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San Antonio Area Freeway System
US 281 North Expansion/Tollway Project

This page last updated November 24, 2014

This page has been updated based on the plans released in April 2014
The proposals and schematics are still preliminary and subject to change.

Since 2000, TxDOT has had plans to upgrade US 281 north of Loop 1604 to an expressway.  In 2004, the state updated their plans to include tolling of the new expressway lanes, setting-off a battle between the state and anti-toll activists and environmentalists.  Below is complete information about latest status of this project as well as its tumultuous history.


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


Currently proposed project

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.  Funding was also allocated 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.

In early April 2014, ARMA released proposed schematics of the preferred alternative that will be recommended in the final environmental impact statement.  (The full schematics are available here.)

The project is divided into two segments with each having different proposed lane configurations.  Stone Oak/Marshall is the dividing line for the two segments.

 



What is a managed lane?

A managed lane is a lane where the operational strategies of the lane are adjusted as required to ensure that the lane remains free-flowing, thus providing for a guaranteed travel time for users of the lane.  For example, toll rates or vehicle occupancy requirements may fluctuate based on trafffic conditions or time of day.  The proposed managed lanes on US 281 would allow free access for buses, carpools, and emergency vehicles; single-occupancy vehicles (i.e. solo drivers) could use the lane by paying a toll.
 


Loop 1604 to Stone Oak/Marshall

This section will consist of the following:

  • Six (6) new non-tolled expressway lanes (i.e. three in each direction)
  • Two (2) new managed lanes (i.e. one in each direction) in the center between the non-tolled expressway lanes separated from the general traffic lanes by bollards (see below for description of what a managed lane is)
  • Overpasses for the non-tolled expressway and managed lanes at Redland Rd., Encino Rio, Evans Rd., Stone Oak/TPC Pkwy., and Marshall Rd.
  • Non-tolled access roads with a varying number of lanes will line both sides
  • An elevated "T" ramp will connect the managed lanes directly to a new park and ride facility being planned by VIA just south of Stone Oak Pkwy.
     




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





Proposed project looking northbound between Redland and Encino Rio





Proposed project looking northbound approaching Stone Oak Pkwy





Proposed project looking southbound at Stone Oak Pkwy


Stone Oak/Marshall to Borgfeld

This section will feature the following:

  • Four (4) new tolled expressway lanes (i.e. two in each direction); an additional inside expressway lane will be added in each direction at a future date
  • Overpasses for the non-tolled expressway and managed lanes at  Marshall Rd., Wilderness Oaks, Overlook Pkwy., Bulverde Rd., and Borgfeld Rd.
  • Non-tolled access roads with a varying number of lanes will line both sides
  • 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 




ULTIMATE CONFIGUATION
(Additional lanes to be added in the future)



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


Proposed project looking northbound at Stone Oak Pkwy


Proposed project looking northbound approaching Borgfeld


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 expressway 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 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. 

In 2000 and 2001, TxDOT announced plans to upgrade 281 to a six- and eight-lane expressway 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 expressway 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.

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 tools previously 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."  The 281 project obviously fit that description and TxDOT, therefore, was compelled to evaluate it for possible tolling.  The evaluation showed that it met the requirements for tolling, so per the TTC's order, the project was reclassified as a toll facility.

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 Trans Texas Corridor projects, submitted an unsolicited bid to TxDOT to build the 281 tollway project, as well as the 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 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.

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 when 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 suspend 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 canceled.  In early 2007, TxDOT released the new assessment, which showed no significant impacts.  The FHWA approved the new assessment on August 14th, 2007, which authorized TxDOT to build the entire 281 tollway in Bexar County from 1604 to Borgfeld without the need for an EIS.

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. 

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 was omitted from the administrative record for the federal environmental approval 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 short-circuit the inevitable legal battle.  Subsequently, all parties involved (TxDOT, ARMA, and the FHWA) agreed to do a more comprehensive 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 and it is expected to be completed in 2014.

Meanwhile, while the legal challenges were working their way through the system, ARMA had hired Cibolo Creek Infrastructure Joint Venture in May 2008 to design and 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 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 and a new project will be recommended at the conclusion of the environmental impact statement process. 

After the toll project was scrapped, ARMA, TxDOT, and the City of San Antonio proposed several short-term fixes that do not typically 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.

During the Great Recession in February 2009, Congress approved a national economic "stimulus" plan that poured additional federal money into road construction projects.  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 without tolls.  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 are resolved.  However, funding has already been set aside for those ramps so that construction can begin as soon as the legal and environmental issues are resolved.  For more information on the 281/1604 interchange, click here.

Long-range plans are still on the books to upgrade US 281 to a full freeway all the way to FM 306 at the Comal/Blanco County line, possibly as a tollway depending on the future funding and political climate.  The first phase of that eventual plan is underway to upgrade 281 from a two-lane road to a four-lane divided highway from the Guadalupe River to FM 306; work is expected to be complete in 2014.

In May 2012, local officials announced they had identified funding to construct expressway 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 expressway 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 is hoped that construction can begin sometime in 2014 or 2015 once the ongoing environmental study of the corridor is complete and approved and barring any further legal challenges.

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.  Funding was also allocated 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 is expected to start in late 2015 or early 2016 contingent on the approval of an environment study that is scheduled to be complete in mid 2015. 


Project status

At present, this project is on hold pending completion of an environmental impact statement (EIS).  It is expected that the EIS will be approved in mid 2015.  However, as mentioned in the project history section above, funding for the entire project has been identified so that construction can begin soon after environmental approval is obtained.  It is expected therefore that construction will begin sometime in late 2015 barring delays caused by any further legal challenges.


Other sites of interest

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority
http://www.alamorma.org
The 4-1-1 on 281
http://www.411on281.com


This page and all its contents are Copyright 2013 by Brian Purcell

NOTICE
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.