Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: The New Age of Freeway Revolts

When it comes to the 180,100 lane-miles of paved interstate that ribbon Texas, bigger has always meant better. The North Houston Highway Improvement Project is no exception: It proposes to add 24 miles of freeway along I-45 as well as I-10 and I-610, which encircles downtown Houston, and pack on several additional lanes in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

With this rebuild, the Texas Department of Transportation is making a very familiar promise: These road improvements will ease congestion and shorten commute times. And, like so many gigantic urban highway projects of the past, I-45’s widening will also exact a toll. The construction will take out thousands of residential and commercial structures, thicken air pollution in an already smog-choked corridor, and tear up historic African-American communities. The estimated cost: $7 billion. After 15 years in the making, a final record of decision by TxDOT to break ground is expected this spring.

But Houston voices critical of the I-45 project have been growing louder in recent months. That’s because plans for the cement circus are coalescing at the very moment that this 640-square-mile city is taking a hard look in the mirror. The floods of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 remain fresh in local memory, while the decline of the oil and gas industry — and the starring role that sector plays in the climate change that imperils this region —  is forcing leaders to reexamine bedrock assumptions about how the city works.

“We can’t keep making decisions like this and just saying, ‘This is how it’s done,’” said Letitia Plummer, a city council member who was voted into office late last year, aided by the power of her anti-road widening rhetoric. “That can’t be the answer anymore. The people of Houston deserve more.”

The efforts of Plummer and many others are starting to pay off: In response to concerns, the Houston mayor’s office is preparing an alternative plan for the I-45 rebuild that shrinks down TxDOT’s massive road-widening ambitions.

But freeway fighters have their work cut out for them, and not only in Houston. Portland — a city with a far more environmentally friendly reputation — is also struggling to square its progressive climate goals with the state’s plans to overhaul an urban interstate. These battles reveal the powerful momentum of the road-widening machine, and the disconnect between cities and states when it comes to transportation policy.

Can America’s highway-industrial complex be dismantled — and is it too late for the fast-growing cities in its path?

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Countless American cities are crisscrossed by interstates, thanks to the major infrastructure-securitization project that was President Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act. In the 1950s and ‘60s, highways plowed through urban centers, streamlining access from far-flung locales while simultaneously razing communities and garroting downtowns. As suburban populations boomed in the decades that followed, engineers kept adding road space to accommodate the commuting masses, promising to ease congestion.

Few cities have been as betrayed by those assurances as Houston, famously ringed by loops of high-speed beltways. It routinely tops the charts for traffic delays and is the ninth-worst U.S. city for ozone pollution, according to the American Lung Association. There are few more dangerous U.S. cities for people to walk or bike. New roads have made delays worse: The $2.5 billion Katy Freeway was completed in 2011 despite protests from transportation wonks that expanding the eight-lane road to a whopping 23 lanes would only encourage more car trips, rather than ease backups. What happened next is now a textbook case in the phenomenon of “induced demand”: Travel times increased during the morning and evening commutes, according to several analyses. (The progressive think tank Transportation for America dubs this phenomenon “The Congestion Con” in a new report analyzing how road-building has led to longer travel times nationwide.)

Meanwhile, the sprawling urban development that these expansive highways have made possible in recent decades has paved over hundreds of square miles in the once-absorbent Katy Prairie, exacerbating Houston’s famous floods.

“If you have a denser, more compact city, your impervious area will be smaller. People understand that better in the wake of Hurricane Harvey,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and founder of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. He and his wife made national headlines for taking in Harvey evacuees in 2017. “So if we have this existential challenge to the city, we have to think about what kind of city we are designing with our roads.”

A union of neighborhood advocates, policy shops, and environmental justice groups, Make I-45 Better advocates for tweaking the highway rebuild, with changes to ramp alignment, dedicated trails for walking and biking, and broader flood mitigation. It also calls for more mass transit options across the Houston area.

Dozens of coalition members showed up to voice concerns at a meeting by the transportation commission of the Houston-Galveston Area Council last July. Other voices have taken a more hardline stance on highway opposition: At the HGAC meeting, council member Dwight Boykins suggested that TxDOT start over after its engineers have toured the historic African American neighborhoods set to be crushed by the current plan. Still, commissioners voted to chip in $100 million to fund the I-45 project. This month, a second vote by the HGAC is scheduled to decide on another batch of funding.

Just a portion of the massive freeway rebuild TxDOT proposes to undertake through downtown Houston. (City of Houston)

Now that she’s on city council, Plummer is working to stop the project, period. The freeway expansion goes against everything that the city ought to be standing for, she says. The fact that Amazon didn’t consider Houston as a location for its second headquarters in its 2018 campaign was widely seen as wake-up call to city leaders. To attract younger generations to Houston, the city must transform itself into a place that’s friendlier to people who walk, bike and take transit, Plummer said. Now she is organizing church leaders to make a last-minute stand against the I-45 widening.

“It’s got to be a literal arm-to-arm, ‘you’re not doing this,’ kind of thing,” she said. “This is the moment in Houston’s history where the decisions we make now will affect every single thing we do for the next three to five generations.”

The discord over the project has put Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a tricky spot. Turner has tried to be a champion of sustainable transportation: He has often talked about the need for Houston to diversify its mobility options, and recently hired the city’s first-ever transportation planner. He signed the city onto its first climate action plan, and has led the expansion a network of bayou walking trails. The I-45 expansion plan would appear to undermine such accomplishments. Yet Turner has defended TxDOT for listening to Houstonians’ feedback, and has said the project can be good for the city by improving mobility along the route.

But the grassroots opposition that’s been brewing in the past few years has pushed the mayor to shift his stance in a way one might not have expected in the fossil-fuel capital of the world. Last fall, in response to the rising cacophony of dissenters, Turner took the unprecedented step of having the city conduct a new consultation process, separate from TxDOT’s existing, multi-year citizen engagement. Through community workshops, public forums, and an online survey that closed in late February, the city gathered feedback to possible features that the plan could incorporate, such as high-occupancy vehicle lanes, a bus-rapid-transit station, and comprehensive housing assistance.

Next month, the city will submit an alternative design of the freeway rebuild for TxDOT’s consideration. City council member David Robinson, who sits on the HGAC transportation commission, has worked closely with Mayor Turner on the city’s strategy, and said that Houston will propose several transit-friendly changes that citizens supported in the consultation process. He also hinted that the city will push to keep the highway at its current width. “TxDOT’s projections are suggesting we have to expand the footprint,” said Robinson. “We want to question that presumption.”

If TxDOT doesn’t implement the city’s proposals, Houston may put up a bigger fight. “We will, without hesitation, not support the funding decision in the spring if these items are not accomplished,” Mayor Turner wrote in a letter to TxDOT last summer.

Kyle Shelton, the deputy director at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the author of a recent book about Houston’s historic freeway battles, says that the level of deliberation and dialogue happening between the city and TxDOT is unprecedented. “This is the most engagement that the state has ever done,” he said.

Even if this project moves forward, the debate about the project has created new awareness about the consequences of freeway expansions and a sense of urgency for alternatives, he added. And if TxDOT concedes to whatever the city of Houston proposes, it could have major repercussions for future build-outs across the state. For example, TxDOT is also proposing to add two lanes in each direction of I-35 through Austin and to lower the freeway for $4 billion. Opponents of that plan could have sturdier ground to stand on depending on what happens in Houston.

“If there are big changes that make it into the I-45 plan, that’s a huge change that TxDOT is making,” Shelton said. “What will that mean for the next project, and how we bring in communities to this process in the future?”

There is some evidence that the Texas highway machine could be slowing. Shelton points out that TxDOT added its first-ever budget line for Vision Zero safety projects last year. And in January, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared that the state may be experiencing its “last major build-out of roads.” “The bottom line is this,” he said in a speech. “The way people get around, the way people live is going to change.”

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But when? Science warns that cities don’t have time on their side. In the U.S., transportation is the leading emitter of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases. To avoid the very worst effects of climate changeso manifest in biblical rainfall events like Harvey — society has to reverse those emissions faster than many Americans are likely to find comfortable. Yet overcoming the decades of highway-making inertia is going to be tough, not least because it means messing with a bedrock piece of American identity. Wide, fast roads are tightly intertwined with notions of economic progress and modernity, especially for Americans who don’t live in urban centers.

Texas, which boasts the largest highway system in America, is an embodiment of those ideals, thanks to lobbying groups like the Texas Good Roads Association. Founded in 1903, when about 80% of the state’s population was rural, the TGRA promoted the wealth-building virtues of automotive connectivity for farmers and ranchers, and for city dwellers to access the countryside. It was the TGRA that helped Texas establish a highway department in the first place, and that successfully lobbied to enshrine road funding from gas tax revenues in the state constitution — meaning that the agency now known as TxDOT never has to defend its budget to lawmakers. Its funding formulas still distribute money in a way that favors rural counties over urban ones.

A builder uses a “scraper” to improve a road somewhere in the U.S. between 1910-1915. (Library of Congress)

TGRA lobbyists also helped convince lawmakers and citizens that Texas’ public interests and economic progress were bound together in ribbons of asphalt. “Highways are derived from vision, and vision is rooted in the people,” Governor John Connally proclaimed in honor of Highway Week 1964.

However, private interests were always at the center of this paradigm. Though TGRA leadership tended to come from the upper echelons of civic life, financial backing came from oil and gas companies, auto dealers, cement and asphalt distributors, labor groups, and many other types of business that depended on the Texas government to subsidize roads, as Texas continues to do today. Last year, the state budgeted $28 billion for the development, delivery and maintenance of highway projects for 2020 and 2021; $9 billion was set for new construction. That’s despite the fact that Texas is now home to several of the nations’ largest cities, the sorts of places that, many progressive transportation policymakers argue, highways simply don’t belong.

The Presidential Invitation Committee of the U.S. Good Roads & Bankhead Highway Associations asks President Calvin Coolidge to visit Houston, Texas, in 1924. (Library of Congress)

But even cities known for leaning towards sustainable mobility still struggle to break the highway habit, which is of course a national phenomenon. In the Pacific Northwest, Portlanders are also anticipating a consequential highway vote. Later this month, the Oregon Transportation Commission will decide whether to carefully study a $750 million plan to widen a 1.7-mile section of I-5 east of downtown Portland. The Oregon Department of Transportation has promised that the Rose Quarter project (as this one is known) will relieve a bad bottleneck along an important freight corridor. As in Houston, it also stands to damage a historically black community already scarred by the original freeway. By adding capacity for vehicles, environmentalists also argue the road widening will only induce more demand for driving, and hence more emissions.

With its tight urban growth boundary, Portland is known for its relatively walkable and bike-friendly downtown, and its streetcar system is one of the best in North America. Mayor Ted Wheeler and other local leaders initially championed the ODOT project because its design included a bike and pedestrian bridge, a cap park, and key safety improvements. “If somebody came to me and said, ‘Ted, do you want to spend half a billion on a freeway expansion?,’ I say, ‘No and hell no,’” Wheeler said at a 2017 city council hearing. “But that’s not what this is.” Governor Kate Brown was also a vocal backer of the plan — at least at that point.   

But now, as more attention has been drawn to the project’s social and environmental impacts, Wheeler, Brown, and others have taken a step back. City councillors and county commissioners have harshly criticized ODOT for what they say is a hasty environmental review process that has not fully considered the harm that surrounding neighborhoods will suffer. Under pressure, Wheeler co-signed a letter in December urging ODOT to “heal the wound” that I-5 originally cut through the historically African-American community of Albina. That month, youth climate activists from the Sunrise Movement rallied outside the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Northwest Portland headquarters, calling on the agency to conduct a full environmental analysis on the project, a decision its commissioners were originally set to make that month.

Soon after, Brown called to delay that vote and allow more time to review the situation. “We cannot build our way out of congestion by inducing greater demand on the system,” the governor wrote in a letter to the commission. Still, she also called the project a “vital infrastructure improvement to a transportation corridor that is of statewide significance.”

Players in Houston’s freeway fight said that they were surprised to hear that the Oregon city is struggling with the same problems. “You’d think in Portland they’d be over it,” Skelly said. It goes to show how deep the divisions run between states and cities across the U.S. when it comes to transportation. “Portland has earned a reputation for getting out of the old framing of highways and vehicle traffic, but it’s still surrounded by suburbs and a state government primarily interested in drivers,” said Peter Norton, an urban historian at the University of Virginia. “As progressive as Portland is, it will still be drowned out by the surrounding population.”

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Still, it’s awfully hard for a sitting local politician to turn down billions in highway funding, even when they don’t love the highway itself. Houston city councillor Robinson explains that his town would be remiss to refuse TxDOT’s dollars to fix unsafe elements of I-45, even though he knows that global warming is an “existential threat” and believes Houston must wean itself from burning the fossil fuels that accelerate it. A slow, phased-in approach is the only one that he thinks is politically feasible. Calling on TxDOT to cancel the whole project or tear down the old highway could cause a political backlash in a city so yoked to its F-150s.

“We have to convince people that what we’re doing is the right thing, and that’s not going to happen overnight,” Robinson said. “Frankly, for Texans, it’s fighting words to say we’re trying to get you out of your car. We have to be careful about that.”

Whether or not these projects are halted or significantly altered, what’s happening in Houston and Portland may be a hopeful sign for freeway resisters everywhere. In both cities, opposition groups are uniting from across the worlds of social justice, environmentalism and urbanism around a shared desire for a future where freedom of movement is no longer tied to high-speed roads. “This seems to be a wider spectrum of people than we’ve seen in a while,” Norton said. “I think that’s cause for optimism.”

Perhaps more remarkably, these voices have already managed to rub some sand in the gears of the highway-industrial complex, at least by a little. Next month, we’ll know by how much more.