Residents, city leaders and activists get first glimpse of alternative I-45 designs

I-45 alternative designs
Residents and City Counci members came to see the Houston Planning Department's alternative design proposals for the I-45 project. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

Residents and City Counci members came to see the Houston Planning Department's alternative design proposals for the I-45 project. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

Citing significant public interest, the Houston Planning Department has developed a slate of revisions to the Texas Department of Transportation’s planned overhaul of I-45 through downtown and much of the Northside.

“The reason we are going through this process is because it became clear to the city that there are a lot of people who feel that the current design does not address the issues that they see and that the current design has real negative impacts on their neighborhood,” said Christof Spieler, urban planner and a lead consultant on the city's alternative proposals to the plan.

The planning department has been drawing up alternative designs for the project over the past two months and presented them to the public for the first time Jan. 30. Hundreds of attendees ranging from residents to city council members and activists came to see the proposals and weigh in.

After collecting public feedback on the proposed changes, the planning department will present a final recommendation to Mayor Sylvester Turner before TxDOT issues its Record of Decision this spring. The statement is one of the last steps in the approval process for the $7 billion project that has been in development for over 15 years. TxDOT's goals for the project are to bring the 1960s highway up to modern safety standards, reduce flooding risks and decrease traffic.

The Houston Planning Department developed 38 proposed changes to the project, grouped them into categories and is asking the public to give feedback on preferred options. They range from narrowing the project’s footprint to adding new transit stations along its route.


Below are some of the proposed changes:

Capacity

The original proposal adds four managed lanes through the Northside, which can be used for transit or as HOV lanes, and additional main lanes in some areas. This requires significant property acquisition and is estimated to displace over 900 multifamily units, 160 single family homes and 344 commercial buildings, according to a report from TxDOT. Some suggestions proposed fewer additional lanes, another proposed adding managed lanes without expanding the overall right-of-way, and another option was for maintenance of the lanes only.

Zeinab Bakhiet said she came to weigh in on proposals that minimize the negative impact on Houston residents rather than prioritizing commuters.

“I think I-45 has served as a way to separate communities in the past, and it has been quite detrimental to some of the neighborhoods that I really care about,” Bakhiet said. “I’m hoping that there can be some input that can benefit folks in these communities that other people are just driving by.”

Transit options

The current design allows for bus rapid transit lines with stops downtown, the North Shepherd Park and Ride and Greens Road with no stops in between. Alternatives include additional stops, a BRT line along the frontage road with more frequent stops and a proposal for a BRT line following Airline Drive instead of I-45.

The alternative designs also included transit centers at Greenspoint, North Main Street, Crosstimbers Street and Tidwell Road.

Lifelong Third Ward resident Wini Garrett said she came to the meeting hoping to see what transit options could be built into the plan.

“I’m a native Houstonian, and I am so tired of construction on I-45. It’s been all my life,” Garrett said. “Living near downtown, I don’t see some of the benefits of all this. I would rather the city focus on more mass transit and rapid rail than widening the freeways. I would rather them focus on getting people off of the roads.”

Connectivity

The planning department's proposals include options for increased connectivity between downtown and East End at Polk Street and between downtown and Fifth Ward at Runnels Avenue. Both neighborhoods lose highway exits in the TxDOT proposal.

East End resident Adzovi Fonville said her commute would be significantly more difficult if the current exit at Runnels Avenue is eliminated.

“The Runnels underpass is the thing that is closest to my actual route. I’m definitely encouraged by the alternative models that they presented and the city seems to be dedicated to not only getting feedback but clarifying what they’ve heard,” she said.

Another design from the city proposes combining the Union Pacific’s two sets of tracks in the First Ward and rerouting them so they do not disrupt Winter Street, Houston Avenue, San Jacinto Street or Lyons Avenue. This proposal would leverage state and federal funding allocated for the I-45 project but would likely require additional funding as well as coordination with Union Pacific, according to the planning department.

A full list of the city’s alternative design proposals will be available on the planning Department’s website by the end of day Jan. 31, city officials said.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.