The Texas Department of Transportation is planning to kick off construction in 2024 on a massive I-45 expansion project that runs from the northern stretch of Beltway 8 through Downtown Houston.

The project, with elements under construction as far out as 2038, would revamp the downtown road network while adding lanes to the city’s major north-south highway corridor.

While the $9.7 billion project has been touted by TxDOT as a way to improve safety and congestion and as an economic boon by business groups, it has drawn opposition from some community groups that have expressed concerns about environmental impacts and the relocation of people in the project's footprint.

Two-minute impact

TxDOT officials hosted public meetings on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project in December, inviting residents to learn more about its three segments.
  • Segment 1: a $907 million project along I-45 from Loop 610 to Beltway 8
  • Segment 2: a $1.6 billion project along I-45 from I-10 to Loop 610 and parts of Loop 610
  • Segment 3: a $5.7 billion project along I-45 from I-10 to I-69, along parts of I-10 and along some downtown roadways
The project involves adding four managed 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 parallel with I-69 on the east side of downtown, according to TxDOT information. Other elements include bicycle and pedestrian features along frontage roads and cross streets, and new trails parallel to bayous.

Speaking to members of Houston’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee in November, Grady Mapes, director of the TxDOT Houston District Comprehensive Development Agreements program, said construction will take place on Segment 3 first. In addition to rerouting portions of I-45, Segment 3 will entail straightening I-69 and widening it from eight lanes to 10 or 12 lanes in each direction as well as building a new downtown connector from I-45 to replace the Pierce Elevated, an elevated stretch of I-45 that cuts through the southern part of downtown.

TxDOT officials said they hope to start construction this fall on the first subproject, which involves drainage work along St. Emmanual Street in Downtown Houston from I-45 South to Buffalo Bayou, near the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Cap structures—bridges built over the highway at certain points that would be accessible to the public—are being planned at three locations, Mapes said. How those cap structures are developed will be left to other entities, but they could be turned into public gathering spaces with parklike amenities.

Most of the elements in the Inner Loop are fully funded, Mapes said, while projects outside of Loop 610 are unfunded. Approximately $5 billion of the project is currently funded, and roughly 80% of the funding comes from federal sources, TxDOT officials said..

The project will require the displacement of more than 1,400 homes and businesses, as well as places of worship, schools and medical care facilities. TxDOT has programs in place meant to assist people with the relocation process, and officials said residents will not be displaced until adequate replacement housing has been identified.

A closer look

Development of the I-45 expansion has been underway since 2002. TxDOT issued a record of decision on the project in early 2021, setting the stage for construction to begin.

However, opposition to the project grew over concerns that its negative effects—including displacement of homes, and noise and vehicle pollution at nearby communities—disproportionately affected communities of color.

Harris County filed a lawsuit to halt the project over its environmental impacts, and the Federal Highway Administration opened a Title VI investigation into the project in 2021.

In December 2022, TxDOT finalized a memorandum of understanding with Houston and Harris County on the project, and the county dropped its lawsuit in January. In March 2023, TxDOT signed a voluntary resolution agreement with the FHWA that allowed the project to proceed, laying out requirements TxDOT must follow.

Under the VRA, some requirements TxDOT must fulfill include:
  • Meeting monthly to discuss commitments in the agreement; host public meetings twice annually
  • Evaluating opportunities to reduce the project footprint
  • Coming up with a community access plan during construction to make sure people can still access essential services
  • Adding drainage to reduce flooding
  • Mitigating air quality, including the use of an active monitoring station installed at I-69 and Hwy. 288
  • Building structural highway caps, a kind of bridge built over a highway that can provide opportunities for park space and other amenities
The group Stop TxDOT I-45 formed in 2019 to advocate for changes to the project that members said would reduce harm to residents in its footprint—including environmental and flooding impacts—as well as advocating for more opportunities for community members to be involved in shaping the project.

The VRA has done little to alleviate concerns about the project, said Steph Valdez and Erin Eriksen, two organizers with Stop TxDOT I-45. As an example, Eriksen said the VRA instructs TxDOT to look for ways to reduce the project footprint, but leaves it up to the agency to make determinations about where it would be feasible based on other factors, such as safety, flooding mitigation, design standards, freight mobility and evacuation effectiveness. Because of the phrasing, she said she is skeptical of how much the footprint would actually be reduced.

In Segment 3, TxDOT officials said they identified right of way reductions in various locations, including:
  • the I-10 eastbound frontage road, main lanes, downtown connectors, and access control parcels
  • eliminating structure impacts and acquisition for several parcels
Results from analyses of segments 1 and 2 will be reported in future updates, officials said.

While going door-to-door in affected neighborhoods to tell people about the project, Valdez said Stop TxDOT volunteers encountered people who didn't realize they would need to relocate.

"What I’ve seen personally when I go door knocking in these neighborhoods is that a lot of people weren’t even aware, and what I’ve also noticed was consistent was that these people are Spanish speakers," she said.

In response to questions submitted by Community Impact, TxDOT Public Information Officer Danny Perez said every potentially impacted property owner has been informed as part of the environmental impact process and that TxDOT will continue to work on those efforts as it moves forward with the project.

Eriksen was among the attendees of the December public meetings who said she would like to see more details, including on footprint reduction efforts and flood control elements.

She also said she would like TxDOT to host more interactive town hall meetings, where attendees can ask questions in a communal forum. The Segment 3 December public meeting was overcrowded some attendees were not able to access the room, adding that it was difficult to hear presentations in the noisy room. A communal forum with a question-and-answer session would be more in line with what the VRA called for, she said.

Perez said TxDOT is open to feedback and would consider different meeting formats in the future.

"TxDOT has implemented an unprecedented effort to listen, be responsive and inclusive to delivering transportation solutions for this corridor that would prove to be least invasive, unifying and contemplative of building a project that will improve safety, operations, enhance quality of life, be a catalyst of economic development and promote livable and enjoyable places and spaces for all," he said.

What's next

Perez said the plan involves sending project 3B1, the drainage project along St. Emmanuel Street, out for construction bids in June, and work could begin in September or October.

In 2025, construction could begin on the next downtown subproject, which involves building depressed main lanes where I-69 travels to Hwy. 288, including new arch bridges and pedestrian areas.

Construction on Segment 2 is not slated to begin until 2028.