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How toll lanes planned for 1604 could turn into free lanes

If you're tired of the ever-worsening traffic on Loop 1604 across San Antonio's north side, there's some good news and yes, some bad news.

First, the good news. We're a tiny bit closer to seeing some relief.

San Antonio's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) voted Monday to approve a plan that would add two lanes in each direction on 1604, stretching from Bandera Road on the west to I-35 on the east.

That vote means that the plan now advances to Austin where the Texas Transportation Commission will vote on it in March. If they approve, it will come back to the MPO for yet another vote in late spring or summer.

YEARS DOWN THE ROAD

The bad news is that any actual construction is still at least three years away and - at this point - the plan calls for $500 million of the roughly $850 million project to be paid for with tolls.

And given the unpopularity of tolls here in the past, that alone could either doom the project or delay it for the foreseeable future.

But even as the MPO voted for the plan which includes toll money, there's a chance that by the time it's built, you wouldn't have to pay a toll at all to drive on it.

That's because the plan is still at such an early stage that other funding sources might open up, which has happened here before on projects that originally called for tolls.

NEW MONEY COULD KILL THE TOLLS

Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff is also a member of the MPO Board and voted for the toll plan.

But he told us "there's still time to change things if we receive dollars, say new federal dollars or state dollars, we can replace the planned toll dollars with those, which is what we did on 281 and I-10, so there's still things to do."

He's hoping that Congress will come through with help.

"We've heard that the federal government will put a whole bunch of infrastructure dollars out there. It hasn't happened yet, but if it does, we've got a place to put it. And one of the number one things you have to have for that - is what they call 'shovel-ready' or 'project-ready.' So we can put 1604 up as a potential project if those federal dollars actually do happen."

REMEMBER 281

Wolff points to expansion work done on Hwy. 281, which was originally planned to be paid for with tolls.

"Eight years ago when I went onto the MPO board, it was planned as 100% tolled. That was before we had $160 million in stimulus money from 2008 - which is what we built half of the southern interchange at Hwy. 281 and 1604 with. "

Some of the money for highway work here also came from two separate state ballot propositions approved by voters in 2014 and 2015, which called for more Texas tax money to be spent on highway projects.

"As those things became available, we slowly chipped away at the planned tolls on Hwy. 281 and I-10 and turned them into non-tolls. We could do the same thing with 1604, because we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow."

WITH TOLLS, A $4 RIDE

If no new money appears and the project is completed with toll dollars, it would cost about $4.00 to drive the nearly 23 miles on new toll lanes between Bandera Road and I-35.

"And it's a choice," Wolff says. "The existing highway infrastructure that you see there today will still be free."

Wolff says giving drivers that choice would also help alleviate an even bigger problem. The MPO's long-term transportation plan calls for $40 billion worth of needed improvements.

"These are not 'nice-to-haves'" he says. "These are 'have-to-haves' based on our growth. Over that same period of time with our existing revenue streams, we'll only take in $10 billion."

So while Wolff knows any toll plan will face strong opposition, he's ready for it.

POLITICS AND STATESMANSHIP

"There's what I call the politics of doing this job and the statesmanship of doing this job."

"Politically it's hard to talk about those things [tolls], but from a statesman standpoint, that's kind of what our job is. We're supposed to help this community - not just today - but five, ten, twenty, fifty years into the future. And sometimes that means making hard decisions."

"One of the tools in the toolbox is tolls. And while I want to use that last, I'm not afraid to use it if we need to."

Wolff says the stretch of Loop 1604 in the plans is already clogged with traffic that's considered 60% 'over capacity.'

And if the 1604 expansion plan = with or without tolls - should die?

"If we wait, even at 2025 we'll be 150% over capacity on 1604 if we do nothing. "

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