Interstate 45 approaching Houston downtown business district

What Houston Could Lose Because of Harris County’s Anti-NHHIP (IH-45) Lawsuit

This week we have a guest post from Oscar Slotboom making a very compelling case for a long list of benefits from the I45N redevelopment project as well as the risks of cancellation or delay – a list which seems to be getting lost in all the controversy.

Despite the support of the HGAC Transportation Policy Council, Harris County recently filed a lawsuit to block the IH-45 North Houston Highway Improvement project. Let’s review the extensive and transformative benefits the NNHIP will provide for Houston, starting at the south end and proceeding northward.

The NHHIP will:

  • Remove nearly a mile of elevated IH-69 freeway through Midtown and sink the freeway below ground level. This will be especially beneficial to the new innovation district hub and the Ion, which is adjacent to the freeway.
  • Provide relief for the chronic congestion on northbound IH-69 at Spur 527
  • Remove existing elevated ramps connecting into Chenevert Street
  • Add new long-span arched bridges at Elgin, Tuam and McGowen, providing an attractive architectural enhancement to the area
  • Retire the Pierce Elevated, providing the opportunity for redevelopment or creating one of the most distinctive urban parks in the country, Houston’s version of NYC’s High Line.
  • Provide relief for the chronic back-ups which occur for traffic connecting to the northbound Pierce Elevated
  • Remove a mile of elevated freeway through east downtown, sinking the freeway below ground level
  • Provide the opportunity for new parks over the freeway, seamlessly connecting to Eado with the potential to transform the area similar to Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park
  • Provide all displaced residents of Clayton Homes the opportunity to relocate to public housing in the immediate area, or to receive vouchers
  • Relocate IH-10 so it no longer goes through the middle of UH-Downtown
  • Provide the opportunity to consolidate east-west railroads on the north side of downtown, removing the railroad from the UH-Downtown campus and improving development opportunities for the proposed North Canal project.
  • Reduce the footprint of freeways on the west side of downtown and at West Dallas, opening up more space for parkland and recreation. Plans include a new pedestrian crossing at Andrews Street.
  • Apply high-quality architectural standards to all the freeway structures, far better than the utilitarian and unattractive existing concrete structures from the 1950s, 60s and 70s
  • Improve pedestrian and bicycle accommodations at all freeway crossings
  • At IH-45 and North Main, add a deck over the freeway, which substantially improves the situation as compared to the existing design
  • Reduce the risk of flooding on the flood-prone section at North Main by applying modern flood control design standards
  • Provide four managed lanes on IH-45 north of downtown to Beltway 8, which will be an important part of a future interconnected managed lanes network for Houston to promote public transit, carpooling and technologies of the future. The managed lanes will provide the opportunity for two-way high-speed bus service to Bush Airport.
  • Modernize the antiquated interchange at I-45 and Loop 610, which has seen only minimal improvements since its opening in 1962. These improvements will provide relief for the chronic backups on eastbound Loop 610 approaching the interchange.
  • Provide the opportunity for new architectural enhancements and landscaping along the freeway from Loop 610 to Beltway 8, which is currently one of Houston’s most unattractive freeways and unfortunately the first impression of Houston for many visitors arriving at Bush Airport.
  • Remove 58 billboards, with most along the North Freeway (reference FEIS page ES-19)
  • Between Loop 610 and Beltway 8, bring the frontage roads up to modern standards to facilitate safe and convenient access to businesses along the freeway.
  • Improve job access for the segment 1 workforce (from Loop 610 to Beltway 8).

The City of Houston request, which is supported by Harris County, aims to make traffic congestion worse and force people into public transit that goes downtown. But when you think about it, this is entirely wrong for the corridor workforce. This workforce is generally not going to find a match for its job skills downtown. This workforce is far more likely to find a match for its skills at employment locations like Bush Airport, warehouses, industrial facilities, medical offices, factories and construction sites.The Hispanic workforce in particular is heavily represented in the trades, construction and landscape. This workforce goes to on-site work locations and is more heavily dependent on highways than other sectors of the workforce. Making traffic worse will impart disproportionately large cost and inconvenience to this workforce.

  • Provide congestion relief throughout the corridor. The NHHIP will improve freeway sections which currently are ranked among the most congested in Texas, with the following rankings: #3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17. Nine of the 17 worst congested freeways in Texas will be improved by this project, which is an amazing and remarkable amount of congestion relief for a single project.

Congested freeways

As this list shows, this is not just a mobility project, but also a transformative urban improvement project for Houston. TxDOT is spending $7 billion including $5 billion in the downtown area to achieve these improvements for Houston. The FEIS plan was forged over 10 years, and like any complex plan it is a compromise plan, with elements for both sides to like and dislike. As with any compromise plan, you don’t come back at the end and say “Oh, I want to keep the parts I like and get rid of the parts I don’t like.” That’s not how a compromise works.

With the lawsuit, there are numerous scenarios in which the currently committed funding of $5.05 billion could be lost:

  • Due to delays or insufficient local support, TxDOT could rescind the funding and reallocate it to other projects statewide.
  • The court could require a redo of the environmental process, which would take years and also wipe out existing plans. There’s no assurance TxDOT will be willing to fund the Pierce removal and below-grade Eado freeway if the process restarts from scratch. When the West Loop expansion was canceled in 1992, the revised plan was a basic, low-cost plan. We know how that turned out, with the West Loop perennially among the top two most congested freeways in Texas, and usually #1 most congested.
  • Long delays could cause inflationary cost increases in the billions. Construction costs are down about 10% due to Covid, but as the recovery progresses we could see a severe inflationary surge similar to the increase seen after the Great Recession. In the five year period from 2011 to 2016, construction costs increased 60%, which would increase the project cost around $4 billion to $11 billion. (source)

Read the rest of this piece at Houston Strategies.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. He is also an editor of the Houston Strategies blog.

Photo credit: Famartin via Wikimedia under CC 4.0 License.