Sep 20, 2022 - News

Central Houston's new plan for I-45

Rendering of a proposed garden bridge over a highway in Houston
Rendering of a conceptual bridge park over U.S. 59 near Almeda in Houston. Photo courtesy of Central Houston

A prominent downtown business organization wants to add $750 million of amenities to the embattled North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP), according to plans shared exclusively with Axios Houston.

Catch up quick: The NHHIP is a nearly $10 billion Texas Department of Transportation project that will widen and reshape Interstate 45 from Beltway 8 to south of downtown.

  • Near downtown, I-45 will be rerouted alongside Interstate 10 and U.S. 59.

Driving the news: Central Houston is proposing 10 new amenities in and around the downtown portion of the interstate project with a goal of making it more equitable to communities previously ravaged by Houston's network of highways. The plan calls for:

  • A community park built above a depressed portion of the freeway in East Downtown.
  • A green loop around downtown with trails, parks and community spaces.
  • Transforming Pierce Elevated into a sky park on the west and south sides of downtown.
Map of a proposed green loop around downtown Houston.
Map of the proposed Green Loop around downtown Houston.

State of play: A Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) investigation put the interstate project on hold more than a year ago. Federal officials are considering whether TxDOT committed any Title VI civil rights violations with the highway's proposed new footprint, which mostly affects Black and brown communities.

  • More than 1,000 homes, 100 businesses and nearly a dozen schools and churches would be destroyed for additional right-of-way.
  • TxDOT has already demolished hundreds of homes in East Downtown to make way for the widened highway despite the federal hold.
  • More work could start as late as 2025 if the hold was lifted, according to TxDOT.

What they're saying: "The transformational aspect [of Central Houston's plan] is connecting communities that have been rent asunder under transportation projects in the 50s and 60s that destroyed communities," says Allen Douglas, general counsel for the downtown group.

What's happening: Central Houston presented plans and a cost analysis to the FHWA this spring.

  • The group hopes the FHWA will find a way to incorporate the amenities into the project as it determines the outcome of the investigation.

Details: Central Houston is willing to pay for about one-third of the cost of the new amenities, but the rest remains unfunded.

  • The group hopes to work with other entities to seek federal and state grants to fill the gaps.
  • Douglas said the cost of the additional work, if it ever came to fruition, shouldn't be a "burden for the local community."

Yes, but: Not everyone is onboard.

  • Stop TxDOT I-45, a group of community organizers who have long protested the NHHIP, doesn't think amenities solve the problems with the project.
  • "No amount of 'beautification' can neutralize the devastating impacts of widening I-45," the group said in a statement. "These renderings are distractions from the fact that widening I-45 will result in worse traffic, worse air quality and catastrophic displacement."

Flashback: The project has faced opposition for years from some local government officials and community activists.

What we're watching: The FHWA investigation is ongoing, and there's no timetable for completion.

  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declined to comment on the investigation during a recent visit to Houston.
  • If TxDOT is found to have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the FHWA can order a 90-day corrective plan among other remedies.

Go deeper: Read Central Houston's full proposal here.

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