For most of the first two decades of this century, for the reasons discussed below, tollways were an integral — and highly controversial — part of local highway plans. However, since the last toll plan was dropped in 2018, there are no longer any active toll projects planned for San Antonio. This page discusses the complete history of those local toll proposals.
Genesis of tolling
Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, state officials began to realize that their traditional "pay-as-you-go" approach to funding roads was no longer able to keep pace with the state's highway needs. A combination of increasing population, a surge in interstate and international trade, and the compounding effects of inflation on the state's static fuel tax, which was last adjusted in 1991, were taking a toll (no pun intended) on highway revenues. Additionally, improved fuel mileage, which translates into less fuel tax paid per mile driven, as well as the legislature's diversions of funds from the state's highway fund to pay for non-transportation budget shortfalls, were also substantially cutting into the amount of funding available for transportation. The final nail in the coffin was a sudden dramatic increase in worldwide construction costs that began in late 2002.
On top of that, the federal fuel tax, having itself not been adjusted since 1993, was also suffering from inflation-induced depreciation. The federal government even had to rescind previously-allocated highway funds to the states in 2008 and 2009 due to shortfalls in expected revenue. Texas and San Antonio had historically been shortchanged on federal transportation funding, so there was already a substantial backlog of needed projects from all those years of being shortchanged on top of the demands caused by recent explosive population and traffic growth.
This all created a "perfect storm" resulting in a crisis in highway funding that started coming to a head in the first few years of the new millennium. To help stave off a complete funding collapse without increasing taxes, the legislature and voters approved bonding and tolling to pay for new roadways in 2001. To help back some of that new debt with a sustainable revenue source, the Texas Transportation Commission in 2003 directed that all freeway projects be evaluated for toll worthiness and be constructed as toll projects if they were deemed viable. This included several projects in the works in San Antonio at that time, most notably US 281 and Loop 1604.
Alamo Regional Mobility Authority is born
Additionally, the state encouraged regional authorities in the early 2000s to develop local funding mechanisms to help augment state funds. To that end, Bexar County leaders in 2003 created the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) to take on that role locally. Because there are few local transportation funding options available under state law, the primary focus was on using tolls as the backing for bonds that would fund major projects. Tolling the new roadways and lanes would provide the funding mechanism to pay for them in lieu of waiting for limited traditional tax-backed financing, and this was the approach taken by both the state and other RMAs statewide. It was projected that using this financing method would allow many major projects to be built as much as 25 years earlier than they would be under traditional tax-funded schedules and, as a result, also substantially cheaper.
Although envisioned primarily as a tolling agency, ARMA has actually been able to secure non-toll funding sources for all of the projects it has developed to date, most notably the US 281/Loop 1604 interchange, which was originally expected to be a toll project but was funded instead mostly with federal economic stimulus funds. ARMA today continues to develop other non-toll projects, mostly on county roads.
Legislature approves new transportation funding
During its sessions in 2013 and 2015, the Texas Legislature approved new funding sources for highways. These changes allocate a percentage of sales taxes and motor vehicle sales taxes, as well as oil and gas production taxes, to the state highway fund. The legislation also ended most of the budget diversions from the highway fund that had been used to shore-up other parts of the state budget. The increases in funding from these changes allowed the removal of tolling from all previously-planned local toll projects.
As a footnote to all this, it is often asserted by toll road opponents that voters never approved tolling roads in Texas. However, in 2001, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 15, which authorized the state to borrow money to build highways, including toll roads, which was clearly stated in the ballot language. It could be argued that voters did not understand the extent to which the state would use tolling, but given that toll projects are mentioned three times in the ballot language ("turnpikes, toll roads, toll bridges"), it should have been evident to voters that toll projects could be a major outcome of approving this proposition. Furthermore, the referendum did not require subsequent approval from voters for specific projects, only approval by the Texas Transportation Commission.
On this page:
Types of tollways
Tollways come in several different forms, most of which have been proposed locally at one time or another. Below are the different types of tollways that have been considered for Bexar County.
It was frequently perceived that tolls would be added to existing roadways. However, this is not possible under state law. So, in all cases locally, tolls would have been implemented on new lanes added to existing roads, or on completely new roads, and all new tolled lanes would have been freeway lanes. (While the term freeway is sometimes used to mean "a highway without tolls", the primary (and, technically, more accurate) definition is something along the lines of "a high-speed, divided highway with a limited number of places where motorists can enter or leave it." Such roads can be tolled or non-tolled.)
Tolled freeway mainlanes
In this scenario, the mainlanes of a freeway, which are all new, are tolled, while the access roads are non-tolled. This is a more "traditional" type of tollway such the Sam Houston Tollway in Houston or the George Bush Turnpike in Dallas. Locally, this type of tollway was planned for US 281 north of Stone Oak Pkwy., and was studied for the Kelly Parkway, a possible future extension of SH 151 outside of Loop 1604, for Wurzbach Parkway between Blanco Rd. and Wetmore Rd., and for a section of Bandera Rd. between Loop 410 and Loop 1604.
It is important to note that in every case where this type of tollway was proposed locally, it was essentially the same proposal as a non-tolled version of the same project would have been. The only difference was that drivers who opted to use the new freeway lanes would have paid a toll. The pre-existing lanes with signalized intersections would have remained non-tolled and would shifted outward to serve as the access roads for the new freeway lanes.
Tolled freeway mainlanes cross-section
Number of lanes could have varied. Diagrams are for illustrative purposes only and are not to scale.
This type of tollway consists of tolled barrier-separated express lanes — known as "managed lanes" (see definition below
) — in the median between non-tolled freeway lanes with limited entry and exit points between the tolled and non-tolled lanes. Examples of this type of tollway are I‑10 West (Katy Freeway) in Houston, and the North Tarrant Express in Ft. Worth. This type of tollway was planned for US 281 between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak Pkwy., and was also planned for I‑35 North, but the tolled lanes there would have been elevated/double-decked. Managed lanes were proposed for I‑10 West outside Loop 1604, I‑10 East outside Loop 410, the entire northern half of Loop 1604, SH 151 outside Loop 410, and a short section of I‑37.
When managed lanes were to be added to existing freeways, the existing lanes would have remained non-tolled, and new lanes would have been built in the median between the existing non-tolled freeway lanes. The existing lanes may have needed to be moved or reconfigured to provide sufficient room for the new lanes. In some cases, the new lanes would have instead been elevated over or depressed below the existing lanes.
Managed lanes cross-section
Number of lanes could have varied. Diagram is for illustrative purposes only and is not to scale.
What is a managed lane?
A managed lane is a lane where the operational strategies of the lane are adjusted in real-time 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 traffic conditions or time of day. Typically, managed lanes allow toll-free access for buses, carpools, and emergency vehicles, while single-occupancy vehicles (i.e. solo drivers) can use the lane by paying a variable-rate toll.
How is this beneficial? Besides providing a clear lane for public transportation and emergency vehicles and encouraging carpooling, it also gives solo commuters who want or need to get where they're going faster an opportunity to bypass congestion by paying a toll to use any excess capacity of the lane. Every motorist who opts to do so removes one more vehicle from the non-tolled lanes, which can help ease congestion. The resulting toll revenue helps to subsidize the road, saving scarce tax dollars for other needed projects.
In this plan, new direct-connect ramps between intersecting roadways (tolled or non-tolled) would have been tolled. Tolled interchanges were proposed as part of the Loop 1604 managed lanes project. A tolled interchange at US 281 and Wurzbach Parkway was studied but determined to not be feasible. Other tolled interchanges were proposed on the planned Kelly Parkway at I‑35 and at Loop 410.
Proposed toll systems
There were two iterations of the local toll system plan: one in 2009, and an updated version in 2014.
In 2009, ARMA identified a number of feasible tollway projects in Bexar County. A "starter system" of about 20 miles along US 281 and Loop 1604 was initially identified, with additional segments of Loop 1604 subsequently added. Several other possible toll projects had also been investigated by TxDOT and ARMA but were subsequently determined to not be feasible.
The map below shows the proposed tollway locations in San Antonio in that 2009 plan.
- US 281 North from Loop 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
Proposed future 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
- SH 16 (Bandera Rd.) from Loop 410 to Loop 1604
- Wurzbach Parkway from Wetmore Rd. to Blanco Rd., including an interchange at US 281
- Southern half of US 281/Loop 1604 interchange
In the years between 2009 and 2014, ARMA and TxDOT continued studies on the various corridors and made revisions to their list of possible toll projects. In December 2014, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization incorporated the latest proposals into their plans as shown on the map below.
Carried-over from 2009 plan:
- US 281 North from Loop 1604 to the Comal county line
- Loop 1604 northern arc from US 90 West to I‑10 East including tolled ramps at I‑10 West, I‑35 North, and I‑10 East
- I‑10 East from Loop 410 to SH 130 in Seguin
- I‑35 from downtown to FM 1103 (the managed lanes along this section would mostly be double-decked)
- I‑10 West from Loop 1604 to Boerne
- SH 151 from Loop 410 to Loop 1604
- I‑37 from SE Military to Fair Ave.
- Kelly Parkway
- SH 151 outside of Loop 1604
- I‑35 from US 281 to Loop 410 South
- Loop 410 between I‑35 North and I‑10 East
- Northern half of US 281/Loop 1604 interchange
Tolls and toll collection
In late 2007, the Metropolitan Planning Organization 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.
All tolls were planned to be collected electronically; there would be no tollbooths. Although common today, this was an emerging trend at the time. In fact, the US 281 project in San Antonio appeared to be the first in Texas that proposed to use all-electronic tolling.
As mentioned earlier, there are no longer any toll projects proposed in Bexar County. After the increases in state highway funding in 2013 and 2015, full funding was secured to build all planned toll projects without tolls.
Separate and unrelated to the above plans, the Cibolo City Council instructed staff in 2015 to investigate options to extend FM 1103 south to I‑10, and a blue-ribbon citizens committee was formed to study the matter. In 2016, that committee recommended the project go forward as a tollway. The project was eventually scuttled. More information on that project is on the Cibolo Parkway page
As mentioned in the introduction on this page, numerous issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s resulted in severe funding shortages for highways. As state and local officials sought new methods for funding, tolling emerged as the primary new tool. Plans to create local toll roads got underway in 2003, first with the creation of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA), and then when the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) ordered that "controlled-access mobility projects in any phase of development or construction must be evaluated for tolling. This includes new-location facilities and increased capacity projects such as adding additional main lanes or constructing new main lanes." (TTC Minute Order 109519, 12/18/03) The order specifically included "increased capacity projects such as...constructing new main lanes." These two events kick-started the local effort to create a regional toll-funded transportation plan.
"Starter system" is born
In late 2003, TxDOT was working to secure additional funding for a planned expansion of US 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy. Because that project fit the requirements of the above-mentioned 2003 TTC order, TxDOT was compelled to evaluate it for possible tolling. That review showed that it was viable for tolling, so per the TTC's order, the project was reclassified as a toll project. A plan to expand Loop 1604 was also evaluated for tolling and subsequently combined with the US 281 project to form a local tollway "starter system" plan.
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 mid 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, in accordance with state law, it would have to be considered and other bids solicited for the starter system. Cintra-Zachary's bid would have allowed 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 have allowed 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 Cintra-Zachary bid would be accepted with local input.
Opposition builds; first lawsuit
After word of the toll projects became public, a substantial amount of grassroots opposition started to form, headed by the Texas Toll Party group who had also vehemently opposed Austin area toll projects. They showed en masse at a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting in mid 2005 and managed to get the proposed Loop 1604 West project 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 project from Sonterra to Stone Oak in September 2005, and preparation work for construction began in December 2005.
In early 2006, workers on US 281 at Evans broke a sewer line, and opponents seized on that opportunity to file a lawsuit challenging the project, arguing that it required a full (and costly) environmental impact statement (EIS) instead of the numerous less-comprehensive environmental assessments (EAs) 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 had 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 project, as well as a separate overpass planned at 281 and Borgfeld, so that a consolidated EA for the entire corridor could be done and categorical determination made of whether a full impact statement would need to be performed.
US 281 plan moves forward
In early 2007, the new EA for 281 was completed and released. As with previous assessments, it found no substantial issues, a so-called "Finding of No Significant Impacts" (FONSI). The FHWA reviewed and approved the EA in August 2007. TxDOT announced plans to cancel the overpass project at Borgfeld as ARMA indicated it was now intending to expand 281 from 1604 to Borgfeld as a single project with construction possibly beginning in 2008.
Other toll projects considered
While the 281 project was in limbo, ARMA completed studies for 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, and 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 tolled managed lanes along I‑10 West from Loop 1604 to Boerne, and on I‑10 East from Loop 410 to SH 130 in Seguin. Subsequent revisions for the I‑10 West project adjusted the northern endpoint for the first phase to Leon Springs.
Statewide moratorium passed; ARMA takes over 281 and 1604 projects
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 and allowed local mobility authorities the right of first refusal on all toll projects within their jurisdiction. The bill included a number of exceptions, mostly in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, but 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 toll-backed bonds and to begin construction in mid 2008.
Loop 1604 study
In late June 2007, TxDOT released the results of the EA for the Loop 1604 managed lanes and expansion and previewed the plans for the proposed improvements. That EA also had a FONSI outcome. However, given the history of legal challenges on the 281 project, and expectation of similar litigation for 1604, ARMA decided to move forward with a full EIS for Loop 1604 anyway. That study subsequently experienced a number of scope revisions and funding challenges that substantially delayed it.
US 281 project finalized
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 was expected to start in mid 2008 with completion in late 2010. The second segment was expected to be completed in 2012.
Second lawsuit filed
In February 2008, toll opponents and environmentalists once again filed a lawsuit challenging the second 281 EA. 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 had been inadvertently omitted from the administrative record for the EA and asked for a 60 day stay to allow time to submit the document to the FHWA for review to determine if it would affect 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 preempt the inevitable legal battle. Subsequently, the defendants (TxDOT, ARMA, and the FHWA) agreed to do a full 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 conduct the new EIS.
ARMA hires consortium
While those legal challenges had been 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 pervasive public perception, this consortium — unlike the previous 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 with estimated completion in late 2010. However, those plans were scrapped pending a new project to be recommended by the environmental impact statement process.
Additions to tollway system plan
In December 2014, the MPO approved an updated toll plan that included the previously-planned managed lanes on US 281 North and Loop 1604, as well as newly-proposed managed lanes on I‑35 from downtown to FM 1103, I‑10 West from Loop 1604 to Boerne, I‑10 East from Loop 410 to SH 130, SH 151 from Loop 410 to Loop 1604, and I‑37 from SE Military to Fair Ave.
281/1604 southern interchange built
During the Great Recession, Congress approved a national economic stimulus plan that poured additional federal money into road construction projects. In February 2009, the MPO approved allocating San Antonio's share of the largesse to be used in conjunction with matching 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 non-tolled. The Texas Transportation Commission (TTC) approved the state's share in March 2009. Construction began in early 2011 was completed in mid 2013.
It had been 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 were resolved. However, funding was identified for those ramps so that construction could begin as soon as the legal and environmental issues were resolved.
New managed lanes plan for US 281
In May 2012, local officials announced they had identified funding to expand US 281 from Loop 1604 to Stone Oak Pkwy with some non-tolled lanes. The working plan for US 281 included two to three non-tolled freeway lanes in each direction and one or two tolled managed lanes. The managed lanes would include direct access to a VIA park and ride facility being planned for the corridor. It was hoped that construction would begin sometime in 2014 or 2015 once the ongoing environmental study of the corridor was complete and approved, barring any further legal challenges.
Loop 1604 projects
Over on Loop 1604, plans were announced to build two non-tolled freeway lanes in each direction from Braun Rd. to Potranco Rd. (essentially a southward extension of the existing freeway configuration at Bandera Rd.) once the ongoing environmental study was complete, which was expected to be in 2015. Space would be left to add managed toll lanes in the future that would connect to the managed lanes being planned north of Bandera Rd.
New toll funding plan
In January 2014, TxDOT and ARMA announced funding had been secured to expand US 281 from Loop 1604 all the way to Borgfeld Rd. using a mix of non-tolled and tolled/managed lanes. Some funding would come from traditional tax-funded sources with the remainder coming from bonds backed by toll revenue. Funding was also allocated — mostly from a City of San Antonio bond issue — to complete the northern ramps for the Loop 1604 interchange. As with the previously completed ramps in the interchange, these new ramps would also be non-tolled.
With funding now in hand for the entire corridor, construction was expected to start in late 2015 or early 2016 contingent on the approval of the environmental study that was scheduled to be complete in mid 2015. The funding for 281 was part of a larger financing package that included funds for proposed managed lanes on I‑10 West from Loop 1604 to Ralph Fair Rd., and for non-tolled freeway lanes on Loop 1604 from SH 151 to US 90. In the summer of 2015, TxDOT submitted — and the FHWA approved — the completed EIS for the US 281 project.
Legislature approves new funding sources
In 2013, the legislature approved a new funding source for highways by using revenue from gas and oil production taxes, which was subsequently approved by voters. Then in 2015, the legislature approved additional new funding from sales taxes and motor vehicle sales taxes. During the summer of 2015, several local officials indicated that should voters sign-off on the new financing and the expected funding then be allocated by the state, efforts would be made to remove the toll component from the US 281 project. In early September 2015, the MPO approved a resolution to that effect, and the TTC approved the funding change later that month.
In November 2015, voters indeed approved the funding proposition, and officials announced shortly thereafter that the plans for 281 would be updated to remove the toll component, with an expected groundbreaking in 2017. The Loop 1604 and I‑35 projects, because of their scope and expense (nearly $1 billion each), would stay on the books as toll projects.
In late 2017, the governor and lieutenant governor directed the TTC to remove (or at least discourage) tolling from future projects. However, because Loop 1604 and I‑35 were already in the local plans with toll bonding underpinning their funding, and because the new state funding for the area was still projected to be insufficient to cover their cost, they retained their designation as toll projects as required under federal regulations in order for planning on the projects to continue.
Toll component removed from remaining projects
In mid 2018, revised funding forecasts became substantially more favorable. In light of that, the MPO determined it could remove tolling from the last local projects that included it — first I‑35 North, and then finally Loop 1604, bringing a somewhat anti-climatic end to the tumultuous local toll road wars.