Saturday, January 14, 2006

TxDOT looks at tolling Interstate 10

Toll plans still on roadmap


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2006

Just as state transportation officials were handed a setback this week over plans to build toll lanes along U.S. 281, the federal government forked over money to explore the possibility of tolling Texas interstates.

The Federal Highway Administration — the same agency that pulled environmental clearances on U.S. 281 toll plans Wednesday — gave Texas $570,000 to study whether to put toll booths on new lanes on Interstate 10 from San Antonio to Boerne and Seguin and on Interstate 35 from Georgetown to Hillsboro.

An additional $480,000 was awarded to consider toll-carpool lanes on Loop 1 in Austin and to look at ways to encourage truckers to use the Texas 130 bypass that's under construction.

Though federal law allows existing interstate lanes to be tolled in a limited pilot project, that's not the aim in Texas, said Gabriela Garcia, spokeswoman with the Texas Department of Transportation.

"It's for added lanes and not existing lanes," she said.

But there are skeptics.

"Show me," said Alan Patty, who's clocked 90,000 miles in his Suburban over the three years he's lived in Boerne, much of it driving on I-10 to San Antonio.

"It's that simple," he said. "Show me the plan."

The plan right now is to add almost five miles of two non-tolled lanes on I-10, from North Loop 1604 to FM 3351. But the needed $46 million isn't there yet, and construction is more than 10 years away.

Long before any concrete is poured for the I-10 lanes, TxDOT officials could decide to toll them. A 2-year-old state policy calls for tolling any new highway lanes when feasible.

"Nothing's been decided," said Clay Smith, a TxDOT engineer in San Antonio. "Nothing's locked in stone."

Using $130,000 of the federal money and $32,000 in state funds, TxDOT will look at the potential of tolling new lanes, including gauging driver attitudes, on 49 miles of I-10 from North Loop 1604 to Texas 46 and from East Loop 1604 to Seguin.

TxDOT already is planning a 47-mile network of toll roads on Loop 1604 across the North Side and on U.S. 281 from the loop to Comal County. Two private consortiums are competing to build and operate that system.

State officials were set to start construction Monday on a three-mile segment of U.S. 281 that would anchor the toll network. But the federal highway administration pulled the plug, saying environmental assessments need to be redone.

A lawsuit filed in federal court last month by environmental activists and toll-road critics demanded a thorough impact study. A chief concern is that the roadway sits on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone.

Meanwhile, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority will soon 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.

© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: