Monday, December 31, 2007

"His death marks an important crossroads for this state."

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Williamson, who led Texas toll road push, dies at 55

Transportation Commission chairman had been focus of criticism as public and the Legislature rebelled against private tollway push by Williamson and Perry.

December 31, 2007

By Ben Wear
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2007

Ric Williamson, the Texas Transportation Commission chairman and a take-no-prisoners advocate for his longtime friend Rick Perry's toll road policy, died early Sunday at a Weatherford hospital.

Williamson, 55, who had been on the five-member commission since 2001 and chairman since January 2004, died of a heart attack, said state Rep. Mike Krusee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Williamson had had two previous heart attacks.

Williamson represented the Weatherford area in the Texas House for 14 years, leaving in 1999. He and Perry, who served in the House during a good deal of Williamson's time there, roomed together in an Austin apartment during several legislative sessions. They both were initially elected as Democrats before switching to the Republican Party. And both were part of a group of legislators whose watch on the state budget drew a nickname: the Pit Bulls.

"Anita and I are heartbroken at this sudden loss of a confidant, trusted adviser and close personal friend of ours for more than 20 years," Perry said. "Ric's passion to serve his beloved state of Texas was unmatched and his determination to help our state meet its future challenges was unparalleled."

Williamson, born in Abilene, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas in 1974. He went on to build his natural-gas production company. His interests included hunting and fishing, and supporting women's fast-pitch softball.

Williamson's six-year term on the commission that oversees the Department of Transportation expired Feb. 1. But Perry had made no new appointment, and Williamson did not step down, so he was still serving as chairman in what amounted to overtime.

In his absence, commissioners will elect a chairman from among themselves. Perry, who appoints all members of the body, is expected to name a replacement for Williamson.

Williamson dominated discussion of Texas transportation policy for most of the past decade, holding forth at commission meetings in a uniquely ornate but straightforward style that sometimes infuriated opponents. He was foursquare behind granting private companies long-term leases to finance, build and operate publicly owned toll roads, an approach that he said would raise billions for other roads. Opponents suggested that such agreements give away too much control of public assets.

This year, the Legislature considered a ban on private toll-road leases before passing a measure that stopped them, albeit with exceptions.

The session was stormy for Williamson. State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, upset at what he called Williamson's failure to answer his requests to visit, called on Perry in January to replace Williamson on the commission.

Carona later softened his tone toward Williamson, who testified many times before legislative committees through the spring, often taking direct heat from lawmakers.

"I think we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ric Williamson for bringing transportation to the forefront," Carona said Sunday. "And no one, even his harshest critics, could deny what a leader he was on transportation issues. And though I did not always agree with him, I had tremendous respect for him."

After the latest changes in toll road laws occurred, Williamson and TxDOT spent months digesting what the legislation meant to the agency's cash situation and ability to build roads.

Their answer, delivered in late November, was that the loss of large concession payments from potential private toll road builders meant many projects would have to be indefinitely delayed. That conclusion had many other ramifications, among them throwing five proposed Austin-area projects into limbo. It also set off a new round of criticism of TxDOT and the commission.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of Carona's committee, was among the critics. Watson said Sunday of Williamson, "While many times I disagreed, sometimes strongly, with his methods and proposed solutions, I didn't doubt his intellect, creativity, conviction or dedication to the people of Texas.

"His death marks an important crossroads for this state I deeply hope all Texans can come together around the enormous challenges that drove him these last several years and find solutions that will secure the future of Texas."

In a June article, Texas Monthly called Williamson "the most hated person in Texas, public enemy number one to a million or more people." Williamson told political columnist Paul Burka, "I've had two heart attacks, and I'm trying to avoid the third one, which the doctors tell me will be fatal."

Though plenty of legislators and others took issue with Williamson's policy stands and his blunt approach, few questioned the horsepower of his intellect.

"Ric was the smartest and most farsighted person I'd ever seen in public life," Krusee said. "I learned so much whenever I was around Ric, and I don't just mean transportation policy."

David Stall, a Fayette County resident who founded CorridorWatch to oppose Perry and Williamson's Trans-Texas Corridor plan for 4,000 miles of cross-state tollways, gave credit to Williamson for good intentions.

"We always believed that he was doing what he thought was good for the state of Texas," Stall said. "And we respect that, although we have a differing opinion on how you get there."

Williamson is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, three daughters and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending Sunday.; 445-3698

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