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Pause on Houston highway project partially lifted amid talks

December 1, 2021 GMT
Traffic flows south along Interstate 45 and the frontage road next to a sidewalk Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Houston. A $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it says is a history of racial inequity with infrastructure projects. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)
Traffic flows south along Interstate 45 and the frontage road next to a sidewalk Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Houston. A $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it says is a history of racial inequity with infrastructure projects. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)
Traffic flows south along Interstate 45 and the frontage road next to a sidewalk Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Houston. A $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it says is a history of racial inequity with infrastructure projects. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)
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Traffic flows south along Interstate 45 and the frontage road next to a sidewalk Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Houston. A $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it says is a history of racial inequity with infrastructure projects. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)
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Traffic flows south along Interstate 45 and the frontage road next to a sidewalk Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Houston. A $9 billion highway widening project being proposed in the Houston area could become an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it says is a history of racial inequity with infrastructure projects. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)

HOUSTON (AP) — The Texas Transportation Commission said it has reached an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration that would allow the state to resume design work on certain parts of a disputed project that would remake 24 miles along Interstate 45 and several other roadways in the Houston area.

The $9 billion project, which has been in the works for nearly two decades, was put on hold in March after the Federal Highway Administration began its investigation into civil rights and environmental justice concerns that were raised about the proposal.

Harris County, which includes Houston, filed a federal lawsuit alleging that state officials ignored the project’s impact on neighborhoods. Last month, the county paused its lawsuit in the hopes of resolving concerns about the project.

The dispute over the project comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has pledged to make racial equity a top priority at his department. The project is being seen as an important test of the Biden administration’s commitment to addressing what it has said is a history of racial inequity when it comes to U.S. infrastructure projects.

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Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation, commonly known as TxDOT, told the commission at its monthly meeting in Austin on Tuesday that they have had several productive meetings with the Federal Highway Administration about how the project could proceed and how the state could allay the concerns.

“Things are moving in what seems to be a very positive direction,” said the commission’s chairman, J. Bruce Bugg Jr.

The project’s critics, including community groups and some residents, say it won’t improve the area’s traffic woes and would subject mostly Black and Latino residents to increased pollution, displacement and flooding while not improving public transportation options.

The commission and other project supporters say it would enhance driver safety, help reduce traffic congestion, and address flood mitigation and disaster evacuation needs.

“While a partial release of the pause on the project is good news, the project has been on pause by (federal officials) now for nine months and still largely remains on pause. This delay has set the project back a couple of years at least,” said TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams.

The commission had said that if the federal government didn’t complete its investigation by the end of November, it might review whether to pull the project’s state funding during its Dec. 9 meeting.

But with the progress in the negotiations, Bugg seemed to back off on that scenario.

In a letter sent to Buttigieg on Tuesday by Stop TxDOT I-45 and 14 other community groups opposing the project, the organizations urged the transportation secretary to continue his agency’s probe.

The investigation “gives voice to residents whom TxDOT ignored. The purpose of this investigation is not to draw out the project for the sake of delay; (the Federal Highway Administration) must do its due diligence and investigate the very real impacts on the people of Houston. Houston deserves a project that truly prioritizes safety, centers the lived experience of those most impacted and brings our city into the equitable transportation future it so desperately needs,” the letter said.

The Federal Highway Administration hasn’t indicated when its review might be finished.

In a letter sent to the Texas Department of Transportation on Nov. 29, the Federal Highway Administration said as its investigation continues, it would consider letting the state agency resume buying property for the project from public and not-for-profit owners but not from individual home or business owners. The federal agency said it prefers to have a “voluntary resolution” of the concerns raised about the expansion project.

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Associated Press writer Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70