Right in the Way: Generations of Highway Impacts in Houston

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles during April that examine the construction of the Interstate Highway System over the past seven decades. The series, titled Justice and the Interstates, opens up new areas for historical inquiry, while also calling on policy makers and the transportation and urban planning professions to hold themselves accountable for its legacies. Additional entries in the series can be found at the bottom of the page.

By Kyle Shelton

For decades, residents of Clayton Homes and Kelley Village, two of Houston’s largest public housing developments, witnessed the shape of their neighborhoods shift due to ever-changing highways bordering their communities. Each time a road widening was proposed, the communities and the residents had their worlds changed. Landscapes shifted. Routes to work and school were blocked. Homes and community institutions were displaced. While the residents, and many others like them, have absorbed these impacts for generations, at no point have these Houstonians had the chance to meaningfully shape the highway projects that impact them.

When it was originally built in the 1950s, Clayton Homes was situated along Buffalo Bayou, a stone’s throw from Houston’s central business district. Not more than a decade after opening, though, the Texas Department of Highways (now the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT)) built US Highway 59, now Interstate 69, on land adjacent to the community. A bridge went soaring over the edge of Clayton Homes. The new roadway obscured the view of the city and the city’s view of residents.

When the US 59/Interstate 10 interchange was built in the 1960s in the middle of the historically Black Fifth Ward, the eastern-running arm of Interstate 10 removed large swaths of buildings from the south and east sides of Kelley Homes. As I discuss in my book Power Moves, the intersecting highways decimated the Fifth Ward—bisecting the community and removing more than 900 structures in the footprint of the interchange alone.

Image of Fifth Ward Highways. From the book Power Moves: Transportation, Politics and Development in Houston, provided by author.

Today, each of these housing developments, and the broader communities in which they sit, are facing the impacts of yet another highway widening as TxDOT considers realigning Houston’s major interstates through its North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP). The multi-billion-dollar project would affect three highways within the central business district and widen several sections of Interstate 45 to the northwest. If the project comes to fruition as planned, many of the same communities that have been most directly impacted by Houston’s highway development will again bear the brunt of the expansion.

This story is repeated across the nation in highway-side communities.

The highway projects alongside Clayton Homes and Kelley Village homes also reshaped Houston’s landscape and development pattern. They altered neighborhoods and disrupted the ways folks navigated their local streets. They also set, in concrete, the course of decades of infrastructure development along the same, ever-wider rights of way. The State of Texas built hundreds of miles of highways in Houston in the 1960s and 1970s. All of the construction aimed to capture the city’s burgeoning growth and tie its increasingly suburban population to the central city by easing commutes into the central business district. Dozens of subdivisions in Houston were divided into pieces by roadways. Not just the Fifth Ward and East End, where Clayton Homes and Kelley Village stand, but also the Third Ward, Montrose, and Denver Harbor. Even if they took less of a physical toll overall, subsequent ring roads and spokes in the highway system sliced through first-generation suburban developments such as Memorial Bend. Over time, as these roads were expanded with widening and reconstruction projects, these same communities carried the burden of a region’s highway network.

The repetition of the highway construction cycle and its impacts on these communities illustrates what I refer to as the received wisdom of highways. Our cities have seen generations of infrastructure investments run through the same corridors because that’s where initial decisions placed them. Changing approaches to mobility or shifting where the impacts of those approaches fall is deemed to be too difficult, or too expensive, and so the damages compound. As this Metropole series shows, those compounded effects have fallen markedly on black and brown, mostly lower income communities over the decades. Shifting that status quo requires first recognizing and grappling with how generations of decisions, the process of repeated construction, and the very use of highways has shaped and reshaped lives in highway-side communities. In order to grapple with the historical impacts of highway construction we need to challenge this received wisdom and understand its parameters. That starts by recognizing the history that undergirds the projects and their planning. It means understanding how waves of highway projects build atop one another and see their impacts localized while their benefits are usually reserved for areas that are different from those absorbing the costs. It means listening to, validating, and acting on the voices of those repeatedly harmed.

Government officials and communities across the country have begun to grapple with the legacies of highway building. During the Obama Administration, then-USDOT Secretary Anthony Foxx explicitly called out the negative impacts highways had on black and brown communities. The U.S. Senate has recently considered legislation that would provide funding, via USDOT, to help fund the removal of outdated, disruptive highways in central cities. Some of this push builds on improving upon requirements for public participation in infrastructure decision making. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that federally funded projects forward plans at several stages and collect public input. While many agencies have invested years of planning and collected thousands of public comments for major projects, those efforts have rarely shown significant responsiveness. This is especially true for public recommendations calling for major alterations or halting of projects. Absent significant public and political pressure to do so, the public rarely receives the benefit of a response. The challenge that state DOTs and governments of all levels face now is to meaningfully grapple with and respond to engagement, not just record it.

Let’s return to the NHHIP project in Houston as an example of this challenge. The project’s planning process started in the early 2000s, with major project documents and public input beginning in earnest in the early 2010s. In the intervening years, thousands of public comments and reactions were recorded regarding the various iterations of the project. When I published my book in 2017, I lauded much of the work done to that point to open the door to participation and input. Especially when compared to projects and processes that unfolded during previous decades, where input was far less a priority. While many of the public comments that pertained to particular issues with the project have been addressed by TxDOT, the larger questions about significantly reshaping the roadway to reduce impacts have remained unanswered. 

When draft plan documents were released in the later stages of the planning process, major pushback emerged around the project, with advocates and impacted residents pushing to stop or rethink the project. While the full NHHIP project offers some elements that begin to address the disruptive history of Houston’s highways—namely the proposed removal of an elevated section of the highway through downtown or a couple of proposed deck parks (similar to Klyde Warren Park in Dallas, these would run over depressed sections of the new road)—the final form of those elements is either not settled, as in the case of the teardown, or the funding is not guaranteed, as in the case of the deck parks. Further, along the majority of the path the road is being widened, doubling up on historic rights-of-way and impacting communities that were initially hurt by the construction. Estimates include the removal of more than 1,200 homes and 330 businesses. An ongoing public conversation about the projects costs and benefits has persisted over the past several years.

In response to public pressure, both the City of Houston and Harris County have called for a deeper look at changing the project. Houston ran a separate public input process to collect alternatives and provide input as a part of its comments for the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The Mayor of Houston penned a letter suggesting the City would not support the project without seeing major movement. Throughout the finalization of the EIS, TxDOT argued that it would work with local officials to address the identified issues, but that those steps could be taken after the final record of decision.

In recent weeks, responses from local advocates and elected officials have made it clear that this path does not adequately respond to the public input processes. Harris County recently sued TxDOT to stop the process of building until input and environmental justice concerns are taken into deeper consideration. U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and local advocacy groups also asked the Federal Highway Administration to examine whether or not the plan violates civil rights laws. In response, the FHWA told TxDOT to stop the process until its investigation concludes. Both of these steps are significant political statements and are demands that TxDOT not just grapple with improving the immediate project, but that they also confront the historical legacies it would build upon.

Nationally, and in Houston, we are at a critical point with our infrastructure decision-making. Many of our largest highways are reaching a point where they need to be replaced or torn down. The choices cities, states, and the federal government make in the coming years can either redouble the negative impacts felt by highway-side residents or begin to center alternative approaches and transportation strategies that improve our collective mobility and address the wounds created by past decisions. 

Additional entries in the Justice and the Interstates series:

Kyle Shelton is the deputy director at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, where he leads research on urban development, transportation, and placemaking, as well as on urban and metropolitan governance. Shelton has a PhD in american history from The University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on how the intersections of transportation, urban development, and policy shape the built and natural environments of cities in the past and today. He is the author of Power Moves: Transportation, Politics and Development in Houston.

Featured image (at top): View of Houston from University of Houston located in downtown Houston, Texas. Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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