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San Antonio Area Freeway System
Tollway System

This page last updated November 22, 2014

Over the past decade, San Antonio has boomed and traffic volumes have increased substantially.  At the same time, funding to build new roads has not been able to keep pace with growth, mostly due to the effect of inflation and dramatic increases in construction costs on state's static fuel tax, which has not been adjusted since 1991.  Additionally, improved fuel mileage, which means less taxes paid per mile driven, and diversions from the state's Highway Fund to pay for public education and other non-transportation expenses, have substantially reduced the amount of funding available for new highway construction.  Furthermore, Congress has failed to adjust the federal fuel tax during the same period and, as a result, the federal government in 2008 and 2009 had to rescind previously allocated funding due to shortfalls in revenue.  Over the past decaded, Texas and San Antonio have historically been shortchanged on transportation funding and a substantial backlog of needed projects remains from all those years of being shortchanged, population and traffic growth.  Meanwhile, the funding issues have only been addressed by the Legislature and Congress through a series of band-aid measures.

Therefore, to help expedite the construction of needed roadways, the state encouraged local authorities in the early 2000s to find their own funding mechanisms.  To that end, Bexar County leaders in 2003 created the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) to take a local leadership role in finding funding solutions for the San Antonio area.  Because there are few local funding mechanisms available under state law, the primary focus has been on using tolls as the backing for bonds that would fund major projects. Using this financing method typically could allow many major projects to be built as many as 25 years ahead of the projected traditional gas tax-funded schedules and, as a result, also substantially cheaper.  Although created primarily as a tolling agency, ARMA has done a commendable job of identifying and using other non-toll funding sources for several projects, most notably the US 281/Loop 1604 interchange.  That action allowed that project to be built toll-free even though it was originally planned to be a toll project.


On this page:


Proposed system

In 2009, ARMA identified a number of feasible tollway projects in Bexar County.  An initial "Starter System" of about 20 miles was originally identified with additional segments of Loop 1604 subsequently added.  Several other future projects were also being investigated by TxDOT.  The map below shows the proposed tollway locations in San Antonio in that 2009 plan.

Proposed tollway locations map

STARTER SYSTEM

  • US 281 North from 1604 to the Comal County line
  • Loop 1604 northern arc from Military Dr. West to I-10 East and its interchanges with SH 151, I-10 West, US 281 North, I-35 North, and I-10 East

FUTURE PROPOSED ADDITIONS

  • I-35 from Loop 410 South to the Comal County line
  • SH 151 from Loop 1604 to SH 211
  • I-10 West from Loop 1604 to Boerne
  • I-10 East from Loop 410 to SH 130 in Seguin
  • Kelly Parkway and its interchanges with I-35 South and Loop 410

PREVIOUSLY PROPOSED SECTIONS
(These sections were dropped from consideration for tolling.)

  • SH 16 (Bandera Rd.) from Loop 410 to Loop 1604
  • Wurzbach Parkway from Starcrest Dr. to Blanco Rd.
  • Interchange at Wurzbach Parkway and US 281
  • Southern half of US 281/Loop 1604 interchange
    (funded instead as a toll-free project using federal economic stimulus funds)

Types of tollways

It seems that some folks have the incorrect perception that implementing a tollway on a road just means adding tolls to an existing roadway.  However, in all cases, toll road projects involve the construction of new lanes, almost always some form of expressway lanes.  Below are the different types of tollways that have been considered for Bexar County.

  • Tolled expressway mainlanes
    In this scenario, the mainlanes of the expressway, which would be new, would be tolled, while the access roads would remain toll-free.  The expressway lanes include overpasses at major intersections.  Tolled mainlanes for Wurzbach Parkway between Blanco and Wetmore were studied but determined to be unfeasible.  Tolled expressway lanes for Bandera Rd. were removed from tollway plans by the MPO board in October 2009.  It is important to understand that in every case where this type of tollway is being developed, it is essentially the same proposal as a non-tolled version of the same project would be.  The only difference is that drivers who opt to use the new expressway lanes would pay a toll.  The existing toll-free, signalized lanes would remain toll-free and serve as the frontage roads for the new expressway lanes.  This is a more "traditional" type of tollway such the Sam Houston Tollway (Beltway 8) in Houston or George Bust Turnpike in Dallas.  This type of tollway is currently planned for US 281 from Marshall to Borgfeld and has been studied for the Kelly Parkway and a possible future extension of SH 151 outside of Loop 1604.




NOTE
Number of access road lanes varies depending on location.
Diagrams are for illustrative purposes only and are not to scale.

 

  • Tolled managed lanes
    On roads that already have non-tolled expressway lanes, those existing lanes would remain toll-free, but new tolled express lanes known as "managed lanes" would be built in the median between the existing toll-free expressway lanes.  The existing lanes may have to be shifted outward a bit to provide sufficient room for the new lanes.  The new managed lanes would be separated from the toll-free lanes by barriers with limited entry and exit points to the toll-free lanes.  
    A managed lane is a lane where the operational strategies of the lane are adjusted as required to ensure that the lane remains free-flowing, thus providing for a guaranteed travel time for users of the lane.  For example, toll rates or vehicle occupancy requirements may fluctuate based on trafffic conditions or time of day.  The proposed managed lanes on US 281 would allow free access for buses, carpools, and emergency vehicles; single-occupancy vehicles (i.e. solo drivers) could use the lane by paying a toll.  An example of this type of tollway is on I-10 West (Katy Freeway) in Houston.  This type of tollway is currently proposed for US 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak and for I-10 West from Loop 1604 to Ralph Fair.  It has also been studied for Loop 1604 North, much of I-35 in San Antonio, and I-10 East from Loop 410 to SH 130.



Cross-section of planned managed lanes on US 281 between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Pkwy.

NOTE
Number of access road lanes varies depending on location.
Diagrams are for illustrative purposes only and are not to scale.


  • Tolled elevated lanes
    A tollway would be built elevated over the existing free roadway.  This type of tollway was proposed for Bandera Rd., but studies showed that it would be unfeasible.  This was also one of the three options studied for US 281 but also found to not be feasible due to cost. 
    However, it has been proposed for I-35 from AT&T Center Parkway to FM 1103.
     
  • Tolled interchange
    New direct-connect ramps between a tollway and an intersecting roadway would be tolled.  Tolled interchanges are currently proposed for as part of the I-10 managed lanes as well as the I-35 elevated managed lanes.  A tolled interchange at US 281 and Wurzbach Parkway was studied but determined to be unfeasible.  Other tolled interchanges have been proposed at Loop 1604 and SH 151, Loop 1604 at I-10 East, and on the planned Kelly Parkway at I-35 and at Loop 410.  The US 281/Loop 1604 interchange was initially planned as a tolled interchange but various other funding sources have allowed it to be built with non-tolled connectors instead.

The map below shows the various proposed tollway types for San Antonio.

Tollway type map



Tolls & toll collection

TxTag signIn late 2007, the MPO approved toll rates of 17 cents per mile and 57 cents per tolled interchange ramp for most passenger vehicles.  Larger vehicles (such as 18-wheelers) would pay 46 cents per mile and $1.15 per ramp.  (These were the planned 2009 rates and will now need to be reevaluated if any toll projects come to fruition.)  As is the current trend across the US, all tolls would be collected electronically; there would be no tollbooths.  Motorists using the tollways would be required to have an electronic transponder ("toll tag") and a corresponding account with TxTag, the state's toll tag agency.  These tags are stickers mounted inside the windshield of the vehicle that contain a radio frequency ID (RFID) chip that transmits the tag's unique code.  Electronic tag readers would be located at strategic locations along the toll system that would record the identifier codes of tags as they pass by.  The toll would then be charged to the account linked to the tag where it would be deducted from a pre-paid balance in the account.  Vehicles using the toll system without toll tags would be photographed and then billed by mail for the toll amount plus an additional collection fee.

The toll tag systems across the state are interconnected, so toll tags from any Texas toll agency can be used on any tollway in the state.


Schedule, status, and history

Initially, the plan was that TxDOT would build the Starter System beginning in late 2005, then transfer operational responsibility to ARMA when completed around 2009.  But in May 2005, Cintra-Zachary, the private consortium selected to build the first leg of the now-defunct Trans-Texas Corridor, made an unsolicited bid to build and operate the San Antonio tollway starter system.  After review, TxDOT decided that the proposal had enough merit that it would seriously consider it, and in accordance with state law, accepted other private bids to build and operate the starter system.  According to media reports, Cintra-Zachary's bid would allow the project to be built faster, would pay the state a concession fee in return for a 50-year lease to collect the tolls, and because it was privately funded, would allow TxDOT to reallocate the $600 million that it would have used to build the starter system to other projects.  After a bit of rancorous debate between TxDOT and ARMA, it was agreed that the private plans would be evaluated with local input. 

After word of the toll projects became public, a substantial amount of grassroots opposition, headed by the Texas Toll Party group that had also vehemently opposed Austin area toll projects, started to form.  They showed en masse at an MPO meeting in mid 2005 and managed to get the Loop 1604 West extension tabled, at least for the time being.  As one might imagine, these events added some uncertainty to the entire project.  However, TxDOT awarded the construction contract for the US 281 North tollway (Sonterra to Stone Oak) in September 2005 and preparation work for construction began in December 2005.  The opponents filed a lawsuit shortly thereafter challenging the project, arguing that it required a full (and costly) environmental impact statement (EIS) instead of the numerous environmental assessments (EA) that had been performed up to that time.  Federal law only requires an EIS to be performed if an EA finds significant impacts, which the EAs for 281 did not.  However, TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), who were both named in the suit, jointly agreed in January 2006 to suspend work on the 281 tollway project as well as a separate overpass planned at 281 and Borgfeld so that a comprehensive and definitive EA for the entire corridor could be done and a subsequent determination made of whether a full impact statement would need to be performed.

In early 2007, the new EA for 281 was released.  As with previous assessments, it found no substantial issues, a so-called "Finding of No Significant Impacts" (FONSI).  The FHWA approved the EA on August 14th 2007.  TxDOT announced plans to cancel the overpass project at Borgfeld as ARMA indicated it was considering building the entire 281 tollway project from 1604 to Borgfeld as one project with construction possibly beginning in 2008.

ARMA also completed studies on the other possible toll projects on I-35 North, Bandera Road, and Wurzbach Parkway.  In early 2007, ARMA determined that the Wurzbach Pkwy. proposal was not feasible for tolling.  The tolling option for the Bandera Rd. project was dropped by the MPO board in October 2009.

TxDOT announced in mid-2006 that it was considering possible toll lanes along I-10 West from Loop 1604 to Boerne and I-10 East from Loop 410 to Seguin.  Those would be new managed lanes in the median; the existing lanes would remain toll-free.  Subsequent proposals for the I-10 project pulled-back the northern endpoint to Leon Springs.

On June 11th, 2007, after a series of discussions with the Legislature, Governor Perry signed compromise legislation that put a two-year moratorium on the construction of privately financed toll roads.  The bill included a number of exceptions, mostly in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas; the 281 and 1604 toll projects in San Antonio were not exempted.  Consequently, on June 15th, ARMA voted to assume control of those projects with plans to fund the projects with bonds and begin construction in mid 2008. 

In late June 2007, TxDOT released the results of the EA for the Loop 1604 tollway and expansion and showed plans for the proposed improvements.  That EA also had a FONSI outcome.  However, with the threat of legal challenges looming, ARMA decided to move forward with a full EIS for Loop 1604.  That study has experienced a number of revisions and now is expected to be complete in 2015.

In December 2007, the MPO approved the toll rates for the US 281 project.  ARMA announced that they would build the 281 project in two segments: Loop 1604 to Marshall Rd. and Marshall Rd. to the Comal county line.  Construction on the first segment, from Loop 1604 to Marshall, was expected to start in mid 2008 with completion in late 2010.  The second segment was expected to be completed in 2012.

In February 2008, toll opponents and environmentalists once again filed a lawsuit challenging the comprehensive 281 environmental assessment.  After initial arguments, the judge ruled that the plaintiffs' case had sufficient standing to move forward with discovery.  During the discovery process, TxDOT announced that they found a document that was omitted from the administrative record for the federal environmental approval and asked for a 60 day stay to allow time to submit the document to the FHWA for review to determine if it would change the overall findings of the study.  In early October 2008, TxDOT then reported that they had uncovered a conflict of interest with the contractor who had performed the endangered species portion of the study.  Specifically, it was discovered that a TxDOT staff biologist was married to an employee of the company hired to do the a portion of the study.  It was further discovered that the TxDOT employee's supervisor was aware of the situation and allowed it but that controls put in place to mitigate the conflict were not enforced.  Although it was determined that this likely had no impact on the results of the study, TxDOT asked the FHWA to revoke their environmental approval for the project to short-circuit the inevitable legal battle.  Subsequently, all parties involved (TxDOT, ARMA, and the FHWA) agreed to do a more comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the corridor and the lawsuit was dismissed as moot in November 2008.  In April 2009, ARMA hired the consultant to develop the new EIS and it is expected to be completed in 2014.

Meanwhile, while the legal challenges were working their way through the system, ARMA had hired Cibolo Creek Infrastructure Joint Venture in May 2008 to design and build the 281 project.  The consortium was headed by Fluor Enterprises of Irving, Texas, and Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc. of Atlanta, and included several San Antonio subcontractors.  (Contrary to public perception, this consortium-- unlike the Cintra-Zachary group-- included no foreign companies.)  Design work was 30% completed when it was stopped in late 2008 due to the aforementioned litigation and subsequent decision to do a full EIS.  ARMA had planned to start construction in late 2008 or early 2009 on the first segment, from Loop 1604 to Marshall Rd., with estimated completion in late 2010.  However, those plans were scrapped and a new project will be recommended at the conclusion of the environmental impact statement process. 

During the Great Recession in February 2009, Congress approved a national economic "stimulus" plan that poured additional federal money into road construction projects.  The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) approved allocating San Antonio's share of transportation stimulus funding to be used as matching funds to leverage state funding for the first half of a 281/1604 interchange.  This project built all four of the ramps connecting 1604 to 281 inside the loop, i.e. northbound 281 to both directions of 1604, and both directions of 1604 to southbound 281.  The use of the federal funds allowed the ramps to be without tolls.  The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) approved the funding request on March 5th, 2009.  Construction began in early 2011 was completed in mid 2013.  It was determined that the ramps connecting to 281 north of 1604 could not be built until the lingering issues stemming from the lawsuits and associated environmental studies for 281 north of 1604 are resolved.  However, funding has already been set aside for those ramps so that construction can begin as soon as the legal and environmental issues are resolved.  For more information on the 281/1604 interchange, click here.

In May 2012, local officials announced they had identified funding to construct expressway lanes on US 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy and on Loop 1604 from Bandera Rd. to Wiseman Blvd.  The working plan for US 281 included two to three toll-free expressway lanes in each direction and one or two tolled managed lanes.  The managed lanes would include direct access to a park and ride facility being planned for the corridor.  It is hoped that construction can begin sometime in 2014 or 2015 once the ongoing environmental study of the corridor is complete and approved and barring any further legal challenges.

Over on Loop 1604, plans were announced to build two toll-free expressway lanes in each direction from Braun to Potranco with room left for future toll lanes (essentially a southward extension of the existing freeway configuration at Bandera Rd.) once the current environmental study is complete in 2015.  Plans are being developed to add managed toll lanes to the existing non-toll lanes on Loop 1604 across the northside.

In January 2014, TxDOT and ARMA announced funding had been secured to expand US 281 from Loop 1604 to Borgfeld Rd. using a mix of non-tolled and tolled/managed lanes.  Funding was also allocated to complete the northern ramps for the Loop 1604 interchange; as with the previously completed ramps in the interchange, these new ramps will also be non-tolled.  With funding now in hand for the entire corridor, construction is expected to start in late 2015 or early 2016 contingent on approval of an environmental study that is scheduled to be complete in mid 2015.  It was also announced that funding had been allocated for the I-10 West managed lanes from Loop 1604 to Ralph Fair Rd. and for non-tolled expressway lanes on Loop 1604 from SH 151 to US 90.

For more information on the plans for US 281, see the US 281 North tollway project page.

For more information on the plans for Loop 1604, see the Loop 1604 tollway project page.

Other sites of interest

Alamo Regional Mobility Authority
http://www.alamorma.org
The 4-1-1 on 281
http://www.411on281.com
More for Loop 1604
http://www.morefor1604.com/


This page and all its contents are Copyright 2013 by Brian Purcell

NOTICE
The information provided on this website is provided on an "as-is" basis without warranties of any kind either express or implied.  The author and his agents make no warranties or representations of any kind concerning any information contained in this website.  This website is provided only as general information.  The author expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based upon the information contained herein or with respect to any errors or omissions in such information.  All opinions expressed are strictly those of the author.  This site is not affiliated in any way with any official agency.