May 22, 2024 - News

Houston approves White Oak Bayou sale for I-45 expansion

The view of downtown Houston from White Oak Bayou before and after construction of the NHHIP

The view of downtown Houston from White Oak Bayou before and after construction of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. Photo: Jay R. Jordan/Axios; Rendering: Courtesy of the Houston Parks Board

A majority of Houston City Council members approved selling a key portion of White Oak Bayou to make room for the Texas Department of Transportation's $9.7 billion expansion of Interstate 45.

Why it matters: The 3-acre piece of bayou greenway has been a battleground for community members and advocates who want to modify TxDOT's plans or derail them altogether.

Catch up quick: The North Houston Highway Improvement Project will widen and reshape 17 miles of I-45 from Beltway 8 North to south of downtown in hope of enhancing driver safety and expanding the freeway's capacity, according to TxDOT.

  • The new size and shape of the freeway will require displacing people from more than 1,000 homes, including affordable housing residents, and force the closure of two schools, five houses of worship and nearly 350 businesses, according to advocacy group LINK Houston.
  • After years of legal battles over the environmental and societal impact of the highway, the city and TxDOT came to an agreement in 2022 and the feds gave approval in 2023 greenlighting the highway expansion.

The intrigue: TxDOT plans to reroute I-45 alongside Interstate 10 and U.S. 59 north of downtown.

  • The new freeway will be built directly over portions of White Oak Bayou, including the hike-and-bike trail used by countless bicycle commuters and college students on a daily basis.
  • The trail is a key link between downtown and neighborhoods to the north in Houston's dotted bike network.

The property that TxDOT needs to construct the overpasses over White Oak Bayou is owned by the city, which offered to sell it to the agency for about $260,000. The sale required approval from City Council.

Driving the news: 11 of the city's 16 council members voted to approve the sale.

  • District H council member Mario Castillo, District C council member Abbie Kamin, District J council member Edward Pollard and at-large council member Letitia Plummer voted no.
  • District F council member Tiffany Thomas was not present for the meeting, and District B council member Tarsha Jackson was not in the chamber when the council voted.

Friction point: The vote was supposed to happen last week, but Castillo, Kamin, Plummer and at-large council member Twila Carter delayed the vote.

  • Castillo, whose district encompasses much of the work near downtown, at the time said he wanted to question TxDOT about the impacts construction would have on the trail, including any long-term closures, and explore alternatives to avoid selling the property altogether.

TxDOT responded to Castillo's questions Monday, in part pledging to keep the trail open through construction during the day but closed at night, according to a copy of the letter shared with Axios.

  • Castillo, however, didn't feel like the letter served as enough of a commitment from TxDOT that it will keep the trail open during construction, he said Wednesday.

Before this week's vote, Mayor John Whitmire was willing to give council members another week to vote on the issue but argued that he supported the delay only so Castillo and other council members could correct what he called "misinformation" about the project, not to explore options to avoid the sale or derail the project.

  • Castillo on Wednesday initially asked for more time to explore a proposal to give the airspace over the trail to TxDOT and let the city keep possession of the property itself so the city would maintain control over the trail.
  • He and others eventually agreed to move forward with a roll-call vote after a nearly hour-long discussion.

What's next: TxDOT contractors are slated to start moving dirt on the I-45 expansion project in 2025.

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