The $7 billion overhaul of I-45 through much of downtown Houston and the Northside cleared a hurdle for approval Feb. 4, marking a new phase for the contentious project.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project proposes, among other things, rerouting I-45 away from Midtown and through the East End while expanding it through much of the Northside.

On Feb. 4, the Texas Department of Transportation issued a record of decision, signaling one of the final hurdles before construction can begin. The decision means that the project has completed its federally required environmental impact studies, and it allows for more advanced design work to get underway. The timeline for the design phase and eventual construction has not been finalized, but previous estimates have suggested that the record of decision marks the last major hurdle before the design-build phase can begin, starting with the downtown portion of the project.

Along with billions of state transportation dollars, the project is also supplemented by regional funds from the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

The decision comes as regional leaders have struggled to come to a consensus about how to incorporate concerns about the project into its final design. On Jan. 25, members of the HGAC transportation policy council failed to approve a resolution committing to implementing community-driven alterations to the project after TxDOT officials said they could not legally sign onto the agreement, which had been months in the making.

“We really worked hard. We had meeting after meeting. ... And then right out of Shakespeare, it went to the lawyers, and there were things added that were unacceptable to the committee,” said Carrin Patman, board chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County and a member of HGAC's transportation council at a Jan. 25 meeting. "At the very last moment this morning, after a lot of work from the committees, suddenly they can’t support the resolution either."

TxDOT officials, however, said the record of decision simply allows the project to move forward through the federal approval process.

“While the ROD marks the end of the [National Environmental Policy Act] process, TxDOT is committed to continuing to meet with stakeholders and accepting public input as it proceeds through future project development phases,” TxDOT Houston District Engineer Eliza Paul said in a news release. “TxDOT will continue to do all we can to help make the NHHIP a success as the project continues to be developed.”

In response to the decision, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said project as proposed needs more input. The city planning department led a parallel public input process over the course of several months in 2019 and 2020.

“There has been a lot of community engagement and input provided to TxDOT, which I hope the agency will take into consideration," he said in a statement. "I also believe a lot more work is required.”

Proponents of the project indicate it will ease congestion, particularly for commuters, update the 1960s-era highway and mitigate flooding issues along its path.

Despite these potential benefits, advocacy groups, including Stop TxDOT I-45 and the Make I-45 Better Coalition, have consistently criticized the effort, citing disproportionate upheaval in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the East End, Fifth Ward and Northside.

"We are not surprised by TxDOT's insistence on moving forward with their version of the [North Highway Improvement Project], despite their continued failure to address any of the concerns raised by the City of Houston, Harris County, or the overwhelming number of community members who weighed in on the Final Environmental Impact Statement," a statement from Stop TxDOT I-45 read. "Issuing the Record of Decision in the face of mounting issues over the project is just one more example of TxDOT's unwillingness to operate transparently or earn community trust."

According to TxDOT's environmental impact statement, the project as currently designed would displace 160 single-family homes, 433 multifamily residential units, 486 public and low-income housing units, 344 businesses, five places of worship and two schools. Affordable housing Housing Advocacy Group, Texas Housers, issued a letter Jan. 26 asking for a delay of the Record of Decision.

In addition to relocation compensation, TxDOT is committing $27 million toward affordable housing initiatives in Independence Heights, Near Northside, Greater Fifth Ward and the Greater Third Ward.

"TxDOT has made a number of commitments to offset the adverse effects of the project on environmental justice populations related to relocation of residences and facilities, affordable housing, local access, pedestrian safety, traffic noise, air quality, and homelessness," the Record of Decision reads.