Transportation Policy Council (TPC)
Houston-Galveston Area Council
3555 Timmons Lane, Suite #100
Houston, TX 77027
June 25, 2020
Re: Public Comment on Transportation Policy Council (TPC) June 26, 2020 Agenda Item #5
Dear Chair Clark and Members of the Transportation Policy Council,
My name is Oni Blair, and I serve as a voting member representing citizens interests on the Transportation Advisory Committee (TAC). I am writing regarding the June 26 agenda item #5, “Developing a Memorandum of Understanding for the future coordination on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP).” I am writing to specifically request that the TPC use this opportunity to set clear, strong parameters for the memorandum of understanding (MOU). These parameters should call on TxDOT to directly address the adverse impacts on communities living adjacent to the project, especially eliminating or further mitigating displacement; include a funding consequence until TxDOT addresses the concerns; regularly engage the public throughout the project; and separate Segment 3 from Segments 1 and 2 in the remaining review and completion of processes under the National Environmental Protection Act.
I thank the parties – the City of Houston, Harris County, Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County (METRO), and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) – for their continued engagement on the NHHIP or IH-45 expansion.
As I stated at the June 17 TAC meeting, America is grappling with racial tensions and the real impacts of systemic racism. Every person on the TPC must understand that a vote on the NHHIP continues those very systems of oppression, disparity, and racial inequities. TxDOT’s 2019 Draft Community Impacts Assessment estimates that NHHIP’s Segment 3, which stretches from Downtown Houston to IH-10, would displace 919 homes. These homes belong to families and individuals living in a range of housing types – rented or owned, on the private market or public housing, as well as multi-family and single-family units. TxDOT estimates Segment 3 is 67% minority and that Segments 2 and 1 have minority populations in the 80 and 90 percentiles, respectively. In addition to the displacement of people, the NHHIP will have an outsized effect on the health, community stability, culture, economics, and general well-being of many of Houston’s historic African-American and Latinx neighborhoods.
In the 2019 Draft Community Impacts Assessment, TxDOT states, “After considering the benefits of the proposed project along with mitigation, the Build Alternative may cause disproportionately high and adverse effects to minority or low-income populations, but a substantial amount of these effects have been minimized through a variety of commitments and programs that will be implemented by TxDOT,” (Page 5-220).
The statement asserts that TxDOT will address these adverse impacts, but when you read more closely, that is not clear. For example, in the same document, TxDOT proposes to implement 4 types of mitigations to minimize impacts that are “disproportionately high and adverse effects to minority or low-income populations,” on 32 of the non-personal residential properties (Table 5-18 Community Facilities and Businesses Utilized by Environmental Justice Populations, p. 5-220-524):
- Advance acquisition of the property [17 of 32 properties];
- Communicate through Public Information Officer during construction [7 of 32 properties];
- Relocation assistant assigned to identify nearby property listings [5 of 32 properties]; and
- Temporarily move and re-establish bus stops in coordination with METRO [3 of 32 properties
These 4 types of mitigations for the 32 identified properties are not offsetting mitigation measures; at no point does TxDOT offer a design change to avoid displacement altogether. Instead, since the 2017 DEIS, the agency’s plans for displacement have increased in acreage.
These statements by TxDOT acknowledge the negative consequences of this project for predominantly Black people and Latinx people. The disparate racial impact of the pending action compounds the widely acknowledged injustice that TxDOT inflicted upon Houston African-American neighborhoods when TxDOT first constructed the interstate highway system 50 years ago.
There is still time for TxDOT to address these adverse impacts and for the TPC to play a historic role. The Houston-Galveston Area Council’s staff has developed an agenda item providing an opportunity for TPC’s voting members to ensure that TxDOT addresses the NHHIP’s adverse impacts within TxDOT’s scope and that other parties address the adverse impacts within their scope. The TPC can develop strong, clear parameters to protect communities while also advancing the 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Program. The MOU is also an opportunity to hold TxDOT accountable by including a funding consequence if TxDOT fails to fully address the significant and adverse impacts of this project. These adverse impacts should include those identified in numerous public comments to TxDOT, H-GAC, and the City of Houston, many of which Mayor Turner identified in his letter to Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan.
The people living alongside the highway deserve to be safe and have access to opportunity; not to bear the brunt of this project for another 50 years. Each person on the TPC has a responsibility to do what’s right for people who live alongside the infrastructure project, regardless of their skin color. The parameters that you set forth for the MOU will facilitate the development of a better project, one that more equitably addresses the needs of the people living next to the project corridor and the people from outside the region who may use the infrastructure.
As I noted during the June 17 TAC meeting, I am calling on the TPC to set clear, strong parameters for the MOU between the stated parties with these inclusions:
- The MOU must delineate an agreement between the parties to specifically study and pursue alternatives outlined by Mayor Turner in his letter to Commissioner Ryan.
- The MOU must address the outstanding adverse impacts outlined in the Mayor’s document, especially the displacement of people and businesses. Specifically, the MOU should include language that seeks to eliminate displacement of people and businesses or provide further mitigation to those who are displaced, as the Mayor outlined in his letter.
- The MOU must include a decision to halt or withdraw funding to TxDOT should the project fail to address the very real concerns of residents – taxpayers – who live adjacent to the project.
Additionally, I am calling on the TPC to agree to that the MOU between the stated parties should include these considerations.
- The MOU must include a statement requesting the parties to provide ongoing engagement with the public regarding the NHHIP.
- The MOU must urge TxDOT to separate further review and completion of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process for Segment 3 from that for Segments 1 & 2. A new interlocal agreement between the parties pursuant to Texas Transportation Code, Section 201.209, and Chapter 791, Texas Government Code could accomplish this separation of the NEPA process for Segment 3. The new interlocal agreement could also set out TxDOT and the City’s agreement on the agency’s review of the City’s recommendations, as briefly summarized in Commissioner Ryan’s response. The NEPA provides TxDOT with considerable flexibility, and the law itself does not prevent a NEPA review having a single Draft Environmental Impact Statement but being completed as two separate Final Environmental Impact Statements and Record-of-Decisions. Segmentation is only improper if it is used to evade NEPA review—an issue not found here.
It is imperative that the TPC take action to address the real concerns that numerous stakeholders and residents have identified concerning the inequitable consequences of the NHHIP on Black and Latinx communities.
Oni K. Blair