Friday, January 19, 2007

"Toll roads along this stretch of 281 has the great potential to have a catastrophic impact."

Bexar official makes stand to stop 281 tolls


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

For years now, Lyle Larson has felt like a fly being brushed aside amid the state's rush to toll new highway lanes, but lately he feels like his luck could be changing.

The Bexar County commissioner is lining up powerful allies for a goal-line stand next week against a plan to build toll lanes on U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Comal County — smack through his precinct.

First he got letters of support from Ernesto Ancira Jr., president of Ancira Enterprises, and Tom Turner Jr., chairman of TETCO, after telling them their concerns would ring louder if put in writing. Soon, more than a dozen other businesses on the highway wrote letters.

Now Larson is getting help from state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, whose district includes U.S. 281, and the commissioner says he now may have enough ammo to derail toll plans.

"That gives me a little bit more hope," he said Friday.

Ancira said he wouldn't have built an auto dealership on U.S. 281, and Turner said his firm wouldn't have put five convenience stores there if they had known toll lanes were coming.

"Toll roads along this stretch of 281 has the great potential to have a catastrophic impact," Turner said in his letter.

Larson said such opposition is old news to him, but nevertheless the letters help crack open claims that San Antonio's business community is solidly behind local toll plans.

"I represent the area, and I get the calls," he said. "Most of the people that are going to be impacted are opposed to this."

But Larson was surprised by Wentworth, who doesn't oppose toll roads and rubbed elbows with advocates at the November ribbon cutting for the Central Texas Turnpike in Austin.

But U.S. 281 is different, and the senator wrote to Larson last week to say he backs efforts to stop tolling of that highway.

"I would like to take this opportunity to express my support for this initiative," Wentworth stated. "Toll roads may be the best mobility solution in some instances, but other options should be considered."

Larson, who says he gets little respect from the Texas Department of Transportation, feels he may have turned a corner.

"They just look at me (as) an annoyance," he said. "If they go against a state senator's wishes, then I think TxDOT's going to have a lot more problems."

But Larson still must sway 17 fellow board members of the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, including two TxDOT officials.

He was the lone wolf in 2004 when the board ditched a plan to widen 21/2 miles of U.S. 281 into a freeway and add overpasses at Stone Oak Parkway, Evans Road and Borgfeld Road. It instead opted for tolls so eight miles of express lanes could be built.

Since then, one other board member — Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson — has joined the attack. On Monday, Larson and Adkisson will flaunt Wentworth's support and ask the board to pull the U.S. 281 tollway plan and revert back to the freeway version.

"In this case, construction of these three overpasses may be the best choice," Wentworth said in his letter.

TxDOT warns that pulling the plug could have far-reaching effects. U.S. 281 toll revenues also are supposed to help finance toll lanes on Loop 1604, as part of a 47-mile system that two private consortiums are competing to take over.

"While some officials are concerned about one project or one road, the MPO has to look at things from a regional point of view," said David Casteel, TxDOT's lead engineer in San Antonio and a member of the MPO board.

Meanwhile, time is running out for Larson and his allies.

A public hearing on the latest environmental report for the U.S. 281 tollway is less than three weeks away, and construction can start once federal officials approve the report, which could be this summer.

"If we're going to change directions, we need to change direction before construction starts," Larson said.

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News: