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San Antonio Area Freeway System
US 281 North Expansion Project

This page last updated March 31, 2017

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This page shows the current plans for this project
This page discusses the final proposal for the US 281 North expansion project that will start construction this spring. The information here is based on the bid plans, but, as always, some details are subject to change.

Since 2000, TxDOT has had plans to upgrade US 281 north of Loop 1604 to a freeway. (A freeway is a roadway with high-speed, divided mainlanes that go over or under intersecting roadways and access those roadways via entrance and exit ramps. It can be tolled or non-tolled.) Amid a sudden funding shortage in 2004, the state updated their plans to include tolling of the new freeway lanes, setting-off a decade-long battle between the state and anti-toll activists and environmentalists. With the passage of new funding measures for highways in 2015, funding became available to drop the toll component of this project. The expansion will now include toll-free freeway lanes, HOV lanes, and access roads.

Below is complete information about the latest status of this project as well as its turbulent saga.


Superstreet Just looking for more information on the US 281 "superstreet"?
See the superstreets page.

On this page


Current plans

Background
In early April 2014, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) and TxDOT released proposed schematics of the preferred alternative that was recommended in the final environmental impact statement. This alternative consisted of a bifurcated project. The southern half included four to six toll-free freeway lanes with two tolled managed lanes in the center of the freeway and toll-free access roads. The northern half consisted of four tolled freeway lanes and toll-free access roads. The Federal Highway Administration approved the project in August 2015.

During its 2015 session, the Texas Legislature passed new funding sources for transportation, which were subsequently approved by voters in November 2015. With this new funding availability, local officials opted to drop the toll component of the 281 plans and TxDOT took over the project from ARMA. The Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Texas Transportation Commission subsquently approved using revenue from the new funding sources to pay for the US 281 project. Because the physical footprint of the new toll-free project did not change substantially from the approved tolled project, no new environmental studies were required.

In May 2016, TxDOT released their updated plans for the project. These plans include four to eight toll-free freeway lanes plus two HOV lanes in the center of the freeway north of Evans. In addition, the northern ramps for the Loop 1604 interchange will also be completed; these new ramps will also be non-tolled.

The project extends from Loop 1604 to the Comal county line and is divided into two phases. Stone Oak/TPC is the dividing line for the two phases.



PHASE 1: Loop 1604 to Stone Oak/TPC
Construction to start in May 2017 and take approximately three years to complete.  Project cost is $192 million.

This segment will include the following:

  • Eight (8) new non-tolled freeway lanes (i.e. four in each direction) south of Evans and four (4) new non-tolled freeway lanes(i.e. two in each direction) north of Evans
  • Two (2) new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes (i.e. one in each direction) north of Evans in the center between the freeway lanes and separated from the general-purpose mainlanes by a four-foot marked buffer area
  • Overpasses for the freeway and HOV lanes at Redland Rd., Encino Rio, Evans Rd., and Stone Oak/TPC Pkwy.
  • Non-tolled access roads with a varying number of lanes
  • An elevated "T" ramp will connect the HOV lanes directly to a new park & ride facility being built by VIA just south of Stone Oak Pkwy.
  • Four northern direct connectors of the US 281/Loop 1604 interchange
The new access roads will be constructed first while traffic continues to use the existing lanes. Once the access roads are complete, traffic will be shifted onto them while the new mainlanes and overpasses are built. The superstreet configuration will remain mostly in-place for the duration of construction.


SCHEMATIC

Click the image above to see a detailed annotated schematic of Phase 1
(Schematic is large and may take time to load)



CROSS-SECTIONS


EXISTING



PROPOSED
(North of Evans)



PROPOSED
(South of Evans)



NOTE
Number of access road lanes varies depending on location.
Diagrams are for illustrative purposes only and are not to scale.


RENDERINGS



Proposed project looking northbound over 1604 interchange





Proposed project looking northbound at Sonterra





Proposed project looking northbound between Redland and Encino Rio





Proposed project looking northbound at Evans
(HOV lane starts/ends just south of here)






Proposed project looking northbound between Evans and Stone Oak Pkwy





Proposed project looking northbound at Stone Oak Park & Ride
(Southbound HOV lane is hidden behind ramp from Park & Ride)



PHASE 2: Stone Oak/TPC to the Comal county line
Construction projected to start in 2019.  Project is estimated to cost is $182 million.

This segment will include the following:

  • Four (4) new non-tolled freeway lanes (i.e. two in each direction)
  • Two (2) new high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes (i.e. one in each direction) in the center between the freeway lanes and separated from the general-purpose mainlanes by a four-foot marked buffer area
  • Overpasses for the freeway and HOV lanes at Marshall Rd., Wilderness Oaks, Overlook Pkwy., Bulverde Rd., and Borgfeld Rd.
  • Non-tolled access roads with a varying number of lanes (typically two along most of this segment)
  • A two-way, dead-end frontage road will connect the Borgfeld underpass to the various properties that front the east side of US 281 between Borgfeld and the Comal county line
  • Detailed schematic will be available in mid-2017


CROSS-SECTIONS

EXISTING



PROPOSED



NOTE
Number of access road lanes varies depending on location.
Diagrams are for illustrative purposes only and are not to scale.


RENDERINGS

Proposed project looking northbound just north of Stone Oak Pkwy


Proposed project looking northbound at Marshall Rd.


Proposed project looking northbound between Marshall and Wilderness Oaks


Proposed project looking northbound at Overlook Parkway



Proposed project looking northbound just north of Bulverde Rd.



Proposed project looking northbound just north of Borgfeld Rd.
(Freeway starts/ends here; HOV lane starts/ends just south of here)


FAQ:

  • Will this project be tolled?
    No. Although earlier versions of this project proposed tolled lanes, funding was secured to remove the toll component. Instead, toll-free freeway mainlanes and HOV lanes will be added along with access roads.

  • I will not use the HOV lane, so it won't benefit me. My taxes shouldn't pay for something I won't use.
    Even if you don't use the HOV lane, you will still get the benefit of it in that every vehicle that uses the HOV lane is one or more vehicles that won't be in the general-purpose mainlanes, thus reducing congestion there. We all pay taxes for many things we don't use or directly benefit from but that benefit everyone generally. Don't forget that the people who will use the HOV lanes are also taxpayers.

  • Instead of an HOV lane, another general-purpose mainlane would provide more capacity.
    Yes, having an extra mainlane in place of an HOV lane would provide more
    general-purpose capacity. But the benefit would be short-lived because that extra lane will soon also become congested and will leave less room (if any) then to expand. With an HOV lane, planners build-in a corridor that can be used now and well into the future to move more people per vehicle through the corridor, people who won't be clogging the mainlanes in their single-occupancy cars. Freeway corridors are more than just pathways for vehicles-- they're high-capacity transportation corridors that need to be considered not only for their ability to move vehicles, but also their ability to move people. These two purposes can coexist and HOV lanes are a way of doing that. A new general-purpose mainlane, while providing immediate gratification, is myopic in the long-run; HOV lanes reflect a more sophisticated long-term planning desired by many citizens.

  • Nobody wants HOV lanes.
    That's simply not true. Of the over 3,500 respondents to the recent SA Tomorrow transportation planning survey, 76% either agreed or strongly-agreed that HOV lanes should be an important part of San Antonio's transportation future. Anecdotally, the author of this website attends nearly every public meeting for transportation projects and has consistently heard broad-based citizen support for HOV lanes.

  • Why build an HOV lane here when there aren't any others in San Antonio?
    The inclusion of HOV lanes in freeway projects is a recent change in local transportation planning and this project was in development when that policy was put into effect, so it was included in the project. Consquently, this could be considered a "starter" HOV lane. Another is planned on I-10 West and carpools will likely be allowed in planned managed lanes on Loop 1604. Furthermore, planners are already considering how to continue the US 281 HOV lanes inside 1604. 
    Remember that San Antonio's freeway system started with short section of I-10 between Woodlawn and Culebra that provided no significant connectivity but was part of a bigger plan. "Rome wasn't built in a day."

  • What will be the requirements to use the HOV lanes?
    It is planned that the HOV lane will be open to vehicles with two or more passengers (HOV 2+), transit vehicles, motorcycles, and emergency vehicles. The HOV lanes will operate full-time.

  • There needs to be at least three lanes in each direction north of Evans-- two lanes will soon result in congestion like that on Loop 1604.
    Planners look at current and projected traffic volumes to determine the number of lanes to build. The planning timeline is typically 20 years. Although nobody has a crystal ball and can tell what traffic volumes will be in 20 years, the best estimates show that those two lanes will be sufficient. Today, the segment just north of Stone Oak carries about 55,000 vehicles per day. Even if that grows by 50% over the 20 years, that would put it at about the same traffic volume as is currently on Loop 1604 between Braun and Culebra, where the two freeway lanes in each direction experience no recurring congestion. And that doesn't even take into account the traffic that will divert to the HOV lanes. (For comparison, the section of Loop 1604 North between US 281 and I-10 carries over 130,000 vehicles per day.)

  • One section will have two general-purpose through lanes where there are now three-- how is this an improvement?
    This is a common misconception because it is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Yes, the section in question, southbound between Stone Oak and Evans, does indeed currently have three lanes and will only have two freeway mainlanes (plus an HOV lane) when this project is complete. However, those two lanes are freeway mainlanes, not surface road mainlanes as they are today. Since they do not have signalized intersections, freeway mainlanes can generally carry twice as many vehicles per hour than surface roads can. Therefore, the two freeway lanes is equivalent to four of the existing lanes. Also, a substantial portion of the traffic in the current lanes in that area is headed to or from the intersecting roads or businesses and will therefore be on the access road lanes, not on the freeway mainlanes. With a minimum of two access road lanes in each direction, that gives the new corridor the equivalent of six of today's lanes in each direction-- more than double what's there now. And that doesn't even include the number of vehicles that will use the HOV lanes instead of the general-purpose mainlanes-- this adds roughly the equivalent of two more lanes in each direction, bringing it to a total of eight lanes equivalent to today's lanes in each direction, or an increase of 166% southbound and 300% northbound . Even if you just count the raw number of lanes and don't account for capacity, there will be a minimum of five lanes in each direction as opposed to three southbound and two northbound today. (Commentary: The fewer-number-of-lanes "fact" is often perpetuated by anti-toll activists either to intentionally misguide people or simply because they don't understand the fallacy of their assertion. Don't fall for it.)

PROPOSED LANES BETWEEN EVANS AND STONE OAK



THE LANES ABOVE ARE EQUIVALENT TO THIS...



...WHICH IS A LOT MORE THAN WHAT'S THERE TODAY:




Project history

Prior to 1987, US 281 north of Bitters existed as a four-lane surface divided highway with traffic signals at major intersections. In 1990, TxDOT completed work to upgrade 281 to a six-lane freeway from Bitters to Loop 1604. North of 1604, the road remained as a four-lane surface divided highway with signals at Encino Rio. Since that time, tremendous development has taken place along the 281 corridor north of Loop 1604 all the way to the SH 46 area north of Bulverde. Meanwhile, US 281 in that area has remained a four- and six-lane surface divided highway with several more signals added at major intersections over the years due to safety and traffic demands.

Original freeway plan
In 2000, TxDOT announced plans to upgrade 281 to a six- and eight-lane freeway from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway and to build a standalone overpass at Borgfeld with eventual (long-term) plans to upgrade 281 to a full freeway in phases all the way to FM 306 at the Comal/Blanco County line. At that time, the section from 1604 to Stone Oak was listed by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to be funded ca. 2003. However, due to a number of domestic and international factors, highway construction costs in early 2003 began a sudden and dramatic increase. As a result, the price tag for the project escalated rapidly and it quickly became impossible to fund the project with the tax funds that had been allocated.


This was the schematic on this site (ca. 2002) for the original plan to expand US 281


Conversion to toll project
In December 2003, while TxDOT was regrouping to find additional funding for the project, the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC), at the behest of the governor and using new tools granted by the Legislature and voters, ordered that "controlled-access mobility projects in any phase of development or construction must be evaluated for tolling. This includes new-location facilities and increased capacity projects such as adding additional main lanes or constructing new main lanes." (TTC Minute Order 109519, 12/18/03) The order specifically included "increased capacity projects such as...constructing new main lanes." Because the 281 project fit that description, TxDOT was compelled to evaluate it for possible tolling. That review showed that it met the requirements for tolling, so per the TTC's order, the project was reclassified as a toll facility.

Cintra-Zachary bid
Shortly thereafter, a consortium consisting of local construction giant Zachary and the Spanish infrastructure company Cintra, who were working together on a bid to build and operate one of the proposed Trans Texas Corridor projects, submitted an unsolicited bid to TxDOT to build the 281 tollway project, as well as a similar Loop 1604 project, in return for a 50-year lease to operate the tollways. Because the bid had merit, TxDOT was required under state law to fully evaluate the Cintra-Zachary bid and open the project to other bidders. The Cintra-Zachary bid not only paid for construction and subsequent maintenance and operation of both roadways (which freed the previously-allocated state funding for other projects), it also paid a large concession fee to the state that could also be used to fund other projects. Based on those merits, the Cintra-Zachary bid was accepted in early 2005. Since the project was to be built entirely with private funds, the tax funding that had been budgeted for it was earmarked for other highway projects in the area.

First lawsuit
Consequently, construction began on the Sonterra to Stone Oak section in December 2005. Shortly thereafter, workers clearing land for the project accidentally broke a sewer line at Evans and 281. In January 2006, work was suspended indefinitely after environmentalists and toll opponents filed a lawsuit arguing that the project required a full (and costly) environmental impact statement (EIS) instead of the numerous environmental assessments (EA) that had been performed up to that time. Federal law only requires an EIS to be performed if an EA finds significant impacts, which the EAs for 281 did not. However, TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), who were both named in the suit, jointly agreed later that month to cancel work on the 281 tollway project as well as the planned Borgfeld overpass so that a comprehensive and definitive EA for the entire corridor could be done and a subsequent determination made of whether a full impact statement would need to be performed. Consequently, the contract with Cintra-Zachary was terminated. In early 2007, TxDOT released the new assessment, which showed no significant impacts. The FHWA approved the new assessment in August 2007, which authorized TxDOT to build the entire 281 tollway in Bexar County from 1604 to Borgfeld without the need for an EIS.

ARMA takes over project
In the meantime, the Legislature had passed a moratorium on nearly all new privately-built and/or operated toll roads and passed legislation requiring that local Regional Mobility Authorities be given the right of first refusal on toll projects in their jurisdiction. The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA), which was established by Bexar County in 2003, subsequently opted to take control of both the 281 and 1604 toll projects and began planning to build the 281 tollway from 1604 to Borgfeld as a two-phased project starting in 2008. The MPO approved toll rates for the project in December 2007.

Second lawsuit
In February 2008, toll opponents and environmentalists once again filed a lawsuit challenging the comprehensive 281 environmental assessment. After initial arguments, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs' case had sufficient standing to move forward with discovery. During the discovery process, TxDOT announced that they found a document that had been inadvertently omitted from the administrative record for the environmental assessment and asked for a 60 day stay to allow time to submit the document to the FHWA for review to determine if it would change the overall findings of the study. In early October 2008, TxDOT then reported that they had uncovered a conflict of interest with the contractor who had performed the endangered species portion of the study. Specifically, it was discovered that a TxDOT staff biologist was married to an employee of the company hired to do the a portion of the study. It was further discovered that the TxDOT employee's supervisor was aware of the situation and allowed it but that controls put in place to mitigate the conflict were not enforced. Although it was determined that this likely had no impact on the results of the study, TxDOT asked the FHWA to revoke their environmental approval for the project to preempt the inevitable legal battle. Subsequently, the defendants (TxDOT, ARMA, and the FHWA) agreed to do a full environmental impact statement (EIS) for the corridor and the lawsuit was dismissed as moot in November 2008. In April 2009, ARMA hired the consultant to develop the new EIS.

ARMA hires consortium
In the meantime, while the legal challenges had been working their way through the system, ARMA had hired Cibolo Creek Infrastructure Joint Venture in May 2008 to continue to design and eventually build the 281 project. The consortium was headed by Fluor Enterprises of Irving, Texas, and Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc. of Atlanta, and included several San Antonio subcontractors. (Contrary to pervasive public perception, this consortium-- unlike the Cintra-Zachary group-- included no foreign companies.) Design work was 30% completed when it was stopped in late 2008 due to the aforementioned litigation and subsequent decision to do a full EIS. ARMA had planned to start construction in late 2008 or early 2009 on the first segment, from Loop 1604 to Marshall Rd., with estimated completion in late 2010. However, those plans were scrapped pending a new project to be recommended by the environmental impact statement process.

Superstreet built
After the consortium project was scrapped, ARMA, TxDOT, and the City of San Antonio proposed several short-term fixes that did not require environmental studies. Those proposed improvements predominately consisted of additional turning lanes and auxiliary lanes. Then in February 2009, an unsolicited proposal from local engineering firm Pape-Dawson was made public that would convert 281 to a "superstreet" from Encino Rio to Marshall. That plan was vetted, approved, and funded in mid-2009 and subsequently built in 2010. For more information on the US 281 superstreet, click here.

Southern interchange built
During the Great Recession, Congress approved a national economic "stimulus" plan that poured additional federal money into road construction projects. In February 2009, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) approved allocating San Antonio's share of transportation stimulus funding to be used as matching funds to leverage state funding for the first half of a 281/1604 interchange. This project built all four of the ramps connecting 1604 to 281 inside the loop, i.e. northbound 281 to both directions of 1604, and both directions of 1604 to southbound 281. The use of the federal funds allowed the ramps to be toll-free. The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) approved the funding request on March 5th, 2009. Construction began in early 2011 was completed in mid 2013. It was determined that the ramps connecting to 281 north of 1604 could not be built until the lingering issues stemming from the lawsuits and associated environmental studies for 281 north of 1604 were resolved. However, funding was identified for those ramps so that construction could begin as soon as the legal and environmental issues were resolved.

New managed lanes plan
In May 2012, local officials announced they had identified funding to construct freeway lanes on US 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy and on Loop 1604 from Bandera Rd. to Wiseman Blvd. The working plan for US 281 included two to three toll-free freeway lanes in each direction and one or two tolled managed lanes. The managed lanes would include direct access to a park and ride facility being planned for the corridor. It was hoped that construction would begin sometime in 2014 or 2015 once the ongoing environmental study of the corridor was complete and approved and barring any further legal challenges.

2014 funding plan
In January 2014, TxDOT and ARMA announced funding had been secured to expand US 281 from Loop 1604 to Borgfeld Rd. using a mix of non-tolled and tolled/managed lanes. Some funding would come from traditional tax-funded sources with the remainder coming from bonds backed by toll revenue. Funding was also allocated-- mostly from a City of San Antonio bond issue-- to complete the northern ramps for the Loop 1604 interchange; as with the previously completed ramps in the interchange, these new ramps will also be non-tolled. With funding now in hand for the entire corridor, construction was expected to start in late 2015 or early 2016 contingent on the approval of an environment study that was scheduled to be complete in mid 2015. The funding for 281 was part of a larger financing package that included funds for proposed managed lanes on I-10 West from Loop 1604 to Ralph Fair Rd. and for non-tolled freeway lanes on Loop 1604 from SH 151 to US 90. In the summer of 2015, TxDOT submitted and the FHWA approved the completed environmental impact statement for the US 281 project.

Legislature approves new funding sources
Then, during its session in early 2015, the Texas Legislature approved a new funding source for highways that will allocate approximately $2.5 billion from sales taxes and motor vehicle sales taxes annually to highways. During the summer of 2015, several local officials indicated that should voters pass the new financing and the expected funding then be allocated by the state, efforts would be made to remove the toll component from the US 281 project. In early September 2015, the MPO approved a resolution to that effect and the Texas Transportation Commission approved the funding change later that month. In November 2015, voters approved the new funding source and officials announced shortly thereafter that the plans for 281 would be updated to remove the toll component with an expected groundbreaking in 2017. Because the physical footprint of the new toll-free project will not change substantially from the approved tolled project, no new environmental studies were required.

Additional state funding approved
In January 2016, the Transportation Commission proposed a $1.3 billion dollar funding largesse to help address congestion in the state's largest metro areas. San Antonio was awarded $171 million, of which $81.3 million was budgeted for the US 281 project north of Stone Oak Pkwy. This funding will mainly be used for right-of-way acquisition and will expedite the commencement of the project by about a year to late 2018. In January 2017, the MPO allocated the remainder of the funding needed for the northern segment. The official groundbreaking for the project was held on March 31, 2017.

Further north
Long-range plans are on the books to upgrade US 281 to a full freeway all the way to FM 306 at the Comal/Blanco County line. The first step toward that eventual plan upgraded 281 from a two-lane road to a four-lane divided highway from the Guadalupe River to FM 306; work on that project was completed in early 2015.


Other sites of interest

Video rendering of current plan
http://www.411on281.com/index.html#myTab2
TxDOT - US 281 from Loop 1604 to Borgfeld Drive
http://www.txdot.gov/inside-txdot/projects/studies/san-antonio/us-281-1604-borgfeld.html




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This page and all its contents are Copyright 2017 by Brian Purcell

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The information provided on this website is provided on an "as-is" basis without warranties of any kind either express or implied.  The author and his agents make no warranties or representations of any kind concerning any information contained in this website.  This website is provided only as general information.  The author expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based upon the information contained herein or with respect to any errors or omissions in such information.  All opinions expressed are strictly those of the author.  This site is not affiliated in any way with any official agency.