Saturday, December 03, 2005

AGUA files suit against TxDOT: "We're not shooting blanks. "

Group sues to stop toll road


Anton Caputo
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2005

A local group committed to protecting the Edwards Aquifer is suing to stop the toll road being built along U.S. 281.

Crews started construction this week on the first leg of a toll road system that could eventually run 47 miles along U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 in North San Antonio.

Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas believes state transportation officials have rushed the project and ignored their responsibility to conduct an environmental impact statement.

The group filed a suit in federal court in San Antonio on Friday against the Texas Department of Transportation. It's an effort to stop work on the highway that could eventually span 16 lanes at its widest and run, in part, over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

"A project of this magnitude, the start of a billion-dollar toll road system largely built over the single source of water for this region, clearly calls for an environmental impact statement," said Bill Barker, a transportation engineer working with Aquifer Guardians.

The state did perform an environmental assessment of the project in 1984 and re-evaluated that study in 2000 and 2004. But an environmental assessment is a lesser analysis than an environmental impact statement and inadequate given the scope of the project, Barker said.

For instance, the 2004 assessment dedicated a single paragraph to the potential impact of the roadway on the Edwards Aquifer, according to the suit.

State transportation officials had not seen the suit and could not comment on it, said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Gaby Garcia.

"Generally speaking, the need for toll roads is pretty evident across the state," she said. "You can drive down Interstate 35 at any given time of the day and see that it is pretty well congested. That's the hard reality."

The Austin-based People for Efficient Transportation joined Aquifer Guardians in the suit. The groups have contracted with attorney John Fritschie of the well-known Austin-based environmental activist organization Save Our Springs Alliance.

Aquifer Guardians President Enrique Valdivia, who is an attorney specializing in environmental issues, said the group probably will ask a judge to temporarily stop construction while the legal issues are settled.

Valdivia wouldn't hazard a timetable for the litigation but said an environmental impact statement could take up to a year for a project the size of the toll road.

Barker said the group is in it for the long haul.

"It was very clear from the start that the only way to get the attention of this public agency was to go to court," Barker said. "We're not shooting blanks. We believe that we have a very strong legal argument."

© 2005 San Antonio Express-News: