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281 design flaw: Can't get on the toll road even if you wanted to

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The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (or RMA) and its army of consultants recently unveiled its new design to purportedly ‘fix’ congestion on Highway 281 outside Loop 1604. The plan morphed from a completed, streamlined expressway design (upgrading the corridor adding two new lanes, needed overpasses, and access roads) to a hybrid toll-transit-HOV mix with fewer non-toll highway lanes than we have today — non-toll lanes that cease at Stone Oak Parkway.

Let’s breakdown what they’re planning to build and then tackle the flaws in the design. The improvements to Hwy 281 begin at Loop 1604 heading north to the Bexar County line (approximately 7.8 miles). Today there are six non-toll highway lanes (three in each direction) to Evans Road, where it goes down to five lanes. Then the existing freeway shrinks to four lanes (two lanes each direction) at Stone Oak Parkway where it continues to the county line and beyond. Today, Hwy 281 does not have access or frontage roads. It’s a divided highway with stop lights at the crossovers. The posted speed limit is 60 MPH.

The RMA’s tollway design shrinks the non-toll highway lanes from six down to four (from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy.). That means two existing freeway lanes will be converted to toll ‘managed’ lanes, which is a double tax. The RMA counts the new access roads as the replacement for the non-toll capacity. At Stone Oak Pkwy., all the non-toll freeway lanes end and Hwy 281 becomes a six lane tollway. The only non-toll option north of Stone Oak Pkwy. will be access/frontage roads with slower speed limits and permanent stop lights.

Here’s just a taste of the 281 troubles:

1) Drivers cannot access the toll lanes from the 1604 interchange ramps
Anyone heading north on Hwy 281 from Loop 1604 will not be able to access the toll lanes even if they wanted to. The majority of the traffic in the 281 corridor is between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Pkwy. Approximately 90,000 cars a day. If none of those travelers can access the toll lanes, who is this project helping? The volume of traffic diminishes after Stone Oak Pkwy. So all local traffic (those needing to exit somewhere between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Parkwy.) will be scrunched into four non-toll lanes (two each direction) when today there are six (three each direction). Even with the new overpasses, there will be significant congestion on the non-toll lanes.

Now let’s travel in reverse. Anyone heading south on 281 cannot enter or exit the toll lanes between Stone Oak Pkwy. and Loop 1604. The only way to access the new northern interchange ramps onto Loop 1604 will be from the non-toll lanes. So, once again, all the traffic needing to travel on Loop 1604 will be squeezed into the four non-toll lanes when today there are six. A significant number of travelers need to take Loop 1604 and do not continue heading south on 281 toward downtown. Again, who is this project helping? Not those who need to get on Loop 1604. Not local traffic, nor local businesses. It’s designing permanent congestion in the corridor.

Indeed, the RMA admitted the toll lanes are geared toward those traveling in from outside the county – in other words, Comal County. However, the number of vehicles coming from Comal County are dwarfed by the numbers traveling within Bexar County, particularly in the section from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy. Yet those travelers will have fewer non-toll freeway lanes than they have today and will not be able to access the toll lanes even if they wanted to. So arguably, the proposed tollway will make congestion in the corridor worse, not better.

2) Texas-sized bottleneck at Stone Oak Pkwy.
What the RMA proposes actually exacerbates the bottleneck at Stone Oak. The bottleneck happens at Stone Oak when the four non-toll freeway lanes end and all highway lanes north of Stone Oak become toll lanes, so anyone who cannot afford the toll lanes will have to exit en masse at Stone Oak. Since all the local neighborhoods south of Stone Oak cannot access the toll lanes even if they wanted to, it, too, will cause congestion on the four remaining non-toll main lanes (two each direction). The few who would be most likely to take the toll lanes all the way up to the county line (Comal County residents) will not be significant enough to diminish the congestion south of Stone Oak. The non-toll lanes will remain backed up as they are today due to the reduced capacity.

The options originally studied were 1) a complete expressway with overpasses and access roads (either all highway lanes tolled or all highway lanes non-tolled) or 2) an elevated tolled expressway. Now it’s a hybrid toll mess (two highway lanes tolled and four non-toll freeway lanes next to it for 3 miles, then eventually all six highway lanes become tolled for 4 miles). How it would ultimately be financed would not determine the final alternative, we were told. That’s no longer the case. There’s no complete non-toll option advancing for final approval by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). It’s either the hybrid tollway or no build. The RMA misled everyone.

3) Tolls will be as high as 50 cents a mile
The published toll rate range is 17 cents a mile up to 50 cents a mile, which is $2,000 in added toll taxes per commuter (and that’s if you only take one roundtrip 5 days a week). The toll rate isn’t even based on the cost of the project and retiring the debt, it’s called ‘congestion pricing’ that goes up and down with the level of congestion. Big daddy government will track every mile you drive with an electronic toll tag or you’ll pay 33-50% more to be billed by mail. If you dispute any of the charges or fail to pay, the RMA can block your car registration. If you fail to appear in court for alleged toll violations, a warrant for your arrest can be issued. The RMA has already stated on the record that it plans to charge the tolls in perpetuity. The tolls will NEVER come off 281 once they tap into this new revenue stream.

4) Via gets its own exclusive flyover ramp
The plan also includes an extravagant, exclusive Via transit lane and direct connect ramp ($56 million is the estimate available) to its planned Park-N-Ride facility at the corner of Stone Oak Pkwy. and Hwy 281. The ramp will be elevated above the roadway and overpasses. It’s higher than a double deck, estimated to be up to 75 feet in the air (as tall as the southern direct connect interchange ramps at 1604). The Via exclusive transit lane and ramp can only be accessed in two places – just north of Evans Road near the mega HEB and just north of Stone Oak Pkwy. The lanes dump into the toll lanes in the center of 281 so the transit riders needing to travel to Loop 1604 can’t take the transit lanes. It’s designed for travelers who are headed south of Loop 1604 on Hwy 281 with very limited stops until downtown.

Anyone who has to travel to Loop 1604 cannot exit the Park-N-Ride using the ramp, those travelers are dumped onto Stone Oak Pkwy. Any buses needing to get to 1604 will be forced to take Stone Oak Pkwy. I wonder how Stone Oak residents will like being jammed behind empty buses on an already congested Stone Oak Parkway? Buses do get a free ride on the toll lanes, though access is so limited to local traffic that it’s hard to imagine who will use them.

An estimated 1% of travelers use transit. Since the transit lane doesn’t even connect to 1604, it doesn’t connect to all the major destinations and job centers along 1604 and I-10 (like USAA and the Medical Center), so it limits the universe of riders exclusively to north-south traffic only. Much of the 281 traffic heading south peels off to 1604. Most people are not headed all the way downtown.

Knowing that the toll road isn’t remotely financially viable (can’t pay for itself with just the toll payers), the RMA wants to use the taxpayers as their bailout plan and loan guarantor by seeking a State Infrastructure Bank loan or a federal TIFIA loan rather than bonds backed exclusively by tolls (that taxpayers aren’t responsible for repaying).

5) Don’t fall for the ‘HOV rides free’
In order to get that free ride, you have to be a ‘registered’ carpool vehicle with an active TollTag account (which costs you money to keep open), and it usually requires 3 or more people to be in your car (based on the policies we’ve seen in all other Texas cities). So just hopping into the HOV/toll lane to take relatives 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 unless you register in advance and meet the qualifications as a ‘registered, declared’ carpool vehicle.

6) Super-overpass at Wilderness Oak and Overlook Parkway
To add to the bizarre design of this tollway, the RMA is going to do a continuous mega overpass over Wilderness Oak all the way to Overlook Parkway. Anytime a roadway goes elevated, the noise and dirt levels explode exponentially. So the adjacent neighborhoods will experience big boosts in road noise and dirt by the extended, elevated double overpass. Those with respiratory problems like asthma, beware!

Final meeting May 8
This hybrid tollway is too complex, too inaccessible, poorly conceived, and a Texas-sized bad deal for taxpayers that won’t solve the traffic mess out there. If any of these red flags concern you, then mark your calendar. Your last chance to weigh-in before the RMA sends the environmental study off to the feds for approval is at its 281 Open House on May 8 at Summit Christian Center off Marshall Road from 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM. Come see it for yourself and be sure to get your comments on the record. The expressway option should be all non-toll, period. This complicated, impractical tollway needs to be off the table.

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