Is freeway expansion in Houston causing a greater cultural divide?

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As Houston continues to grow, so do its highways.

Construction, however, could have an adverse impact on people living in areas along those highways.



"There's just a lot of things I love about this area," said Sean Jefferson Jr. about his home along I-10 near the northeast side of town.

He and his family have lived there for the past decade. Jefferson said he's concerned highway expansion will displace his family.

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"We've all been together since we were kids, and with this expansion coming up, I don't know what's going to happen," he said. "I don't know where we're going to go."

Jefferson is referring to TxDOT's North Houston Highway Improvement Project, also known as NHHIP.

This project would expand 23 miles of the freeway, including the downtown loop. Construction could displace many residents.

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Jefferson is concerned if he and his family aren't displaced now, they will be pushed out eventually.

As of Thursday afternoon, TxDOT said the proposed project would displace residents of Clayton Homes and some of the buildings at Kelly Village, which are public housing properties administered by the Houston Housing Authority.

TxDOT is coordinating with the HHA regarding potential impacts. While the current project proposes those specific sites, freeway expansion has displaced many over decades.

Displacement due to construction is multi-generational for the Jeffersons. The family said relatives have been forced to move due to expansion decades ago.

TxDOT said as the region grows, expansion is necessary. The NHHIP proposed to transform the downtown loop and I-45, along with connecting freeways like I-10 and SH-288. One project is to move I-45 from the Pierce Elevated over to the east, along I-69. Years of studies showed TxDOT their plan will improve traffic flow.

READ ALSO: Here's what TxDOT says about putting parts of I-45 underground and flooding

"What we're trying to do is get traffic moving more efficiently and definitely safer," said TxDOT spokesperson Danny Perez.

Freeway expansion is weaved into Houston's history. As the city started to grow after World War II and the U.S. government invested in the highway system, so did Houston. Sometimes, though, it happened at a price more than the cost of construction for some.

"One of the problems is the neighborhoods that get impacted by highways don't have the power to say, 'Hey, we don't want to cut through our neighborhoods,'" said Kyle Shelton, the deputy director for Houston's Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

He's done years of research on the city's transportation, development and politics. Shelton even wrote a book on, it titled Power Moves. He said highways were a way to connect the suburbs to the city, but often times, at the cost of people living in low-income, minority neighborhoods.

"It was not a consideration to put a highway through River Oaks, not a consideration to put it through Memorial. The places that were impacted the most with the highest, biggest roads were places where political power was the weakest in the 60s and 70s," Shelton explained.

As the routes were set, over the years the same neighborhoods were impacted as expansion continued.

"It's really about the people that live here," said Susan Graham.

She founded the grassroots organization, "Stop TxDOT," in response to the NHHIP. The organization's biggest concern is the displacement of people. They believe they've made some headway in getting people's voices heard.

TxDOT said it tries to keep construction plans within their right-of-way, but sometimes, they have to expand past that. Since the earliest ideas started on the project in 2011, they've held more than 300 community meetings and five rounds of environmental study meetings.

TxDOT officials tell Eyewitness News they work with property owners and businesses to pay them fair market value for their property, and help them relocate. For renters, TxDOT said no one will be required to move without at least a 90-day written notice.

For the NHHIP, TxDOT has set aside more than $25 million to offer direct financial assistance to affordable housing providers to support specific affordable housing initiatives, including building and support programs that provide assistance to people living in affected neighborhoods.

"We work with folks. We're not just going to go in and say, 'We need the property,'" said Perez.

Although TxDOT works with people affected by these projects, relocation doesn't make up for the memories the Jeffersons would like to continue if it comes time for them to move.

"I want us to be a part of the planning and development of this new construction and give us a little more clarity on what our options are as opposed to just getting rid of us," said Jefferson.

In a continued effort to promote transparency and responsiveness to input on the project expressed by the community affected by the NHHIP, TxDOT has extended the time period for public review and comment of the Final Environmental Impact Statement from Nov. 9 to Dec. 9.

To learn more, visit the project's website.

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