"This is not over until the taxpayers and the public say it's over."
San Antonio Express-News
Late Monday, Vic Boyer was polishing his three-minute argument, and Terri Hall was considering another e-mail blitz to remind people about tonight's toll-road hearing.
The two will deliver differing opinions on whether the Texas Department of Transportation should build 71/2 miles of toll lanes on U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Comal County.
The hearing is set for 7 p.m. in the main ballroom of the Alzafar Shrine Temple at 901 N. Loop 1604 West. A draft environmental assessment, drawings and charts will be on display starting a half-hour earlier.
This is Round Two in a raging debate over U.S. 281 toll plans. A lawsuit filed a year ago by environmentalists and toll critics stopped construction and forced TxDOT to redo its environmental study and take a closer look at impacts on water, wildlife, air pollution, noise and people.
TxDOT will present its new study tonight, which could last half an hour, and then people will line up to offer support or take their shots.
"TxDOT is in for a battle," said Hall, who heads a toll critic group called San Antonio Toll Party. "This is not over until the taxpayers and the public say it's over."
Boyer, director of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition, a nonprofit group of government and road industry advocates, is just as serious.
"We see the toll lanes as the only way to get these projects built in a reasonable amount of time, unless there's some kind of miracle," he said.
The draft environmental study suggests building six to eight toll lanes with four to six lanes of free frontage roads, taking land from the west side of the highway to make it 400 feet wide, 500 feet at interchanges.
There would no significant impacts to people or nature, the study says.
Tolling the express lanes will allow the project to be finished more than 20 years sooner than it would by just relying on gas taxes, it states. In the short term, traffic on the frontage roads could flow better than rush-hour traffic does now on the existing highway lanes that would be replaced.
"With rapid and sustained economic and population growth in northern Bexar County — and with traffic counts effectively doubling every five years — we simply cannot afford to wait," Boyer said.
Hall says TxDOT could simply turn U.S. 281 into a freeway for 3 miles and add bridges at two key intersections, as planned several years ago.
"TxDOT's own original plan has identified funds, and this solution can be implemented in less time, using less money, with less construction time, and less development over the aquifer."
There are also concerns about motorists footing a bill for higher costs to build and operate the lanes as a tollway, profits collected by private companies that might lease the system, and possible agreements to limit improvements to free roads.
"Clearly, there are multiple problems with converting U.S. 281 into a tollway," Hall said.
The environmental study says just adding some lanes and bridges to U.S. 281 wouldn't do enough to solve traffic congestion or reduce dangers caused by driveways from businesses. The proposal calls for driveways to link to the frontage roads instead of the highway lanes.
The study estimates traffic would double by 2035 on the wider highway, going from 55,400 cars a day last year to 134,800 between Stone Oak Boulevard and Marshall Road. If nothing is done, the number of vehicles would go up to 73,000.
The study also says impacts to the amount and quality of water going into the Edwards Aquifer are expected to be minor. And though air pollution would get worse, it's expected to stay within acceptable limits. Noise would increase in places.
Officials would need another 82 acres of land for the tollway, including 53 acres of woodland, and would remove 19 businesses and a home. No direct impacts to wildlife are expected.
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