- The Department of Transportation has paused a Houston-area highway widening project.
- In the past, highways were constructed with no regard for minority communities.
- The Biden administration is seeking to address past racial inequities in planning decisions.
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The US Department of Transportation is using a provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to pause construction on a highway widening project near Houston, an uncommon move that could be an early test of President Joe Biden’s commitment to addressing past racial inequities, according to Politico.
As the populous region continues to grow, the Interstate 45 highway project has been heralded as a way to reduce congestion and improve commute times, but the additional lanes would also impact several heavily Black and Latino neighborhoods, forcing residents, businesses, and houses of worship in the path to relocate.
The construction plan, known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, would widen the highway into three segments.
Local resistance to the I-45 project had been brewing for years, with many hearkening back to the 1950s when freeway routes were deliberately drawn to impact Black communities and divide people by race and class.
The I-45 project has at least been temporarily halted, with Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg now at the helm of the sprawling federal department.
Federal transportation authorities in March sent a letter asking Texas to pause contracts on the widening project while they reviewed racial justice complaints covered by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, along with environmental concerns.
The provision states that “no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
In a letter written to the Texas Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration cited community opposition in reviewing the I-45 widening project, mentioning Houston-area Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Air Alliance Houston, and the community organization Texas Housers.
“I think [Buttigieg] was engaged, interested and fair,” Jackson Lee told Politico after speaking with the secretary. “I think he was chagrined at federal dollars being used with such disregard of community views.”
The congresswoman feels that the Texas Department of Transportation “blatantly violated” the Title VI provision.
The project’s pause, which is being driven by civil rights laws, has thrilled grassroots activists and Washington figures.
Fred Wagner, an attorney and former chief counsel at the Federal Highway Administration under the Obama administration, told Politico that taking such a step was a big change.
“It just doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “For DOT to step in, potentially, and say ‘We don’t think it’s an appropriate solution,’ would be a really huge deal.”
Buttigieg, who is seeking to reimagine the country’s transportation system, also hopes to dismantle old processes that disenfranchised Americans of color from past planning conversations, especially when entire neighborhoods were destroyed by urban planners when the modern US highway network was first built in the 20th Century.
“This is not just a matter of halfway accidental neglect,” he said in a Politico interview last month. “We’re talking about some really intentional decisions that happened, and a lot of them happened with federal dollars.”