Transportation infrastructure influences access to opportunity and the lives, including health and wellness, of communities throughout the Houston region. That’s why our state and local governments should view every major transportation infrastructure project using taxpayer dollars, including the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP), as an opportunity to improve the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods. And, no place exemplifies the health and heart of a neighborhood like the local school.
At B.K. Bruce Elementary, parents, staff and neighbors gather in the multi-purpose room to discuss the gamut of issues, from festivals in the Fifth Ward to updates in the magnet program. While the students – “passionate pianists,” “rockin’ guitarists” and “vibrant violinists” as the pre-kindergarten to fifth-grade students are known – fill the halls with music, the principal and staff’s commitment to the families and neighbors is what reverberates throughout the community.
In 2007, the Houston Independent School District moved the students and faculty over a half-mile from its 87-year-old location on the south frontage road of Interstate 10, between Cage and Bringhurst streets. While several reasons prompted the move, the most important was that the old building sat dangerously close to a federal environmental superfund site, contaminated with hazardous materials, including exceedingly high levels of lead known to have negative effects on learning.
Now located a stone’s throw away from the east-bound Jensen exit on I-10, Bruce Elementary faces an uphill battle due to proximity to the Texas Department of Transportation’s impending NHHIP. The department plans to reconstruct and expand I-45 from Downtown Houston to Greenspoint at Beltway 8 in three phases over more than a decade. Conservatively estimated to cost $7 to $10 billion, the project will impact local streets and intersecting highways, including I-10 and I-69/US-59.
Bruce Elementary’s student attendance zone includes manmade and natural obstacles: Buffalo Bayou; I-69/US-59, I-10, and I-45; and two major freight rail lines. Cognizant of these barriers, the school’s administrators already sacrifice part of their campus’ discretionary budget to ensure that students living within the school zone have bus service to safely access education. School staff supervise students as they enter and exit campus on foot, and five district-funded crossing guards facilitate safety for the walkers as they navigate streets and cross I-10.
Bruce Elementary students also face health concerns. According to Bruce Elementary officials, one in ten students has asthma, a statistic not uncommon for children at schools near highways. Twenty-six schools stand within 500 feet of the existing highways associated with the project.
Additionally, the highway project will displace hundreds of homes, including residents from Clayton Homes and Kelly Village, two public housing complexes within the school attendance zone. If two out of five students live in Clayton Homes, as Bruce Elementary’s staff estimates, then displacing families from these affordable housing units could devastate the school’s population, cause a ripple effect for funding in the recapture process, or lead to extra expenditures to minimize educational disruptions by busing re-located students to the school from further away.
The Texas Department of Transportation is negotiating possibilities the agency has never done before. Yet, one solution seems to be off-the-table: focusing the project on improving the quality of the existing highway infrastructure.
Maintaining and repairing – instead of widening – the existing highways would avoid the purchase of additional right-of-way, keep roads within existing footprints while saving homes, minimize further impacts to schools like Bruce Elementary and ultimately curb family displacement. Additionally, preserving the current roadway footprint would avoid putting cars closer to people at schools and businesses and cost taxpayers far less.
Shy of simplifying the project to a maintain-and-repair effort, there are other, more costly to TxDOT (and taxpayers) but worthwhile solutions. The department could increase the extent and width of sidewalks connecting Bruce Elementary to the neighborhood; install additional lighting, state-of-the-art walk signals, and highly visible crosswalks; build two-lane access roads to keep some distance from the school; and decrease the width of lanes so the road design encourages drivers to keep to the speed limit. The department could purchase and maintain high-efficiency air filtration to protect young lungs from additional exposure to vehicle emissions while at school and plant extensive specialized vegetation to better protect students from air pollutants while outside at recess. The department could relocate displaced families to affordable homes near affordable transportation options in the same community. Higher compensation to owners and renters is a small price compared to the domino effect of a disrupted education for students combined with a disrupted social fabric for families.
To accomplish the maintain-and-repair option for NHHIP, TxDOT must work with elected officials, all impacted communities, and a variety of stakeholders, such as Houston Independent School District, the Houston Housing Authority and other environmental, housing, transportation and economic development stakeholders to ensure that there is one conversation – not several siloed conversations – to arrive at a comprehensive solution that addresses the complex impacts of the highway expansion on the rising generation and communities.
Oni K. Blair is the executive director of LINK Houston, which advocates for equity in transportation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.