April 07, 2021

Houston Highway Tests Biden’s Promise of Equitable Infrastructure

Posted on April 7, 2021 by Kelly Haragan

The Biden Administration has acknowledged the racist history of the U.S. interstate highway system and its ongoing negative impacts on many Black neighborhoods. Presidential Memorandum on Redressing Our Nation’s and the Federal Government’s History of Discriminatory Housing Practices and Policies (Jan. 26, 2001). Last week, the Administration announced its Infrastructure Plan, which allocates $115 billion to modernize 20,000 miles of roads and includes $20 billion for a program to “reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.”

Any early test of the Administration’s ability to advance racial equity while undertaking an infrastructure push is presented by the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. The project is a 10-year, $7 billion dollar, 24-mile highway project that would reroute and significantly expand large parts of Houston’s highway system. On March 8th, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) asked the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) to put the project on hold to allow FHWA to “evaluate the serious Title VI [Civil Rights] concerns raised” by Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee, Air Alliance Houston, and Texas Low Income Housing Information Services.

Three days later, on March 11, Harris County, Texas, filed suit against TxDOT alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to adequately consider alternatives without significant displacements, climate change impacts, and disproportionate impacts to minority and low-income populations. The complaint notes, “[t]he FEIS and its alternatives favor white communities while disproportionately impacting communities of color. Regardless of intention, the impacts of the Project would disadvantage low-income communities and people of color.”

The project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) acknowledges that the project’s three segments would impact communities that are 87%, 84%, and 74% people of color. Within these communities, the project would displace 160 single family homes, 433 multifamily residential units, 486 public and low-income housing units, 344 businesses, 5 places of worship and 2 schools. The FEIS concludes, however, that proposed mitigation would “substantially offset the adverse effects on minority and low-income populations that would result from construction.” FEIS at 3-15.

And yet, it is clear that significant and disproportionate negative impacts of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project would be borne by communities of color. The location of Houston’s highways and the larger U.S. highway system resulted from both express racial animus and systemic racism. It will be hard to remedy the impacts of that racism and prevent future disproportionate impacts while reconstructing existing infrastructure. Similarly, many BIPOC neighborhoods face disproportionate pollution impacts today because of past segregation, redlining, and restrictive covenants that intentionally placed communities of color adjacent to industrial zoning and infrastructure. Remedying the resulting disproportionate pollution exposure will not be easy.

Agencies, including FHWA and EPA, have regulations that prohibit recipients of federal funds from choosing to site a facility “with the purpose or effect of excluding persons from, denying them the benefits of, or subjecting them to discrimination under any program . . . on the grounds of race, color, or national origin.” 49 CFR §21.5(b)(3); 40 CFR §7.35(c). FHWA and EPA similarly have regulations that require recipients of federal funds to take affirmative action to remove or overcome the effects of prior discriminatory action. 49 CFR §21.5(b)(7); 40 CFR §7.35(d)(7).

It remains to be seen whether FHWA will find that the North Houston Highway Improvement Project violates Title VI and, if so, what kind of mitigation might be required. With the Houston project and the Administration’s infrastructure push, the Biden Administration has an opportunity to enforce civil rights laws, prioritize equity, and address the impacts of racism. Of course, that is far easier said than done.