Thursday, January 18, 2007

Note to Governor Perry: Dump 'Ric' Williamson

Senator says Perry should replace transportation chief

Carona says Ric Williamson has 'worn out his welcome'

January 18, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
copyright 2007

Gov. Rick Perry should find someone other than his long-time friend Ric Williamson to lead the Texas Transportation Commission, the incoming chairman of the Senate's transportation committee said today.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said Williamson's "abrasiveness" and single-minded commitment to toll roads and privatization as the only solution to traffic congestion "has worn out his welcome in many communities across the state. I think it would be in the best interest of the state that he step aside in favor of new leadership on the commission."

Williamson, whose six-year appointed term ends Feb. 1, declined to comment, citing a standing policy of not responding publicly to comments by elected officials. Perry's office did not immediately respond to a call for comment.

Williamson, if reappointed during the current legislative session, would not be able to serve beyond the end of the session in May unless he was confirmed by the Senate. However, Perry could choose simply to appoint no one until the Legislature goes home. Under that scenario, Williamson could serve in holdover status indefinitely.

Commissioner John Johnson, for instance, has continued to serve even though his term expired during the 2005 legislative session. Perry recently named a replacement.

Williamson, an oil business executive from Weatherford, served in the Legislature from 1985-98, a period that overlapped with some of Perry's time in the House. He was appointed to the commission by Perry in March 2001 and was named the group's chairman effective Jan. 29, 2004.

Williamson, particularly since becoming chairman, has been a dogged advocate for Perry's toll road policies, which includes having the Texas Department of Transportation analyze all new highway construction for the possibility of charging tolls.

In addition, Williamson and the commission have aggressively moved the department toward reaching agreements with private companies to build and operate tollways as private concessions on state-owned highway right-of-way. The centerpiece of that policy is the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor, which would be a network of intrastate tollways, railroads and utility corridors paralleling the existing interstate highways in the state.

Carona, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee since February 2006, has made it clear he diverges from Perry and Williamson on much of that agenda. While Carona supports toll roads in certain circumstances, he said today that the Trans-Texas Corridor plan was a mistake and that turning highway construction over to private operators is wrong.

He supports allowing the state's 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax to float upward with the growth in highway construction costs and has filed a bill this session to make that happen.

"There ought to be other options that ought to be part of the mix," Carona said. "What we're saying is put the system back in balance again."

Williamson, he said, has not been open to those other options.

"Ric Williamson and his group take any discussion that seems to move away from their core position as a threat," Carona said. Williamson is bright and committed to transportation, Carona said, and always polite in appearing before legislators to discuss the subject.

"He is quick to speak, but not necessarily quick to listen," Carona said. "I think with the new session and the governor's new term, it would be a good time to begin a new relationship."; 445-3698

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