Streetcar funds should be redirected to expand 281 without tolls

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Streetcar funds should be redirected to expand 281 without tolls
By Terri Hall
July 29, 2014

Undoubtedly, most San Antonians have heard the great news that the city and county have pulled their support for the downtown streetcar plan. Naturally it begs the question, so where will those dollars go now? Anti-toll groups, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) and Texans for Toll-free Highways (TTH) call on the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), the city, and county to permanently scrap the street car and use those funds to expand US 281 North (outside Loop 1604 to the county line) without tolls.

Both Sen. Donna Campbell and Rep. Lyle Larson have repeatedly called for the street car funds to be redirected to US 281, and today they teamed up to send off a joint letter requesting the Texas Transportation Commission reallocate the money to US 281 in light of the latest developments.

US 281 has been languishing amidst public opposition to tolled improvements for nearly a decade, and anti-toll groups believe US 281 should be first in line for at least the $92 million in road funds that TxDOT pledged to the project if not some of the city and county funds, too.

Improvements to US 281 were funded with gas taxes until 2008 when the funds disappeared. Local transportation policy board (the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization or AAMPO) rules dictate that a project that loses funding for any reason should be the first in line to have its funding restored when funds become available.

In 2012, TxDOT announced $2 billion in unallocated funds had become available. Bexar County Commissioners as well as the AAMPO passed unanimous resolutions asking for Bexar County's portion of those funds to build overpasses, expand, and add frontage roads to US 281 and Loop 1604 West without tolls. Approximately 12 miles of Loop 1604 West got funded non-toll. However, the 7.8 mile project on US 281 still includes two toll lanes to Stone Oak Parkway. Then north of Stone Oak Pkwy., all six highway main lanes will be tolled, including the four freeway lanes that are non-toll today.

With expansion plans on the desk of the Federal Highway Administration awaiting final approval, the time is now to restore non-toll funding to US 281 and get the entire corridor expanded without tolls immediately. No more excuses, the public support isn't there for any version of the street car. US 281 should be the top priority.

Street car opponents have made it clear they want those funds to go to fix our congested roads, and US 281 has been one of the most congested highways in San Antonio for far too long. The AAMPO has taken two previously planned toll projects and built them without tolls - Wurzbach Pkwy. and Loop 1604 West.

Now it’s time to allocate every dollar to completing US 281 without one lane of new toll taxes. Anything less is a targeted tax on the residents in the corridor. The 90,000 commuters a day stuck in gridlock out there deserve to take priority.

TURF and TTH have presented a formal request to the AAMPO Board as well as to the elected officials who represent the corridor. The groups await a timely answer and will watch what the Texas Transportation Commission does in light of Campbell and Larson’s most recent letter.