What began as a memorandum of understanding, a binding agreement between the group of regional leaders from the Houston-Galveston Area Council and TxDOT, was then reworked into a less formal resolution.
TxDOT officials told members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council Jan. 22 that the agency’s lawyers advised them not to sign off on the new resolution.
“We’ve done every single job the same way. I can’t change the rules,” said Eliza Paul, District Engineer for TxDOT's Houston District. “The document, whether its in a resolution or an MOU, is still the same document that contains the same elements that we have disagreements on.”
The $7 billion North Houston Highway Improvement project has solicited strong reactions from some Houston residents and elected officials for its proposal to reroute and expand the highway through East Downtown while abandoning its path through Midtown.
Advocacy groups such as Stop TxDOT I-45 and the Make I-45 Better Coalition argue the project will have disproportionately negative impacts on communities of color along its route. Theirs and other opposition to the proposal has spurred months of public input processes led by the city of Houston and the regional effort to form an MOU or resolution between HGAC, which funds portions of the project, and TxDOT.
Proponents of the project say it will alleviate congestion, flooding and safety issues on the over 50-year-old highway.
With some members expressing frustration, the council voted again to delay the agreement and return to the topic at their February meeting.
“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 Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County and a member of HGAC's transportation council. "At the very last moment this morning, after a lot of work from the committees, suddenly they can’t support the resolution either."
The process has received mixed response from community groups such as Air Alliance Houston, LINK Houston and Stop TxDOT I-45.
“The resolution is the same document that TxDOT refused to sign and that their lawyers gutted," said Susan Onstott Graham, founder of Stop TxDot I-45. "At this time it seems TxDOT is the only one with power in the room.”
TxDOT officials re-iterated the idea that the agency is willing to work with community groups and regional organizations to make changes but only after receiving a final Record of Decision from the state, initiating the project.
“If there should be a desire to change the nature of the process, we should follow the federally-defined process to make those changes and not attempt to do so through resolutions or MOUs,” said James Bass, executive director of TxDOT, in a written statement to the council.