Public feedback sought as US 281 toll project advances to next step

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Officials seek public feedback on flawed toll plan for US 281
By Terri Hall
June 23, 2013

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (RMA) are soliciting public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the Highway 281 expansion project. They held a public hearing Thursday, June 20, at the San Antonio Shrine Auditorium and nearly 250 people attended despite it being held on the same night as the final game of the Spurs World Championship play-offs. Over 90% of the public feedback opposed tolls on Hwy 281.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) currently has two HOV/transit toll lanes planned from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy., and tolls on all six main lanes (including the 4 currently toll-free lanes) north of Stone Oak Pkwy. to the county line.

Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF) is urging residents to reject the toll plan on Hwy 281 and demand the complete non-toll expressway option be advanced as the 'preferred alternative' for the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that advances to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for final approval in 2014. The deadline for public comment is July 1 and comments can be emailed to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The purpose of the public comment and public hearing process is two-fold: first, to solicit public feedback on which option should advance as the ‘preferred alternative,’ and, second, to solicit comment on the Draft EIS itself -- the assumptions, impacts, and any potential flaws. The current ‘alternatives’ being weighed are an expressway option (expanding the highway ‘at grade’ or on the ground) and an elevated expressway option. Both alternatives are being considered for non-toll, all-tolled, or ‘managed’ toll lane options (which usually means toll lanes in the middle of the highway with HOV or similar elements to ‘manage’ traffic demand).

Most San Antonians have no idea that the tolls could be as high as 50 cents a mile. The published toll rate range is 17 cents a mile up to 50 cents a mile. RMA, or toll authority, has stated on the record since 2009 that it plans to charge tolls in perpetuity. So this will be a permanent new tax on driving.

Cash users will be charged more

Since the tolling will be all electronic, drivers have to have a government-issued TollTag and pay to keep an account open in order to get the lowest toll rate. Those who get billed by mail will pay 33-50% higher toll rates. There is no way to bill out-of-state or international drivers, so San Antonio taxpayers will foot the bill for these visitors to get a free ride.

Contracts to guarantee congestion on free routes

Toll contracts also limit expansion of free routes since they contain non-compete clauses that penalize or prohibit the expansion of free routes surrounding the tollway to guarantee congestion on free roads and force more Texans to pay tolls.

Since people try to avoid paying tolls, they find alternate routes to bypass the toll lanes. Studies show tolls divert traffic onto surrounding neighborhood streets and increase accidents and congestion on local streets.

Design flaw will create bottleneck

According to MPO documents, all existing freeway lanes north of Stone Oak Parkway will be converted to toll lanes with NO toll-free express lane option. Those who cannot afford or do not want to pay tolls will be forced to exit the highway and continue on frontage roads (with slower speeds and permanent stop lights), creating a Texas-sized bottleneck on both the access roads and highway itself. This design flaw will keep the tolled managed lane option from meeting the purpose and need of the project, which is to improve mobility and quality of life in the corridor.

Plus, the current MPO hybrid, managed lane toll plan fails to add any new highway lanes from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy., and, in fact, converts two of the six existing non-toll main lanes into HOV-toll lanes, shrinking existing non-toll capacity down to four lanes. So, once again, the managed toll lanes as currently proposed, fail to meet the purpose and need of the project.

The non-toll highway lanes adjacent to the HOV/Transit toll lanes will remain congested through the year 2035 without new added capacity. The all-toll lane option (no free highway lanes anywhere in the corridor - converting all existing free lanes into toll lanes in addition to tolling the two new lanes) will not meet the purpose and need of the project either since it will displace traffic avoiding the toll onto frontage roads and neighborhood streets creating permanent congestion in the corridor.

The numbers don't add up

A 10-mile stretch of Loop 1604 West is being expanded from 2 to 4 main lanes with 5 overpasses all non-toll right now for $200 million (or $20 million a mile). Yet on Hwy 281, officials claim it cannot be expanded without tolls, and that the cost for just a 7.3-mile project is $448 million (or over $60 million a mile). Currently, there's $170 million in non-toll funds allocated to Hwy 281. So Hwy 281 can be expanded with available funds (which work out to be $24 million/mile) and without tolls today. But that won’t happen without enough public pressure to insist the overblown cost estimates come in line with reality. The political agenda by area officials is clearly to discriminate against Hwy 281 drivers with a targeted toll tax when expansion can be done far cheaper and without the new tax burden.

Money already there to fix 281 without tolls

While TxDOT claims no final decision on tolls has been made yet, tolls are currently the preferred alternative. RMA documents show TxDOT and the RMA have been meeting to discuss entrances and exits from the tolled managed lanes already - before the public hearing and comment period and before federal law permits such a decision.

The claim that there’s no money to fix it without tolls doesn’t hold water when you examine the cost to add 4 new lanes to Loop 1604. In addition to the vast differences in cost per mile between the two projects, another bone of contention has been the fact that TxDOT already had the money to add new lanes and overpasses to Hwy 281 as was promised in public hearings in 2001. MPO documents show the money was there from 2003 - 2008 before it got heisted and used somewhere else to force Hwy 281 drivers to have to pay tolls to get their road fixed. By 2006, there was $100 million in gas taxes allocated to the corridor.

So not only did the $100 million in gas taxes get stolen, last year the MPO stole another $50 million from Hwy 281 to pay for an overpass on 1604 and the northern ramps of the 281/1604 interchange. So officials keep stealing the money to fix this freeway in order to force us to pay tolls -- a discriminatory, targeted tax. The toll road isn’t about a lack of funds, but rather a vehicle to raid residents’ wallets using smoke and mirrors and endless excuses.

Social engineering add-ons won’t solve congestion

Many unnecessary elements are driving up the cost. First, there are 9 overpasses planned in just 7.3 miles. That's overkill and could actually make the corridor less safe -- like a roller coaster in order to go up and over that many intersections with so many overpasses so close together. Each one costs about $10 million, so eliminating some of the overpasses would shave cost and help make a non-toll option more affordable.

Second, a direct connect ramp for a Via Park-N-Ride facility is planned at Stone Oak for an express bus to take residents downtown without any justification or actual data to show how many residents would utilize such an express bus on a daily basis or why taxpayers should foot the bill for a special ramp for it (estimated at $58 million). Third, the project includes bike and pedestrian pathways throughout the entire corridor adding unnecessary cost. Bikes and pedestrians can safely travel along the planned frontage roads. Fourth, the project also includes 'context sensitive solutions' like artistic elements, accent lighting, rain gardens, etc. All of these extra costs need to be eliminated.

In order to get a free ride as an HOV user, you have to be a 'registered' carpool vehicle with an active TollTag account (which costs you money to keep open). It usually requires at least 3 (not 2) people to be in your car. So just hopping into the HOV/toll lane to take a relative to the airport or to go to lunch with colleagues won't count as a qualified HOV 'free ride.' Moms in minivans shuttling kids to soccer practice also won't qualify either unless you register in advance and meet the qualifications as a 'registered, declared' carpool vehicle with the government.

Plus, the HOV/transit toll lanes on Hwy 281 convert an existing free lane each direction into this toll lane, so it's a double tax to charge tolls to access a lane we use today toll-free. These cost-busting elements and social engineering are an Agenda 21-style attempt to force people out of their cars and into mass transit, a carpool, or onto a bike, which 80-90% of travelers do not wish to use.

In the current 90 degree-plus heat in San Antonio, it’s certainly not practical to think drivers will leave their cars behind to hop on a bike exposed to the elements in order to get to work on a daily basis. It’s also impractical to expect moms getting groceries for a family to be able to carry all her groceries by hand and load them onto a bus and then walk them home in the elements (to say nothing of how she’d juggle hanging onto to her kids/strollers in the process).

Economic impacts not considered

No meaningful study of economic impacts to residents, businesses, or employees in the corridor have been considered as required by federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Draft EIS acknowledges traffic trying to avoid paying tolls will be displaced onto neighborhood streets. This effects safety, schools, property values, quality of life, and access to gainful employment, yet it lacks any study of the adverse economic impacts of the displacement. The tolled options do not meet the purpose and need of the project when it will merely displace congestion into neighborhoods, rather than relieve it.

Since much of the development in the corridor is retail, schools, hotels, and hospitals, many of these industries employ low to mid-wage earners. How will businesses retain employees if their salaries can't possibly pay for tolls to get access to their jobs? Driving congested, stop-light ridden frontage roads is NOT an efficient nor effective alternative to freeway lanes. The Draft EIS only looked at low income and social justice populations and claims no adverse impacts to either of these groups. The Draft EIS claims if someone can't afford tolls, they can use the frontage roads. Making those who can't afford tolls second class citizens relegated to congested free routes, which is not only an adverse impact, it’s patently unfair (especially since they're paying gas tax for state highways), discriminatory, and inefficient.

Emergency services impeded
Toll lanes impede emergency services from reaching victims, crashes, and hospitals. The HOV-Transit toll lanes ('managed lane' option) in the center of the non-toll freeway lanes (up to Stone Oak Pkwy, all lanes tolled north of Stone Oak) inhibit the ability of EMS and police to reach victims and quickly usher them to hospitals when they have to cross two lanes of congested freeway lanes and try to access the limited-access center HOV-toll lanes. Such an arrangement puts lives at risk when every second counts.

So unless the public rejects the toll options and points to the flaws inherent in the toll and managed lane plans, travelers will be stuck with tolls in perpetuity and a permanently congested, less safe corridor.

Again, the deadline for public comment is July 1 and comments can be submitted via email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. TURF has additional information, including videos and schematics about the project, available at

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