Thursday, October 02, 2008

"The U.S. 281 tollway project has been brought to its knees."

Legal roadblock halts 281 tollway


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

For the second time in 2 1/2 years, the U.S. 281 tollway project has been brought to its knees, and officials say it could take up to two years to get back up.

Federal officials pulled the project's environmental clearance after the Texas Department of Transportation, reviewing records as part of a lawsuit filed in February, found problems with contracts to study endangered species.

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority officials, who had taken over the project from TxDOT, heard the news Wednesday.

“The 281 North toll project is stalled,” board member Henry Muñoz announced. “We don't know what the future of that project might be. There will be no projects moving forward on 281 North in the foreseeable future.”

As a somber Muñoz talked at the TransGuide center, agency Chairman Bill Thornton and Director Terry Brechtel were rushing to Austin to meet with Texas Transportation Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Delisi “to discuss the future of the 281 North Tollway and the future of the RMA.”

After the meeting, Brechtel said all is not lost, but it could take a year to fix the environmental study and up to another year to get another federal clearance and fight off another possible lawsuit.

“It will eventually come back to the community,” she said of the toll plan.

Toll-road critics and environmentalists, who filed the lawsuit to demand a more detailed environmental study, claimed yet another victory, a refrain to a similar lawsuit that stopped the project in early 2006.

“It's a huge victory for the taxpayers and the citizens who have worked tirelessly to get TxDOT and the RMA to come clean,” said Terri Hall, founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

Plaintiff attorneys said the tainted contracts are just some of several problems uncovered by the lawsuit.

“They're waving the white flag,” said Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs Alliance. “That's what it seems like.”

Thornton said in a statement that everybody lost.

“Today is a sad day,” he said. “Anyone celebrating the end of this project, at this time, is also celebrating a stay in the status quo, a stay of congested roadways, of increasing frustrations and increased wastes of fuel.”

A $328 million construction contract for the toll road includes up to $60,000 a day for inflation, Brechtel said.

Officials had hoped to resolve the lawsuit and start work early next year, but the delay means the contract will have to be renegotiated or bid again.

Total project costs, including design, engineering and land acquisition, is expected to top $470 million.

The agency so far has spent about $6 million on plans for toll lanes along both U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. And TxDOT spent $2 million and a year updating the environmental study after the first lawsuit.

Hall and others say toll officials are to blame for refusing to scrap the 8-mile tollway and instead build a 3-mile freeway plus some overpasses as first planned.

They say the environmental studies never seriously considered impacts to motorists or the Edward's Aquifer.

Portions © 2008 KENS 5 and the San Antonio

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