Why haven’t they widened Loop 1604?

A sign on Loop 1604 in 1983 – It’s just true today as it was then!

One of the biggest gripes among San Antonio drivers is that Loop 1604 North, from roughly Bandera Rd. to I-35 on the northeast side, is still just two lanes each way and, as a result, is often congested.  It may seem like TxDOT isn’t doing anything about it, but that’s not the case.  An expansion of 1604 has been in the works since the last millennium, but has gotten sidetracked for several reasons over the years.  Fortunately, there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

Planning for an expansion of Loop 1604 started a couple of decades ago.  While that planning was underway in the early 2000s, there was a sudden spike in highway construction costs nationwide.  At the same time, the state was experiencing flat revenues from the gas tax because it was not being increased to keep up with inflation and because vehicles were becoming more fuel efficient. Because the legislature had no desire to increase taxes, TxDOT was directed to instead use tolls to fund big projects. Loop 1604 was subject to that policy.

Around 2005, a private construction consortium of Spanish transportation infrastructure company Cintra and locally-based Zachary Construction made an unsolicited bid to build both a US 281 expansion and the Loop 1604 expansion at no cost to the state in exchange for collecting tolls on the new lanes for 50 years. The state accepted the proposal and work started on the US 281 project, which was shovel-ready at the time, while planning and environmental clearances on the 1604 project were being completed. Shortly after work started on 281, a lawsuit was filed by tollroad opponents to stop it on the grounds that the previous environmental clearances were inadequate given the project’s location over the Edwards Aquifer. With the 281 project now tied-up in litigation, the contract with Cintra-Zachary was cancelled, and the 1604 project was also put on hold after opponents protested it at a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting in mid-2005.  The Alamo Area Mobility Authority (ARMA) then took over the 1604 project.

Environmental study
In 2007, ARMA completed the environmental work for Loop 1604. However, it was not a full environmental impact study (EIS), but instead was a less-intensive environmental assessment (EA), which is common when an expansion is done in an existing corridor. However, with the ongoing challenge to the US 281 EA and likelihood of similar litigation against a 1604 project, it was decided to pre-emptively start an EIS for Loop 1604.  Unfortunately, an EIS for a project the size of Loop 1604 takes many years to complete.

The scope for that study also included a planned upgrade for the western arc of 1604 from Bandera Rd. south to US 90. In 2012, while the study was still ongoing, unexpected funding was identified to upgrade that section. The plan included a funding swap that removed federal funding from the project, thus enabling it to be exempted from the EIS that was underway and allow it to be approved by the state much more quickly. While this helped kick start that western expansion, it meant that the EIS for the rest of the project had to be re-scoped, thus setting that process back.

Funding
In addition to the EIS delays, funding has been the other impediment. The expansion from Bandera Rd. to I-35 North is estimated to exceed $800 million. In 2015, the legislature finally approved new funding sources for transportation, and voters rubber stamped it later that year. Still, that $800 million price tag exceeded what was anticipated to be available to the San Antonio area for many years, so the project was kept on the books as a toll project so that planning work could continue (this is a stipulation of federal transportation planning policy.) But with toll funding being deprecated locally and statewide, the Loop 1604 project was essentially in limbo. As a result, funding for the EIS was also more difficult to obtain.

More recently, the funding picture has started to brighten. Additional conventional funding is trickling down to San Antonio, and the state implemented a special funding program to address congestion in the state’s largest metro areas. With all the other planned local toll projects now nixed, the MPO voted to remove tolling from the 1604 project earlier this year and to earmark roughly $500 million of anticipated future funding to the project. This should be enough to fund the expansion from Bandera Rd. to Redland Rd. and build about half of the flyovers for a new interchange at I-10. TxDOT has taken over planning for the project and the current proposal is to expand 1604 to four general purpose lanes in each direction plus one HOV lane in each direction. The EIS still needs to be completed and approved and the project redesigned again to change from the planned toll lanes, but it is expected that work could start as soon as 2021. Funding for the rest of the project– from Redland to I-35– is still to be determined.

One possible fly in the ointment is the recent designation of Bexar County by the EPA as being in non-attainment for smog standards; this will require an extra layer of approval for all future transportation projects in the area which could add up to a year to the approval process.  But, even with that, there is now light at the end of the 1604 tunnel.

Why didn’t they make it three or four lanes each way to start with?
When determining how many lanes to build, planners use a 20 year planning horizon.  Twenty years is used for a couple of reasons: first of all, the lifespan of a road is generally considered to be about that long.  In other words, roads will often need significant repairs after 20 years or so, so that would be a good time to make any needed improvements anyway.  Secondly, nobody has a crystal ball, so 20 years is really the outer limit for projections that are likely to be anywhere close to reliable.  People generally don’t want government spending money for things that aren’t warranted, so this is the process used to both justify the expenditure and to also ensure that only what is reasonably anticipated to be needed during a road’s lifetime is what is built.

With that understanding, let’s go back to around 1980.  At that time, Loop 1604 was just a two-lane farm road pretty much out in the middle of nowhere.  Although development was approaching, traffic counts were still quite low.  Even by 1986 (the earliest traffic map I have available), only 18,300 vehicles per day (vpd) were using Loop 1604 at Tradesman (that’s about the same volume of traffic on NW Military Hwy. through Shavano Park today) and just 9,000 vpd near O’Connor Rd.  But planners saw the coming growth and began upgrading Loop 1604 to a freeway in the early ’80s.  At that time, the 20 year projections for Loop 1604 (going out to the early 2000s) only supported building the two lanes in each direction.  And looking back now at historical traffic data, that actually was a good estimate.  In 2003, Loop 1604 at Tradesman carried 95,000 vpd and 75,000 vpd near O’Connor Rd.  With the capacity for a four lane freeway of 115,000 vpd, that was still well below capacity.  (Defining the “capacity” of a freeway is tricky, and if you search the Internet, you’ll find a range of numbers between 1,000 vehicles per hour per lane (vph/l) all the way up to 2,300 vph/l.  There are many factors that determine where that line is and it can get subjective.  I use 1,200 vph/l, or 115,000 vpd for four lanes, as a rule of thumb because that’s how the math works out for about a 2-3 second gap between cars and it’s fairly conservative.  Of course, these are numbers for a full day, not hourly counts, which more accurately indicates when and how severe congestion is, but those numbers are not easily obtainable.  In other words, these numbers are ballpark and your mileage may vary, but they do give a good indication of general conditions.  For comparison, in 2017, there were 142,000 vpd at Tradesman and 112,000 vpd near O’Connor Rd., which is still below the 115,000 vpd capacity.  All traffic counts are from TxDOT’s annual traffic maps and include traffic on the frontage roads as well.)


Historical traffic counts on Loop 1604

It’s also worth noting that going from a two lane farm road to a full four lane freeway with access roads was a more than 400% improvement.  People at that time were ecstatic.  Four lanes in each direction was all that the traffic levels in the early ’80s and 20-year projections at that time showed was needed, and the historical traffic counts validate that.

 

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