Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Ric Williamson chafes over 'inordinate amount' of legislative oversight

Postcards from the Lege

Message Delivered


Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Ric Williamson didn’t exactly say that the Texas Transportation Commission will choose the North Texas Tollway Authority to build and operate the Texas 121 tollway when the commission meets Thursday. But that certainly seemed to be the implication.

Now, for Austin readers, most of them, this may seem like a Metroplex deal and not worthy of their attention. But the decision by Chairman Williamson and his four mates on the commission about who gets to build and operate the Texas 121 tollway will say a lot about how the commission will react to the legislative flogging they got this spring.

To back up a second, the commission decided in February that a private partnership headed by Spanish toll road builder Cintra had the best of several private bids to build the Collin County road. Cintra offered to pay Texas $2.1 billion up front and another $800 million over the next 50 years for the right to build the road and reap profits from it. Then North Texas legislators, abetted by advocates for the North Texas Toll Road Authority, went into gear, arguing that the authority had been shouldered aside and that the local government toll road agency in fact could offer a better deal.

In the end, the authority offered more up front — $2.5 billion — and about the same over time. Some analysts, looking at the overall Metroplex situation, said Cintra still was the best deal. The Regional Transportation Commission, the main transportation planning group for Dallas-Fort Worth, recommended the tollway authority. The commission will decide today who to let take the road.

“Because of the inordinate amount of legislative attention (Texas 121) got, the notion of local planning becomes a dominant strategy in making the decision,” Williamson said today in a briefing with transportation reporters. “I don’t think any of us are immune to a powerful senator calling and saying this is what we should be doing.”

Williamson said because it’s a purchasing decision he couldn’t come out and give a position today, but you get the picture.

Williamson and fellow commissioner Ned Holmes both said, however, that the big picture here is that a road that might not have been built for years is instead going to get built now, and the state will get a 10-digit check to boot.

“We all think this is wonderful, no matter what the decision is,” he said.

Williamson, prone to candor as he is, couldn’t resist a frank assessment or two of the legislative oversight, however.

“I’m not so sure that everyone who inserted himself in this process fully understood what he or she was doing at the time,” he said. Upon further reflection, he predicted, “an abundance of elected officials are going to wonder why they interfered in a contracting process that was well on its way to completion.”

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