Toll road authority with no toll roads to get more 'aggressive'
By Josh Baugh -
San Antonio Express-News
By 2012, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority is hoping to have wrapped up the most extensive environmental review ever conducted on U.S. 281, the prerequisite to any long-term relief on the region's most gridlocked stretch of highway.
The results of the federal “environmental impact statement,” or EIS, will dictate if and possibly how the U.S. 281 corridor from Loop 1604 to the Comal County line will be improved. No capacity can be added to U.S. 281 without first completing the EIS. It's typically a five-year process, but the RMA hopes to complete it in three years.
“That is the best-case scenario in any circumstance,” said Terry Brechtel, executive director of the RMA. “We have decided to be aggressive and do some things to try to get this through. A lot of people and a lot of resources are trying to get it done.”
Improving U.S. 281 has been a controversial issue here for years because of the potential for toll roads, and it likely will continue to be as the RMA moves forward on its EIS.
Toll critic Terri Hall, the agency's most outspoken opponent, has suggested that the cumbersome environmental review isn't necessary — at least not anymore. Hall was part of a 2008 lawsuit that demanded that an EIS be conducted before any improvements were made to U.S. 281.
Her aim is to take toll roads out of the mix.
The EIS will evaluate, among other things, potential environmental, social and economic impacts that the highway's expansion could have on the corridor. The study is supposed to take in a lot of public input.
It's the type of study that toll opponents and environmental activists sought in a 2008 lawsuit they filed against the Federal Highway Administration, the RMA and the Texas Department of Transportation. Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom sought an injunction blocking tolled highway expansion until an EIS was prepared in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
The groups wanted an EIS conducted jointly on U.S. 281 and Loop 1604. But the RMA is conducting an EIS separately for each highway. AGUA President Enrique Valdivia said that in itself taints the EIS process because it signifies the RMA putting its mark on the process before any outcome is reached.
In 2007, the Federal Highway Administration had given environmental clearance to the project based on a lower-level study — an environmental assessment — but the federal agency pulled the OK in 2008 after TxDOT announced that it had discovered irregularities in how its San Antonio district had procured scientific services.
The highway administration then sent a letter to the RMA requiring that an EIS be prepared for any future federal transportation project in the U.S. 281 corridor.
Environmentalists and toll opponents point to their lawsuit as a victory in stopping the project.
But Hall — TURF's founder and director, and a plaintiff in the 2008 lawsuit — says the cumbersome EIS process could be avoided if plans to toll the highway were jettisoned.
RMA officials say it's clear that there's no way around conducting an EIS before adding capacity to U.S. 281. The Federal Highway Administration has said as much in a letter requiring that the study be done before any federal money is spent on U.S. 281. But Hall contends that the yanked environmental clearance only applies to the plan to build toll roads. Based on Hall's reading of the National Environmental Policy Act, a non-tolled plan could undergo an “environmental assessment,” or EA, which is a lower-level study.
“We would argue that if you look at NEPA, you could actually do an expedited EA, meaning even faster than a normal EA, which is pretty quick compared to an EIS. And one of the things it says there in NEPA is that you don't have to have public hearings, even. That's a very long process.”
Hall advocates for TxDOT's “original plan,” which called for two additional main lanes, bringing the total on U.S. 281 to six, along with four lanes of frontage roads. All the lanes were to be built as non-tolled.
But Leroy Alloway, the RMA's director of community relations, says the footprint has never changed from the “original plan.”
“If you look at the plan she's talking about, which is overpasses and frontage roads, and you look at the 2005 plan, they're identical,” he said. “You look at the 2007 plan, it's still the same footprint. You're still building the exact same thing. The only difference was the expressway lanes would have been tolled. The frontage roads would have stayed as frontage roads. ... That footprint didn't change.”
That's why the EIS should move forward, he said.
Now nobody knows what will be built. That's where the public comes in.
On Thursday, the RMA will hold the first of several public meetings to gather input on how to deal with gridlock in the U.S. 281 corridor. In technical terms, the RMA will determine “need and purpose” that will help guide the outcome of the study — what the “preferred alternative” could be.
Maybe it's the “original plan,” or the six tolled lanes that currently appear in the Metropolitan Planning Organization's fiscally restrained Transportation Improvement Plan. Maybe it's passenger rail, bus rapid transit or high-occupancy-vehicle lanes.
Throughout the process, a residents advisory group — which includes seats for AGUA and both of Hall's groups, TURF and the San Antonio Toll Party — will meet and offer input for the EIS.
For Hall, though, it's all for naught.
“At the end of the day, we want to get the overpass and original expansion plan for U.S. 281 funded and fixed and move forward with an expedited EA, and this whole EIS thing will be moot,” she said. That is, without toll roads on the drawing board.
But RMA officials say the U.S. 281 corridor is now a “blank slate” and that the EIS will determine the best way to address congestion there. There are a couple caveats: The preferred plan doesn't have to be the most environmentally friendly, and funding sources have to be identified.
The RMA's Brechtel says tolls are on the table and will remain so until another funding source becomes available. There's not enough money from the state or federal governments to build the estimated $450 million project.
Hall said TURF would push in the 2011 Legislature for an indexed gas tax increase that would cover the cost of constructing freeways.
There are other options, Brechtel says, adding that San Antonio and Bexar County could decide to create a public improvement district or use property taxes to fund the project. More stimulus money could become available. Or a local-option sales tax — shot down in the Legislature this year — could take the place of tolls.
“Federal law says to keep a project going through an environmental study process, you have to have a reasonable revenue source, and today that reasonable revenue source is tolls,” Brechtel said. “I've been explaining that to folks on the MPO so they understand how this works.”
Brechtel wouldn't speculate on the possibility of shifting trends at the MPO, the local agency that oversees more than $200 million of federal transportation dollars. Its new chairman, County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, is a toll opponent and ally of Terri Hall.
Hall said she thinks the MPO could vote to rescind its approval of tolls, effectively deflating the RMA. If Brechtel's concerned about that, she wouldn't say.
A toll-road vote isn't on Monday's MPO agenda, she said, so she's not worried about it “this month.”
© 2009 San Antonio Express-News: www.mysanantonio.com
To search TTC News Archives click
To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click