Houston’s Disruptive History Of Highways, And What Transit Agencies Can Do Better

With the city’s North Houston Highway Improvement Project, the same communities affected by highway development in the 1960s will bear the brunt of the damage and disruption.

Aerial view showing two prominent features of Houston, Texas in 2014: a rampant development in the energy sector and multiple freeway ribbons of concrete. (Photo by Carol M. Highsmith / Carol M. Highsmith Archive, 2014, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

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This is an adapted excerpt from “Justice and the Interstates: The Racist Truth About Urban Highways,” edited by Ryan Reft, Amanda K. Phillips de Lucas, and Rebecca C. Retzlaff. This chapter called Right in the Way: Generations of Highway Impacts in Houston was written by Kyle Shelton, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies.

For decades, residents of Clayton Homes and Kelly Village, two of Houston’s largest public housing developments, saw the shape of their neighborhoods shift due to highway building. With every road widening, communities changed. Landscapes shifted. Routes to work and school were blocked. Homes and community institutions were displaced. Although the residents absorbed these impacts for generations, at no point have these Houstonians had the chance to meaningfully shape the highway projects that affect them.

Kelly Village was at the heart of Houston’s mostly African American Fifth Ward, just north of Buffalo Bayou from the Second Ward and future site of Clayton Homes, when its 300 units were built in the 1930s. When the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) built the US 59/I -10 interchange in the 1960s through the middle of the Fifth Ward, the eastern running arm of I-10 removed large swaths of buildings from the South and East sides of Kelly Village. The intersecting highways decimated the Fifth Ward, bisecting the community and removing more than 900 homes and businesses in the footprint of the interchange alone.

When Clayton Homes was built in the 1950s, its 300 units sat along Buffalo Bayou, just a stone’s throw to the east of Houston’s central business district and nestled alongside the mostly Hispanic Second Ward. Not more than a decade after opening, the Texas Department of Highways (now TxDOT) built US Highway 59, now I-69, on land adjacent to the community to the west. A highway bridge went soaring over the edge of Clayton Homes. The new roadway obscured the view of the city and hid the development from view.

Today, both the Fifth and Second wards face grave environmental risks associated with the highways and attendant industries alongside them. Moreover, each of these housing developments, and the broader communities where they sit, are facing the impacts of yet another highway project. TxDOT’s $10-billion North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP) would realign and widen three highways in the central business district and widen several sections of I-45 to the north and southeast of central Houston. If the project comes to fruition as planned, many of the same communities most directly affected by Houston’s highway development will again bear the brunt of the damage and disruption, including Clayton Homes and Kelly Village.

This story is repeated across the nation in highway-side communities, most of which are home to low-income and non-white residents. The highways set, in concrete, the course of decades of infrastructure development along with the same, ever-wider rights of way.

As was happening across the United States, the State of Texas built hundreds of miles of highways in Houston in the 1960s and 1970s. In each case, the state offered little opportunity for public engagement around the project plans. All of the construction aimed to capture the city’s burgeoning growth and tie its increasingly suburban population to the central city by easing commutes. Roadways divided dozens of neighborhoods into pieces, not just in the Fifth Ward and East End, where Clayton Homes and Kelly Village stand, but also in the historically African American Third Ward, the middle-class white neighborhood of Montrose, and the predominantly working-class, Latino neighborhood of Denver Harbor. Even if they took less of a physical toll overall, subsequent ring roads and spokes in the highway system sliced through predominantly white, first-generation suburban developments such as Memorial Bend. Over time, as these roads were expanded with widening and reconstruction projects, these same communities carried the burden of a region’s highway network.

Image of Fifth Ward Houston Highways, from the book Power Moves: Transportation, Politics and Development in Houston. (Photo by Kyle Shelton)

The NHHIP highlights how the historic failure to engage the public most affected by highway building in the conversation continues to this day. The project’s planning process started in the early 2000s, with major project documents and public input beginning in earnest in the early 2010s. In the intervening years, TxDOT collected thousands of public comments and reactions to the various iterations of the project, as required by federal law. Compared with generations of highway and infrastructure planning before the NHHIP, the level of input into the project was much higher because of federal requirements and public attention to the projects. However, although several smaller problems with the design were addressed by TxDOT, larger critical comments that would require significantly reshaping or redesigning the roadway to reduce impacts — such as limiting the disconnection of neighborhoods by maintaining through streets with bridges or investing in transit — remain unanswered.

When draft plan documents were released in the later stages of the planning process, there was major pushback from advocates and affected residents. In 2017, the Make I-45 Better Coalition, a group of neighborhood, cultural, and environmental organizations, wrote a letter to NHHIP responding to a released draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). In this document the coalition identifies multiple deficiencies in the plan, such as its disproportionate impact on low-income communities, its impact on parks and recreation areas, its impacts on water quality and flooding, and other concerns. The authors also called attention to disparities in design between high-income and low-income areas affected by the project. They wrote:

On the segment between 610 and Beltway 8, which includes the edge of the historic Acres Homes neighborhood, TxDOT proposes widening I-45. Unlike higher income areas of town, or even in the areas between I-10 and 610, TxDOT does not propose to build the highway below grade.

Although the full NHHIP project offers some elements that begin to address the disruptive history of Houston’s highways, the final form of those elements is either not settled (in the case of the teardown) or the funding is not guaranteed (in the case of the deck parks). There has been no change to the plan to widen I-45, resulting in the likely removal of at least 1,200 homes and 330 businesses along the way in northwest Houston, most of which is made up of people who are low-income and communities of color. A public conversation about the project’s costs and benefits for the region and for residents alongside the highway is ongoing.

In response to public pressure, both the City of Houston and Harris County called for a deeper look at changing the project design to lessen impacts. Houston’s Planning and Development Department ran a public input process separate from TxDOT’s in order to collect alternative ideas and provide input as a part of its comments for the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

The mayor of Houston penned multiple letters to TxDOT in the summer and winter of 2020, first laying out steps the city would like to see taken to address community-identified issues that emerged during the Planning and Development Department’s outreach. This engagement entailed nine public meetings and resulted in the submission of 1,130 written comments. The letters detail concerns that mirror those identified by the Make I-45 Better Coalition in 2017 in response to the DEIS. Flooding was a major concern after Tropical Storm Imelda in 2019, as was its footprint, impact on connectivity, and the relocation of displaced homeowners within their own communities and neighborhoods.

When little action toward addressing these concerns occurred, the mayor suggested that the city would not support the project without seeing major movement toward addressing identified issues around ongoing negative impacts from the highway. Throughout the finalization of the EIS, TxDOT argued that it would work with local officials to address displacement and neighborhood disruption but that those steps could be taken after the final record of decisions by altering the project to address key issues.

In spring 2021, responses from local advocates and elected officials made it clear that the actions taken by TxDOT in the drafting of the final EIS and in public response to critiques had not yet adequately responded to the public input processes. Harris County Commissioner’s Court sued TxDOT to stop the construction until input and environmental justice concerns were taken into deeper consideration. U.S. representative Sheila Jackson Lee and local advocacy groups also asked the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to examine whether the plan violates civil rights laws. Jackson Lee, whose central Harris County district contains most of the corridors affected by the proposed NHHIP, voiced her concerns about the project and its impacts on the constituents of her district, many of whom have witnessed multiple rounds of freeways disruption. In response, the FHWA ordered TxDOT to stop the process until its investigation concludes.

All of these steps are significant political statements demanding that TxDOT not just grapple with the impacts of their practices and designs but also confront the historical and generational inequities reinforced by the currently proposed plan. Although the FHWA investigation is ongoing as of April 2022, the complaint details how a “lack of investment has already left communities of color without resources like standard drainage infrastructure, access to fresh food, and economic development, and burdened with hazardous environmental uses that affect the health of families who live there.”

Despite this significant political pushback from both local and federal officials, the fight over the highway expansion continues, illustrating the durability of the infrastructure planning and construction pipeline. Once resources and planning have been dedicated to a project, changing direction is difficult. In response to the pushback, TxDOT created a final public engagement survey that offered respondents only two options about the NHHIP: either they support the plan as proposed or prefer no project whatsoever. Critics pointed out that this process ignored the City of Houston’s alternative recommendations for segment design that increase neighborhood connectivity, provide environmental benefits, and ensure equity for communities of color affected by the road and turned engagement to an all-or-nothing approach that would make more respondents likely to support the initial proposal.

City, county, and federal leaders have continued to discuss ways to ensure concerns are being addressed. In late 2021, Harris County paused its lawsuit in order to actively discuss options with TxDOT. The FHWA has given clearance for TxDOT to begin interchange work on one segment even as it continues its civil rights investigation. Advocates have filed their own lawsuit and continue to call on FHWA and USDOT to force change to address a “continuing pattern of destroying the health, safety, homes, and businesses of Black and Brown populations in Houston by building and expanding highways through their generational neighborhoods that constitutes discrimination based on race, color, and national origin.”

But there is pressure from suburban and exurban legislators to complete the project as planned. These representatives’ constituencies mostly view highways as a positive because they connect residents to major job centers and destinations throughout the metro area. Furthermore, because many suburban communities were developed alongside the highways, the roads did not cause the same sort of continued uprooting. Also, the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act increases pressure on TxDOT and other state DOTs to build projects and move through long-existing plans. A risk of this pressure, especially given the magnitude of the investment, is that projects will be greenlit without renewed due diligence and effective evaluation. This could lead to another generation of projects that deepen the negative impacts of infrastructure, largely on Black, Brown, and lower-income communities and fail to sustainably address mobility needs.

Nationally, and in Houston, we are at a critical point with our infrastructure decision making. Many of our largest highways are reaching a point where they need to be replaced or torn down. The choices cities, states, and the federal government make in the coming years can either exacerbate the negative impacts felt by highway-side residents or begin to center alternative approaches and transportation strategies that improve our collective mobility and address the wounds created by past decisions. In order to do this, though, public agencies, politicians, and residents will need to support ways to reevaluate and reconsider long planned projects. Because a project has been on the books for more than a decade doesn’t mean it can’t be reconsidered for fit with changing needs and goals or reexamined in response to public input asking for an alternative approach. This isn’t easy work. It takes years of planning to conceptualize and fund major projects, and changing course after such investment is difficult. But so too is forcing communities to absorb the costs and consequences of a project that does not serve their needs and that will last for the next 50 years.

In recent decades, public agencies have made great strides in collecting the opinions of diverse residents about infrastructure projects. The challenge of this next generation of projects will be to not simply collect those opinions but to incorporate them into the designs so communities will see their needs reflected in the streets that run by their homes and through their lives.

Copyright © 2023 by the authors. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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Kyle Shelton is the director of the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies. In this role, he oversees all Center operations, research, education, and partnerships.  Shelton has led research and policy work in transportation, urban development, and housing. Shelton has a PhD in American urban history from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston (2017). His own research interests orbit around the intersections of the human, built, and natural environments.

Shelton has written and spoken widely about transportation and development policy. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Bloomberg’s CityLab, the Los Angeles TimesThe Avenue (Brookings Institution), and the Eno Transportation Weekly.

Prior to joining the University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies, Shelton was the Deputy Director at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. There he led several research programs and oversaw external partnerships as well as overseeing overall Institute strategy.

Tags: highwayshoustondisplacement

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