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[i] Information SAN ANTONIO FREEWAY HISTORY
Read my essay on San Antonio's freeway history for the Express-News' Tricentennial series here. The full history of the freeway system is available on this site here.

US 281 San Antonio Area Freeway System
US Highway 281 North (Walter McAllister Freeway)

This page last updated November 17, 2017

US 281 North highlight map This page covers US 281 north of downtown San Antonio from the I-35 interchange to Sonterra Blvd.  US 281 continues south of downtown concurrent (multiplexed) with I-37.

Length: 14 miles


ADVERTISEMENT

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

For more information on the current plans for US 281 north of 1604, see the
US 281 North expansion project page.

On this page

Overview
 
Roadway
details
Schematic Lanes Access
roads
         
Exits
 
Speed
limits
Special features
& notes
Traffic Media
gallery
         
   
  Construction
projects
Future
plans
History
 
 
         

Overview

This freeway is the backbone for the San Antonio's booming North-Central area. The route serves Trinity University, the University of the Incarnate Word, Brackenridge Park, the San Antonio Zoo, Alamo Stadium, The Quarry and Lincoln Heights developments, San Antonio International Airport, and the Stone Oak area, as well as the suburban cities of Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, Hollywood Park, and Hill Country Village.

Traveling outbound from downtown, 281 snakes around the southern edge of the Brackenridge Golf Course before shoehorning between the San Antonio Zoo and Alamo Stadium. Continuing north, the freeway crosses the Olmos Dam and sails over the wooded Olmos Park and flood control basin. North of Basse, the landscape becomes increasingly suburban in character, and dense commercial development is achieved near San Antonio International Airport at Loop 410 all the way to 1604 with a short gap at the end of an airport runway between Rhapsody and Nakoma. The freeway ends just north of 1604 and becomes a divided highway continuing into the booming hinterland areas of northern Bexar County and Bulverde.

This section of freeway is occasionally mistakenly called I-37. While I-37 runs concurrent with US 281 in southeast and downtown San Antonio, it ends at I-35 while US 281 continues north from there.

US 281's intersection at Loop 1604 currently lacks a fully directional interchange. Prior to November 2012, traffic destined for Loop 1604 was required to exit onto access roads and traverse an overburdened three-level interchange. However, the first phase of a five-level interchange opened in November 2012 and provided direct connections from US 281 northbound to both directions of Loop 1604. Ramps from Loop 1604 to southbound US 281 opened in late December 2012. Construction on the northern half of the interchange is expected to begin in 2017.


Roadway details

SCHEMATIC

Click here for a schematic of US 281 North.
 
LANES
  • 8 lanes from I-35 to St. Mary's
  • 6 lanes from St. Mary's to Hildebrand
  • 8 lanes from Hildebrand to Sunset
  • 6 lanes from Sunset to Isom
  • 8 lanes from Isom to Donella
  • 6 lanes from Donella to Sonterra

US 281 lanes map
 

   
ACCESS ROADS
  • No continuous access roads from I-35 to Loop 410 with the exception of short sections of access road southbound from Loop 410 to Sunset and northbound from Parkridge to Loop 410.
  • Continuous access roads remainder of route except through San Pedro interchange.
     

US 281 access roads map
 

   
EXITS


 Click here for a list of US 281 North exits.

 
SPEED LIMITS
  • 60mph from I-35 to Hildebrand
  • 65 mph from Hildebrand to Sonterra

US 281 speed limit map
 

   
SPECIAL FEATURES & NOTES
  • TransGuide coverage from I-35 to Basse
  • Southbound left exit to northbound I-35
  • Northbound left exit to Loop 1604
  • Partial directional interchange at Loop 1604
  • Winding and scenic route from I-35 to Basse
  • Landing lights for a runway at San Antonio International Airport cross over the freeway on a truss just south of Nakoma

US 281 special features map
 

   
TRAFFIC
Generally heavy along entire route. Regular morning peak congestion occurs inbound along most of the route. Regular afternoon peak-period congestion occurs outbound between I-35 and Hildebrand and from Nakoma to Sonterra and inbound from Loop 410 to Hildebrand.

Traffic volumes have increased appreciably throughout most of the corridor over the past decade although most locations were flat over the past year.
 

Traffic volume legend

US 281 traffic map
 

   

AVERAGE ANNUAL DAILY TRAFFIC
LOCATION 1990 2005 2010 2013 2014 2015 '05-'15
% CHG
Hildebrand Ave. 103,000 143,310 138,000 155,946 154,797 154,145 +7.56%
Basse Rd. 85,000 120,250 119,000 136,178 129,488 132,166 +9.91%
Sunset Rd. 85,000 126,790 125,000 146,549 136,180 144,141 +13.68%
Loop 410 54,000 91,310 81,000 87,111 87,624 88,203 -3.40%
Jones-Maltsberger Rd. N 51,000 113,580 77,000 83,695 93,318 93,957 -17.28%
Isom Rd. 59,000 103,510 128,000 149,020 160,964 161,941 +56.45%
Nakoma Rd. 85,000 156,910 160,000 169,848 175,069 192,659 +22.78%
Brookhollow Dr. 46,000 133,460 130,000 144,366 166,828 164,091 +22.95%
Henderson Pass 31,000 139,500 134,000 101,015 106,418 105,259 -24.55%
Sonterra Blvd. 24,000 92,590 133,000 89,095 95,674 103,023 +11.27%


Media gallery

Click here for photos and video of this freeway.


Construction projects

No current projects in this corridor.


Future plans

An extension of the freeway north of Loop 1604 to Stone Oak was scheduled to start in 2003 but was postponed due to funding constraints caused by a sudden increase in construction costs. Shortly thereafter, the Texas Transportation Commission required that all new freeway projects be evaluated as toll projects. Pursuant to that, TxDOT changed the project north of 1604 to a tollway. That plan, along with the previously planned overpass at Borgfeld, was suspended in 2006 pending federal approval of a new environmental assessment resulting from litigation from toll road opponents. That new assessment, released in early 2007, showed no significant impacts. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approved the new assessment on August 14th, 2007, and authorized TxDOT to build the entire 281 tollway in Bexar County from 1604 to Borgfeld, which TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) then planned to do as a two phase project. However, toll opponents again filed a lawsuit in February 2008 challenging the the results of the latest environmental study. As a result of that lawsuit, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its prior approvals and directed ARMA to perform a more comprehensive environmental impact statement before any expansion project can be built. That work was completed and approved by the FHWA in August 2015. 

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 sufficient 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. The new funding was subsequently approved by voters in November 2015 and the toll component was dropped from the 281 plans. The project will now include four to six toll-free freeway lanes with two HOV lanes in the center of the freeway. In addition, the northern ramps for the Loop 1604 interchange, which had been on hold pending the outcome of the expansion project, will also be completed and will also be non-tolled. Construction is expected to begin on the interchange and first phase of the freeway project in 2017 with the second phase possibly starting in 2018 or 2019.

For more information on the current plans for US 281 north of 1604, see the US 281 North expansion project page.

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. The first phase of that eventual plan was to upgrade 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.


History

US 281 opened to traffic on February 7, 1978 and was certified on September 11, 1978. Named for Walter McAllister, San Antonio's mayor when the freeway was proposed. McAllister was influential in getting the freeway built. It was originally named the "North Expressway."

This freeway was one of the most controversial freeway projects in US history. It was widely acknowledged by the early '50s that the city needed a north-central freeway and planning for the route had quietly begun by 1955. By 1960, several routes for the North Expressway were being considered: San Pedro, McCullough, and Broadway. The San Pedro route was dismissed because it did not provide direct access to San Antonio International Airport and the Broadway and McCullough routes would require too much expensive right-of-way to be acquired. So a "greenfield" route midway between Broadway and McCullough that wound around Brackenridge Park (clipping-off a corner of the golf course), through the suburb of Olmos Park, and over the Olmos Basin was proposed. The City of Olmos Park blocked that route though, so the Texas Highway Department chose an alternate route that skirted around the eastern edge of the suburb. The route ran between Alamo Stadium, the Sunken Gardens and the San Antonio Zoo and through the Incarnate Word campus. On January 10, 1961, San Antonio voters approved a bond issue to purchase land to replace the parkland that would be taken for the freeway. There was, however, heated debate over this routing as well. Conservationists and preservationists got a new weapon in their fight in 1966, the so-called "Yarborough Rule" was a caveat added to federal law prohibiting the taking of parklands for highways. The section of the freeway skirting Olmos Park would run through the Olmos flood control basin, a wooded area considered to be parkland.

In 1969, after years of protests and legal wrangling by the San Antonio Conservation Society, work began on the undisputed southern and northern thirds of the freeway while the debate over the routing of the center section continued. But in June of 1971, after a similar freeway project in Memphis, Tennessee, was scuttled, a federal court revoked the federal funding for the North Expressway, which essentially rendered it dead. However, in 1973, Texas Senators John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen sponsored legislation to allow the City and State to build the freeway without federal money. The legislation passed both houses of Congress and was upheld by a US District Court on December 10, 1973, removing all federal involvement in the project and allowing the City and State to go it alone. Work resumed on the project's stalled northern and southern segments within 24 hours of the ruling. A last-ditch court challenge suspended the project for five more months in mid-1974, but that case was dismissed and work started on the controversial center center section on November 13, 1974. The freeway opened on February 7, 1978, and in 1981 was named by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) as one of the nation's three most attractive urban freeways.

The freeway originally extended to just north of the airport at Bitters. From there northward, US 281 was a four lane divided highway. In 1987, a project to upgrade the section from Bitters to just north of Loop 1604 was started. This project tested several innovative traffic-handling methods during construction which actually made for smoother traffic flow during the construction than before. (Those traffic-handling techniques are very similar to the eventual "super-street" implemented north of Loop 1604.)  Even more noteworthy was that the five mile project was finished in a record 24 months. Because the city's thoroughfare plan showed a future east-west arterial north of Loop 1604, the Sonterra overpass was built as part of the freeway extension project. However, Sonterra Blvd. was not extended to the overpass until April 2000, resulting in the overpass being unused for nearly a decade.

TransGuide coverage was added south of St. Mary's in 1995 and between St. Mary's and Basse in October 1998.

The overpass at FM 1863 in Bulverde was completed in 2000.

The elevated ramp leading from northbound 281 into the airport complex opened on June 29, 2001.

In early 2004, an additional lane in each direction for most of the route between San Pedro and Loop 1604 was added by restriping the roadway and eliminating the inner shoulder. The same technique was used in mid-2006 to add an extra lane in each direction from Jones-Maltsberger near the Quarry south to Hildebrand as part of the 281/410 interchange project.

In late 2004, work began on clearing the right-of-way for the tolled expansion of 281 north of 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway. A lawsuit by opponents of the project halted work in January 2005. (More information about this project is at the US 281 North expansion project page.)

The first ramp in the 281/410 interchange opened to traffic on June 18th, 2007 and the final ramps were open to traffic on June 9th, 2008. The interchange project also added additional lanes between Loop 410 and Nakoma and extended TransGuide coverage from Basse to Nakoma. (Also see the History of the US 281/Loop 410 interchange page.)

In October 2010, work was completed to upgrade 281 to a "superstreet" from Encino Rio to Marshall. Under the plan, the intersections of Encino Rio, Evans, Stone Oak, and Marshall were redesigned to eliminate straight-through and left-turn movements on those intersecting roadways. This signal changes afforded by this configuration helped ease congestion in the area. This proposal was considered a short-term "band-aid" until a more significant upgrade of 281 was able to be done. See the superstreets page for more information.

The first ramps in the 281/1604 interchange opened on November 8, 2012.




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

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