Starting in the years after World War II, Black neighborhoods around the U.S. were destroyed and replaced with highways in the name of urban renewal. But people in Harris County, Texas have had enough. The county is suing the state to stop an I-45 expansion that would displace more than 1,000 households and would mostly affect people of color and low-income residents.
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The plan is to elevate segments of the highway in North Houston and add several lanes. In addition to the 1,079 households affected, the highway widening would displace 341 businesses, two schools and five churches. Flooding, traffic and higher levels of air pollution pose additional concerns.
The Biden administration and the Federal Highway Administration have voiced their opinions supporting residents’ civil rights.
“This is an opportunity for this new administration to really back up what it’s been saying regarding highway projects that perpetuate environmental racism,” said Bakeyah Nelson of Air Alliance Houston, as reported by The Guardian. Nelson thinks it’s a mistake to build homes this close to highways in the first place. “These affordable housing units are in locations where they’re already being exposed to greater environmental hazards than if they were farther away from the highway,” she said.
The state has stood by the $7 billion expansion plan, saying it needs to update the freeway and increase its capacity. But not all studies back the thesis that more lanes lead to less congestion. An analysis of an earlier highway widening project in Houston concluded that it wound up increasing the average commute time for about 85% of motorists using the highway (and that highway spanned a whopping 26 lanes at its widest point).
“For a generation we’ve gone on building more lanes, putting down more concrete, thinking that somehow magically that’s going to reduce traffic,” said Lina Hidalgo, Harris County judge, in a March 11 press conference. “We cannot continue to support transportation policy that prioritizes cars over people.”
Image via Patrick Feller