Cite Civil Rights concerns, Seek further Study
HOUSTON – The Federal Highway Administration is invoking the Civil Rights Act to pause a highway project near Houston, a rare move that offers an early test of the administration’s willingness to wield federal power to address a long history of government-driven racial inequities.
The FHWA’s intervention follows complaints from local activists that the state’s proposed widening of Interstate 45 would displace an overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic community, including schools, places of worship and more than 1,000 homes and businesses.
It also comes as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has identified racial equity as a major priority for his department — after decades in which federal highway money has paid for projects that leveled minority and low-income communities.
“I think this project is the poster child for [the administration’s] policies,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat representing the Houston area, who has joined local officials in challenging the project.
In a March 8 letter to the state, the Federal Highway Administration, citing complaints from local activists and Jackson Lee, requested that the Texas Department of Transportation hold off on its expansion of I-45, including initiating more contract solicitations, until the federal DOT has time to review civil rights and environmental justice concerns.
Federal officials could ultimately allow the project to proceed, but the action to freeze it at all, and in particular DOT’s use of civil rights laws to underpin that decision, has buoyed activists on the ground and surprised even seasoned regulators in Washington.