In her forthcoming book, journalist Megan Kimble tells the stories of residents and activists affected by—and resisting—highway expansion projects in Austin, Dallas, and Houston.

Houston in the summer is lush and buzzing, sweat soaked and full of life. The terra-cotta pots assembled on the front porch of the last house on Ishmeal Street overflow with flowers and escaping vines. In the front yard, an old well—a round brick cylinder covered by a corrugated steel roof—brims with zinnias. Heavy purple hydrangeas lean over a cinder-block planter. Sunk into the grass in front of a hedgerow, a bright red yard sign reads, “Freeway—No Way!”

Molly Cook pulls up in her chrome minivan—the only car that will fit her harp, which she still plays—and gets out carrying clipboards and a stack of postcards. She greets Elda and Jesus Reyes, the couple who live in this house next to the highway. On the eastern edge of their property is an unpaved drainage ditch, six feet across. Beyond that is a fence and then the back side of a strip mall, a row of parking spots, and then, finally, Interstate 45. Molly gives a clipboard and stack of postcards to Elda and Jesus and the three Stop TxDOT I-45 volunteers who have come out on this sweltering Saturday to canvass the neighborhood. Elda brings out cold water bottles from inside the house, the condensation dripping onto her jeans.

Although it had promised to “expedite its efforts,” the Federal Highway Administration’s pause on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project had dragged on throughout the summer. A few weeks earlier, at the Texas Transportation Commission’s monthly meeting, J. Bruce Bugg Jr. threatened to pull funding for the entire project from the Texas Department of Transportation’s ten-year plan. The projected cost of the NHHIP had increased to $9 billion, which represented 12 percent of the state’s total funding for transportation projects, Bugg reported at the commission’s meeting. He was disappointed that 12 percent of the state’s transportation budget was being held hostage by the Federal Highway Administration.

“This is absolutely unprecedented that the Texas Department of Transportation is facing a situation like this on as major of a project and impactful a project . . . We’re about to break ground and then we find ourselves being halted right literally in our tracks,” he said. He proposed putting the project back out for public comment, offering a take-it-or-leave-it proposition: accept the project as it had been designed or remove the project from TxDOT’s ten-year plan and allocate the discretionary funding elsewhere in the state.

This is a sham survey, Molly says now. It presents a false choice, forcing Houston residents to accept a highway widening or risk losing funding for safety and drainage and transit access. All week, Stop TxDOT I-45 had been knocking on doors across Houston, asking people to fill out the poll TxDOT released on SurveyMonkey. “Instead of working with the community, TxDOT wants to just take their toys and go home,” she says. “So we’re calling their bluff, telling them to remove the funding until they can come up with a better project.”

Molly heads a block north to Red Ripple Road as Elda and Jesus begin to work their way down Ishmeal. “Buenos días,” Elda says, whenever someone opens a door—assuming, correctly, that everyone on their street speaks Spanish. Most people on Ishmeal have never heard of the highway expansion. Largely, TxDOT’s outreach has been in English, which many people in this neighborhood—including Elda—don’t speak. And why would anyone pay attention? The project had been in the works for a decade. In the meantime, Houstonians had been hit by a hurricane and a devastating winter storm; people had more urgent disasters to fight. Still, Jesus is frustrated that so few of his neighbors know about the project. “It doesn’t affect them,” Jesus says.

Elda grew up in a small town in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a couple hours south of the border. She moved to Houston after she married Jesus, whom she met through a friend. Was it love at first sight? I ask. “For him,” she quips. She had never imagined herself living in such a big city, driving on its fast, tangled highways. Jesus worked as a carpenter, and Elda stayed home to raise their three kids. After a decade moving from apartment to apartment, in 2004 they got a realtor and started looking to buy a house. When they first pulled up outside the house on Ishmeal Street, Elda looked across the street at a used-car lot, hidden behind a corrugated metal fence. She looked at the small house. She didn’t want to get out of the car. Jesus persuaded her to go inside. She pointed out the small kitchen, the one bathroom the five of them would have to share. Jesus pointed out the big yard. He said, “We’ll fix it up. We’ll make it ours.” As for the impound lot across the street, well, at least they wouldn’t have problems with their neighbors. The Northside, a majority-Hispanic community, was affordable and quiet. There wasn’t much traffic on the dead-end street, so their kids could play outside. And they could afford the monthly payments—just over $500 a month—on Jesus’s salary alone.

“Honestly, it wasn’t the house of my dreams,” Elda says. But it was a start. On nights and weekends, Jesus tore out the tiny kitchen cabinets and built new ones, varnished in rich chestnut. He redid the baseboards and installed new crown molding, intricately patterned. They installed new doors, new windows. They scoured Houston for furniture and hung framed family photos on the walls. “You start falling in love when you add little touches; you start liking it more and more,” Elda says. They planted fruit trees in their backyard—peach and plum and avocado—and waited for them to flower.

In the spring of 2019, Elda and Jesus paid off their mortgage. The house was theirs, free and clear. Three months later, Elda arrived home from work, checked the mail, and found a pamphlet from TxDOT. It was printed in Spanish as well as English, so she sat down to read it. “The Texas Department of Transportation is exploring and refining alternatives to address the continued growth facing the Houston area,” it began. Since 2011, the agency had held many public meetings on the North Houston Highway Improvement Project. This was the first Elda had heard of it. She kept reading. “To construct NHHIP, TxDOT would acquire approximately 450 acres of new right-of-way . . . TxDOT is already working to acquire some properties and in the coming months will be rolling out a project-specific relocation assistance program.” Elda turned on her computer and found the right-of-way maps online. The proposed footprint of the expansion was rendered in translucent red, a watercolor wash over the city. The right-of-way line ran directly through their home.

Elda was devastated. “Many people don’t understand because they say, ‘Well, that’s an old house.’ Well, yes, but we’ve all lived here, it’s our first house.” She didn’t want to move. Her family’s memories were contained in this house. It was where her kids had grown up—“where they had become themselves.” And where would they go? Houses had become so expensive in Houston. “It’s ugly. Now I understand people who, for example, lose their homes in a fire. I understand that feeling of losing everything,” Elda says. “Like how a hurricane takes everything with it. It’s not the value . . . it’s the sentimental value.”

Now, as they walk slowly down their street, Elda feels slightly more hopeful. So many people are affected, she insists. Surely they won’t go through with this. Elda and Jesus have never canvassed before—never knocked on strangers’ doors to ask for something. But if their neighbors won’t help them, who will?

Midway down the block, a middle-aged man invites Elda and Jesus into his home before he hears why they are at his doorstep. “It’s so hot outside, come in, come in,” he says. He pulls out seats and offers cold bottled water before asking, in Spanish, “What can I help you with?”

“We live down at the end of Ishmeal,” Elda says. The man sits in a swiveling office chair. “We’re directly affected by the I-45 expansion. We’re going door to door to try to get signatures, but through an online survey.” The man sees the QR code on the flyer she’s just handed him and goes to get his smartphone. “I wasn’t sure when that was going to happen,” he calls from the other room. He’d heard about the project years ago but lost track of it.

“It’s on a pause,” Jesus says. “We’re trying to get people who support us to see if we can stop it permanently.” The man returns, nodding. “Many people support it because they say the traffic is bad and they want to fix traffic,” Elda says. “But if you expand the highway, it will just fill up with more cars. And if there are more cars on the highway, there will be more pollution.” The man nods. He, too, understands the phenomenon of induced demand. “They are going to displace other people. We don’t know where we’re going to go. Home prices are so high,” Elda says. The man pulls up the survey on his phone. He thanks Elda and Jesus for stopping by. “Good luck,” he says.

Meanwhile, a block north on Red Ripple Road, Molly knocks on the door of a low-slung redbrick house. Someone who lives at this house loves to garden; potted ferns and hanging pothos frame the porch, which is shady and cool. A Black man in his sixties answers the door, his face a question mark. Molly jumps right in: “I’m with a group fighting the I-45 expansion. Have you heard about that?” she asks. The man, named Mike, shakes his head. “We’re trying to stop it from happening, basically,” Molly says. “It’s supposed to take a thousand homes. There’s a lot of public pushback.”

“Where will it go?” Mike asks.

Molly points down his street; there, she says. “It’s going to be much closer to you guys.”

Ever the nurse, Molly has excellent bedside manner. She’s direct and to the point, adept at swiftly explaining complicated procedures. She knocked on a hundred doors a day when Beto O’Rourke ran for the U.S. Senate, and it shows: She is indefatigable, unintimidated. “Don’t you think TxDOT should have to go door to door, just like we’re doing, sweating on the streets?” she says to me, as we continue walking. A few doors down, Molly meets a guy in his thirties named Sebastian. He leans against his door frame, the air-conditioning rushing out into the heat. The expansion plan is news to him. The highway will get wider, Molly says, on both sides. “What are they going to do with Mattress Mack?” Sebastian exclaims, his first response. “That’s the man around here. How are you going to shut him down? He takes care of the neighborhood.”

Mattress Mack is Jim McIngvale, a 71-year-old Houston celebrity and furniture salesman. Mattress Mack, famously, gives away mattresses when the Houston Astros win the World Series. Year-round, a sign outside Gallery Furniture announces, “If The Astros Win It All, Your Mattress Is Free.” In 2017, when the Houston baseball team won the World Series, Mattress Mack refunded $10 million to customers who had bought mattresses during the playoff run.

Mattress Mack has stood behind the customer service desk at Gallery Furniture almost every day since 1981, when he and his wife opened the storefront on the frontage road. From this perch, he can see I-45. He has looked at the highway twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for forty years. He watched it when it flooded during Hurricane Harvey—when he opened up the store as a shelter and invited hundreds of people to sleep on display beds and couches—and when it froze over during Winter Storm Uri and he again opened the store to hundreds of people who had lost power. “We need extra lanes on that highway like I need a hole in my head,” he tells me when I swing by the store on my way back downtown. “I think it’s going to destroy the Northside for ten years and put a lot of people out of their homes.”

Mattress Mack is a Republican. He is a small government guy, a longtime supporter of the tea party. In 2020, he was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to serve on the Strike Force to Open Texas, which reopened the state for business during the COVID-19 pandemic. The highway expansion is “a big government boondoggle,” he says. The expansion would consume a small sliver of his parking lot, but that’s not what he finds offensive. “It’s for the fat cats: the highway department and the contractors. Not the people on the Northside who are grinding out a living. These people are on the edge. They don’t need more grief coming at them.” A $9 billion highway was the last thing the government should be spending its money on. “It’s a boondoggle for everyone. How much more money can we waste?” He’d heard about TxDOT’s survey. “I guess the newest thing is an either-or,” he says. “Either you do everything or you get nothing. That’s a mafia pitch. An offer you can’t refuse.”

From the book City Limits: Infrastructure, Inequality, and the Future of America’s Highways by Megan Kimble. Copyright © 2024 by Megan Kimble. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.