Road issues

Protesters across the state address road issues with highway officials

Opponents of some of Texas’ biggest transportation projects are unifying their messages, pushing state highway officials to think differently about metropolitan areas, where widening roads can claim hundreds of homes and businesses, and urging them to consider alternatives to automobiles rather than adding more lanes.

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome, then the Texas transportation system is insane,” said Robert Storch, an El Paso resident opposed to a planned Interstate 10 widening in the city.

Led by Houston organizers with the Stop TxDOT I-45 effort, protesters from most of the state’s largest cities descended on Texas Department of Transportation headquarters in Austin last week, where officials endorsed a 10-year, $85 billion plan for state highway projects. The goal, organizers said, was to send a Texas-wide message to a state agency focusing on the fundamental problem of freeway design in urban areas.

“Community residents should have the right to decide what mobility means to them,” said Ann Zadeh, executive director of Community Design Fort Worth and former city council member and mayoral candidate.

In many Texas metros, Zadeh said, the focus needs to shift from traffic to “fixing the divides” caused by those freeways, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

This case may be better presented if it comes from many sources, said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, an opponent of state plans to widen I-10 through downtown West Texas gateway city.

“I think it’s important to come together because we’re talking about the same agency and the same issues,” Stout said.

Among the projects sounding the alarm:

• Houston’s more than $9.7 billion project to widen I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, which will add two managed lanes in each direction and rebuild the freeway system of the downtown and the obsolete interchange with the 610 loop.

• Austin’s $4.9 billion reconstruction of I-35 in the heart of the capital, which would replace the clogged two-level freeway with a single buried road that would add two carpool lanes in each direction. Opponents said it would further divide the city.

• El Paso’s planned widening of I-10 through downtown, which would build on the overall widening of the freeway to the New Mexico border intended to facilitate cross-border trade and the circulation.

• Dallas’ proposed redesign of I-345 to bury the freeway between downtown and Deep Ellum, which opponents have called unnecessary. They pleaded for the complete removal of the highway.

Each of the projects aims to address growing traffic congestion, enjoys political support from regional planners in major metropolitan areas, and benefits from years of study by TxDOT to justify its design.

But naysayers argue they’re also based on doing things largely the way TxDOT has always done them in metro areas that are becoming increasingly urban. They also say residents in these areas and some leaders are pushing for housing closer to jobs, maintained sidewalks and frequent public transportation instead of ever-expanding freeways.

“What positive could we do in our communities with $10 billion,” I-45 critic Walter Mallet told the Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

Repeatedly, during more than two hours of public comment before the Transportation Committee, critics said TxDOT was spending too much time and money preparing for the future with the same kinds of projects it had been building. in the past.

“To me, it sounds like you want to pour concrete and use our tax dollars,” said Kelsey Huse, a member of the group ReThink 35, which opposes the widening of I-35 in Austin.

Some have said that the state needs to think more creatively.

“You can be bold, you can be innovative, you can be trailblazers,” said Houston critic Pervez Agwan, who argued for a more localized approach that would cut down the freeway to reconnect Northside and Fifth Ward communities.

Just as congestion frustrates drivers, TxDOT’s plans to address it at the behest of local politicians and business groups are increasingly irritating naysayers such as Agwan.

“Tell me why a bunch of rich, old white men and developers have a say in the Houston that I’m going to inherit,” he told the transportation commissioners.

Highway officials and those seeking to widen freeways to encourage development and accommodate drivers counter that their plans are exactly what voters have said they want.

Proposition 1, passed in 2014, and Proposition 7, passed the following year, directed state officials to use the more than $3 billion in taxpayer dollars earmarked for TxDOT to reduce congestion by improving roads and avoiding new taxes and tolls. That funding, along with increased federal funds related to the infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year, has led to a record high in road construction spending. Over the past two months, officials have approved expansion and maintenance projects worth $2.8 billion, with more expected over the next 10 years, according to financial projections.

“The day I became president, I said, ‘I have a very simple message, and that’s ‘execute, execute, execute,'” Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg said.

Bugg has led the four-person commission since 2017. The commission is supposed to have a fifth member, but the remaining person has been missing since 2018.

Meanwhile, more work and more lanes are welcomed by some stakeholders, many of whom credit TxDOT with historic levels of design and community contribution. In the case of the Houston, Austin and El Paso projects, area highway officials spent years developing the projects and redesigning them to reflect some, but not all, community feedback.

In Houston, although skeptics fear the benefits are overstated, new drainage and updated connections to Little White Oak Bayou could solve some lingering flooding issues.

“I think it’s a great project,” said Quincy Allen, a 30-year veteran of Houston’s TxDOT District who recently retired as the district’s statewide director of operations. “The drainage improvements, the safety improvements are just awesome.”

Other improvements will also come with freeway projects and reflect changing urban conditions, including an 8-mile downtown Houston bike loop by eliminating where I-45 crosses the downtown district of business.

“This big idea is the unique opportunity offered only by the reconstruction of the three freeways,” said Lonnie Hoggeboom, director of planning and design for Downtown Houston, which serves as the downtown management district.

dug.begley@chron.com