After the Houston-area's regional association of governments gave tentative support for a controversial highway project Friday, questions linger about how a range of community and stakeholder concerns will be incorporated into the plans.
The North Houston Highway Improvement Project provides a test case for many of the dynamics outlined in a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia documenting how the earlier era of freeway revolts helped alter the planning and construction of the roadways that reshaped urban centers.
The paper, which looks at data from 1950 to 2010, also captures the negative impacts of the freeways, arguing that it wasn't simply the lure of faster commutes that reshaped cities across the country, but also the wide range of associated disruptive effects that central cities suffered that hollowed out central cities. The working paper confirmed what many affected communities have long known about the construction of urban highways: the costs, or "disamenities" as the paper calls them, outweighed the theoretical benefits for central city neighborhoods. And while widespread protests helped push the freeway planning and construction process to be more responsive, the working paper found that the adjusted routes tended to be in favor of white neighborhoods and those with higher educational attainment levels.
“Our goal was to be more precise about the cost of highways and to quantify how bad these quality of life effects are,” Lin told CityLab.
Houston's own $7 billion Interstate 45 project stretching over roughly 24 miles from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 will potentially displace hundreds of residents, many in historically African American and Latino neighborhoods. There are concerns, particularly for communities near the city's core bracing for yet another round of highway investments, about displacement, air quality, the impact on schools and barriers. The United States Public Interest Research Group listed the project as one of the biggest highway boondoggles in the country in it latest annual report, describing it as "[a] massive highway project" that "would harm communities, displace residents and destroy businesses, while sucking billions of dollars away from important transportation priorities."
Meanwhile, the mayor and others have described the project as potentially transformative if constructed thoughtfully, with the feedback of communities in mind. With years of input already collected, there are plans to gather still more. The city’s planning department is now organizing its own public engagement effort around the project. "Even many skeptics of the project agree TxDOT officials have done an unprecedented amount of listening to the community via years of public meetings and sessions with civic clubs, advocacy groups and neighborhood councils," wrote Houston Chronicle reporter Dug Begley.
But the impact of this feedback is still unclear.
"Post-war, there's been an ever increasing ability to give input that has not translated necessarily into influence," said Kyle Shelton, Kinder Institute Director of Strategic Partnerships and the author of Power Moves: Transportation, Politics and Development in Houston.
In the early days of freeway construction across the country, write Lin and Brinkman, engineers, policymakers and the public believed "freeways would ease congestion and revitalize downtowns." The subsequent revolts, as projects entered urban areas, argue the authors, "were a surprise to engineers and planners." One U.S. Department of Transportation survey cited 123 different freeway revolts between October 1967 and June 1968.
Over time, incremental legislation "created new environmental and historic-preservation hurdles for new highway construction" and the revolts did alter the routes of some of the urban freeways. But those new routes tended to favor white neighborhoods and those with higher educational attainment levels. And the impacts of the built freeways, according to the analysis, were still detrimental for central city neighborhoods, whether it was a "loss of developable land, pollution or noise externalities, or barrier effects." The authors also acknowledge that their analysis leaves out other unintended costs of freeways. Population decline, for example, can lead to school closures and the loss of community staples and the role of racist housing policy, as well as its effects, isn't directly assessed.
Some of these concerns are familiar to stakeholders in the I-45 project.
Friday, after hours of public testimony overwhelmingly in favor of delaying the vote or rejecting the highway project entirely, the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved $100 million worth of locally-controlled federal funds for the project. The council still needs to vote to include the funds in its spending plans, as Begley noted, likely in 2020 or 2021 if the project's late 2023 start date for work on the center segment stays on track.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was the only council member who voted against approving the funds, after her efforts to delay the vote until January 2020 failed. "If it feels wrong and feels rushed, it is because it is wrong and is rushed," said Hidalgo.
Others on the council expressed their conditional support, saying they would not move forward on a plan if it didn't address some of the concerns.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, meanwhile, wrote in support of approving the $100 million, calling the project "potentially transformative." But he added that he expected TxDOT to address many of the concerns that have been shared during the years of public engagement. "It is TxDOT's responsibility to design a project with positive impacts for the community, the City of Houston, and the greater region," he wrote, citing concerns about flooding, air quality, multimodal connectivity and right-of-way land acquisitions.
"What's clear is that the engagement has been different," said Shelton. "What hasn’t necessarily been different is implementation." So while this project differs from the freeway construction projects from generations past in the amount of input it's seeking, Shelton said the lack of transparency around incorporating that feedback hasn't evolved much.
"TxDOT and the City and H-GAC are all saying, 'We're taking these things into consideration,'" explained Shelton, "but the component of engagement that I think is fair to say hasn't really matured is, what are you doing to respond?"
Some community members, meanwhile, have pushed to secure mitigating elements, like an elaborate and ambitious series of "garden bridges, cap parks, understory parks, sky parks, greenways, bikeways and other civic amenities" that have been floated in conjunction with the project but which lack funding in current plans.
If these projects were to secure funding, the working paper from the federal reserve bank branch suggests big potential benefits when it comes to retrofitting existing highways.
Retrofitting existing highways via mitigation policies, like capping or burying freeways, could offer "net benefits," the authors argue, particularly for neighborhoods in city centers that have otherwise had to contend with population and income declines, barrier effects that make it more difficult to travel to otherwise nearby neighborhoods and diminished property values.
How the Houston project moves forward will be instructive to see whether the dynamic of freeway planning has substantially changed locally and whether the lessons learned from decades of data and experience will be heeded.