Wednesday, September 02, 2009

"The Alamo RMA is trying to hide something here...Tolling has just been put on hold."

Skepticism abounds on 281/1604 plans


By Christine Stanley
San antonio Express-News
Copyright 2009

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority spokesman Leroy Alloway had one word to sum up what he's been hearing from residents on the latest attempt to fix U.S. 281 north of the Loop 1604.

“Anger,” Alloway said Aug. 27. “They're angry that we're doing another study, that something can't be built. People want relief.”

ARMA hosted two public meetings on the U.S. 281 corridor last week. The first, held Aug. 25, briefed residents on ARMA's $140 million direct connector project for 1604 and 281.

The second, held Aug. 27, marked the first of a series of public meetings on ARMA's environmental impact statement for 281 from 1604 to the Comal County line.

If the Federal Highway Administration were to approve it in 2012, this sweeping environmental study will open the door for gridlock relief on 281, but Alloway said it's impossible to determine at this point which traffic solution would work best.

The EIS will evaluate U.S. 281's expansion and its potential to impact the environment, noise levels and historic structures, among other things.

“Everything's back on the table,” Alloway said Aug. 27. “The EIS is a clean slate for this community.”

Residents have until Tuesday to let ARMA know what kind of improvements they'd like to see on 281 north of 1604. ARMA will compile those comments as part of the 281 EIS to find a consensus on what would work best for the community.

ARMA could do nothing, work to get more public transportation in the area, build overpasses or construct a full-fledged highway with reconfigured feeder roads, Alloway said.

And a toll road is still on the table, Alloway said -- something that doesn't sit well with many.

“The people up here are suffering a lot, we know that” Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom member Pat Dossey said Aug. 27. “But this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

TURF, a vocal anti-toll group, continues to criticize ARMA's plans for 281 north of 1604 and the interchange direct connector project.

For 281 north of the loop, TURF members feel that ARMA should stick with the Texas Department of Transportation's 8-year-old freeway improvement plan, which calls for two additional expressway lanes and four frontage lanes.

The EIS, they say, is a ruse to make way for a toll road, regardless of what residents want. They feel that a lesser environmental study could be conducted to speed up improvements to 281 north of the loop if toll roads were taken off the table.

But ARMA has been mandated to conduct an EIS on that section of 281 for any type of construction improvements, regardless of whether they're tolled or not, Alloway said last week.

FHA officials said the study is a must after TxDOT asked them to pull environmental clearance for a U.S. 281 tollway extension last fall.

While preparing for a federal lawsuit that was filed to stop the toll plan, TxDOT officials discovered a conflict of interest between one of its biologists and her husband, a contractor who worked on various aspects of the toll road's environmental assessment, a lower level of environmental review.

“This (EIS) is a blank slate,” Alloway said Aug. 27.

TURF also feels that ARMA is moving forward with the interchange direct connector project on an inadequate level of environmental review.

Four elevated ramps — sitting 44 feet above 281 frontage roads at their highest — would connect travelers on 281 north to the east and west sides of 1604, and from both sides of the loop to 281 south.

FHA has allowed ARMA to proceed with the direct connector project under what's known as a categorical exclusion. It's the lowest level of environmental review that a construction project can go through, as opposed to the EIS for 281 north of the loop, the most sweeping environmental study required under federal law.

FHA classifies the direct connector project as an “operational and safety improvement” because no continuous lanes are being added to either highway, ARMA officials have said. That's why the direct connector project is allowed to proceed under a lesser environmental review, Alloway said Aug. 27.

TURF members say that the EIS for 281 north of 1604 should cover the direct connector project. Skepticism remains as to whether or not the four connectors will eventually be tolled.

ARMA originally planned to build a total of eight flyovers to connect 281 and 1604 at a cost of $214 million, Alloway said last week.

The agency was able to drum up $140 million to complete half of the project, Alloway added.

“I don't want to say that (ARMA) is trying to hide something here, but I think they're trying to hide something here,” resident Jack Finger said during ARMA's second public meeting last week. “Tolling has just been put on hold.”

ARMA has stressed in previous public meetings and on its Web site that the direct connector project will not be tolled.

On Aug. 25, ARMA lawyer Lisa Alderman said she hasn't heard of any immediate plans for a lawsuit to challenge ARMA's categorical exclusion for the direct connector project.

If such a lawsuit were filed, and if it were successful in forcing ARMA to get the next level of environmental review — an environmental assessment — the direct connector project would probably still be OK, Alderman said.

ARMA must have its $120 in federal stimulus money obligated for the direct connector project by next March, but it wouldn't take that long to bump the categorical exclusion study up to the level of an environmental assessment, she said.

If any potential lawsuit is successful in forcing ARMA to conduct an EIS for U.S. 281/Loop 1604 interchange improvements, the agency can kiss its direct connectors goodbye.

EIS documents typically take five years to complete, Alderman said, which would push the project way behind its 2010 deadline.

“We hear rumblings, but so far there's been no lawsuit filed,” she said.

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