Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A man called 'Nitro' (among other things).

King of roads known for giving little ground

Transportation chief's sway shapes Texas highways, but critics see arrogance, deaf ear

June 26, 2007

The Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN – State Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson is proud that he can still work a bulldozer, a skill he learned early on the ranch and in the gas fields. Others would say he still drives it at meetings, committee hearings and town hall gatherings.

Mr. Williamson, 55, is one of the most influential men in Texas. He has the ear of the governor, with whom he speaks almost daily. He is the architect behind the state's road plan for the next 25 years. He is smart, studious, self-made. And critics, who seem as endless as a West Texas highway, say he is arrogant and unswerving.

"He's an amazing guy," said House Transportation Committee chairman Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock.

Is he a Democrat; is he a Republican? Is he a strategist; is he extremely pragmatic? Is he Nitro or is he the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet? Is he rigid and unthinking or is he absolutely pliable to any situation that comes before him? Is he visionary or a policy wonk who knows every detail?

"He's both. He's all those things," said Mr. Krusee, who oftentimes was Mr. Williamson's sole defender in the House last session.

On Thursday, Mr. Williamson will lead the five-member commission as the final arbiters of who will build the State Highway 121 toll-road project, either the Spanish company Cintra or the North Texas Tollway Authority. It is an issue worth billions of dollars and will help determine the private vs. public ownership of Texas roadways for the next five decades.

For the past six years, at the behest of Gov. Rick Perry, Mr. Williamson has championed highway development to meet mushrooming population growth.

He said he studied the issue for almost two years before helping to devise the Trans-Texas Corridor – a mammoth, possibly visionary roadway to parallel Interstate 35 and relieve congestion from virtually every interstate. But it also would sever ranches and farms and gobble a huge swath of private land – all without legislative oversight.

Add the palpable road rage of the urban commuter, who will bear the brunt of dozens of toll roads that are part of a separate plan, and what Mr. Williamson and the Texas Department of Transportation have unearthed is a bold policy initiative and the vitriolic passions of millions of drivers and landowners.

In the past six years, he has suffered two heart attacks. And yet, he said he bears no regrets and will continue pushing until Mr. Perry tells him to stop.

"It had to be me and my peculiar personality saying these things. Someone had to do it to advance Rick's agenda," Mr. Williamson said in an interview Monday.

It's the way he's always done it.

Coming of age

In 1985, at age 33, he came to the Legislature as a Democrat from Weatherford. By his second term, he found himself on the powerful Appropriations Committee that writes the state budget.

The committee dais was split into two levels, and Mr. Williamson sat on the lower level with other young, brash lawmakers, including Mr. Perry. There were eight altogether, and they became known as the "pit bulls," for questioning expenditures and demanding outcomes for state dollars.

"We were fiscal conservatives, and we were going to change the world," said Ron Lewis, now a successful lobbyist.

Mr. Williamson tackled accounting reforms and forcing state agencies to build computers that could talk to each other. "He brought us into the 21st century," Mr. Lewis said.

Mr. Williamson studied state issues constantly, dissecting them and challenging the status quo. But it wasn't just policy he would place under a microscope.

When Mr. Williamson's eldest daughter became interested in softball, he immediately pored over everything he could find on the subject of fast-pitch, Mr. Lewis recalled.

"He learned every kind of pitch" and helped her excel in the budding sport, Mr. Lewis said. "I don't know if Ric Williamson has ever winged anything in his entire life."

Mr. Lewis described his friend as "the greatest guy you could hope to meet," but like many who know Mr. Williamson, said his cockiness "can also rub you wrong."

Take the time on the Appropriations Committee when Mr. Williamson took exception to an expensive, backdoor contract that the Department of Human Services gave to a contractor for Medicaid processing.

"There's something real greasy in the way your agency does business," Mr. Williamson told acting director Charles Stevenson. "I hope – no, I pray – that I find something to hang you with."

A man called 'Nitro'

For exchanges like this, legislative colleagues nicknamed him "Nitro."

He is also the man who, to help kids with a classroom project, shepherded a bill that made the Guadalupe bass the state fish of Texas.

In 1993, when there was an opening for speaker of the House, Mr. Williamson campaigned hard among his colleagues for Appropriations chairman Jim Rudd to be elevated. Instead, when Pete Laney won the election, the pit bull found himself in the doghouse and lost his Appropriations seat.

After the session, like his friend Mr. Perry, he switched to the Republican Party. He served through 1998, and afterward spent time running Mr. Perry's political office.

When Mr. Perry became governor in December 2000, he tapped his friend to tackle one of the biggest problems he saw facing the state.

"It was his idea. He told me, 'This is what you're going to do,' " Mr. Williamson said.

The corridor is born

So he set about studying transportation. He laid out the dimensions of problems in financing roads and placed them against projected needs. He defined short-, mid- and long-term solutions and calculated the costs under a half-dozen scenarios, including taxes, bonds, private equity, private borrowing or public debt.

He and Mr. Perry laid down some goals, including competition for roadway construction, regional decision-making and consumer choices.

"Thus was born our strategic plan. That was actually the basis of the Trans-Texas Corridor," Mr. Williamson said.

David Stall, who along with his wife, Diane, runs Corridor Watch – a grassroots group that has sprung up to oppose the corridor, said the problem is that the idea was created based on population, without consideration from regional planners, engineers, private property rights or alternatives, such as expansion of existing roadways.

Mr. Williamson turns a deaf ear to those who disagree, and he has created the same intolerance at the Transportation Department, Mr. Stall said.

"They have become a road bully. And as my wife said, they have developed a culture of arrogance that permeates everything," he said.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate committee that deals with state transportation, also feels that Mr. Williamson's weakness is his impatience with the concerns of others.

During the last session, Mr. Carona had called for putting toll roads in balance with other methods of financing. Thereafter, he said he could not get Mr. Williamson to return his phone call.

Mr. Carona ultimately was able to pin Mr. Williamson down only by showing up unannounced and bushwhacking him as he appeared before a friendly House committee.

"He's a strong believer in himself, no question. Most successful people are. But the characteristic he's sometimes lacking is the willingness to listen," Mr. Carona said.

He said they left the session last month with open channels of communication, and he hopes the obstinacy of the Transportation Department does not return now that the Legislature is out of session. He said he finds much to admire in Mr. Williamson.

"He brings to the table intellect and a passion for change," Mr. Carona said. "However, his greatest hindrance is his own personality."

Is that because he forgot the many considerations of being a legislator?

"No, he was equally obnoxious when he was a lawmaker. I served with him. What you see with Ric is what you get," Mr. Carona said.

Confrontation, tenacity

Mr. Williamson said he worked with legislators and will try to be more responsive. He also said he knows he is challenging the inherent nature of government to leave tough problems until they become a crisis for some future Legislature, and that requires someone to stand up and fight.

"I have had friends, even closet supporters, say to me that, 'You should have explained in more detail what you were doing and not gotten so ahead of everyone, and people wouldn't be nearly as mad at you,' " Mr. Williamson said.

"In the last six years, had consensus been the goal, I'm not sure we could have gotten far enough, fast enough to make the progress I think we've made."

Most difficult things are achieved through confrontation and tenacity, he said.

The day Mr. Perry is tired of hearing complaints about toll roads and sends him home to Weatherford, he will go happily, Mr. Williamson said.

As it is, when he and the governor talk, Mr. Perry doesn't comfort him or offer him that kind of relief.

"He doesn't console me and he doesn't apologize and he doesn't curse the darkness. He understood what he was getting into. And I certainly understood what I was getting into," Mr. Williamson said.

"And if it results in a long-term solution to what we think is one of the most pressing problems the state faces, then history will judge us as having made some good decisions," he said.


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