Construction work is progressing on U.S. Highway 281 from Loop 1604 stretching north, eventually to the Comal county line.
Construction work is progressing on U.S. Highway 281 from Loop 1604 stretching north, eventually to the Comal county line. Credit: Wendy Cook / Rivard Report

The remnants of Friday morning rush hour on U.S. Highway 281 on the far North Side provided the backdrop for local and state officials announcing the start of another round of construction work  to improve mobility in the fast-growing corridor.

Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has begun the second phase of expansion of U.S. 281, this time from Stone Oak Parkway to the Comal County line. The first phase of widening on 281, from Stone Oak Parkway to Loop 1604, began in July 2017 and is expected to finish up in late 2020, one year ahead of schedule.

Phase I work is costing an estimated $179.5 million, while the estimated cost of Phase II is $168.8 million.

Weather permitting, Phase II is scheduled to be completed by 2022. It will result in the addition of two northbound lanes, two southbound lanes, and two High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes – one in each direction. This stretch of 281 will grow from the current four lanes to 10 lanes overall.

The highway work is part of a multi-year project meant to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety in an increasingly busy transit corridor.

J. Bruce Bugg Jr., the Texas Transportation Commission chairman who is also a San Antonio banker, was among the local and state dignitaries to break ground on Phase 2 construction work at 281 and Marshall Road. Bugg was joined by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3), State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), State Rep. Steve Allison (R-San Antonio), and Mario Jorge, engineer for TxDOT’s San Antonio district.

Pointing to a line of vehicles on 281, Bugg said the state with local and county partners pour millions of dollars into road construction statewide each year to help commuters get to their destinations in a safe, timely manner.

“These are the people that we’re working for,” Bugg said. He added that Texas voters committed to helping fund road improvements by approving Proposition 1 and Proposition 7, two measures that rededicate certain monies for major projects.

“These two funding streams are essential to what we’re doing here today,” Bugg said. “Forty-four percent of our 10-year, $77 billion construction budget is because of the new funding from Proposition I and Proposition 7.”

The entire 281 project is also part of Texas Clear Lanes, another State initiative that focuses on traffic congestion relief.

Aside from the new traffic lanes, the overall 281 project will add bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and connectors to VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Stone Oak Park & Ride complex.

Allison said the planned improvements on 281 not only will help decrease the amount of time motorists sit in long lines of traffic, but it will increase mobility and quality of life in the area.

(from right) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff talks with County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Bugg, and State Sen. Donna Campbell near U.S. 281 North and Marshall Road on Friday at the groundbreaking for Phase 2 of the highway’s expansion and improvements. Credit: Edmond Ortiz for The Rivard Report

“It’s so important for moving our school children, access to health care – subtle things that are so important for all of us in our daily lives,” he said. “We know what congestion looks like going forward, so we need to concentrate on improving mobility and connectivity for all of San Antonio.”

Campbell said funding the overall expansion of 281 without the introduction of toll roads was vital toward fast-tracking the new construction on the highway.

“When I was first elected to the [State] Senate, they were talking about putting toll roads up and down this highway,” Campbell said. “For me, that wasn’t an option. People in San Antonio spoke. They did not want tolls on 281.”

While County officials early on supported the toll-road concept, Nelson Wolff said he is happy that improvements on 281 and other local freeways are proceeding with non-toll funding. The County has provided more than $250 million toward projects on 1604, 281, and Interstates 35 and 10.

“All of these are inter-related and very important,” Nelson Wolff said. “It’s all going to make a big difference.”

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Bugg later told the Rivard Report that TxDOT aims to promote the new HOV lanes, which require two vehicle occupants to use, on 281 from 1604 to the Comal County line, in “a good, smart way.” Funds from VIA’s Advanced Transportation District, are helping to support the introduction of the HOV lanes, according to Bugg.

“That’s going to help with mass transit,” he said. “We’ll be able to see how that works in this high-growth area.”

Bugg also expressed satisfaction with the speed of Phase I construction happening further down 281. He thanked Webber, the general contractor, and its subcontractors for working together to overcome rain days and finding ways to keep work moving.

“We’ve got great partners in the construction industry statewide. Everyone’s pulling together,” Bugg said. “The construction industry is in a golden age across Texas because we’re out there getting things done.”

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.