Loathed or lauded, the expansion of U.S. 281 north of Loop 1604 has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of auto-dependent San Antonians who now cope with weekly lane closures, multiple detours and more stressful commutes.
And that was just phase one.
Phase two, which will begin in the coming months, had its ceremonial groundbreaking of sorts Friday — no earthmovers are actually digging yet.
Civic leaders turned shovels and praised what will be, by 2022, four new lanes (two north and south), plus two HOV lanes for high-occupancy vehicles, from Stone Oak Parkway to Borgfield Drive south of the Comal County line.
The total cost for both sections, including right of way acquisition and engineering, has been estimated by the Texas Department of Transportation at roughly a half-billion dollars. TxDOT says phase one will finish in late 2020, about a year ahead of schedule.
“All of us who drive this corridor know all too well how badly this expansion is needed and how much we welcome it,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff at the groundbreaking. “It’s crucial to provide our fast-growing region a top-notch highway system.”
The second phase of construction will feature a new median separating the new northbound and southbound primary lanes along a nearly-four-mile stretch of 281. The expansion will also include two new lanes of frontage road in both directions, meaning it will make become a 10-lane freeway.
The once-humble 281, which stretches from the Rio Grande Valley to almost the Canadian border near Dunseith, North Dakota, has been a concrete barometer of sorts for San Antonio’s growth and suburban sprawl. What natives remember as an almost-rural country highway that quickly got city folks into the prickly pear ranchlands of Comal and Blanco counties is now the 15th most congested road in Texas, lined with rambling subdivisions, hundreds of stores and acres of parking lots.
None of the new lanes will be tolled. TxDOT spokesman Hernan Rozemberg said Friday the agency did not yet have specific dates for when the phase two construction would begin, nor the location of future detours and exit closures. He said TxDOT is still clearing the right of way before earth movers make the scene.
Almost exactly two years ago at the groundbreaking for phase one, Bexar County Commissioner (and the county judge’s son) Kevin Wolff said he supported the 281 expansion but lamented that the money would be spent only on more traditional roads.
“As a community, we just haven’t matured into asking what other means of transportation there are,” Wolff said. “It was a major fight just to get HOV lanes. A lot of people really fought them.”
Christine Drennon, director of the urban studies program at Trinity University, said in 2017 that the massive highway 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.”
Article originally published by San Antonio Express-News – Bruce Selcraig