Highways

Biden Administration Deploys the Civil Rights Act To Stop a $7 Billion Highway Project in Houston

The Federal Highway Administration is asking Texas officials to hit pause on a massive highway widening project while it examines whether it violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

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President Joe Biden has grand visions for infrastructure projects, judging by his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. Nevertheless, his administration is pumping the brakes on one particular infrastructure project, and it's using the Civil Rights Act to do it.

Last week, Politico reported that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sent a letter to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) requesting that it pause contract solicitation on its North Houston Highway Improvement Project to give the agency time to evaluate complaints that the project violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The $7 billion Houston project—funded with a mix of state and federal dollars—would reroute I-45 near the city's downtown, add four managed express lanes to the highway, raise bridges, improve drainage to prevent flooding, and add bike lanes and pedestrian sidewalks at a number of cross streets.

In order to add those express lanes, however, TxDOT is planning to widen the highway by as much as 220 feet in some places. The road's expanded footprint will result in the displacement of about 600 private homes, 486 units of public or low-income housing, 344 businesses, five churches, and two schools, according to a TxDOT report.

That displacement, and the fact that it would be concentrated in largely minority neighborhoods, has provoked criticism from local activists who argue the project doubles down on the discriminatory effects of past highway construction.

"The direct effect of construction of these freeways has been to condemn and destroy Houston's principal Black-owned business district, homes and religious institutions located in what is now the right-of-way of these two highways," wrote Zoe Middleton and Christina Rosales of Texas Housers, an affordable housing group, in a January letter.

Any decision to move forward with the highway project "will pave the way to expand and make worse the harms TxDOT has inflicted on Black Houstonians" and thus violates Title IV of the Civil Rights Act, they write.

Neither that letter nor similar communications from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D–Texas) and Air Alliance, a Houston environmental group, swayed TxDOT. In February, the agency issued a record of decision which finalized the environmental review process and announced the specific form that the project would take.

Normally the environmental review process, Politico notes, would be done by federal bureaucrats. Texas, however, is an "assignment state" which means its own officials are empowered to perform the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Other states that have this power include Alaska, California, Florida, Ohio, and Utah.

NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the impact of their actions on the environment—whether that's funding a new road or issuing a permit for a new coal mine—by preparing lengthy environmental reports.

The law is famous for raising the cost and completion time of infrastructure projects by allowing project critics to sue over environmental reviews they think aren't thorough enough. To avoid litigation, in turn, bureaucrats have taken to writing longer and longer environmental reviews that cover every conceivable objection project opponents might have.

"Today the average [Environmental Impact Statement] runs more than 600 pages, plus appendices that typically exceed 1,000 pages. The average EIS now takes 4.5 years to complete; between 2010 and 2017, four such statements were completed after delays of 17 years or more," wrote the Niskanen Center's Samuel Hammond and Brink Lindsey in 2020 report. "And remember, no ground can be broken on a project until the EIS has made it through the legal gauntlet."

Texas officials report that they've been able to shave a year off the average "environmental assessment"—a less onerous form of NEPA review than an Environmental Impact Statement—by bypassing the FHWA's process and doing NEPA reviews themselves, according to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office.

But being an assignment state isn't a silver bullet for getting infrastructure projects built. Despite TxDOT spending close to 10 years preparing the environmental impact statement for its Houston project, it's managed to get hit with a NEPA lawsuit from Harris County (which contains Houston) in March.

While it's not immunized from all environmental lawsuits, Texas' status as an assignment state does deprive federal bureaucrats of the ability to slow down a project at their own initiative using NEPA. Enter FHWA's novel use of the Civil Rights Act to hit pause on Houston's highway project.

This raises an interesting bit of tension between the president's goals of going on a once-in-a-generation building spree and furthering "equity" with transportation spending.

"The Biden administration wants to build a lot of infrastructure," including lots of rail and transit, says Baruch Feigenbaum, senior managing director of transportation policy at the nonprofit Reason Foundation, which publishes this website. "Those projects can have the same sorts of challenges in terms of needing to acquire land, going through sensitive areas. The administration has to be careful here; it opens itself to being hypocritical in terms of the mode. Two, they could derail projects they want."

Biden's recently unveiled American Jobs Plan allocates roughly $600 billion to transportation spending, including $115 billion for roads and bridges, $85 billion for transit, and another $80 billion for Amtrak.

Houston's highway project is generally a good one, says Feigenbaum. The fast-growing, auto-oriented city needs more space to accommodate an increasing number of drivers.

Doing this with managed express lanes, which will toll drivers in order to offer guaranteed travel times, will lessen the "induced demand" effect—whereby extra highway space merely induces more driving, leaving congestion unchanged—by requiring drivers to pay a price for speedier travel, he says.

Activists' complaints about the displacement of homes and businesses aren't without merit, Feigenbaum says, but he also adds that they haven't proposed real solutions.

TxDOT says much the same thing in its final Environmental Impact Statement. "While minority and low-income individuals and community facilities in the project area would be adversely impacted by the proposed project, no Reasonable Alternatives would avoid adverse impacts," it reads.

Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute, is less enthusiastic about the prospects of Houston's highway widening.

"The first step should be how can you efficiently use the highway you already have. If there is a way to convert existing lanes to express lanes should be the first step. What [TxDOT is] deciding to do is even more radical than that," he says. "They're saying we're going to add express lanes and not ration anything else that we have."

Having completed the environmental review process, Texas can now start trying to acquire the land it'll need. That could see the agency use a mix of eminent domain and voluntary purchases. It's pledged $27 million for affordable housing initiatives in neighborhoods affected by the project, in addition to whatever it will have to spend on land acquisition, owner compensation, and relocation costs.

Hendrix says that facilitating the movement of cars needs to be balanced against the community and health impacts of expanding highway capacity in urban areas. Nevertheless, he expresses concern that the Biden administration's use of the Civil Rights Act to slow down Houston's highway widening creates a dangerous precedent that could lead to more NIMBYism, whereby people reflexively oppose any development near their communities.

"This highway widening already went through the environmental review process and got the signoff. As we see in every infrastructure project across America, public or private, environmental review can and often is weaponized to stop new development," he says. "What I fear is that we are opening a new front where civil rights law is being used with the same logic as environmental NIMBYism."

Just todayCityLab published a rundown of the numerous activists firing off reams of letters to the U.S. Department of Transportation asking that they look into the civil rights implications of infrastructure projects in their own back yards.

TxDOT told Politico that it is currently reviewing FHWA's request, and is still figuring out what it will mean for their ability to ink contracts and move forward with their Houston project.

NEXT: Biden Administration Retracts Claim That $2.25 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Would Create 19 Million Jobs

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  1. Aren’t we all in this together?

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  2. What happened to needing infrastructure spending?

    1. Clearly this project was insufficiently behind schedule nor over budget enough so they decided to see if it was gerrymandering by eminent domain, construction, or something. At least that’s the way it sounds to me.

      1. I suggest perhaps you are tone deaf if that’s what it sounds like to you.
        It’s almost as if poor people matter so little to the corrupt Republicans (whoops-a-daisy: redundancy!) who control Texas that their right to petition the government was dismissed with a sassy, “If you won’t tell us where YOU want this megabucks expansion to go, why’d you waste our time?”
        I suggest as close to Ted Cruz’s mansion as possible.
        And we all know if the plans would dare cast even a shadow on Lakewood Church, we’d be hearing shouts of “Religious liberty! Religious liberty!” ad nauseam till someone assured The Religious White that, of course, they have nothing to worry about.
        I am relieved, now that “our long national nightmare is over,” to have a president and secretary of transportation who know “justice for all” goes far beyond WHITE people at a political rally wearing T-shirts that say “Hell, yeah, I’m Black and I like Trump”!

        1. I guess time will tell whether you’re a self-aware parody account or one of the unwitting ones like Tony.

          1. Clearly he’s true blue and thus believes the $27 million for affordable housing plus relocation costs is only enough for two or three families.

        2. And Houston is a far left controlled city. So once again it is the Democrats who are at the bottom of this. Not Republicans. Not in Houston.

          1. The Dems love taking the homes of the lower class for projects.

            Or is it just projects that create taxpaying businesses?

        3. Needs more rage. Try hitting “caps lock”.

        4. I would really love to hear the response of those poor people that were already planning how to spend the money they were getting for their properties and businesses that Democrats just denied them. In five years their properties will have lost even more value. I am sure the renters in those areas that would have been offered housing in a less dangerous area with actual real schools for their children and less danger of being shot every night are thrilled to be stuck in their glorious slum. It is cute to suggest solutions about Sen. Cruz’s mansion and Lakewood Church but even the most ignorant lefty should at least know the highway they are discussing here is not close to either. Keeping Democrat voters on the plantation is a priority and keeping them dependent allowing no escape to where there may be jobs and grocery stores is unacceptable. Once more Biden and the left have put more pressure on the neck of the poor in Houston with a knee that makes Chauvin look like an amateur.
          While your nightmare may be over the Hispanic children being trafficked and used at the border and the BIPOC living in inner city squalor is just beginning. No more opportunity zones to create jobs and allow them to escape the Democrat plantation.

    2. It’s not the right “kind” of infrastructure.

  3. Changing existing lanes into express lanes isn’t a reasonable solution. That imposes a large burden of traffic problems for the majority for miniscule benefits to a minority (without extra lanes being added overall, the express lanes are just a less bad firm of traffic).

    1. It always amuses me when we pay taxes for roads, then are charged again to use them after they’re built each time we use them.

      1. and DO NOT forget we ALSO have to pay the stall professionals to do their “studies” on every aspect of the project, ad nauseaum, delaying the thing for years. It almost like paying these guys to make sure the real workers can’t get their work started. By the time this project finally moves ahead, whittled down to half what it is now intended to be, traffic will have increased so much by the time it actually gets built the “improvements” will be so little and sl oate things wil be worse off after the project is completed as permitted than they are now.

        gummit hawrdlee werkin….. butcostin us like crazy.

  4. Who knew that the 1964 Civil Rights act would cause the decay of Western Civilization?

    1. Umm –
      LBJ?

    2. Robert Bork, certainly.

  5. More likely just Biden and democrat revenge against Texas.

    1. See, where the remaining space shuttles went.

  6. Turns out all the new infrastructure jobs will be lawyers.

    1. Okay, I shot my beer through my nose laughing at this comment. Cheers!

    2. LLOL.

      Literally laugh out loud.

  7. Make it a high speed rail project and watch how fast Democrats kick black folks out of their homes.

    1. Or a solar farm.

    2. Fire is their preferred method for this.

      1. Riots are progressive and efficient. The cost of buying burned out properties is much cheaper.

    3. They already are. Houston is far left Democrat controlled.

  8. Well, after all, it is just a request – – – – – –

    and this:

    ” . . . to condemn and destroy Houston’s principal Black-owned business district, homes and religious institutions . . . ”

    And we all know that is BLM’s job.

    1. The Fuck? It isn’t going through the 3rd or 5th Wards.

      Though it is a remarkably stupid idea. Not that, knocks on wood, I’ll be living in this shithole for more than one more year.

  9. >>President Joe Biden has grand visions for infrastructure projects

    you dummies know your readers don’t believe the infrastructure bullshit right?

  10. Of course the neighborhoods near major highways are full of poor people. It costs nothing because no one at all WANTS to live there.

    Does this mean highways should not be built? Ludicrous.

    Almost as ludicrous as stopping a massive public works project, in a state that doesn’t much care for Biden or his administration, using the Civil Rights Act.

    1. This isn’t like Jim Crow. It’s more like Jim Condor.

    2. Question is, how are the displaced individuals being compensated? Are they given adequate time to relocate to like or better housing? Given a fair market value for homes/properties which are owned? Is it fair or was it ‘take it or leave it’?

    3. Many can’t AFFORD to live anywhere else. Houses may be ramshackle, but they are paid for. Slum lord housing may be close to uninhabitable, but the housing regulations haven’t caught up to them yet, and the rent is cheap. Might be close to bus lines or walkable to work from where they live. Home is home, as well. Throwing people into the streets because politicians want to build a road doesn’t take priority.

    4. Just build it through rich peoples neighborhoods and tear down white businesses and churches.

      Poor people, and during separation of races, move to the highways or tracks or airports. Government put it through poor or minority properties / neighborhoods / business districts due to their not having any representation, power to fight, or money for lawyers and court challenges.

      I watched this with the modernization of highways into the cities. Then the interstates. Then their widening. Never through rich peoples neighborhoods or white business districts or churches.

      Part of it was before the Civil Right Act and after even to this day. Institutional racism and rich privilege is alive and well.

      1. It’s all about project costs, not “racism”, as leftists bellow – since the government has to pay a reasonable market value for any land it takes, it’s much cheaper to buy land to build highways in run down, poor neighborhoods than well-kept, expensive ones. There just happens to be a larger percentage of blacks and Hispanics living in these areas.

        1. It’s just economics. Build the highway through open ground first and the rich people are more able to live further from the on ramps than the poor people are.

          The people who claim systemic racism just see a system and project racism onto it. The fact that 10, 20, or even 50% of the toast that comes out of the toaster isn’t black is systemic racism.

      2. The area where the proposed expansion and re-routing of I-45 is not the area that most Black and Brown owned businesses are located. It’s a lot of old railyards and warehouses. They will be tearing down the elevated section of I-45 on the west side of downtown and redesigning the area where HWY 59 and I-10 merge on the east side of downtown. You could expand 45 on the westside, of course you would have to tear down several skyscrapers, some hospitals and relocate federal buildings as well as City Hall so there’s that. Using the Civil Right Act as a pretext to prevent the project is dubious, unless the plan is relocate Blacks and Hispanics from the parts of town where they actually live into that area just to make a point about race.

    5. The main reason poor & black or Hispanic neighborhoods are near urban highways is they built them through such neighborhoods in the first place. It saved on acquiring the land, but mainly the freeways were routed by a political process, and poor non-whites had no political power. Most of this construction was started in the 1950’s. In the southern states, I assume including Texas, non-whites were systematically excluded from voting until at least 1965. But even in northern states where blacks could vote, the freeways ran through black and other poor neighborhoods.

      And 70 years later, the same neighborhoods get screwed again – and it’s unlikely that anything that close to the freeway has been gentrified.

      1. From 1870 until about 1900 before Democrats regained control of Texas 44 Blacks were elected and served in the State legislature. After 1900 under Democrats Jim Crow laws were passed and poll taxes were implemented which disenfranchised all poor white, black and Hispanic. As today the Democrats were the party of the affluent and wealthy and regarded the poor with distaste. They used poll taxes and other policies to stay in power. After women were given the right to vote Black men refused to allow them to vote. They believed women had no place in politics. Black men were the last barrier Black women had to overcome to gain the vote.

  11. and add bike lanes

    And Pete Buttigieg isn’t getting this project done?

  12. Yeah that is Sheila Jackson Lee’s district all right. 20 years back they mowed down all the shotgun shacks in 4th ward to make way for Midtown and condos. Pissed off the vampire politicians like Lee cause it “gentrified” the area aka white people be moving back.

    Build the fucking freeway and kick out the shitlords that have made parts of the area a crack house lovers dream.

    1. This guy fucks.

  13. He’s doing them and everyone a favor. We can’t even maintain what we have let alone build more bullshit highways. Not to mention they’ve been proven only to cause more congestion due to induced demand.

    Not sinking money into something terribly foolish should be a conservative/libertarian ideal. Sinking more money into overbuilt highways is the epitome of stupidity.

    1. You think most of interstate commerce is ‘induced demand’?

      Do elaborate on that. I think it would be entertaining.

      1. If on,y his leftist masters could eliminate private property and freedom too. That would be an even bigger favor.

      2. It is vitally important to view highways as a gift from government rather than a demand from the people to keep trade flowing for the benefit of themselves, the people.

        This gives politicians philosophical cover to lord over all business by arrogantly and facetiously claiming prosperity was the result of their effort, and efforts by business just a lil’ piece of it, of the politicians’ Grand Plan.

    2. Well, ACTUALLY, it hasn’t. You are scared so you openly lie.

      Improves mobility due to expanded road building HAS however been proven to improve wealth, personal and professional development and mobility, and long term outcomes of all kinds. It also makes people happier.

      Things leftists CLAIM to want but… lie about when offered the opportunity to actually implement.

      1. Basically, they’re advocating for the absolute destruction of cities and the first world and a return to an agrarian economy.

        No way to be sure they know that’s what they’re advocating for, but I’d guess they live in a major city and probably just hate themselves.

        1. They’re arguing for those things for the masses. Not themselves. Socialism is never for the socialist

    3. Hey faggot, don’t do me any favors. Or else……

    4. It’s all about project costs, not “racism”, as leftists bellow – since the government has to pay a reasonable market value for any land it takes, it’s much cheaper to buy land to build highways in run down, poor neighborhoods than well-kept, expensive ones. There just happens to be a larger percentage of blacks and Hispanics living in these areas.

      1. Also, for expansion projects, the poor neighborhoods are built next to highways because the land was cheaper. You get a substantial discount if you are willing to hear traffic all day and night.

      2. Highway widening has to be where the highway is. When the freeways were built through cities in the 1950’s, they were routed through the poor and powerless neighborhoods. Now there’s no choice but to take another slice out of the same neighborhoods.

    5. Actually they will be tearing down an elevated portion of I-45 and rerouting it onto parts of HWY 59 and I-10. Greenspace and parts will be built where 45 is elevated twist and dips it’s way around downtown. Yes there will expansion to the highways in the new location, but contrary to what is suggested by the Biden Administration it isn’t primarily where Blacks or Latinos live or where their businesses are located. You could find those areas by looking to where light rail expansion has been done.

  14. “The administration has to be careful here; it opens itself to being hypocritical in terms of the mode.”

    Which they really care about! (/sarcasm)

    1. Yeah, Democrats live in a post-hypocrisy world. “It’s okay when we do it” is their first commandment.

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  16. I’m guessing that the real reason that the Biden Administration is getting involved is… not enough Union labor is involved.

    CB

  17. State Governments need to tell the Federal Government to bugger off and City Government need to tell State Government to bugger off as well.

    The more local government is the more representative are responsive it is to the people.

    I can go to City Hall and yell at the Mayor and stand a decent chance of speaking to the Mayor face to face. I stand little to no chance of speaking to the Governor but might get to talk to a staffer. There is absolutely no chance of directly talking with the President or any staffers.

  18. Hendrix, the man who says you should convert a normal lane into a managed express lane is an imbecile who shouldn’t be near a highway, and probably doesn’t even drive. If TXDOT tried it, there would be a riot. Deliberately increasing congestion in order to charge people extra for the privilege of going faster? There are enough people upset about the toll lanes as it is, as many people find it appalling that a government funded road is charging tolls.

    As a local, downtown I-45 is a literal bottleneck, as I-45 loses several lanes going into the busiest and densest section of the city. Anyone avoids it like the plague if they can.

    However, the only other option other than expanding sideways would be some form of stacked highway, which have had very poor reception and still need a lot of additional real estate for the longer on-ramps.

  19. “ Having completed the environmental review process, Texas can now start trying to acquire the land it’ll need. That could see the agency use a mix of eminent domain…”

    For a libertarian readership, I haven’t seen anyone mention this yet. Eminent domain was the first thing that came to my mind, and a new-found appreciation for the Civil Rights Act.

    I loathe eminent domain, as should everyone else. Leverage whatever it takes to stop it.

  20. I-45 has been expanding for 50 years. Why is expanding I-45 now a problem? Roads don’t selectively go thru only poor neighborhoods, they pass thru both good and bad parts of town and neighborhood of all colors. Expansion affects more Hispanics then blacks. Houston is 75% minority now, why are Hispanics and Asians left out of this article? Blacks almost outnumber whites now

    Rich people in Houston don’t use highways, the have a 5 minute commute on memorial and Washington street. Not expanding highways in Houston just hurts normal Houstonians. I-45 is toll free, not expanding hurts low income people who can’t afford the tolls. They will be waiting in traffic longer now, not the upper class

    $7B is a lot of money and this is just an excuse to transfer that money back most likely back to the state so it can be reallocated. Follow the money over the next few years if you really want to know who or what is behind these stories. California took money voters approved for roads and reallocated to buy things like solar panels and rail. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happens in Houston

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