A major Texas highway expansion project has been paused to examine possible violation of 1964 Civil Rights Act

Houston
People drive on Interstate 45 toward downtown Houston.

  • 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.”

Read more: Here are 9 hurdles Biden’s infrastructure plan would have to overcome in Congress before it can become law

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.”

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Elizabeth Warren says the filibuster has ‘deep roots in racism’

Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Axios the much-scrutinized filibuster has “deep roots in racism.”
  • Some Democrats have been eyeing a reform to the filibuster, which could block Biden’s agenda.
  • Democrats’ other option, reconciliation, can only be used once per fiscal year, and they’ve already done that.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Democrats have had unified control in Washington again since the January runoff elections, and just like the last time they held the White House, Senate, and House, under former President Barack Obama, Republican use of the filibuster could block their plans.

As Democrats increasingly say they’re open to reforming the filibuster to enact Biden’s agenda, some are questioning the procedure’s role in American history.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Axios that it “has deep roots in racism, and it should not be permitted to serve that function, or to create a veto for the minority. In a democracy, it’s majority rules.”

As she told Axios, the founders wanted the Senate and House to function as simple majorities; ending a Senate filibuster requires 60 votes, which is obviously greater than a simple majority.

“The filibuster is a later creation that was designed to give the South the ability to veto any effective civil rights legislation or anti lynching legislation,” Warren also told Axios.

Warren did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Warren isn’t the first Democrat to point to the filibuster’s role in the potential obstruction of the Civil Rights Act. In January, Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted:

“The longest filibuster ever held on the US Senate floor was 60 days in 1964 to prevent the passing of the Civil Rights Act. The filibuster is a tool of obstruction. It does not encourage debate, it does not allow for more voices to be heard, it is for suppression only. End it.”

In his eulogy for Rep. John Lewis, former President Barack Obama called to abolish the filibuster if the step would allow federal voting laws to be passed. In fact, the House just passed H.R. 1, a major voting rights bill, but the Senate version currently faces the threat of a filibuster.

More pivotal Democrats are weighing in on the filibuster

In an ABC News interview, President Joe Biden said he supports reforming the filibuster and bringing back the talking filibuster – where senators have to keep talking throughout their filibuster.

And a sweeping piece from The Washington Post looks into the current debate over the filibuster following Biden’s reform endorsement; there’s still hesitancy among some Democrats, while others think a simple majority should be required to end a filibuster. As Vox reported, pivotal Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin has seemingly signaled some support for a talking filibuster, but doesn’t support lowering the vote threshold from 60.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that if Democrats were to alter the filibuster “they’ll unleash furies they can barely imagine.”

Insider’s Joseph Zeballos-Roig previously reported that the filibuster could prove to be a major barrier for the potential quick passage of Biden’s policies. He also reported that, per the strict rules surrounding it, Democrats could only use reconciliation twice this fiscal year. That comes as they eye a larger infrastructure package.

And the Senate used reconciliation to pass Biden’s American Rescue Plan after no Republicans voted in favor of it – meaning they essentially have just one more use remaining this fiscal year.

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