Friday, January 13, 2006

"It's not just about stopping roads, it's about demanding that good planning be done."

281 toll road hits snag


Patrick Driscoll
Sanb Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

A band of environmental advocates and toll road critics, armed with a lawsuit, has stopped the Texas Department of Transportation from building toll lanes along U.S. 281 — for now.

Federal Highway Administration officials pulled their previous environmental clearances on U.S. 281 toll road projects that stretch from Loop 1604 to Comal County, freezing construction until another assessment can be done.

The new environmental assessment could take a year or more. Then federal officials will decide whether there are no significant impacts or if a more thorough impact study should follow as called for in the lawsuit filed Dec. 2 in federal court.

Opponents celebrated Thursday, some popping a bottle of bubbly, but remained cautious.

"We continue to believe that a full environmental impact statement is required," said Annalisa Peace of Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, which joined People for Efficient Transportation Inc. in the suit.

TxDOT officials, who for two years have said they'll build toll roads in San Antonio whether local leaders want them or not, confirmed Thursday that work has stopped on $104 million worth of U.S. 281 projects, including three miles of toll lanes just north of Loop 1604 and an underpass at Borgfeld Road.

"We regret any inconvenience to U.S. 281 travelers," TxDOT engineer Frank Holzmannan said in a statement, which noted that traffic north of Loop 1604 has grown from 8,600 vehicles a day in 1980 to more than 91,000 in recent years.

In late November, crews began clearing trees and putting up silt fences along U.S. 281 to prepare for construction of an $83 million segment of frontage roads and toll lanes — 16 lanes at the widest points — over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

Construction was supposed to start Monday but didn't.

The lawsuit says TxDOT should have done a better job evaluating effects on the aquifer, wildlife, air pollution, businesses, motorists who will pay tolls or fight increased traffic congestion, and residents facing unhealthy noise levels.

"Essentially, TxDOT got a ticket for bad planning," said local transportation consultant Bill Barker, who's helping with the suit. "It's not just about stopping roads, it's about demanding that good planning be done."

TxDOT should have offered alternatives other than building a toll road or doing nothing, Barker said. For example, by dropping the toll idea, they could drop the frontage roads, which otherwise are needed under state law to ensure the same number of nontolled lanes as there are today.

The Highway Administration sent a letter dated Jan. 11 to TxDOT Director Michael Behrens that says new environmental evaluations need to be done for the three-mile segment of U.S. 281 plus nine more miles.

Nothing was wrong with the two previous assessments, said the letter, signed by Texas Division Assistant Administrator Achille Alonzi. However, it acknowledges, "We can see that a portion of the public may not agree with our decision."

The letter indicates TxDOT agreed to redo the assessments. But now just one will be done for the whole 12-mile stretch of U.S. 281.

Thursday, lawyers on both sides haggled over details of a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It could be filed today.

"We're in basic agreement," said Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance, who's handling the suit for plaintiffs. "It's just not signed yet."

Meanwhile, planning continues for other toll roads in San Antonio.

TxDOT officials say suspension of work on U.S. 281 shouldn't stall efforts to evaluate proposals from private companies to build and operate toll lanes on more than 40 miles of U.S. 281 and Loop 1604.

And Wednesday, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority agreed to spend $6.5 million to study proposed toll projects on Interstate 35 from downtown to Schertz, on Bandera Road between loops 410 and 1604, and at the junction of Wurzbach Parkway and U.S. 281.

But one board member warned that trying to get by with less-intensive environmental assessments rather than full impact studies would duck the issues and invite criticism.

"We need to do an environmental impact statement," said Bob Thompson, a lawyer who teaches environmental law at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

"It'll be very therapeutic," he promised.

ARMA Chairman Bill Thornton later said laws should be followed and drinking water protected, but traffic congestion also must be addressed.

"Whatever's required is what will be done," he said. "But at the same time we need to consider that congestion out there is bad and it's worsening on a daily basis."

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: