Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Attempts to overrun the citizens with numbers games is the oldest trick in the book."

Costs, delays with 281 argued


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

One of the biggest blame games in the muddy debate over toll roads involves jaw-dropping escalations in costs to widen U.S. 281 and years of frustrating delays to start construction.

Work actually did start in late 2005, but it was two years behind schedule, and all that crews managed to do before having to stop was snap some live oaks and scrape them into piles.

As noise continues to mount on whether to build an 8-mile tollway from Loop 1604 to Comal County or go with just three miles of freeway and a non-toll overpass at Borgfeld Road, costs soar in double digits annually and accusations fly over the holdups.

When Texas Department of Transportation officials outlined a plan in 2001 to rebuild eight miles of U.S. 281 into a freeway and add long-awaited ramps directly linking the highway to Loop 1604, they figured it would cost $263 million.

But they could only afford three miles, from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway, and the bridge at Borgfeld.

So to raise cash for all eight miles and then some, the freeway plan was converted several years later to a tollway plan — tolled express lanes with free frontage roads. Critics followed with a lawsuit to force more study of the environmental impacts, halting the work in January 2006.

Then last month, as the Federal Highway Administration announced a finding of no major impacts, allowing the project to proceed, TxDOT dropped a bombshell: The tollway will now cost $675 million.

The stunning difference is enough to strike fear in motorists weary of worsening slogs on the highway and to stoke desperation in those fighting the freeway versus tollway battle.

"Simply unbelievable," said state Rep. Nathan Macias, R-Bulverde, who called for TxDOT to revert to the freeway plan. "Attempts to overrun the citizens with numbers games is the oldest trick in the book."

TxDOT explains

TxDOT officials insist that they're not playing around and can explain. The costs didn't go up as fast as critics claim, they say, but there's still cause for alarm.

Part of the problem is that the estimates for 2007 and 2001 aren't comparable. The latest number includes $85 million for studies and engineering and $120 million for land that wasn't part of the 2001 figure.

That leaves $470 million for construction, an apple-to-apple cost that's still a whopping $207 million, or 79 percent, higher than six years ago.

And that's what's scary, TxDOT officials say. Highway construction costs in Texas have shot up 73 percent in the past five years — much faster than consumer inflation — because of spiraling fuel prices and intense global competition for asphalt, concrete and steel.

"The longer we wait to build it, the more costs will go up," said David Casteel, TxDOT's lead engineer in its San Antonio office. "It is not a conspiracy, it is just inflation in the construction market."

A low bid in 2005 to start the first three miles of U.S. 281 even outstripped statewide construction inflation. The $78 million offer was $19 million more than forecast.

"The free market ruled," Casteel said of the unexpected bump in cost. "The 2, 3 and 4 bidders were much higher."

The free market is still having a say on costs for the three-mile project, which could have been 70 percent complete if Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and People for Efficient Transportation hadn't filed a lawsuit to demand a detailed study of tolling and pollution impacts.

Estimated costs have since gone up another $20 million.

"The delay caused by the legal challenge made it tougher to provide mobility and improve safety for the public," TxDOT engineer Frank Holzmann said. "What a shame and what a waste of tax money."

Bait and switch?

Critics charge that TxDOT pulled a bait and switch years before, dangling funds and then stalling to switch to a toll plan and let burgeoning traffic bring motorists to their knees.

"They know what they're doing," Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson said. "They wanted to get it into an untenable situation where people say, 'Well, just do something.'"

As a board member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees spending of federal gas taxes in San Antonio, Larson helped line up funds in 1999 for several bridges to bypass U.S. 281 traffic lights. In 2001, money was earmarked for the three miles of freeway lanes.

TxDOT, with two engineers on the MPO board, was scheduled to start work on the bridges in 2002 and the freeway the next year. But by early 2003, the agency was studying which projects statewide could be financed with tolls, and U.S. 281 emerged as a hot prospect.

"We would have had those overpasses built by the end of 2004," Larson said. "This is long before the lawsuit."

Rising with aggravation was the price. By the time TxDOT was ready to start construction, the expressway and its interchange at Stone Oak Parkway went from $48 million in 2003 to $78 million just two years later, a jump of 63 percent.

The cost today is $100 million, up another 28 percent because of the lawsuit.

TxDOT says the financial and environmental studies needed to turn the freeway into a tollway didn't slow anything down.

"We bought the last piece of property in 2005, so we couldn't have gone to contract any sooner than that," TxDOT engineer Julie Brown said.

Freeway or tollway?

Critics are fuming and say some of the nearly $300 million in gas taxes and other public funds that the MPO has set aside through January 2011 to subsidize toll lanes on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 should be used to refund the original U.S. 281 freeway and overpass plan.

"Why should anyone have to pay a toll when they have the plan, the clearance and the money to fix U.S. 281 as a freeway?" said Terri Hall of San Antonio Toll Party. "There is no justification other than greed and to tap the vein of 281 users to fund other road projects."

Casteel, in charge of TxDOT's San Antonio office since 2003, said money would have to be taken from other projects or raised some other way to add non-toll lanes to U.S. 281. With toll lanes, funds could be borrowed and repaid from tolls.

"I really don't know what she could be talking about as far as a funded expressway project, because there's not one," Casteel said. "If people could figure that out, that's a good thing. I don't know how to do that."

© 2007 San Antonio Express-News

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