Monday, December 31, 2007

'Highway to Hell' tolls for 'King of the Road'

Ric Williamson, transportation chief who championed toll roads, dies

He championed toll roads for Perry, creating controversy

December 31, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

As chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, Ric Williamson made major and often controversial decisions about the future of state roads.

He died Sunday of a heart attack, at age 55, in his hometown of Weatherford, leaving a legacy as the hard-charging official that steered Gov. Rick Perry's divisive vision of toll roads across Texas into state policy.

It was stressful work, and Mr. Williamson suffered two heart attacks while serving. He had known his health was fragile.

"I'm trying to avoid the third one, which the doctors tell me will be fatal," he told Texas Monthly in a June article.

Mr. Williamson spent 13 years in the Texas Legislature, much of it fighting for sensible state spending, colleagues say. But in recent years, he was known as the torchbearer for Mr. Perry's plans to solve the state's traffic and infrastructure woes, namely by privatizing key roads including State Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties.

That policy, coupled with Mr. Williamson's take-no-prisoners style, sparked both praise and protest. Some called him a visionary, others an oligarch. Where some saw perseverance, others saw stubbornness.

But those who knew Mr. Williamson agree on at least one observation: He was smart and passionate.

"You could fight and you could argue and you could debate and you could complain, but at the end of the day, what I remember most about him was his passion," said state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano. "On every issue I ever dealt with him, he did it 150 percent."

Mr. Perry called him a trusted adviser and close friend for more than 20 years. "Ric's passion to serve his beloved state of Texas was unmatched, and his determination to help our state meets its future challenges was unparalleled," Mr. Perry said.

A native of Abilene, Mr. Williamson graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974 and went on to found a natural gas production company.

He went to the Legislature in 1985 a Democrat and left in 1998 a Republican. Serving on the House Appropriations Committee, he was one of the "Pit Bulls," conservative lawmakers (including Mr. Williamson's Austin roommate, Mr. Perry) who questioned how the state spent its money. He believed that agencies should get money based on the goals they set and met – not just based on what they ask for. That concept, performance-based budgeting, is used today.


Former state Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, befriended Mr. Williamson when they served together in Austin. He said Mr. Williamson preferred making good policy over playing politics.

"It's very hard, and that's why he was known as a maverick," Mr. Wolens said. "Very independent and very much a maverick, but always respected."

In the House, Mr. Williamson earned the nickname Nitro for his energetic and sometimes volatile temperament.

"Ric was always outspoken on everything. He just never kept things to himself, which made him such a joy to deal with," Mr. Wolens said.

Mr. Perry named Mr. Williamson to the five-member Transportation Commission in 2001. Three years later, he became its chairman. In that position, Mr. Williamson helped shape the state's road plans for the next 25 years.

The biggest calls for the Trans-Texas Corridor, a roadway that would parallel Interstate 35 and relieve congestion on that highway and others. Rather than have the state raise gasoline taxes or borrow money, Mr. Perry wants private companies to build the roads and charge tolls to pay for them.

Supporters say it's a smart idea that has inspired other states to pursue similar ventures. Opponents worry about the wide asphalt ribbons that would replace farms and ranches. And they say the state is making unilateral decisions and ignoring the wishes of local governments and communities.

That's been a criticism of the Highway 121 project. Led by Mr. Williamson, the Transportation Commission first awarded the project to Cintra, a Spanish company. But lawmakers revolted, demanding that the North Texas Tollway Authority be allowed to bid.

In June, the commission voted to give the project to NTTA. But Mr. Williamson and Mr. Perry still won the big fight: NTTA, a public agency, followed the private-market approach by paying $3.2 billion up front, much more than Cintra had proposed. And it will still be a toll road, like dozens of others planned for the state.

At that meeting, commissioners gave Mr. Williamson a street sign as the classic song "King of the Road" played.

Commissioner Ted Houghton presented the gift, declaring: "It says 'King of the Road Way,' and it's always one way."

David and Linda Stall run a grass-roots group called Corridor Watch, which opposes the corridor plan.

"We certainly disagreed philosophically, but I do honestly believe that he thought he was doing what was best for the state," David Stall said.

Added Linda Stall: "It's going to leave a huge vacuum in the whole transportation world in Texas for at least some period of time, just because he was doing all this with the force of his personality."

The fast pitch

Mr. Williamson's hobbies included hunting, fishing and supporting women's fast-pitch softball, according to an online biography. When his eldest daughter became interested in softball, Mr. Williamson, ever the man for detail, researched everything he could on the subject to help her do well in the sport.

"He learned every kind of pitch," his friend, Ron Lewis, said in June. "I don't know if Ric Williamson has ever winged anything in his entire life."

Mr. Williamson's survivors include his wife, Mary Ann Williamson of Weatherford; three daughters, Melissa Meyer of Weatherford and Katherine Strange and Sara Williamson, both of Houston; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Thursday at the Jerry Durant Auditorium at Weatherford High School. The family asks that any donations be made to the American Heart Association or the Alzheimer's Association.

Staff writers Michael Lindenberger and Jake Batsell contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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