Express-News: 281 lawsuit makes front page

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Lawsuit challenges impact of toll road
By Patrick Driscoll

A long-running standoff over plans to morph part of U.S. 281 into a tollway — a spat that could lead to costly delays for motorists — headed to a federal court Tuesday.Toll road critics and environmental activists joined forces, once again, to file a lawsuit on the last day of a deadline to legally challenge the tollway’s latest environmental study.

The desperate effort could also be the last chance to scope down and strip out tolls from the planned 10- to 20-lane expressway, which would stretch 71/2 miles north of Loop 1604, and revert back to a freeway with half as many miles.

The 48-page lawsuit challenges the environmental study’s conclusion — that widening U.S. 281 and tolling the express lanes would not significantly harm people, wildlife or drinking water. Activists called the claim ridiculous.

The project would lay down asphalt and concrete on another 70 acres across Edwards Aquifer recharge and contributory zones north of Loop 1604, according to the study, which federal officials cleared last summer.

Even more acreage would get covered if toll lanes get added, as planned, to Loop 1604.

“This lawsuit is really about common sense,” said Enrique Valdivia, president of Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas. “We think paving over 300 acres of recharge is pretty significant to everyone who depends on the aquifer.”

Drivers would pay 17 cents a mile to use the express lanes in 2012, with rates rising annually with consumer inflation. Access roads would be left as the nontoll option.

“Charging a toll will only hurt local businesses and residents who have invested in the 281 corridor,” said Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. “Powerful special interests will profit from these tolls.”

The two groups, represented by Save Our Springs Alliance, filed the lawsuit in San Antonio to demand a more detailed impact study, which could take several more years to do.

They filed a similar lawsuit just more than two years ago, which stopped U.S. 281 tollway construction, but state officials simply redid the less-intensive assessment. The regurgitated study took more than a year to finish and cost $2 million.

Since then, construction costs soared by a third and traffic got worse, and toll advocates fear such trends only will continue. If inflation rises 5 percent to 8 percent a year, as the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority projects, delays will burn an extra $53,000 to $85,000 a day.

“We are hopeful for a quick resolution to this lawsuit, which is serving as nothing more than a delay tactic for groups who have been opposed to any real relief on the 281 corridor,” mobility authority Chairman Bill Thornton said.

Authority officials, who say the environmental study was thorough enough, are almost ready to select a private development team and then sell bonds for the $476 million tollway. Bulldozers are set to roll by summer, with toll lanes opening within four years.

If work on the first three miles of the tollway hadn’t been blocked two years ago, the job would be 90 percent complete, said Clay Smith of the Texas Department of Transportation, which recently gave the project to the mobility authority.

Motorists today would be driving on access roads that had better turnarounds, more turn lanes and a bridge over Redland Road that’s not there now, he said. Express toll lanes would be a year away from opening.

“It’s a shame that folks continue to want to keep the public in gridlock out there,” said Smith, who’s a planning engineer. “We’ve got a plan to solve the congestion.”

Hall and other critics say TxDOT caused the problem by converting a freeway- and overpass-plan for U.S. 281 into a tollway plan, and the agency along with the mobility authority have since refused to budge despite loud opposition.

Some of the $325 million in public subsidies set aside for toll roads in San Antonio should instead be spent on nontoll lanes, Hall said.

Toll promoters, including many in the road industry, say going back to a plan that does less is not good enough in the face of crushing growth.