Prevention specialist Elda Reyes lives in a modest three-bedroom house tucked away on the corner of a small residential street in North Houston, off Interstate 45 (I-45).
She bought the house 17 years ago, building a life on the tree-lined street with her husband Jesus, a gardener, and their three children, one of whom – a 22-year-old girl – still lives with them.
The Reyes family would love to spend the rest of their lives there, but a planned I-45 freeway expansion could see their home suitable for public use via a prominent estate.
The family received letters from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) offering to buy their property. But they don’t want to sell.
“Our children grew up here. I wanted to hand over this house to them, ”Reyes told Al Jazeera. “I’ll fight this.”
Elda Reyes is not alone. She is one of thousands of people who could be displaced by plans to extend three interconnected segments of I-45 over 39 km (24 miles) stretching from the city’s central business district to its northernmost neighborhoods. North.
Although reconstruction of I-45 has yet to begin, expansion plans for segments two and three are fully funded by state and federal governments, a TxDOT spokesperson said. The plan for the first segment, where Reyes and his family live, is still on hold, and the public comment period on the project ended on December 18.
Those opposed to the expansion would like to see I-45 reconfigured to improve drainage, pavement and lighting – solutions that will not forcibly displace communities.
But the city of Houston does not enjoy full autonomy over the highway lot. States own and operate highways and their modernization is usually done with federal funds.
This top-down system, however, could be on the verge of being shaken under the new administration of US President-elect Joe Biden.
Urgent need for an upgrade
Few would argue that the I-45 – half a century old in its most recent sections and named one of the most dangerous roads in America by Popular Mechanics magazine – is in dire need of repair. ‘to be modernized.
But a growing number of people, including some city officials, believe extending the road is not the right solution.
“There are too many accidents … it floods too much and it needs to be rethought,” Carol Lewis, professor and director of the Center for Transportation, Training and Research at Texas Southern University, told Al Jazeera.
Lewis points to I-10 in the western part of Houston – a 26-lane highway that is one of the most congested roads in the state, according to data compiled by Texas A&M University.
I-45 is also a major trucking route, and the addition of carpool lanes will not address the expected increase in commercial freight traffic.
“As our population grows, your freight grows at a faster and higher rate,” said Lewis, who also served as planning director for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO, the transit agency in Houston Common), for 15 years.
The widening of freeways is also known to backfire by actually encouraging more traffic, according to a report by advocacy group Transportation for America.
But one of the biggest drawbacks is the impact on low-income communities who often end up paying the highest price when highways get the green light from regulators.
“There are practically countless examples of this, so certainly people who view future highway construction plans with suspicion are absolutely right because there are so many precedents for the poor, the working class, the powerless. and the marginalized having their homes condemned or foreclosed on eminent domain, ”said Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, associate professor and director of the Latina / o studies program at Penn State University.
Impact on communities of color
“Based on our analysis of TxDOT’s own findings, 92% of displaced people come from communities of color,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a nonprofit that advocates for a more equitable transportation system for the city. .
“What has happened is that like any economic decision, the negative pressure is on communities of color largely because we live where land is cheaper,” said Lewis. .
The planned expansion of I-45 will eliminate affordable subdivisions Clayton Homes, which has 296 units, and Kelly Village, which has 333 units.
A spokesperson for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told Al Jazeera: “Mayor Turner is working with TxDOT to minimize the disruption the project could create. He spoke to TxDOT and shared his belief that the agency should relocate every resident or displaced housing in the same general neighborhood.
Resettlement plans have been implemented. The city is proposing to buy out owners like the Reyes family and relocate public housing residents who will lose their homes if the expansion continues.
“We have worked with families to offer vouchers or move them to other available social housing,” said Mark Thiele, Acting President and CEO of Houston Housing Authority.
But many residents do not want to be uprooted. And their cries of opposition could be stimulated under the new Biden administration.
The president-elect’s plan to revive the country’s infrastructure includes plans for a community restoration fund that would require much more public input for projects like the expansion of I-45.
Biden’s plan also emphasizes sustainability and reducing pollution around large infrastructure projects and allows states to use existing road funding for alternative transportation options.
If it were to come to fruition, the plan would mark a breakthrough from outgoing President Donald Trump’s regulatory cancellations, which limited public scrutiny of federally-funded infrastructure projects.
In the meantime, Houstonians who face displacement in the name of I-45 widening continue to fight to stay at home.
“They give us 18 months, but we’ll fight until we can’t anymore,” Reyes said. “Our children grew up here; I hope our children can see the fruits of what they plant. “