A controversial project to widen I-45 between Beltway 8 and downtown Houston took a major step forward March 7 when the Federal Highway Administration announced it had reached a voluntary agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation on how to move forward.

The FHWA has been investigating the project, known officially as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, since 2021 for alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act. The project—expected to displace more than 1,000 residential units, 344 businesses, five places of worship and two schools—has raised concerns that it unfairly harms communities of color, which are overrepresented in the areas that would have to be razed to make room for the expanded highway.

With the voluntary agreement in place, the investigation has ended, and TxDOT has been given permission to move forward with the design and construction of the project.

“This agreement moves forward an important project, responds to community concerns, and improves the North Houston Highway Improvement Project in ways that will make a real difference in people's lives. Through this agreement the community will have a greater voice in the design and throughout the project's life cycle,” FHWA Administrator Shailen Bhatt said in a statement. “We have lifted the pause, and with FHWA oversight, TxDOT may proceed with design and construction.”

With an estimated cost of $9 billion, the NHHIP has been under development by TxDOT since 2002. It 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, such as detention ponds and pump stations. It also would bring the highway up to federal safety standards, according to TxDOT.

Terms of the agreement

The voluntary agreement provides “enforceable timelines that will be monitored by the FHWA” related to design, construction, stakeholder engagement, affordable housing initiatives, right of way acquisition and flood mitigation, according to a March 7 news release from TxDOT.

Regarding the reduction of the project footprint, the voluntary agreement does not provide specifics, instead calling on TxDOT to evaluate "reasonable opportunities to reduce the project footprint in ways that would not compromise the integrity and functionality of the purpose and need of the project.”

During the final design of each segment, TxDOT must evaluate any changes from its previous plan that reduce the amount of right of way needed and displacements required, especially related to multifamily developments.

As part of the agreement, TxDOT has 90 days to complete a survey of all nonresidential businesses and organizations displaced by the project to make sure they receive relocation services.

The agreement also lays out requirements for two specific affordable housing projects managed by the Houston Housing Authority that will be demolished: Clayton Homes and Kelly Village. TxDOT has already acquired all unoccupied Clayton Homes units, and the agreement gives the agency permission to move forward with the relocation of the community's remaining residents.

In addition to relocation compensation, TxDOT is also required to provide $30 million to support affordable housing initiatives in neighborhoods most affected by the NHHIP, up from $27 million in a previous agreement. TxDOT will coordinate with the HHA on creating a process for how the public can weigh in on how those funds should be used.

With regard to multimodal transportation opportunities, the agreement requires TxDOT to provide resources to help third parties develop a map of potential new trail links within the project boundaries. It also requires TxDOT to:
  • reconnect Andrew Street over proposed downtown connectors in the Fourth Ward on the west side of downtown as a pedestrian-/bike-only crossing;
  • maintain the Cleburne Street connection across I-69 in the Third Ward;
  • evaluate potential alternative pedestrian/bike routes to address the loss of the North Street bridge over I-45 between the Greater Heights and Northside communities; and
  • fund, design and construct a pedestrian/bike realm on all local streets that cross over or under the NHHIP.

Community reactions

Officials with Stop TxDOT I-45—a grassroots group that is part of a larger coalition fighting against the current iteration of the project alongside other groups such as LINK Houston and Air Alliance Houston—said the new agreement is still harmful to the Houston communities in the project's pathway.

Stop TxDOT I-45 has been critical of how the state agency has carried out the NHHIP up to this point, including what they said is the use of misleading traffic models to justify the project; the use of online-only surveys that did not adequately reach affected communities and provided an artificially limited list of choices for how to proceed; and trying to move forward with a demolition of an affordable housing project while the federal investigation was still ongoing.

Stop TxDOT I-45 officials have emphasized they are not opposed to improving I-45 but think it should be done in a way that better takes affected communities into account and moves away from highway expansion and toward more equitable solutions. In a March 7 statement, officials expressed concerns about the extent to which the FHWA would enforce the terms of the new voluntary agreement.

“We will continue to support the minimal community engagement efforts required by this voluntary agreement, but community engagement without enforced follow-through is effectively meaningless,” Stop TxDOT I-45 officials said in a statement. “Houston deserves a project that prioritizes safety, centers the lived experience of those most impacted by the project, actually relieves traffic, and moves us toward a more equitable future.”

TxDOT also faced opposition from elected officials in Houston and Harris County, including a 2021 lawsuit from Harris County that alleged TxDOT failed to consider the full environmental impact of the project. However, city and county officials reached a memorandum of understanding with TxDOT in December, and the lawsuit was dropped.

In a March 7 statement, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the new voluntary agreement reinforces the city's memorandum. The city is prepared to work with TxDOT on restarting the community engagement process, he said, with the goal of executing a project that addresses flooding issues, improves air quality and helps reconnect parts of downtown by rerouting where I-45 runs.

“After years of negotiations, the North Houston Highway Improvement Project can now be the project Houston deserves it to be,” Turner said.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, a former critic of the project, also came out in support of the March 7 agreement, which he said requires TxDOT to put additional money into housing, parks and trails.

“Thanks to the support of FHWA, we have a better and safer I-45 project, which is almost entirely in Precinct 2, which means thousands of good jobs and brings billions of our taxpayer dollars back home,” Garcia said in a statement. “It allows Harris County to continue to fuel the Texas and national economy.”

Construction on the NHHIP is now expected to begin in 2027.