Thursday, October 23, 2008

“They're predetermining that it's always going to be a toll road.”

Agency eyes doing toll study


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

To make sure a redo of an environmental study for the U.S. 281 toll road is done right, a local agency decided Wednesday they'd better do it themselves.

The catch is that the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority has to get the Texas Department of Transportation, which dropped the ball on the last environmental study, to agree.

“It's an opportunity for us to go back and put us in the position to try and get it done right this time,” authority board member Reynaldo Diaz said.

The Federal Highway Administration earlier this month pulled the project's environmental clearance after TxDOT, as part of a federal lawsuit, found problems with contracts to study endangered species.

The lawsuit was the second in 2 1/2 years that toll critics and environmentalists filed to demand a full impact study rather than the less intensive assessments that were done.

Mobility authority board members now agree it's time to do the detailed environmental study, which could last three to four years — one to two years longer than a less detailed assessment.

A full study would “give us a final resolution and a deep thought about what should occur,” board member Jim Reed said.

The board voted to let Director Terry Brechtel negotiate a deal with TxDOT and federal highway officials, which she'll bring back to the board next month for approval.

Brechtel also will seek permission to take over environmental studies for adding toll lanes to Loop 1604 and Interstate 35. Since the agency doesn't have any tolls or other revenues to collect yet, she'll also have to ask TxDOT to provide another $21.4 million to pay for the studies.

TxDOT is willing to craft some sort of an agreement to keep the projects moving forward, department spokesman Chris Lippincott said.

“We believe local leaders play an essential role in meeting local transportation goals,” he said in an e-mail.

Toll critics remain leery, saying an agency relying on future tolls as a funding stream can't be trusted to seriously consider alternatives to toll lanes.

“They're predetermining that it's always going to be a toll road,” said Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, which co-filed the latest lawsuit. “They refuse to take the toll road off the table.”

Hall again called for TxDOT to reinstate its 2002 plan to build non-toll overpasses at Stone Oak Parkway, Evans Road and Borgfeld Road to bypass traffic signals.

Mobility Authority board member Bob Thompson said that wouldn't be enough for growing traffic.

“Those overpasses don't function after you get past a certain capacity,” he said.

Meanwhile, the authority also will ask TxDOT for help to add or extend turn lanes on U.S. 281 at Evans Road and Stone Oak Parkway, and add lanes to eastbound Evans Road at 281. But until another environmental study is finished, only so much can be done.

“I want to be real clear,” Brechtel told the board. “A congestion relief project will not be allowed.”

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