Feds give green light for tolls on 281….but no so fast!

Link to article here.
The Federal Highway Administration suffers from short-term memory loss since it forced TxDOT to do a full EIS on Bandera Rd because the tolling was controversial, yet they unequally apply this policy to 281 and fail to call for a full EIS!

Of course, TxDOT also claims there are NO viable ALTERNATIVES to converting an existing highway into a toll road, IGNORING their own gas tax funded ORIGINAL PLAN to put overpasses at the stop lights, to expand the freeway and add frontage roads for one-sixth the cost of the toll road!

Costs have ballooned to 6 times the original pricetag, and footprint now up to 20 lanes wide!

From the Express-News article below –
“Costs for the first 3 miles ballooned from $80 million to $100 million, state officials said. And the latest figure for all 7 1/2 miles is now a whopping $600 million, almost twice the amount floated six years ago.”

OK this is INSANE! Just since SB 792 passed, the latest figure for the 281 toll plan was $400 million, now it’s up to $600!!!! I have the original plan in front of me. The entire 7 1/2 miles came to $100 million. The first 3 miles that were funded in 2004, came to $48 million, not $80 million as TxDOT told the Express-News.

Then TxDOT tried to claim that $80 million for just the 3 miles at January’s MPO meeting, but Commissioner Lyle Larson and others jumped in to challenge those figures and TxDOT’s arguments didn’t hold water.

A year ago during some of the toll road debates, Alamo RMA Chair Bill Thornton said the whole 281 corridor project was now $200 million (double the original gas tax plan). Then we were shocked to hear $400 million after SB 792 became law, now we read it’s $600! We have TxDOT District Engineer David Casteel ON CAMERA at the Leon Valley debate last spring admitting they had $100 million in gas taxes for 281 (which would pay for the original plan to be installed). Hear it here. Now they claim it evaporated into thin air and that the only viable alternative to bulldoze what’s there and rebuild it as a $600 million tollway (and that’s before they start gouging you with market-based tolls of 29 cents to 40 cents a mile?

Also, they’re playing more games… Judy Freisenhahn of TxDOT said at a stakeholder meeting on 281, with witnesses sitting right next to me, that the ORIGINAL plan INCLUDED overpasses, expanding the freeway to 6 lanes, AND adding 4 lanes of frontage roads. Now they’re saying the original gas tax funded plan didn’t include the frontage and their EA tries to dismiss outright by saying it doesn’t give access to businesses when it does! Now the toll lanes have gone from 6 to 10 and up to 10 frontage lanes makes the footprint for the tollway 20 lanes wide!

The flagrant lies, the GIGANTIC size of the tollway, and OUTLANDISH cost escalations by our highway department are CRIMINAL!!! They are OUT OF CONTROL!!!

So off to court to we go…

U.S. 281 tolls get a green light
By Patrick Driscoll

The Federal Highway Administration has cleared the latest environmental study for adding toll lanes to U.S. 281, drawing cheers from some and igniting protests from opponents who managed to stall the project early last year.Building six to eight toll lanes, replacing the existing highway with access roads and adding merging and turning lanes to 71/2 miles of U.S. 281 would not significantly impact people or the environment, says a letter sent Tuesday to the Texas Department of Transportation.

The letter doesn’t mention how tolls, which earlier studies indicate might start at 14 to 16 cents a mile, could affect driving habits or household budgets, but it does say the tollway is needed to reduce traffic congestion, make traveling safer and speed up construction.

“That is a great day for San Antonio and our region,” Joe Krier, president of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday. “If you’re one of the thousands of San Antonians who are not moving on 281, help is on the way.”

But a mishmash of activists, ranging from conservative to liberal, aren’t giving up and say they may file another lawsuit to force a more detailed study.

“There’s no way that’ll hold up in court,” said Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party. “They’re just going to toll an existing road over the loud objections of the vast majority.”

Controversy over a plan to add elevated toll lanes to Bandera Road was enough to prompt federal officials in April to call for a full-blown environmental study, which is what critics want for U.S. 281.

In December 2005, Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and People for Efficient Transportation Inc. filed a lawsuit for such detailed scrutiny of U.S. 281 toll lanes, and a month later work on the first three miles of the tollway was halted so TxDOT could do another study.

But the “assessment” approved Tuesday, which cost nearly $2 million, is not the more thorough “impact statement” the groups demanded.

“I assume it doesn’t address our complaint,” AGUA President Enrique Valdivia said.

AGUA may fold its concerns about U.S. 281 into a lawsuit filed last year to protect habitat for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, which is a roundabout way of fighting development on Edwards Aquifer recharge areas.

“We believe protecting the warbler habitat protects the aquifer for everyone who relies on pure water,” Valdivia said.

The width of the U.S. 281 tollway would range from 10 to 20 lanes from Loop 1604 to Borgfeld Road, covering another 70 acres with asphalt and concrete.

Such impervious cover is typically referred to as the bad boy of roads and development when it comes to aquifers, but the federal highway administration letter says sealing the ground could actually increase groundwater recharge.

“The additional pavement would potentially reduce recharge to the Trinity and Edwards Aquifers,” it acknowledges. “Conversely, it is also possible that this increase in impervious cover would increase the amount of runoff to streams, channels and/or other areas with a greater potential to recharge the aquifers.”

“Well, they’re trying to have it both ways,” said George Rice, a hydrologist and AGUA board member. “They seem to be trying to claim that something good will happen without presenting any evidence.”

Even if more water was somehow funneled into aquifers, he said, it would pick up more pollution from the wider road.

Hall and other critics have insisted TxDOT instead turn U.S. 281 into a freeway for 3 miles north of Loop 1604 and add non-toll bridges at two key intersections farther north, as planned several years ago. They say that would be cheaper, less intrusive and wouldn’t require tolls.

“They cannot justify coming in and tolling people for their lifetimes,” she said.

The federal letter says overpasses would speed up some traffic, but there would still be hazards from cars entering from driveways along the highway. Tollways, like freeways, tie the driveways to access roads rather than express lanes.

Construction of the U.S. 281 tollway could start early next year, but much has changed since a year ago.

A new state law bans leasing of the lanes to private companies, and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority has taken over the project from TxDOT.

Costs for the first 3 miles ballooned from $80 million to $100 million, state officials said. And the latest figure for all 71/2 miles is now a whopping $600 million, almost twice the amount floated six years ago.

The mobility authority could sell toll-backed bonds, borrow gas-tax funds from other projects or do both to get started.

“We have been in a position of watching while other communities were able to move forward with needed toll projects,” authority Chairman Bill Thornton said. “The Federal Highway Administration now means that our region can stop watching and waiting.”