281/1604 Interchange to get stimulus funds

03/06/2009

Ramps linking 281, 1604 get funding

AUSTIN — A spurt of federal stimulus dollars soon will help douse one of San Antonio’s worst daily traffic flare-ups.Four ramps directly linking North Loop 1604 to U.S. 281 on the south side of the loop could be open within four years, thanks to the Texas Transportation Commission’s decision Thursday to pour in $60 million in stimulus money from Congress.

The commission also threw in $60 million in state bond funds for the $140 million project. San Antonio’s Metropolitan Planning Organization is putting up $20 million of its local share of federal stimulus handouts.

“It is just new money from heaven,” said Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which had intended to charge tolls at all eight ramps envisioned at the interchange.

The four new ramps wouldn’t charge a toll, but they could connect to future toll lanes along with freeway lanes.

In all, the commission Thursday allocated $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds — including $783.2 million on toll or toll-related projects — despite calls for delay from tollway foes and other critics.

Toll opponents in general object to the large share of the projects that are toll-related, saying it amounts to paying twice for the same road — with the taxpayer-financed stimulus funds and with tolls.

Texas Department of Transportation officials said the use of several sources of funds allows more construction to be done and that such leveraging meets federal requirements. The $1.2 billion in stimulus funds approved Thursday will be part of $2.6 billion in overall construction, the agency’s John Barton said.

The commission, which once before had delayed action on the $1.2 billion in projects, declined calls for another postponement from toll critics, environmentalists, some lawmakers and officials whose projects didn’t get funded.

“The opinion of this commission, and certainly my opinion, was the more we delayed, the more we were delaying putting Texans to work,” said Deirdre Delisi, the commission chairwoman. “If today’s action means that we prevented one Texan from being laid off or we’re helping contractors to hire more Texans, I’m very pleased with that action.”

Although the commission didn’t slow up, it did make some changes in its proposed allocation of the stimulus funds for predominantly new construction projects Thursday and in $505 million in stimulus spending for road and bridge maintenance that it approved last week.

The changes came after state Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, who heads the House committee overseeing the spending of stimulus funds in Texas, voiced concern over whether the commission had directed enough of the money toward economically distressed areas, as required by the federal government.

The commission added projects in some counties classified as economically distressed after getting further guidance from the federal government. Also in Bexar County, the commission allocated $10 million in stimulus dollars, which the local planning board will match with $4 million from another fund, to widen several miles of Loop 1604 near Randolph AFB to four lanes.

The wider road will help handle growing traffic from jobs being added to the base, said Clay Smith, a Texas Department of Transportation planner. Not long after the current interchange was built about two decades ago, it routinely became an amalgam of crawling cars and sizzling tempers as drivers negotiated access roads and traffic signals to get from one freeway to the other.

Stirring the pot were plans crafted about five years ago to fund the direct connecting ramps by charging a toll on them. Thornton, blistered for years over the toll push, often said the agency would build nontoll roads if there were money.

Now the agency has enough money for half the ramps, and cautious toll critics intend to hold Thornton to his promise.

“If it stays nontoll, that would be fantastic,” said Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

Construction could start in a year and finish by 2013, when an estimated 50,000 motorists a day would soar into blue sky to get through a five-level interchange. Overall, Texas’ share of stimulus funding for roads and bridges is $2.25 billion, including $1.7 billion under the commission’s purview and $500 million overseen by metropolitan planning organizations.

That stimulus money will be part of $3.4 billion in total construction, creating an estimated 90,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to TxDOT. Staff Writer Peggy Fikac reported from Austin.

 
 
 

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