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

This page last updated November 14, 2020

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


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

For more information on the current project on US 281 north of 1604, see the
US 281 North expansion project page.

On this page

Overview
 
Roadway
details
Line
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 San Antonio's rapidly-growing North-Central area. The route serves Trinity University, the University of the Incarnate Word, Brackenridge Park, the San Antonio Zoo, Alamo Stadium, The Quarry, Lincoln Heights, and Legacy 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 crosses the booming lower Broadway corridor before snaking around the southern edge of the Brackenridge Golf Course. It then continues north shoehorned between the San Antonio Zoo and Alamo Stadium before crossing the Olmos Dam and sailing over the wooded Olmos Park and flood control basin. North of Basse, the landscape becomes increasingly suburban in character, and dense commercial development is achieved near San Antonio International Airport at Loop 410 all the way to 1604 with a short break at the end of an airport runway between Rhapsody and Nakoma. North of 1604, work to extend the freeway into the booming suburban and exurban areas of northern Bexar County is underway.

Prior to November 2012, all traffic connecting between US 281 and Loop 1604 was required to exit onto access roads and traverse an overburdened three-level signalized 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. The connectors from Loop 1604 to southbound US 281 opened in late December 2012. The remaining flyovers are being constructed as part of the project to extend the freeway northward with the connectors from southbound US 281 to both directions of Loop 1604 opening on August 16th, 2020. The last two connectors are expected to open in early 2021.


This section of freeway is occasionally mistakenly called I-37. While the freeway that is I-37 and US 281 along the east side of downtown seamlessly continues to the north, I-37 actually ends at I-35 while US 281 continues north from there.

Roadway details

LINE SCHEMATIC

Click here for a line schematic of US 281 North.
 
LANES
  • 8 lanes from I-35 to St. Mary's St.
  • 6 lanes from St. Mary's St. to Hildebrand Ave.
  • 8 lanes from Hildebrand Ave. to Sunset St.
  • 6 lanes from Sunset St. to Isom Rd.
  • 8 lanes from Isom Rd. to Donella Dr.
  • 6 lanes from Donella Dr. to Sonterra Blvd.

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 at the following locations:
    • Both directions between St. Mary's St. and Stadium Dr.
    • Southbound from Loop 410 to Sunset Rd.
    • Northbound from Parkridge St. to Loop 410
  • Continuous access roads remainder of route except through San Pedro Ave. interchange.
     

US 281 access roads map
 

   
EXITS


 Click here for a list of US 281 North exits.

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

US 281 speed limit map
 

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

US 281 special features map
 

   
TRAFFIC
Generally heavy along entire route. Regular morning peak congestion occurs inbound along most of the route. Regular afternoon peak-period congestion occurs outbound between I-35 and Hildebrand Ave. and from Nakoma Dr. to Sonterra Blvd. and inbound from Loop 410 to Hildebrand Ave.

Traffic volumes in this corridor have fluctuated over the past decade.
 

Traffic volume legend

US 281 traffic map
 

   
AVERAGE ANNUAL DAILY TRAFFIC
LOCATION 1999 2009 2014 2017 2018 2019 '09-'19
% CHG
N of Hildebrand Ave.139,000134,000154,797169,425160,853169,830+26.74%
N of Basse Rd.118,000113,000129,488139,741148,539150,024+32.76%
S of Sunset Rd.118,900122,000136,180151,180149,033150,523+23.38%
S of Loop 41082,000114,00087,62490,91593,97393,899-17.63%
N of Loop 41096,000103,00093,31898,735100,100100,180-2.74%
N of Isom Rd.99,000129,000160,964153,221153,566157,461+22.06%
S of Nakoma Rd.154,000165,000175,069190,478194,828194,771+18.04%
S of Brookhollow Dr.112,000141,000166,828163,542164,772169,159+19.97%
S of Loop 160495,000124,000106,418102,250110,884106,685-13.96%
S of Sonterra Blvd.47,000104,00095,67497,65795,98187,000-16.35%
S of Redland Rd.87,314100,732100,59399,587


Media gallery

Click here for photos and video of this freeway.


Construction projects

  • Loop 1604 to the Comal County Line: Upgrade divided highway to a freeway. Click here for details on this project.

Click here to view information for all projects in this corridor.


Future plans

In 2018, TxDOT announced plans to reconstruct the Jones-Maltsberger and Basse interchanges near the Alamo Quarry Market. A Diverging Diamond Interchange is proposed at Jones-Maltsberger. At Basse, the existing cloverleaf ramps would be removed, and a new southbound exit ramp and northbound entrance ramp added.

A project to make several operational improvements in the Loop 410/US 281/San Pedro area will add a collector-distributor road along southbound US 281 between Nakoma and San Pedro and will close the northbound entrance ramp from Jones-Maltsberger north of the airport. More details on that project is here.

With the first HOV lanes now under construction north of Loop 1604, planners are working on long-term plans to extend those HOV lanes-- along with other operational improvements-- along US 281 to downtown. However, the geometry and right-of-way contraints along much of this route will complicate that planning.

Long-range plans are still on the books to upgrade US 281 to a full freeway all the way to FM 306 at the Comal/Blanco County line. The first phase of that eventual plan was to upgrade 281 from a two-lane road to a four-lane divided highway from the Guadalupe River to FM 306; work on that project was completed in early 2015.


History

Originally known during planning as the "North Expressway", US 281 is named for Walter McAllister, San Antonio's mayor when the freeway was proposed and one of the main leaders in getting it built.

This corridor has been the subject of major controversy twice in its history. Its initial construction was one of the most controversial freeway projects in US history, resulting in changes to federal law that are still in effect today. Plans in the first two decades of this century to extend the freeway north of Loop 1604 as a toll road were equally contentious.

The section north of Sandau was originally built around 1934 as an extension of San Pedro Ave. to be used as the route for US 281 as part of the Arneson Plan to improve state highways in Bexar County. Prior to then, US 281 and its predecessors SH 66 and SH 108 ran along Nacogdoches, Wetmore, and Bulverde roads.

  • 1955: Planning for the route underway.
  • 1960: No fewer than 12 possible alignments for the freeway between downtown and the airport area were under consideration. These routes were located in a corridor between San Pedro Ave. to the west and Broadway to the east (see map below.) A route that included San Pedro was dismissed because it did not provide direct access to San Antonio International Airport, and routes along Broadway and McCullough would require too much expensive right-of-way to be acquired. So this left mostly "greenfield" routes midway between Broadway and McCullough. The state's preferred route cut between Trinity University and Alamo Stadium and sliced through part of the City of Olmos Park before continuing north over the Olmos Basin. However, Olmos Park vetoed this route, so the Highway Department chose an alternate route that skirted around the eastern edge of the suburb. That route ran between Alamo Stadium, the Sunken Gardens and the San Antonio Zoo, but this forced it to cut through the Incarnate Word campus, which also created controversy. Additionally, the route would take some parkland in both Brackenridge Park and the Olmos Basin. 
  • January 10, 1961: San Antonio voters approve a bond issue for expressways and to purchase new parkland to replace the parkland that would be taken for the freeway. (That replacement parkland is now McAllister Park.)
  • 1963: Incarnate Word files suit to block the freeway.
  • April 1964: The Federal Highway Administration approves the route.
  • October 1966: The so-called "Yarborough Rule", named for Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough who sponsored it, was added to federal law and prohibited the taking of parklands for highways unless no other feasible route exists.
  • November 27, 1967: Lawsuit filed by the San Antonio Conservation Society asking for reconsideration of the federal approval of the project based on the new federal law, and the federal Secretary of Transportation orders a new analysis of routes for the freeway.
  • 1968-1969: Negotiations between the Texas Highway Department and Federal Highway Administration over new routes fail.
  • August 1970: After further negotiations, the federal government approves the undisputed northern and southern segments (north of Basse Rd.. and south of Mulberry St.) with the stipulation that further study by an independent consultant be done for the middle segment.
  • November 12, 1970: The San Antonio Conservation Society requests a federal court to issue an injunction against the construction of the northern and southern segments. The judge rejects the request and work on the those sections begins a week later.
  • June 1971: The independent consultant's San Antonio North Expressway Study is released and recommends an alignment essentially the same as the state's 1960 preferred alignment rejected by Olmos Park.
  • June 23, 1971: After a freeway project in Memphis, Tennessee was struck-down by the US Supreme Court for violating the Yarborough Rule, a federal court uses that precedent to revoke the federal funding for the North Expressway, which essentially renders it dead. Work on the northern and southern sections ceases.
  • October 1971: The state withdraws its request for federal funding for the project and over 40,000 San Antonians sign petitions calling for the completion of the North Expressway.
  • August 1973: The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973 passes and includes a provision sponsored by Texas senators John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen that allows the city and state to build the freeway without federal money.
  • December 10, 1973: After yet another legal challenge, the legislation removing all federal involvement in the project was upheld by a US Circuit Court, allowing the city and state to go it alone. Work resumes on the project's stalled northern and southern segments within 24 hours of the ruling.
  • Mid 1974: A last-ditch lawsuit by the Conservation Society suspends the project for five more months.
  • November 1974: Last court challenge is dismissed and work finally begins on the controversial center center section, which at $22.6 million is the largest highway contract in the state's history up to this time.
  • February 7, 1978: The freeway between downtown and Sandau Rd. opens to traffic.
  • September 11, 1978: Route is certified by the federal government.
  • 1980: The existing section of at-grade highway from Sandau Rd. to Bitters Rd is upgraded to a freeway.
  • 1981: The freeway is named by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials as one of the nation's three most beautiful urban freeways.
  • 1987: With suburban development continuing to surge northward, a project to upgrade the section from Bitters Rd. to just north of Loop 1604 is started. This project employs several innovative traffic-handling methods during construction which actually result in smoother traffic flow during the construction than before.
  • April 1990: Project from Bitters Rd. to Loop 1604 is finished in just 24 months.
  • 1995: TransGuide coverage was added south of St. Mary's St. as part of the original TransGuide project.
  • October 1998: TransGuide coverage extended from St. Mary's St. to Basse Rd.
  • April 2000: Sonterra Blvd. extended to US 281. Because the city's thoroughfare plan showed a future east-west arterial north of Loop 1604, what's now the Sonterra overpass was built as part of the 1987 freeway extension project. It was used by construction crews during the project but was inaccessible and unused for nearly a decade until Sonterra Blvd. was finally extended per those earlier plans.
  • 2000: The overpass at FM 1863 in Bulverde completed.
  • June 29, 2001: Elevated ramp from northbound 281 into the airport complex opens. 
  • Early 2004: An additional lane in each direction for most of the route between San Pedro Ave. and Loop 1604 is added by restriping the roadway and eliminating the inner shoulder.
  • Late 2004: Work begins on clearing the right-of-way for the tolled expansion of 281 north of 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy. 
  • January 2005: A lawsuit by opponents of the toll project stops work. (More detailed history on that project is at the US 281 North expansion project page.)
  • Mid-2006: An extra lane in each direction from Jones-Maltsberger Rd. near the Quarry south to Hildebrand Ave. is added as part of the 281/410 interchange project by restriping the existing pavement.
  • June 18th, 2007: The first ramp in the 281/410 interchange opens to traffic.
  • June 9th, 2008: The final ramps in the 281/410 interchange open to traffic. The interchange project also adds additional lanes between Loop 410 and Nakoma and extends TransGuide coverage from Basse to Nakoma. (Also see the History of the US 281/Loop 410 interchange page.)
  • October 2010: Work completed to upgrade 281 to a "superstreet" from Encino Rio to Marshall Rd. 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. The signal timing changes afforded by this configuration help ease congestion in the area. This proposal is planned as a short-term fix until a more significant upgrade of 281 is able to be done. (See the superstreets page for more information.)
  • November 8, 2012: The first ramps in the 281/1604 interchange open.
  • July 2017: Work begins to expand US 281 to a freeway from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy.
  • March 2019: Construction to extend the freeway further north from Stone Oak Pkwy. to the county line starts.


Map of alignments studied for North Expressway presented in 1960
(Source: San Antonio North Expressway Study, 1971)




Artist's rendering of planned US 281 near Alamo Stadium ca. 1971
Note the proposed viaduct with Roman arches near the Sunken Garden Theater.
(Photo courtesy of TxDOT)




Construction on US 281 at Hildebrand Ave. looking south ca. 1977
(Photo courtesy of TxDOT)





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