Thursday, January 12, 2006

FHA orders TxDOT to halt 281 Toll Road construction

Toll Road Construction Halted


Jim Forsyth
San Antonio, Texas

The Federal Highway Administration today agreed with state transportation officials and ordered the Texas Department of Transportation to immediately stop work on construction of new toll lanes of US HIghway 281 outside 1604, in a major victory for toll road opponents, 1200 WOAI news has learned.

TxDOT had requested federal intervention in the face of a lawsuit filed by environmental groups seeking a permanent halt to the construction.

A letter from assistant FHA Administrator Achille Alonzi to TxDOT Executive Director Michael Behrens says 'our prior environmental clearances on the two US 281 projects are hereby withdrawn in recognition of the issues raised by the public,' most significantly, whether the construction projects violate federal and state environmental laws.

Alonzi said a 'full Environmental Impact Statement' may be required, a process that could delay the toll road plan by several years. Currently, the Federal Highway Administration will require a less involved Environmental Assessment and then will determine how to proceeed. Alonzi said previous approval was granted based on the fact that the new toll lanes will follow an existing highway, and will not cut across undeveloped land.

The Texas Toll Party and Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, an anti toll and an environmental group, filed suit late last month demanding a full Environmental Impact Statement by completed.

"A project of this scale, in an extremely vulnerable water supply area and with major ramifications for transportation, public safety, and development, demands the most thorough analysis of all costs, benefits, and consideration of alternatives that better serve the public, said attorney Bill Bunch, who filed the lawsuit.

TxDOT had begun early brush clearing and grading work for the new lanes of 281 and immediately ran into trouble, breaking into a sewage line and spilling raw sewage over the entire area.

Bill Barker, a transportation consultant associated with the Texas Toll Party, applauded today's decision.

'We need road improvements, but there is a difference between just building roads and really solving transportation problems," he said. "With a fresh start on the planning of this corridor, I am optimistic that a long term solution will emerge."

Today's ruling affects only the construction plans on Highway 281. The San Antonio Regional Mobility Authority has envisioned a wide ranging program of toll road construction, including new lanes of Loop 1604, Bandera Road, and Interstate 35. But the 281 project, the so called 'starter system,' was the centerpiece of the RMA's construction plans.

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