Friday, November 21, 2008

"TxDOT should have no role in supervising the new environmental studies."

281 tollway proposal runs into new demand


By Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

A storm of controversy engulfing a planned U.S. 281 toll road over the past three years finally has convinced federal officials to accept nothing less than a thorough environmental study — but with the state taking a back seat.

Less-intensive studies, called “assessments,” concluded a more detailed look wasn't warranted on U.S. 281 toll lanes. Lawsuits since 2005 derailed two such assessments.

Now it's time to make sure concerns are answered, the Federal Highway Administration said in a letter to state officials.

“We do not believe that an environmental assessment will sufficiently address that controversy,” wrote Janice Weingart Brown, the agency's Texas division director.

Also, the Texas Department of Transportation, which did the recent U.S. 281 assessments, has no business heading up the next study, Brown said in her letter, which was sent to TxDOT Director Amadeo Saenz last week.

That's because TxDOT bungled some contracts involving endangered species surveys as part of the 2007 study.

“Given the recently discovered discrepancies in the award of scientific services contracts ... we believe that the San Antonio district office of TxDOT should have no role in supervising the new environmental studies,” Brown said.

The federal highway department will expand its oversight for the upcoming study, Brown said, which could start in January and last three years.

But the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, a local toll agency that took over the 8-mile project from TxDOT, now will take the lead on the study, spokesman Leroy Alloway told the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board Thursday.

Federal and state highway departments have concurred with the switch in roles, Alloway said. An agreement could be drawn up by January.

“We've been discussing it with the leadership of both agencies,” he said.

The Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, agreed Thursday to let the mobility authority use some of its state grant funds to pay for the study. Authority Director Terry Brechtel estimates the cost will be $8 million.

Critics of the road project, which would rebuild U.S. 281 to add six express lanes from Loop 1604 to Comal County, say it's a foregone conclusion that an agency pinning its hopes on toll revenues to survive will decide tolls are needed.

“It basically guarantees that the only alternative that comes out the other end of the environmental study will be a toll road,” said Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, which co-filed a lawsuit earlier this year.

Mobility authority officials say construction on U.S. 281 could start as early as 2012. Until federal officials changed everything last month by yanking the environmental clearance, that's the same year the toll road was supposed to open.

Portions © 2008 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News

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