Majority don’t want toll lanes on 281, angry citizens said at new public meetings

Express-News article link here.

Most at meetings down on toll roads
Web Posted: 04/01/2006 12:00 AM CST
Patrick Driscoll
Express-News Staff Writer

If it were up to people willing to voice their opinions at public meetings, toll lanes would never get built on U.S. 281.

Dozens of speakers unloaded their grievances about the toll-road plan to raucous applause from hundreds of residents at two meetings this week.

If the Texas Department of Transportation wants to widen U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Comal County, they can cancel projects in other parts of the city to come up with the money, two out of three people said in a questionnaire sent back to TxDOT this month.

“How many other ways can we say no?” said real estate agent Nancy Strack, who spoke at Thursday’s public meeting at Bush Middle School. “Are you listening to us?”

About 550 people attended the meetings at two North Side schools, and a majority of more than 50 speakers lashed out at TxDOT’s proposal to rebuild U.S. 281 into a tolled expressway with free frontage roads.

Critics who stepped to the microphone Thursday outnumbered toll advocates 3 to 1, and many were hot.

“I’m outraged, absolutely incensed by TxDOT’s refusal to admit that there are other options other than toll roads,” Mike Gravett said. “It’s absolutely appalling.”

Proponents, who also got some applause — though much lighter — argued that tolls are the best way to speed up needed highway projects.

“I’ve wasted enough of my life,” John Houston said. “I’m an expert at sitting in traffic. I’m tired of it. Enough is enough. We need to do something about this.”

Many opponents said TxDOT should have built five overpasses at intersections on U.S. 281 as planned several years ago. The agency has $84 million in gas tax funds to build four overpasses and three miles of express lanes and frontage roads.

By tolling the express lanes, officials said they could get additional money decades sooner to help pay for three more overpasses, four more miles of toll express lanes, toll ramps at the Loop 1604 interchange and new toll lanes for Loop 1604.

“We can fix any one problem but we can’t fix all the problems without doing something different,” said David Casteel, TxDOT’s head engineer in San Antonio.

Most critics and advocates agree there is a traffic problem on U.S. 281.

About 91,000 cars a day traveled the highway just north of Loop 1604 in 2004, up from 8,600 in 1980, according to TxDOT. Nine people were killed and more than 700 injured in crashes on a seven-mile stretch from 1998 to 2001.

Three out of four people say the highway should be expanded, indicates a TxDOT questionnaire given to neighborhood groups, businesses and government officials with a stake in the project.

If more money is needed to widen U.S. 281, then other projects should be canceled, 65 percent of the 97 respondents said.

And forget about raising taxes or waiting up to 25 years to get the work done, 71 percent said.

“No one thinks the do-nothing solution is acceptable,” said Clay Smith, TxDOT’s planning engineer in San Antonio. “Everybody said do something.”

Work on the first three miles of U.S. 281 was scheduled to begin in January, but federal officials pulled their environmental clearances after a lawsuit was filed that says impacts hadn’t been studied enough.

Now state officials are redoing their environmental evaluations, which could last two to seven years and cost up to $2.8 million. Work will be pushed back two to 11 years, finishing between 2010 and 2019, and inflation might run the project cost up 5 percent a year.