Friday, June 01, 2007

"Mike was fabulously cooperative in the transition from the old TxDOT to the new TxDOT."

Transportation chief to retire in August

Michael Behrens has been Department of Transportation executive director for six years

June 01, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Michael Behrens, who as executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation since 2001 has led the agency through a period of radical change, is retiring at the end of August.

Behrens, 59, announced that he is leaving the department after 37 years in a May 29 letter to Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson. The announcement comes on the heels of a legislative session in which the department's toll road policies were buffeted by lawmakers. Behrens said there was no connection; he had been thinking about leaving for more than a year.

Behrens, who spent most of his career in Yoakum, about halfway between Houston and San Antonio, before coming to the agency's state headquarters in 1998, said Thursday that it was time to go back down Texas 95 and "paint the house."

"You just know when it's the right time," Behrens said. His sixth grandchild was born Sunday morning, and his wife has continued to live and work in Yoakum. "I want to get back and stay in Yoakum full-time and be closer to family."

Behrens, a Texas A&M University civil engineering graduate, is a quiet man and has not served as a leading spokesman for the agency's controversial toll road push. Williamson has filled that role in large part, and he has been the main target of criticism.

Through the 20th century, the department had been a pay-as-you-go organization, building roads sections at a time as gas tax revenue and fees brought in money. But under Gov. Rick Perry and his appointees to the commission, particularly Williamson, the agency has increasingly shifted to relying on toll roads and borrowed money to speed up construction.

The changes have stirred up public opposition and, this session, concerted pushback by the Legislature.

Behrens, given his long association with the department's traditional approaches, was an appropriate figure to lead the agency in a time of change, Williamson said.

"Mike was fabulously cooperative in the transition from the old TxDOT to the new TxDOT," Williamson said. "He understood wisely that there had to be a link between the two, so that staff and the people who contract with TxDOT would have some comfort."

Behrens wanted to retire a year ago, Williamson said, but stayed on as a favor to Williamson and Perry, who thought his good relationships with legislators would be helpful in the session just ended.

"He leaves on extraordinarily good terms," Williamson said. "The department's door will be open to him forever."

State law requires that the executive director's position be filled by a registered professional engineer "experienced and skilled in highway construction and maintenance," and the 90-year-old agency typically has promoted from within.

Behrens was the agency's assistant executive director for engineering operations before getting the top spot.

That position is currently held by Amadeo Saenz. The deputy executive director is Steve Simmons.

The five-member commission, appointed by Perry, hires the executive director. Officials said the commission, still absorbing changes in transportation law made by the Legislature, will take its time finding a replacement for Behrens best-suited to the evolving transportation scene.

Behrens was asked if he might work in the private side of the highway industry, a common path for those who leave the state Transportation Department.

Behrens wouldn't rule that out for down the road.

"Nobody can predict what's going to happen a year or two from now," Behrens said. "The price of gas may go to $6, and I might to go do something else just to pay the gas bill."; 445-3698

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