Boondoggle: A Texas-Sized Mess of a Highway Plan

Houston expands a highway through its center, for a staggering $7 billion.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project will expand already vast swaths of highway
through the middle of Houston, displacing homes and businesses and dividing communities.
Image: Texas Dept. of Transportation
The North Houston Highway Improvement Project will expand already vast swaths of highway through the middle of Houston, displacing homes and businesses and dividing communities. Image: Texas Dept. of Transportation

In this year’s installment of its annual “Highway Boondoggles” report, Gideon Weissman of Frontier Group and Matthew Casale of U.S. PIRG Education Fund deliver a stark warning about the billions of dollars states spend on unnecessary highways that fracture our cities, deprive transit of scarce funds, and pollute our environment. Below is the second of nine installments detailing case studies of these harmful roadways: a massive highway project in Houston that would displace residents and destroy businesses, while sucking billions of dollars from transportation priorities.

Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, is fast-growing and sprawling, and as of 2012 had more highway lane-miles per person than all but two cities in the country. The city’s over-reliance on cars has created big problems for residents. Long trips on congested highways mean that Houston workers have America’s second-most expensive commutes.

The metro area’s roads are also the deadliest in the nation, and according to the Houston Chronicle, the “death toll is the equivalent of three fully loaded 737s crashing each year at Houston’s airports, killing all aboard.” Vehicle pollution is also harming air quality in Houston, which in 2019 was ranked ninth-worst in the country for high smog days by the American Lung Association.

Improving Houston’s transportation system means reducing reliance on cars. But today state officials are moving forward with a massive and expensive project that would result in more concrete and asphalt through the middle of Houston.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project would involve widening and rebuilding nearly 25 miles of highway and numerous interchanges, with much of the project taking place in the middle of the city. As the Chronicle wrote, the “most radical changes come downtown, where relocating I-45 to the central business district’s east side also means remaking every freeway it touches — Interstate 10, Interstate 69 and Texas 288.” And the project comes with the high price tag of $7 billion before even accounting for right-of-way costs.

The miles of new highway created by the project will widen barriers between neighborhoods, crisscross parkland, and make transportation more difficult for commuters without access to a car. The project will require expanding the right-of-way of the existing highway by hundreds of feet. Some sections through downtown Houston will grow from 220 feet to 570 feet, resulting in highways nearly as wide as the length of two football fields.

Communities could benefit from green spaces built on caps over sunken sections of highway. However, as the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement notes, the “green space cap is conceptual and not part of the proposed project, and it would require separate development and funding.”

The state’s own documents contain stark language on the harm that the project will do to Houston’s communities:

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Even as it harms Houston, the project will also likely fail to achieve its basic goal of reducing congestion. When it comes to congestion impacts, Houston can look to its own Katy Freeway as an example of the phenomenon of induced demand. Following that highway’s $2.8 billion widening, 85 percent of commute times actually increased.

Even as the project would reinforce Houston’s dependence on cars, some parts of Houston’s own local government are working for the opposite goal. Houston’s Complete Communities program is working to improve neighborhoods, including with programs for safer streets and bike lanes. The city’s Walkable Places project is working to “create more vibrant, walkable streets that support alternative modes of transportation.” And Houston is creating big plans for a fast and reliable transit system for the future.

Houston can achieve a more sustainable, affordable, and better functioning transportation system – but only by avoiding harmful and costly expenditures like the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.

11 thoughts on Boondoggle: A Texas-Sized Mess of a Highway Plan

  1. The Houston area has very little walkability or transit, in part due to the dangerous levels of heat and humidity that extend through half the year. The area is flat, flood-prone, sinking, close to sea level, and with a high water table. It has no zoning. It has vast landscapes of poverty. After decades of trying unsuccessfully to diversify its economy, it remains dominated by the oil industry. Culturally, much of Houston is insular and reactionary. It has historically tethered its destiny to the automobile. Transit use is relegated to visitors, students, and the poor.

  2. “The Houston area has very little walkability or transit, in part due to the dangerous levels of heat and humidity that extend through half the year.”

    Weather isn’t a good excuse for lack of walkability or transit. Cities with far worse weather throughout the world have much better transit and pedestrian safety.

  3. “The Houston area,” AKA the Houston–The Woodlands–Sugar Land metropolitan statistical area, spans about 10K square miles, or an area a tad smaller than the state of Massachusetts.
    .
    Parts of Houston are extremely walkable, and parts of it are not. The problem is not that there is not enough land for housing; it’s that there is too much land for housing. Don’t want to buy someone’s “used” house? Buy a new one in the next new subdivision another mile or two from the city center.
    .
    Speaking of which, the Houston area does not have a single center of employment. Downtown, Midtown, and the Texas Medical Center are all connected by transit, and Greenway Plaza and the Galleria area are not too far, but the Energy Corridor and The Woodlands are tens of miles from downtown and reachable only by car or by commuter bus, and there is no local transit once you get there.
    .
    I won’t address your “culturally” sentence except to observe that you must not have been to Houston in a few decades, or perhaps you only stayed in (new) Katy or The Woodlands.

  4. There is insatiable demand for Traditional Interstates in the USA. Another high capacity solution that does not constrain the economy is needed.

  5. 45 traffic is ridiculous. solution for air, electric and hybrid cars and demand for cleaner engines. its gotta happen otherwise global warming do a lot more damage than any contaminated air.

  6. Parts of Houston have good bus service and connected to our starter light rail system. If transit had access to the kind of money blown on highway expansion, we would have a widespread and frequent service rail and bus system throughout the area. Why is every transit project subjected to endless planning and debate while highway projects are rushed through as inevitable “done deals” by the corrupt politicians and their Big Oil paymasters? I remember Houston before most of the “free”ways were built and all of the ugly sub-urban sprawl that resulted.

  7. Do away with HOV
    Make it a dual level HOV ON BOTTOM
    LIGHTRAIL ON TOP.
    Use the leftover Metro bus park and ride as a rain stop.
    Why haven’t we done this yet!?

  8. The upside of this plan is that it removes a large elevated freeway that separates the city’s downtown from rapidly densifying Midtown. The South and East sides of downtown, which are already bound by massive entrenched and elevated freeways, are already either isolated or heavily industrialized. The idea that fixing congestion in the central business district will have comparable induced demand to extensions of freeways into rural areas is also pretty dodgy. The massive capacity increases cited are mostly about making up for sections of freeway that will be removed.

  9. We don’t do things based on the global warming hoax here, your gonna have to find some other BS to spew. The city is far too large land wise for the NY/Boston style of transportation, it just won’t work here.

    Stephanie, can you please, specifically, tell us what “Big Oil paymasters” have anything to do with freeway construction? You must know since you said it, please be specific.

  10. More boondoggle pork coming from a politically driven, bias organization with an agenda to stop every and all freeway projects in the country.

    It’s going to fail – as usual – but you never stop do you?

    This climate change hoax nonsense and transit BS is a fallacy argument that kills itself more and more each time.

    Freeways will continue to be built, expansions to accommodate traffic will continue to happen, no matter how much your pork boondoggle group likes it or not.

    Get off the highways and take city streets and back roads if you don’t like these. Your wasting everybody’s time and quite frankly you waste DOTs money trying to deal with groups like this.

    Boondoggle pork group with nothing better to do. Get a life.


  11. …and dividing communities.

    There’s already a freeway there. The community’s already have a physical divider. These improvements will help to improve their connectivity.

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U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group released a report yesterday, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.” In it, they examine 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does […]