Toll road debate heats up — again
By Craig Kapitan – Express-News
Two factions that have harbored a running argument in recent years over the fate of a congested stretch of U.S. 281 just beyond North Loop 1604 are at it again.
Each side has held news conferences over the past two weeks — the most recent one on Friday — accusing the other of pulling a bait-and-switch on San Antonio residents.
Representatives for Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, both of which oppose a “mega toll road” in the area, stood near U.S. 281 and Stone Oak Parkway on Friday to take aim at the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority.
“The public is sick and tired of the misleading information, broken promises and outright lies,” TURF founder Terri Hall said.
The mobility authority, she added, “will say and do anything … to gain access to our wallets and build a $1.4 billion boondoggle of a toll road.”
The dispute now hinges on a five-story, $140 million interchange project that would link 281 and 1604 on the south side of the intersection. Ramps on the north side of the loop would be built at a later time.
The mobility authority, which would oversee the project, announced recently that construction on the southern ramps could begin within the year thanks to $80 million in federal stimulus money.
The only catch, agency representatives have said, is the threat of a lawsuit from the opposition groups. With projects required to be “shovel ready” to receive stimulus money, a delay caused by a lawsuit could sink the whole endeavor, officials said.
In his own news conference last week, mobility authority chairman Bill Thornton railed against the groups. The ramps built with federal money would be nontoll, he said, adding that it would be disingenuous for the anti-toll groups to now say they’re opposed because of environmental concerns.
But the problem, Hall said Friday, is that building a large-scale interchange lays the groundwork for a large-scale tollway in the future.
Instead, she said, the stimulus money should be used to relieve traffic by building smaller-scale, less environmentally destructive overpasses at U.S. 281 intersections that currently have stoplights.
The mobility authority is overreacting about the possibility of a lawsuit, she said, explaining that her group and AGUA haven’t yet decided whether to file one.
“We are not interested in endless litigation,” Hall said, adding that it is their only weapon for negotiation.
Another problem, she and others said Friday, is that the mobility authority is trying to get around developing an environmental impact statement on the interchange by using an exemption intended only for minor projects with little impact. A set of five-story ramps is not a minor project, they said.
But what the groups neglect to mention, mobility authority spokesman Leroy Alloway responded, is that three of the stories for the ramps already are in existence at the intersection.
Further, the Federal Highway Administration has sent signals that it would be impossible to build overpasses with the stimulus money, Alloway said. That would require the building of on- and off-ramps and access roads, which would have a major impact and necessitate a lengthy environmental study, he said.
“It’s badly needed,” he said of the proposed interchange. “We recognize their concern, but we question its validity. It starts looking like a straw argument.”
During last week’s news conference, the mobility authority announced the launching of 411on281.com — part of a new public relations campaign to promote the road projects. TURF and AGUA responded Friday with Operation: Meltdown the Phones — a new campaign urging residents to call local politicians while stuck in traffic. The project is outlined at FixGridlock.com.
The anti-toll groups also are expected to show up at City Hall today for a public hearing on stimulus funds. It begins at 10 a.m.