HALT!: 281 toll road project ordered to stop

by Crystal Gottfried, Staff Writer

Under increased public pressure, the Federal Highway Administration instructed the Texas Department of Transportation to cease work on both of its Hwy. 281 Toll Road Projects and withdrew its prior environmental clearances.

Two groups, the Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas (AGUA) and People for Efficient Transportation, Inc. (PET), effectively stopped TxDOT's plans to build 12 miles of toll lanes along U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to Borgfeld Road near the Comal County line on Jan. 11 with an injunction they jointly filed in federal court on Dec. 21.

AGUA, an organization formed by advocates for protection of the Edwards Aquifer, and the highway program watchdog, PET, joined together to file for a federal injunction asking that work on expanding and converting Hwy. 281 to a toll road be stopped, citing the lack of public input, discussion of alternatives, and assessment of environmental impacts.

The decision calls for a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) rather than the cursory environmental assessment of the projects to determine if they will cause more significant impact on the human environment.

"A project of this scale, in an extremely vulnerable water supply area and with major ramifications for transportation, public safety, and development, demands the most thorough analysis of all costs, benefits, and consideration of alternatives that better serve the public," said Bill Bunch, attorney for the plaintiffs.

For two years, TxDOT officials have continued to ignore the disapproval of local leaders, and in December, crews proceeded with clearing trees and vegetation along the Hwy. 281 right of way and began putting up silt fences in preparation for construction of the $83 million segment of frontage roads and toll lanes over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone.

At some points, the proposed toll road would be sixteen lanes wide to handle traffic on the highway that has grown from 8,600 vehicles daily in 1980 to presently more than 91,000.

Annalisa Peace of AGUA noted that contractors working on the project sheared a San Antonio Water Supply line that resulted in a leak of raw sewage over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone that continued unabated for over a month.

"This event clearly indicates that TxDOT needs to proceed more cautiously in its operations in this extremely sensitive area," she said.

The Edwards Aquifer, the primary source of drinking water in this area, is a karst aquifer that is highly vulnerable to water pollution because surface water quickly enters the aquifer through recharge features without significant filtration.

PET founder Sal Costello said that the Gov. Rick Perry has directed TxDOT officials to create a new drivers tax by privatizing and tolling roads that taxpayers have already paid for.

"With TxDOT's rush to get out of the transportation business and into the revenue generation business, they've tried to cut corners by not producing all the necessary studies," Costello said. "The law is working for the people today, at least in the case of this one public highway of the many Perry is trying to toll in Texas."

Bill Barker, a local transportation consultant who is helping AGUA and PET with their lawsuit, said that road improvements are needed but that there is a difference between just building roads and really solving transportation problems.

"With a fresh start on the planning of this corridor, I am optimistic that a long term solution will emerge," Barker said.

Attorneys for the parties are working out details for an agreed dismissal of the lawsuit and construction on the project which was to start last Monday has stopped.

Opponents of the project say that TxDOT should have offered more alternatives, rather than a toll road or nothing, to handle the ever-increasing traffic congestion on the highway.


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