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Web Posted: 08/26/2009 12:00 CDT
Study on highway project disputed
By Josh Baugh - Express-News
The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority on Tuesday held its lone public meeting for plans to build four non-tolled direct connectors between U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 — a plan that's expected to ease congestion in one of the city's worst intersections.
But the RMA's efforts to quickly move through a low-level environmental review came under fire from critics who've raised concerns about everything from environmental impact to the method in which the meeting was conducted.
The RMA will use federal stimulus money to pay for the $140 million project that will connect northbound U.S. 281 with eastbound and westbound Loop 1604 and connect eastbound and westbound 1604 to southbound 281. The northern side of the project can't be built, RMA officials said, because the agency doesn't have environmental clearance for work north of the loop.
Enrique Valdivia, president of Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas, said his group advocates a more holistic approach. AGUA believes that the environmental review ought to include the Loop 1604 and U.S. 281 corridors as well.
“What we've been arguing all along is that any long-term solution needs to take in the entire area — not a piecemeal approach,” he said.
The RMA is conducting three separate environmental reviews on the two highways and the direct-connector project.
Valdivia said he's concerned that constructing the direct connectors will predetermine the scope and plan of expanding Loop 1604 and U.S. 281.
His group, a co-plaintiff with Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, hasn't ruled out reopening a federal lawsuit to ensure that the proper level of environmental review is done.
Stacey Benningfield, a consultant handling the RMA's environmental review, said the level of review isn't up to the RMA. Rather, it's decided by the Federal Highway Administration. That agency has directed the RMA to do the lowest level of environmental review — a categorical exclusion — for the interchange project, Benningfield said.
Agency officials based that recommendation on other similar projects and what they knew about the RMA project, Benningfield said. The federal agency has the final say in approving the document and based on the review could require a higher-level study.
Tuesday's meeting was a successful one, RMA officials said. RMA board members attended and helped answer specific questions from the public.
“This is an opportunity for the public to really get engaged,” RMA Executive Director Terry Brechtel said. “Look around. People are talking. They're asking questions.”
The RMA hopes to hire a contractor by next spring to design and build the project.