve been working with families to either offer vouchers or move them into other available public housing,” said Mark Thiele, interim president and CEO of Houston Housing Authority.
But many residents don’t want to be uprooted. And their cries of opposition could get a boost under the incoming Biden administration.
The president-elect’s blueprint for reviving the nation’s infrastructure includes plans for a community restoration fund that would require significantly more public input for projects like I-45 expansion.
Biden’s plan also emphasises sustainability and pollution reduction around big infrastructure projects, and allows states to use existing highway funding for alternative transportation options.
Should it come to fruition, the plan would mark a decisive shift away from outgoing President Donald Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, which limited public review of federally funded infrastructure projects.
In the meantime, residents in Houston who are facing displacement in the name of widening I-45 are keeping up the fight to stay in their homes.
“They’re giving us 18 months, but we will fight until we cannot anymore,” Reyes said. “Our children grew up here; I’m hoping that our children are able to see the fruits of what they are planting.”