The Biden administration is pausing the construction of a major highway expansion in Houston, Texas, claiming that the project is racist and harmful to the environment.
The project, which has been years in the making, was going to widen certain sections of Interstate 45. But the Department of Transportation invoked the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to temporarily shut it down for further review.
The department’s intervention is being called a “test case” for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He previously claimed racial injustice in highway construction and promised to make “righting these wrongs an imperative” while he serves.
The decision follows complaints from local activists that the highway expansion would disproportionately harm black and Hispanic communities by displacing more than 1,000 homes, hundreds of businesses, five houses of worship, and two schools along the highway.
The Federal Highway Administration sent a letter to the Texas Department of Transportation in March notifying them of three complaints — one from Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee and two from local advocacy organizations — about the negative effects of the project.
“To allow FHWA time to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised in the letters referred to above, we request that TxDOT pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the letter states.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts prohibits discrimination “on the basis of race, color, or national origin” in any federally funded project.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) says the project is necessary to reduce congestion due to population growth, and that the benefits of the project would outweigh the downsides.
In its final environmental impact statement published last year, TxDOT acknowledged that the project would displace thousands of residences and hundreds of businesses, saying that the effects “would be predominantly borne by minority and low-income populations.” However, the department also said that it would sufficiently compensate for any negative impacts.
But that has not been a good enough solution for critics of the project, including progressive Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
“How can we accept a project like that? It stays with us for a generation at least,” Hidalgo said.