Most of the 100,000 daily commuters traveling on U.S. Highway 281 and Loop 1604 have anticipated – and dreaded – what’s set to begin Monday.

That’s when construction officially begins on a two-stage project to expand U.S. 281 from Loop 1604 to the Comal County line. The $532 million project will add travel lanes, frontage roads, overpasses, bridges, and controversial high-occupancy vehicle lanes to the thoroughfare in the next five years.

“We’re excited to finally begin on the project and get it started,” said Josh Donat, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman. “In the first week there will only be overnight closures, so the biggest things folks will see are signs and barrels showing up. It shouldn’t hinder their drives, but it will start looking like a work zone in the next few weeks.”

In the meantime, commuters and area business owners will have to be patient.

The first phase of the project, transforming U.S. 281 into an eight-lane expressway between Loop 1604 and Stone Oak/TPC Parkway, should be finished by 2020. Included are two new HOV lanes, one in each direction, with overpasses constructed over Redland Road, Encino Rio Road, Evans Road, and Stone Oak/TPC Parkway.

US 281 from Loop 1604 to Borgfeld Drive Project Map. Credit: Courtesy / TxDOT

“I’m going to have to leave an extra hour [earlier] just to get to work,” said one commuter, who already is mapping out alternate routes to travel from her Bulverde home to her job near Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. “It’s already bad – it takes me an hour and a half to get there as it is. It’s really going to get worse when school begins.”

However, many agree the five-year traffic headache will pay off down the road.

“I travel [on U.S. 281] every day and I know what a bottleneck it is,” said Duane Wilson, president and CEO of the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “Today it took me almost 45 minutes to get from my house in Bulverde down to Evans Road. There’s so much construction going on in the entire area, and it’s not going to stop.”

Wilson said while the main lanes of U.S. 281 will temporarily shift for construction, existing frontage roads and access to area businesses should largely stay the same.

“In my opinion, it will be easier to get to those [businesses] than it is today,” said Wilson, who also chairs the nonprofit San Antonio Mobility Coalition, which was founded in 2001 to “advocate for highway, transit, and freight rail funding for the greater San Antonio region.”

Wilson estimates about 150 North SA Chamber business members are in the construction zone. Most have already have made arrangements for the forthcoming construction.

“Most of them have already moved out of the way, except those from Stone Oak Parkway north to the Comal County line,” he said.

The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization first funded U.S. 281 as a tolled project, but revised it after Texas voters approved Propositions 1 and 7, which together added millions to fund state highway improvements. The measures made $1.3 billion immediately available for statewide congestion-relief projects – many previously designated as tolled projects.

Projects that included HOV components received priority. VIA Metropolitan Transit has financial stakes in the U.S. 281 and I-10 expansions that now include HOV lanes.

Work on the second phase, expanding U.S. 281 from Stone Oak/TPC Parkway to the county line, will begin in 2019 and is slated for completion by 2022. It will also include HOV lanes, and add overpasses over Marshall Road, Wilderness Oak, Overlook Parkway, Bulverde Road, and Borgfeld Road.

Terri Hall, founder and director of the anti-toll group Texans for Toll-Free Highways, had long lobbied against HOV components on both roads. She’s happy to see construction is finally beginning on U.S. 281.

“We’re very relieved the improvements are starting after what has been a very long and bitter 12-year battle against tolls on 281, but we still have significant reservations about the HOV/bus lanes,” Hall said. “We think they will close off 97% of cars from using those [additional] lanes, and it remains to be seen whether they will help end congestion in the area.

“Once you spend a half-billion dollars to fix the road – and it doesn’t work – then where will we be? We’ll see if the HOV lanes will work out … if they don’t, we hope they will be opened up as free lanes for all cars.”

Businesses – including the H-E-B Plus! at U.S. 281 and Evans Road – are bracing for traffic snarls during construction, but believe it’s a necessary evil to accommodate rapid area growth.

“The 281 corridor has experienced tremendous growth over the years, and our 281 and Evans location has seen road infrastructure improvements since opening our doors,” said Julie Bedingfield, H-E-B public affairs manager. “We look forward to the continuous improvements in our area.”

Wilson said the U.S. 281 project, and similar efforts throughout the San Antonio area, will pay off for everybody.

“People are coming to San Antonio for good reasons,” he said. “We’re attracting the right kinds of companies offering jobs in all occupations. We’re starting to keep those kids who used to leave after they graduated from colleges. They’re now staying and working in the area.

“We’ve changed our whole philosophy when it comes to growing this city into a place where people can live and work and play.”

Will Wright

Will Wright is an award-winning, freelance journalist whose career began with the San Antonio Current and progressed as a staffer with the Austin American-Statesman, Port Arthur News, Fort Worth-Star Telegram,...