President Joe Biden’s Department of Transportation (DOT) has paused a highway widening project in Houston, Texas, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as legal justification.
In what could be a first for any administration in this context, the Biden administration is using its federal powers to pause the Texas DOT plan to widen Interstate 45. The administration is doing this as a test to address what it calls a history of “government-driven racial inequalities.”
This comes after complaints from local activities during the federal DOT’s intervention period. The proposed plan, known as the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, is proposed to widen I-45 at three different sections.
The Texas DOT’s completed environmental review of the project in February found it would have a significant impact on the surrounding communities the highway currently runs through. It would reportedly displace a substantial number of black and Hispanic communities, including schools, places of worship, and more than 1,000 homes and businesses.
Biden’s transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, claims he will make what he calls “systemic racism” the centerpiece of his time at the department, consistent with Biden’s Executive Order 13985.
Title VI is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs that are receiving federal financial assistance.
Federal officials involved in this could eventually allow the project to take place. Politico reported, “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.”
Permanently blocking this project could pose an uphill battle for the administration. Many lawyers say the administration will have to prove that widening the highway route in specific areas is intentionally discriminating against minority groups. Others note the Biden administration could try to persuade courts to agree that because the highway’s widening affects more minorities than whites, it should be considered a Title VI violation even with no evidence of discriminatory intent.
If the federal DOT would be able to successfully bock the start of this project, countless other federally funded programs could be deemed illegal.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), a Democrat who represents the Houston area, joined local officials to challenge the project. In her complaint, she urged holding off on the expansion, including starting on contract solicitation until the federal DOT has time to review the plans, including the civil rights and environmental concerns. Jackson Lee said, “I think this project is the poster child for [the administration’s] policies.”
Fred Wagner, former general counsel at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), said, “This is a big deal … It just doesn’t happen very often.”