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TxDOT Kept Moving Forward On I-45 Project Despite Federal Warning, Documents Say

A highway sign designates the ramp for I-45 North.
Fujio Watanabe
/
Houston Public Media
Portions of the I-45 main lanes will be affected this weekend as crews prepare to demolish ramp.

The state’s transportation department has continued a controversial downtown Houston expansion of Interstate 45 despite requests from the Federal Highway Administration to pause the project, according to letters obtained by Houston Public Media.

TxDOT was told in March to pause its North Houston Highway Improvement Project over civil rights and environmental concerns raised through the public input process.

But county and federal officials believe the agency continued its work on the project with “right-of-way” acquisitions of surrounding property, “including solicitations, negotiations and eminent domain,” despite an investigation into possible violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“There are numerous environmental and civil rights issues involved and FHWA believes that no further actions be taken on this project that might impact our Title VI investigation and any proposed remedies should the agency find that a violation has occurred,” FHWA Division Administrator Achille Alonzi wrote in a letter to the state.

Alonzi also said the FHWA would review whether TxDOT was in compliance with a memorandum of understanding between the state and federal government.

“FHWA will similarly pause any of its activities and approvals, including but not limited to sign-off on the submitted Interchange Justification Report,” Alonzi wrote. “There are numerous environmental and civil rights issues involved and FHWA believes that no further actions be taken on this project that might impact our Title VI investigation and any proposed remedies should the agency find that a violation has occurred.”

A spokesman for TxDOT did not immediately return a request for comment.

The agency claims the project — which would widen parts of I-45 from downtown to Beltway 8 — will reduce congestion and lessen commute times on a corridor that’s been stressed by a growing population.

But locals say the project is bringing noise and air pollution to surrounding neighborhoods, and displacing homeowners and businesses.

Those concerns were what spurred federal action, when on March 8 the FHWA sent its first letter to the state requesting the pause to address “serious Title VI concerns.” That statute prohibits discrimination in federal programs on the basis of race, color or national origin.

Harris County also announced it was suing the agency, to stop the project from moving forward.

A spokesman for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county continues to pursue legal action. Hidalgo and County Attorney Christian Menefee were set to give an update at 11:30 a.m.