Joe Zimmerman

Zimmerman

A contentious fight to stop the planned expansion of Interstate 45 through Houston has grown to draw a Fort Bend County elected official into its orbit.

A group called Stop TxDOT I-45 last week penned a letter accusing Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman of ethical misconduct for using his role on the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s transportation group to advocate for the project, which he could benefit from professionally as an employee of engineering and architecture firm Halff Associates, Inc. 

Zimmerman last week told the Fort Bend Star he’d asked officials with both the city of Sugar Land and the Houston-Galveston Area Council to double-check to make sure he hadn’t violated any ordinances, but assured readers he hadn’t done anything wrong, and that his support for the project wasn’t personally motivated.

“HGAC is in charge of advancing the transportation needs of the entire region,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not just Sugar Land or Fort Bend County, though this project would benefit everyone. And other elected officials on the committee are equally like-minded. We all come from different backgrounds and we’re looking at funding projects that will benefit the community decades from now.”

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has been advancing a controversial $7 billion project that would widen Interstate 45 from downtown north to Beltway 8 in Houston in an effort to improve traffic flow, hurricane evacuation routes and stormwater drainage, along with accommodating high-occupancy, electric and self-driving vehicles, according to The Leader.

The project has drawn the ire of activists such as those with the Stop TxDOT I-45 group as well as Harris County, which sued TxDOT over the plan in March. Opponents argue the freeway expansion would increase pollution and flooding risks, worsen traffic congestion and displace more than 1,000 homes and businesses in low-income communities of color.

The ongoing dispute over the project has even drawn the attention to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, which has asked TxDOT to halt progress on the project over civil rights concerns.

Stop TxDot I-45’s accusations against Zimmerman come as the latest salvo in the ongoing controversy surrounding the project.

The group’s claims center around Zimmerman’s position on the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Committee, which activists argue is unethical because he works for Halff Associates.

“Through his connections to his private employer, Halff Associates, Inc., Mayor Joe Zimmerman of Sugar Land has maintained conflicts of interest that violate multiple codes of ethics and undermine the TPC’s necessary impartiality in managing federal transportation funds,” according to the letter.

Officials with the TxDOT referred questions about the project to the council and Zimmerman.

Representatives with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Monday said they were looking into claims made by the group and would be responding shortly.

Zimmerman, however, called the accusations “poppycock” and said they were just a convenient way for the activists to try to thwart the project.

“We work with TxDOT to take federal transportation dollars and state transportation dollars and program them into projects important for the region,” Zimmerman said. “You’re looking for projects that could broadly improve congestion and evacuation routes for the region – projects where there have been a high number of deaths and accidents. And the I-45 project meets that. It’s a huge safety concern.”

Furthermore, the transportation committee holds no role in awarding construction contracts, Zimmerman said. By choosing to support the expansion project, Zimmerman isn’t advocating or in a position to decide who gets a contract.

The state lays out guidelines on how to award construction contracts, Zimmerman said.

“Advancing this project in no way impacts Halff favorably or unfavorably,” he said. “I’m serving the city of Sugar Land. If Halff wants to pursue a contract, I’m not a transportation engineer. I’m not involved in that side.”

Despite Zimmerman’s assurance that he hasn’t violated any city or council guidelines, he told the Star that he asked the Sugar Land city attorney to examine the city’s ethics policy to make sure he hasn’t violated any of it and that the Houston-Galveston Area Council is conducting an internal investigation to make sure he is fully compliant with the group’s ethics policy.

“We want to make sure we’re always transparent,” Zimmerman said.

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