The H-GAC meeting on I-45 project on July 26, 2019. Photo: Heather Leighton

The committee committed an additional $51.5 million to go toward community planning and mitigation. 

On Friday the Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council voted to commit $151.5 million to the Texas Department of Transportation for the North Houston Highway Improvement Project Segment 2, which in total will cost $1.2 billion and will replace Interstate 45—one of the city's oldest portions of highway—from Interstate 10 to the 610 Loop. 

One council member, League City Councilman Larry Millican, even motioned for approving the funds to TxDOT before the start of the public comment portion.

More than 130 citizens attended the meeting that lasted more than six hours. Of the more than 40 Houstonians who spoke, all but five speakers during the public comment asked the council to delay the vote to approve the funding of the project until concerns were addressed. Those concerns included displacement of residents and students—the majority of whom are minorities—the health effects of increased exposure to emissions, the potential of reduced transportation services, among others. 

"I just feel like this whole thing is being rushed—I mean the motion of the floor is proof that it’s being rushed," Councilman Dwight Boykins said. He continued to ask that the design be reimagined with the input of the communities the highway will run through, including Independence Heights, Houston Heights and Near Northside. 

Segments of the I-45 project. Source: Texas Department of Transportation

Bakeyah Nelson, executive director of Air Alliance Houston, cited the effects the pollution and emissions might have on students. The current plan's design puts 26 schools within 500 feet of the freeway. 

"It is troubling that our leaders exploit the rich diversity of our city by making decisions that minimize the humanity of the same communities," Nelson said. "I have heard the tagline used on many occasions that Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. However, the very same leaders turn their backs when it's time to stand up for the very same community. I asked today that you delay the vote to demonstrate that members of the council recognize that the diversity of our communities is much more than a selling point when convenient. These are real people with real lives that deserve what any one of you would expect in the United States of America: the opportunity for your voice to be heard and the decisions that impact you and your community."

Jim McIngvale, known as Mattress Mack, also spoke in opposition of the project and encouragement for a redesign, saying in part, "The $7 billion boondoggle will do more harm for the citizens of Houston and the citizens of Texas. More pollution. More deaths on the highway. More congestion just like the Katy Freeway. I respectfully ask the committee not to fund the I-45 project and instead seek bold, game-changing, innovative solutions to the flooding and transportation problems in Houston." 

In contrast, just five of the dozens of public speakers supported the commitment of funds to TxDOT. Among them was Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. "Approving the commitment of $100 million is important to demonstrate the region's desire to advance this critical infrastructure for the region to leverage TxDOT's 2020 Unified Transportation Program," said Harvey, ahead of the August 29 vote.

A substitute motion to Millican was attempted by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, but it was not passed. "We have a duty to seek answers in this," she said. "If it feels wrong and it feels rushed, then it is wrong and it is rushed. I will make a call for innovation," said Hidalgo. "As I said last month, voting to fund this project before we fully understand its repercussions is like putting a downpayment on a house before we see it. It is only responsible to wait."

After hours of comments and discussion, the committee approved the $100 million, plus $1.5 million for community outreach and planning and $50 million for "eligible federal transportation funds for the implementation of recommendations from the community planning activities." TxDOT Houston District Engineer Quincy D. Allen said the move was necessary because, without it, Houston would lose its "place in line" for state funds for highway improvement funds.