February 3, 2018 brooke

Massive overhaul to unjam N. Side

Photos by William Luther / San Antonio Express-News
U.S. 281 on the North Side is perennially judged Bexar County’s most congested highway.

Texas has built highway projects that were larger and more expensive than the massive five-year expansion of U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604, now fully underway.

But none, perhaps, has more exemplified a county’s grappling with traffic, sprawl and planning.

For some, the Texas Department of Transportation’s expansion to eight-plus lanes was the only logical solution to what is perennially judged Bexar County’s most congested highway.

Critics call the project a gleaming capitulation to suburban overdevelopment and an admission by government and elected officials that they are unwilling to invest in, or even consider, mass transit alternatives.

But for now, folks just have to get to work.

“Highway 281 is a massive pain in the butt,” said a worker at a Best Western Hill Country Suites whose once-10-minute morning commute is now 45 minutes and who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to news media on the job. “I will do anything to avoid this road.”

The project will create six primary lanes (three each going north and south; including one in each direction reserved for High Occupancy Vehicles) and two-to-four frontage road lanes, all at a cost of $374 million for construction alone. The total price tag approaches $500 million when the costs for engineering, acquiring rights of way and other necessities are added.

“It’s expensive due to the cost of putting concrete in the air,” said TxDOT spokesman Josh Donat, referring to the arching steel beams that will soon criss-cross the sky.

“Bridges cost money,” he said. “Materials, time, concrete is not cheap. And anytime you have to bring in cranes and close down traffic underneath, that’s expensive.”

Excavating nearly half-a-million cubic yards of soil for the highway cost more than usual because the area around that portion of U.S. 281 is rocky, Donat added.

In dollars and scope, the project is perhaps the largest in Bexar County over the past decade, he said, bigger than the $140 million construction of Wurzbach Parkway (opened in 2015) and the $126 million interchange at Loop 1604 and Texas 151 that was completed last year.

The long-awaited, or dreaded, expansion of U.S. 281 has been officially in TxDOT’s plans since 2000, but projected construction costs stalled it in 2003, and various lawsuits by toll opponents and environmentalists delayed it in the following decade.

Christine Drennon, director of the urban studies program at Trinity University, has said the U.S. 281 project exemplified a 1950s mentality that is directed for a “certain demographic” and that the half-billion dollars could be better spent on “the neglected inner-city neighborhoods of San Antonio.”

When Gov. Greg Abbott came last April to give a ribbon-cutting speech for it, he told a friendly crowd of supporters that the highway was clogged “due to San Antonio’s dynamic economy.”

But Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, while still supporting the current project, said it also stood for nearsighted planning and poor state leadership.

“As a community we just haven’t matured into asking what other means of transportation there are,” Wolff said.

Article originally published by San Antonio Express-News – Bruce Selcraig