Harris County Files Environmental Complaint

On Thursday, Harris County, Texas, filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and its executive director claiming that its approved plan for expanding Highway 45 (I-45) will be harmful to the environment and the people in the county and breaches federal laws. 

Specifically, the county asked the Southern District of Texas for declaratory and injunctive relief based on breached provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Department of Transportation Act. It claimed that the project should have been considered more carefully, specifically in how it impacts the people, the region, and the environment. 

The planned highway expansion, named the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, would stretch from “south of downtown Houston north to Beltway 8,” and would also remove the Pierce Elevated section and re-route the highway, so that it goes east and north of downtown Houston. 

According to the county, the TxDOT officials who designed the project “ignored serious harms, disregarded the concerns of the communities impacted by the Project, and brushed off the numerous comments they received as part of their flawed (Environmental Impact Statement) process.” The complaint further claimed that the defendants had decided what they would do and made the decision without completing the required procedures, which are meant to keep governmental bodies from “arbitrary and capricious decision-making.” 

In its argument, the plaintiff claimed that the project would have a negative impact on its government interests to improve air and water quality, because the project will increase stormwater runoff and the drainage ditches would likely have “increased loads of pollutants,” because of construction and additional traffic.  Additionally, the county alleged that during construction there would be detrimental impacts to air quality as traffic is increased and detours cause longer drives. 

Reportedly, Harris County has been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “serious nonattainment area” in 2008 and 2015, and the county is involved in programs to monitor air quality. Further, the county explained that its roads are important for emergency management and since the planned construction period would span multiple hurricane seasons it would require an altered evacuation plan. 

Harris County claimed that the transportation project should benefit everyone, including bicyclists and pedestrians, and that the highway improvement project could be used to “enhance our region’s image, and advance economic opportunity, while enriching our quality of life and mitigating the worst impacts.” 

The county claimed it did not want to cancel the highway improvement project, but that the defendants should take into account federal laws while creating the plan. Reportedly, the plan would have a negative impact on the county, reducing public access to downtown, displacing businesses and homes, and taking property used by the county. 

The county, represented by its own attorneys, asked the court to rule that the defendants violated the law and require it to respond to comments and make the necessary disclosures under the National Environmental Policy Act. Harris County also asked the court to grant them a permanent injunction vacating the approval and remanding it back to the department.