The coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdown of most activity has been a help to construction crews working on the expansion of U.S. Highway 281 in far North San Antonio.

Having fewer cars on the road while many businesses have been shut down the last few months has allowed the contractor, Webber Construction, to work longer hours and have more flexibility with lane closures, said Laura Lopez, a Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

The multiyear project is transforming 281 in two phases from a four-lane divided highway with numerous traffic lights into a six-lane expressway, with three lanes in each direction. Two will be non-tolled, general-purpose lanes and one lane in each direction will be for high occupancy vehicles (HOV) of two people or more, including VIA Metropolitan Transit buses. Frontage roads for the expressway will include bicycle lanes.

However, the progress made so far during the pandemic has not moved the final completion date of the project much. Construction on phase one of the project began in July 2017 and was ahead of schedule last year, slated for completion in late 2020. It’s now likely to be completed in 2021, Lopez said. 

Utility work and other complications with connecting the HOV lanes to the VIA Stone Oak Park and Ride have delayed phase one of the project and caused minor budget overruns, Lopez said.

The nearly $30 million park and ride complex will tie into the next expressway. Opened two years ago, it provides an indoor, air-conditioned waiting area, bike racks, and 377 parking spaces for commuters but has been little used amid the construction on 281.

Phase one extends from Loop 1604 north to Stone Oak Parkway and includes the construction of flyovers connecting 1604 and 281 north of the loop. Phase two, which broke ground in 2019, stretches from Stone Oak Parkway to Borgfeld Drive at the Comal County line.

Phase two is still tracking ahead of schedule, Lopez said. The contractor was given 48 months to finish, which would have been 2023, but that phase is currently slated for completion in the summer of 2022.

Both phases will be a bit over budget, but not significantly, Lopez said.

The phase one segment is estimated to cost about $195 million and phase two $178 million, according to the most recent numbers provided by TxDOT. Along with other TxDOT funding sources, the overhaul of 281 is being largely funded through Prop 1 and Prop 7, statewide infrastructure measures approved by voters in 2014 and 2015.

In 2016, TxDOT estimated the total cost of the project with engineering design, purchasing of right of ways and utility costs would push the total budget to around $532 million. But the TxDOT project tracker on the department’s website indicates the project costs stand at around $416 million, not including utility relocation costs. 

The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization originally planned to make the new 281 a toll road but met resistance from residents and specifically the group Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF). Eventually, funding through the state propositions allowed the project to proceed as a toll-free road.

The HOV lanes on 281, which were created as a sort of compromise between the anti-toll contingency and the original plan for having tolled lanes on the expressway, will be a new experiment for San Antonio, as they were the first in the city to be contracted. 

But the HOV lanes on Interstate 10 will be the first to open to the public, since construction is just a few months from completion, according to Brian Purcell, a local expert on TxDOT projects who runs The Texas Highway Man website. HOV lanes are also under construction or in the plans for other freeways in the city, Purcell said.

Surveys conducted by the SA Tomorrow Multimodal Transportation Plan in 2015 showed about 76 percent of residents supported creating HOV lanes, and Purcell thinks the lanes will help alleviate congestion, especially as residents learn to take advantage of them.

“Sometimes people see the HOV lanes moving faster than the regular traffic, and that’s when they kind of get upset and think, ‘Hey, wait, why are they getting to go?’” Purcell said. “Well, that’s kind of the whole point. It’s an incentive to get people to carpool, which means less congestion, less pollution, less fuel usage, and all the green stuff that comes with that.”

A TxDot animation video shows what the new 281 will look like when it is completed. Click here to view the video.

Residents can stay up to date on upcoming 281 lane closures here.

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.