Stop light onslaught proposed for 281 draws record crowd
By Terri Hall
July 10, 2014
The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) struck a nerve yesterday, and it wasn’t pretty. Nearly 300 angry residents of the Bulverde-Spring Branch area showed up for what they thought would be a public meeting on the fate of US 281, only to be greeted with a standing room only venue stuffed with more people than the little library could handle and a bunch of aerial maps and consultants who couldn’t or wouldn’t answer their questions. No formal presentation was made by TxDOT to explain what the plan entailed. Attendees were expected to piece everything together on their own and know what to ask in order to get properly informed. The line to get in was wrapped around the room and out the door where attendees waited up to 20 minutes just to enter. No one anticipated the record attendance.
TxDOT is seeking public input on a potential super street concept on US 281 through Comal County. Anticipating the future growth in the corridor, symbolized in the massive new development being built on the northwest corner of US 281 and SH 46 to include a Walmart, apartments, and expensive homes, TxDOT was asked by the Bulverde City Council to explore a super street at the intersections and crossovers along the divided highway. The super street built on parts of US 281 and Loop 1604 in Bexar County involves stop lights. Residents innately know what that means - a litany of stop lights to impede their travel through a stretch of highway that currently has no congestion or traffic problems.
Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) also alerted residents to the danger and the community turned out in droves. TURF anticipates the addition of stop lights will cause unneeded congestion and precipitate the future extension of the toll road on 281 from Bexar County into Comal County. The toll plan for US 281 in Bexar County would cost Comal residents $8/day to get into San Antonio. If that toll road gets extended into Comal County, that cost could top $20/day or over $5,000/year in new taxes. Residents are naturally concerned with the effect this could have on their property values and the overall tax burden, making the area less appealing and necessitating many to move inside San Antonio.
TxDOT is planning the eventual addition of 12 stop lights at a series of turnarounds known as ‘J turns’ at the crossovers, similar to a Texas turnaround. The elongated turnaround lanes won’t necessarily start with a traffic signal, but one will be added once the need arises. In fact, they’re building the turnarounds already hardwired for the stop lights. Therein lies the rub.
Residents repeatedly asked to know what conditions determine when a signal goes up. TxDOT said that’s guided by the Texas Manual on Traffic Control Devices and that typically once 80 cars stack-up during a one hour period during peak traffic that it usually triggers the need for a light. However, that’s only one out of eight different litmus tests that could warrant a light, but didn’t elaborate on the other seven. They were quick to note that even if that trigger is met, a light still may not go in. So the wishy-washy, non-definitive answers didn’t quell the fears of a stop light every few miles (some closer together than that).
There was no written material given to attendees that showed which intersections would have signals. So residents have to try to remember 12 signals from memory in order to disperse this information to neighbors. Certain materials are supposed to be available at the TxDOT web site, but not until after the meeting and there’s no telling where to find it on the site. There are still no materials posted on TxDOT's public hearing page. They mentioned the only way to view where stop lights will go is their aerial pictures (that they laid out on tables that took up the length of the entire room).
Such heavy graphics take exceptionally long to load on a computer, and could take upwards of 30 minutes to view the full project length to count all the stop lights page by page. There were no visible landmarks labeled on the aerial photos and only a few side roads labeled, so people could not discern where they lived in relation to the proposed traffic lights. When I asked the consultant to provide a one-page written summary of where proposed signals would go, the response was "that would be hard to understand.”
Overpasses and added highway lanes were not on the table for consideration, only various stop light configurations. There are no further planned public meetings on the imposition of up to 12 stop lights. There was no disclosure as to when lights would be imposed, how much it will cost, who would pay for them, or if there would be appreciable time travel savings compared to before stop lights were added.
Lane closure precursor to more congestion?
There is already a great deal of angst over the turn lane closure to get onto US 281 heading south from SH 46 during the construction of the turnarounds there. Residents are upset at having their capacity there cut in half without any meaningful adjustment to the stop light time to allow the same amount of cars to get through the light as before the closure.
The traffic already stacks up over the hill and past the next retail strip mall where there’s no line of sight for the oncoming traffic on the other side of the hill. So drivers feel like sitting ducks awaiting the day when they’ll be the first car hit in a horrific chain reaction 20-car pile-up someday if this situation is allowed to fester, which is almost certain to occur if the turn lane will be closed-off permanently. Yet no staff could answer that question at last night’s open house.
So it doesn’t take much for residents to envision future congestion stacking-up unnecessarily at intersections just by poor planning and manipulation of traffic by officials, not necessarily from new growth. In other words, it’s not hard for TxDOT to create congestion to necessitate the addition of traffic lights and the eventual extension of the toll road into Comal County. Citizens fears are not unfounded considering TxDOT’s reputation for relentlessly pushing toll roads.
Spring Branch resident Tim Gibbons summarized what a lot of attendees expressed, “They crammed 300 people into a room with six sets of the same map and they didn’t have any good answers at all. I was expecting to sit down and listen to what they had to say, and for there to be a lot more information than just maps. Unfortunately, I’m leaving here with the same information I had when I showed up. If they can’t successfully plan a meeting, then why are we going to give them the ability to spend three years to destroy our town.”
Considering the crowd that assembled at the TxDOT Open House represents more people than vote in the city council elections, hopefully that means the elected officials tasked with holding TxDOT accountable got the message loud and clear: residents do not want stop lights slapped on their highway and they want overpasses and additional lanes to address growth, not more congestion.