"We need to be very careful and proceed very cautiously."
San Antonio Express-News
Efforts to derail U.S. 281 toll plans have picked up some steam, with two state senators from San Antonio urging the Texas Department of Transportation to look at non-tolled options.
Sens. Jeff Wentworth and Frank Madla made their requests after prompting from Bexar County Commissioners Lyle Larson and Tommy Adkisson, who want TxDOT to reallocate gas taxes set aside for toll projects and instead build non-tolled highway lanes and overpasses on U.S. 281.
Wentworth, a Republican, sent a letter last week to the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, to ask that Larson's and Adkisson's proposals be reviewed.
"And let me hear back whether this may be a more acceptable solution than the increasingly unpopular toll idea," the letter states.
Madla, a Democrat, followed up with his own letter this week to the transportation commission. It makes a similar request but also suggests expanding bus service, forging ahead with commuter rail from San Antonio to Austin and taking advantage of a sales tax for roads and transit that voters passed in 2004.
"In addition, I want to encourage extensive public input into this process prior to any final determinations," the letter says.
Commission Chairman Ric Williamson said he's taking the requests seriously and that TxDOT will step back and take a hard look.
"We'll certainly take a look at the suggestions made," he said.
Toll critics are already notching another victory.
"One by one, courageous leaders are demonstrating their distaste for dealing with the public outrage on this issue and are asking for alternatives to TxDOT's toll-only mentality," said Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party.
Wentworth and Madla both said they're not necessarily opposed to toll roads, though Wentworth would prefer a gas-tax increase and Madla is skeptical about adding toll lanes to existing highways.
"This is not to say that toll roads are not needed in this state," Madla said. "We need to be very careful and proceed very cautiously."
Larson and Adkisson sent their letter to state lawmakers representing Bexar County after TxDOT postponed construction of toll lanes on U.S. 281 last month so the agency can redo environmental evaluations.
Overpasses at Encino Rio, Evans Road, Stone Oak Parkway and Borgfeld Road plus non-tolled lanes would solve most traffic congestion there, the letter says. "In the event that the current funding is inadequate to complete this project, it may be necessary for our local community to address the funding shortfall," it states.
In 2004, there were 91,000 vehicles a day on U.S. 281 just north of Loop 1604. The number is expected to swell to 148,000 by 2030, TxDOT says.
Workers were set to start construction on three miles of tolled express lanes and non-tolled frontage roads on U.S. 281, using $77 million in gas taxes. But a lawsuit filed in December persuaded officials to rethink their environmental clearances.
New environmental work could take a year or more, according to TxDOT. Public meetings are expected to start next month and hearings could come in the fall.
© 2006 San Antonio Express-News: