TxDOT officials hosted the first of six public meetings on a massive I-45 expansion project Dec. 6, inviting residents to learn more about the portions of the project affecting Downtown Houston.

What's happening

The project involves adding four managed express lanes on I-45 from Downtown Houston to Beltway 8 North as well as rerouting I-45 to be parallel with I-10 on the north side of downtown and west of I-69.

Other elements of the project include bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure along frontage roads and cross streets; new trails parallel to bayous; and flood control elements.

While the $9.7 billion project has been touted as a way to improve safety and traffic levels by TxDOT and as a boon to the economy by business groups, it has drawn opposition from community advocacy groups and environmental groups that have expressed concerns about the displacement of existing businesses and residents, and the disproportional effects it will have on communities of color in the project footprint.

Advocates are also raising awareness about how the project would affect green space along White Oak Bayou, north of the University of Houston Downtown campus, where I-45 highway lanes would be rerouted.

The project will require the displacement of more than 1,000 homes and businesses, as well as places of worship, schools, commercial billboards and medical care facilities. TxDOT has programs in place meant to assist people with the relocation process.

"Residents will not be displaced from homes until adequate replacement housing has been identified," according to information on the project website.

The latest

The public meeting took place roughly one month after Grady Mapes, director of the TxDOT Houston District Comprehensive Development Agreements program, gave an update to members of the city of Houston's Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure committee, including details on how the state agency updated its plans to satisfy new federal requirements.

The Dec. 6 meeting dealt with Segment 3 of the project, which includes:
  • Straightening I-69 in East Downtown and widening it from eight lanes to 10 or 12 lanes in each direction
  • Straightening I-10 and adding two express lanes in each direction
  • Building a new downtown connector from I-45 to replace the Pierce Elevated
  • Constructing a new southbound street between Commerce and Leland streets downtown to increase access to East Downtown
  • Building a structural cap over a depressed section of I-69 from Lamar to Commerce streets, which is a kind of bridge built over a highway that can provide opportunities for park space and other amenities
  • Building a structural cap over a depressed section of I-69 from Main to Caroline streets
Attendees could view recent changes to project design, details of a Voluntary Resolution Agreement between TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration and details on the right of way acquisition process.

Zooming in

At the meeting, TxDOT highlighted changes to the former plan that were made either based on community feedback, feedback from the city of Houston, or requirements in the VRA, including:
  • Extending Cleburne Street across I-69 to preserve a connection between Midtown and the Third Ward
  • Developing a potential structural cap between Almeda Road and Cleburne Street
  • Shortening the I-69 southbound frontage road to end at Cleburne Street, which provides bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure opportunities in the space where the frontage road would have been
  • Removing the proposed I-69 northbound frontage road between La Branch Street and Almeda Road, which provides another opportunity for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure
  • Extending North San Jacinto Street to connect with Naylor and Providence streets along the new I-10 alignment
What they're saying

Katherine Mize, a resident of Downtown Houston, was one of the attendees at the public meeting to leave feeling frustrated with what she said was a lack of detail on what was happening. Like other attendees, she also said some of the QR codes on project poster boards were not working.

Mize said she wants to know more specifics on what to actually expect in terms of construction and detailed timelines for project elements.

"I came looking for clarification on what is going to happen and what is an idea," Mize said. "It seems like a lot of it is aspirational."

Gordon Quan, chair of Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone No. 15, which covers the East Downtown area, said the project will have a major impact on the area his TIRZ covers. As he works with TxDOT to provide input on how the project is carried out, he said keeping lines open for the public to give feedback will be crucial.

Quan said he is particularly paying attention to the effects future road closures may have as well as efforts to preserve history and culture. He referenced the project's impact on the area considered Houston's original Chinatown in East Downtown and its meaning to him as a Chinese American.

"It's important to talk about how these areas can be preserved," he said. "Even things like the graffiti, some of that graffiti is very important to people."

Overall, Quan said he has been surprised at the willingness TxDOT has shown to work with local groups like his so far.

"I thought they were just going to roll over us," he said. "We can still take care of the people who live here."

Randy Baxley said his main concerns relate to the flooding impacts of the project. He said he stood at the south parking lot of the Leonel Castillo Community Center during Hurricane Harvey and watched as flood waters rose into the neighborhoods along White Oak Bayou, eventually going to residences himself to wake people up and warn them of what was happening.

Baxley said there are some project elements that he thinks will help, including a series of detention basins along northern portions of the project, and a bridge structure that he said should help lessen flooding in Independence Heights. However, he said he remains concerned about the pylons of any new bridge going over White Oak Bayou potentially creating a dam, where debris at the bottom of the bayou gets caught up, worsening flooding.

What's next

Five more public meetings are scheduled, including a virtual version of the Dec. 6 meeting set to take place at 5 p.m. Dec. 7. Other meetings are scheduled for the following times:

Segment 2: I-45 from I-10 to Loop 610
  • Dec. 11: In-person at 5 p.m. at the Moody Community Center, 3725 Fulton St., Houston
  • Dec. 12: Virtual meeting from 5-7 p.m.
Segment 1: I-45 from Loop 610 to Beltway 8
  • Dec. 14: In-person meeting at 5 p.m. at the Aldine Ninth Grade Center, 10650 North Freeway, Houston
  • Dec. 15: Virtual meeting from 5-7 p.m.