E-N's verdict on 1604-281 mess reeks of Zachry favors 

Greg Harman

gharman@sacurrent.com

Northside drivers' Public Enemy Number One was outed last week across San Antonio's media spectrum shortly after Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas filed a lawsuit objecting to an application to proceed with the construction of a new interchange at perennially congested U.S. 281 and Loop 1604 without a full environmental study.

AGUA and equally catchy TURF (Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom) have been all over the area's highway-expansion plans for independent but complementary reasons. AGUA wants complete Environmental Impact Statements prepared due to the fact both highways â?? designated as hazardous cargo routes â?? cross the porous Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. TURF is fighting the double-taxation of privatized toll roads.

While the Express-News has cast the conflict as motorists-versus-cave bugs (the shy-for-a-reason karst invertebrates living in the Edwards that spur Endangered Species Act concerns, and thus, lend AGUA legal muscle) and all but issued a fatwa on AGUA Board President Enrique Valdivia (running his smirking mug under the editorial, “AGUA's lawsuit clearly misguided”), don't load up your truck bed with sacks of ammonium nitrate and set sail for Valdivia's place just yet.

Try checking in with those who live in the interchange's shadow. Hollywood Park Mayor Bob Sartor (local GOP precinct chair â?? no hugger of blind salamanders) said residents there object to the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority and TxDOT suggesting that there would be no negative effects from the interchange as designed. “We adamantly disagree with the Categorical Exclusion's finding there are no ill health effects associated with this project. I haven't found any that agree with the ARMA.” Nobody but the E-N's influential editorial board, that is.

Next, consider that it was TxDOT (prodded on by Governor Perry) that chose back in 2002 to reconfigure the project as a toll project, sparking the original delaying turf war. “Ultimately, TxDOT and the bureaucrats answer to our politicians,” said Terri Hall, founder of TURF. “It really goes back to the governor and his toll-only agenda. That's what this comes down to. There's enough politicians, apparently, in Bexar County that are bending to â?¦ `Perry's` will. That are willing to sacrifice all kinds of things in order to try to toll the living daylights out of the Northside.”

AGUA's agenda, if guilty of a quest for control in demanding members be allowed to choose environmental consultants, is informed by past TxDOT efforts to manipulate data, a discovery that stalled the project again in 2008. “The interchange could have been built â?? and should have been built â?? years ago,” said AGUA Board Member Richard Alles. It has been the agency's continued resistance to performing a comprehensive environmental analysis that is to blame.

More than beetles â?? more than even the health and safety of the sensitive aquifer all of us depend upon â?? the overpass lanes as proposed will also cross within 100 meters of St. Thomas Episcopal School, said Alles, a trained engineer who plotted the GIS points himself. “Some of the constituents of exhaust gas are going to be heavier than air,” he said. “A school like this is considered a â??sensitive receptor.'”

And for the rest of you, this is just a reminder now: the interchange is not the “Super Street” (AKA US 281; AKA the slowest highway in America). It will not move you faster once you've been elevated and deposited again. That process is getting the full environmental review, as it should.*

`Calls to TxDOT's local public-information team were not immediately returned.`

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* A representative of the A-RMA corrected me on this point: "The US 281 Super Street received an environmental clearance in the form of a Categorical Exclusion, the same type of environmental clearance obtained on the US 281 / Loop 1604 Interchange. The reference and link you have on your blog is to the US 281 Environmental Impact Statement which is looking at long-term improvements to US 281, not the Super Street."

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