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US 281 San Antonio Area Freeway System
US Highway 281 North (Walter McAllister Freeway)

This page last updated March 14, 2014

US 281 North highlight map This page covers US 281 north of downtown San Antonio from the I-35 interchange to Sonterra Blvd. US 281 continues south of downtown concurrent (multiplexed) with I-37.

Length: 14 miles


Superstreet Just looking for more information on the US 281 "superstreet"?
See the superstreets page.

On this page

Overview
Roadway
details
Schematic Lanes Access
roads
Exits
Speed
limits
Special features
& notes
Traffic Media
gallery
Construction
projects
Future
plans
History

Overview

This freeway is the backbone for the San Antonio's booming North-Central area. The route serves Trinity University, the University of the Incarnate Word, Brackenridge Park, the San Antonio Zoo, Alamo Stadium, The Quarry and Lincoln Heights developments, San Antonio International Airport, and the Stone Oak area, as well as the suburban cities of Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, Hollywood Park, and Hill Country Village.

Traveling outbound from downtown, 281 snakes around the southern edge of the Brackenridge Golf Course before shoehorning between the San Antonio Zoo and Alamo Stadium. Continuing north, the freeway crosses the Olmos Dam and sails over the wooded Olmos Park and flood control basin. North of Basse, the landscape becomes increasingly suburban in character, and maximum commercial development is achieved near San Antonio International Airport at Loop 410 all the way to 1604. The freeway ends just north of 1604 and becomes a divided highway continuing into the booming hinterland areas of northern Bexar County and Bulverde.

This section of freeway is sometimes mistakenly called I-37. However, I-37 begins at I-35 on the northeastern corner of downtown and runs south from there.

US 281's intersection at Loop 1604 currently lacks a fully directional interchange. Prior to November 2012, traffic destined for Loop 1604 was required to exit onto access roads and traverse an overburdened three-level interchange. However, the first phase of a five-level interchange opened in November 2012 and provided direct connections from US 281 northbound to both directions of Loop 1604. Ramps from Loop 1604 to southbound US 281 are due to open in early 2013. Construction on the northern half of the interchange cannot begin until an environmental study of US 281 north of 1604 is complete sometime in 2014. However, funding for that part of the interchange project has already been secured.

After over 30 years without direct connectors, a four-level interchangeat Loop 410 was completed in June 2008.


Roadway details

SCHEMATIC

Click here for a schematic of US 281 North.
LANES
  • 8 lanes from I-35 to St. Mary's
  • 6 lanes from St. Mary's to Hildebrand
  • 8 lanes from Hildebrand to Jones-Maltsberger (Quarry)
  • 6 lanes from Jones-Maltsberger (Quarry) to Isom
  • 7 lanes (4 inbound, 3 outbound) from Isom to Oak Shadows
  • 8 lanes from Oak Shadows to Donella
  • 6 lanes from Donella to Sonterra

US 281 lanes map

ACCESS ROADS
  • No continuous access roads from I-35 to Loop 410, with the exception of short sections of access road southbound from Loop 410 to Sunset and northbound from Parkridge to Loop 410.
  • Continuous access roads remainder of route except through San Pedro interchange.

US 281 access roads map

EXITS


Click here for a list of US 281 North exits.

SPEED LIMITS
  • 60mph from I-35 to Hildebrand
  • 65 mph from Hildebrand to Sonterra

US 281 speed limit map

SPECIAL FEATURES & NOTES
  • TransGuide coverage from I-35 to Nakoma
  • Southbound left exit to northbound I-35
  • Northbound left exit to Loop 1604
  • Partial directional interchange at Loop 1604
  • Winding and scenic route from I-35 to Basse
  • Landing lights for a runway at San Antonio International Airport cross over the freeway on a truss just south of Nakoma

US 281 special features map

TRAFFIC
Generally heavy along entire route. Regular morning peak congestion occurs inbound from Bitters to Loop 410 and from Hildebrand to I-35. Regular afternoon peak-period congestion occurs outbound between I-35 and Basse and from Nakoma to Sonterra.

Trafficvolumes have increased substantially throughout most of the corridor over the past decade. Traffic counts just outside Loop 1604 more than doubled from a piddling 24,000 in 1990 to 51,000 in 2000 and then again to 105,000 in 2006 ranking it as the eighth fastest growing count in the city since 2001.

Traffic volume legend

US 281 traffic map

AVERAGE ANNUAL DAILY TRAFFIC
LOCATION 1990 2002 2007 2010 2011 2012 '02-'12
% CHG
Hildebrand Ave. 103,000 135,000 147,000 138,000 163,000 155,000 +14.81%
Basse Rd. 85,000 116,220 128,000 119,000 142,000 136,000 +17.02%
Sunset Rd. 85,000 121,230 133,000 125,000 152,000 146,000 +20.43%
Loop 410 54,000 83,000 102,000 81,000 96,000 87,000 +4.82%
Jones-Maltsberger Rd. N 51,000 96,000 118,000 77,000 92,000 84,000 -12.50%
Isom Rd. 59,000 103,000 130,000 128,000 161,000 149,000 +44.66%
Nakoma Rd. 85,000 158,000 182,000 160,000 187,000 189,000 +19.62%
Brookhollow Dr. 46,000 124,000 175,000 130,000 160,000 146,000 +17.74%
Henderson Pass 31,000 111,000 123,000 134,000 150,000 114,000 +2.70%
Sonterra Blvd. 24,000 87,000 112,000 133,000 110,000 110,000 +26.44%


Media gallery

Click here for photos and video of this freeway.


Construction projects

In conjunction with the Wurzbach Parkway project, the following improvements are being made to US 281:

  • The current northbound exit for Bitters will be reduced from two lanes to one, moved south to under the Nakoma overpass, and will become the exit for Wurzbach.
  • A new exit ramp for Bitters will be constructed at the same location as the current northbound entrance ramp from Nakoma (near Country Pkwy., or about 700 yards south of Bitters). This ramp will be built above the existing entrance ramp (i.e. a "braided" ramp).
  • The existing southbound entrance ramp from Bitters will be reversed to become the southbound exit for Wurzbach and Nakoma.
  • The existing southbound exit ramp for Nakoma will be reversed to become the southbound entrance from Wurzbach and Bitters.
  • A new turnaround will be constructed at Nakoma for southbound to northbound traffic.
  • The overpass at Bitters will be widened and US 281 northbound will be restriped to four lanes from Nakoma through Bitters.

Click here for an overview map showing the locations of these improvements. These improvements are also included on the US 281 North schematic page.

These improvements are scheduled to be complete in mid 2014.


Future plans

An extension of the freeway north of Loop 1604 to Stone Oak was scheduled to start in 2003 but was postponed due to funding constraints caused by a sudden increase in construction costs. Shortly thereafter, the Transportation Commission required that all new expressway projects be evaluated as toll projects. Persuant to that, TxDOT decided to build the new expressway north of 1604 as a tollway. That plan, along with the previously planned overpass at Borgfeld, was suspended in 2006 pending federal approval of a new environmental assessment resulting from litigation from toll road opponents. That new assessment, released in early 2007, showed no significant impacts. The Federal Highway Administration approved the new assessment on August 14th, 2007, and authorized TxDOT to build the entire 281 tollway in Bexar County from 1604 to Borgfeld, which TxDOT and the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) then planned to do as a two phase project. However, toll opponents again filed a lawsuit in February 2008 challenging the the results of the latest environmental study. As a result of that lawsuit, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its prior approvals and directed ARMA to perform a more comprehensive environmental impact statement before any expansion project can be built. It is expected that study will be completed in 2014.

For more information on the plans for US 281 north of 1604, see the US 281 North tollway project page.

In February 2009, Congress approved a national economic "stimulus" plan thatpoured 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 first half of a 281/1604 interchange. This project is building all four of the ramps connecting to 281 south of 1604, 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 toll-free. The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) approved the funding request on March 5th, 2009. Construction began in early 2011 is expected to be complete in early 2013. It was determined that ramps connecting to 281 north of 1604 could not be built until 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.

Superstreet: In October 2010, work was completed to upgrade 281 to a "superstreet" from Encino Rio to Marshall. Under the plan, the intersections of Encino Rio, Evans, Stone Oak, and Marshall were redesigned to eliminate straight-through and left-turn movements on those intersecting roadways. This configuration helped relieve overall congestion in the area because it reduced traffic signal cycles at each intersection from five or six phases to just two, thus allowing additional green time for 281 traffic. This proposal is considered a short-term "band-aid" until the environmental studies for a more significant upgrade of 281 are complete. See thesuperstreets page for more information.


History

US 281 opened to traffic on February 7, 1978 and was certified on September 11, 1978. Named for Walter McAllister, San Antonio's mayor when the freeway was proposed. McAllister was influential in getting the freeway built. Was originally called the "North Expressway."

This highway was one of the most controversial freeway projects in US history. It was widely acknowledged by the early '50s that the city needed a north-central freeway and planning for the route had quietly begun by 1955. By 1960, several routes for the North Expressway were being considered: San Pedro, McCullough, and Broadway. The San Pedro route was dismissed because it did not provide access to San Antonio International Airport. The Broadway route would require too much expensive right-of-way to be acquired. The McCullough route was also too expensive. So a route midway between Broadway and McCullough that wound around Brackenridge Park (clipping-off a corner of the golf course), through the suburb of Olmos Park, and over the Olmos flood control basin was selected. The City of Olmos Park blocked that route though, so the Texas Highway Department chose an alternate route that skirted around the eastern edge of the suburb. The route ran between Alamo Stadium, the Sunken Gardens and the San Antonio Zoo. On January 10, 1961, San Antonio voters approved a bond issue to purchase land to replace the parkland that would be taken for the freeway. There was, however, heated debate over this routing as well. The protests by conservationists and preservationists centered on the "Yarborough Rule"-- a caveat in federal highway funding rules prohibiting the taking of parklands for highways. The section of the freeway skirting Olmos Park would run through the Olmos flood control basin, a wooded area viewed as "parkland" by many. In 1969, after years of protests and legal wrangling by the San Antonio Conservation Society, work began on the undisputed southern and northern thirds of the freeway while the debate over the routing of the center section continued. In May of 1971, construction on the whole project was halted by a federal court, which also revoked the project's federal funding. This delay caused problems for the City, which was trying to secure the land for a planned interchange at Loop 410. In 1972, the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court's injunction and it appeared that the North Expressway was dead. However, in 1973, Senators John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen sponsored legislation which would allow the City and State to build the freeway without federal money. The legislation passed both houses of Congress and was upheld by a US District Court on December 10, 1973, removing all federal involvement in the project and allowing the City and State to go it alone. Work resumed on the project's stalled northern and southern segments within 24 hours of the ruling. A last-ditch court challenge suspended the project for five more months in mid-1974, but that case was dismissed and work started on the controversial center section on November 13, 1974. The freeway opened on February 7, 1978, and in 1981 was named by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) as one of the nation's three most attractive urban freeways.

The freeway originally extended to just north of the Airport at Bitters. From there northward it was a four lane divided highway. In 1987, a project to upgrade the section from Bitters to just north of Loop 1604 was started. This project tested several innovative traffic-handling methods during construction which actually made for smoother traffic flow during the construction than before. (Those traffic-handling techniques are very similar to the proposed "super-street" plans for 281 north of 1604.) Even more spectacular: the five mile project was finished in a record 24 months.

TransGuide coverage was added south of St. Mary's in 1995 and between St. Mary's and Basse in October, 1998.

The Sonterra overpass was built in the late '80s in conjunction with the freeway extension project and was used by construction vehicles during the freeway project. However, no road connected to it at that time, so it was left unused for a decade after the construction was complete. Sonterra Blvd. was finally extended to the bridge in April 2000.

Well north of this segment, the overpass at FM 1863 in Bulverde was completed in 2000.

The ramp leading from northbound 281 into the airport complex opened on June 29, 2001.

In early 2004, an additional lane in each direction for most of the route between San Pedro and Loop 1604 was added by restriping the roadway and eliminating the inner shoulder. The same technique was used in mid-2006 to add an extra lane in each direction from Jones-Maltsberger near the Quarry south to Hildebrand as part of the 281/410 interchange project.

In late 2004, work began on clearing the right-of-way for the tolled extension of 281 north of 1604 to Stone Oak Parkway. A lawsuit by opponents of the project halted work in January 2005. (More information about this project is at the US 281 North Tollway Project page.)

The first ramp in the 281/410 interchange opened to traffic on June 18th, 2007 and the final ramps were open to traffic on June 9th, 2008. The interchange project also added additional lanes between Loop 410 and Nakoma and extended TransGuide coverage from Basse to Nakoma. (Also see the History of the US 281/Loop 410 interchange page.)

The first ramps in the 281/1604 interchange opened on November 8, 2012.




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