North Texas politicians eulogize Ric Wiliamson as a "selfless visionary."
By GORDON DICKSON
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Ric Williamson was remembered by North Texas colleagues Sunday as a cool customer under pressure.
He didn't seem to mind being the frontman for the state's plans to relieve gridlock by building toll roads -- and the target of many anti-toll-road groups, including one that created www.firericwilliamson.com.
Williamson often brushed aside questions about whether his health or his many critics would force him to step down as transportation chairman.
He logged tens of thousands of miles traveling the state in his GMC Jimmy, attending transportation-related meetings large and small.
"He was headstrong but always cordial," said Oscar Trevino, North Richland Hills Mayor and chairman of the Regional Transportation Council, which conducts long-term planning for the Metroplex.
"He was a dominant figure in transportation, and he traveled all over the state. He didn't delegate that responsibility. He was comfortable making statements he felt he had to make. He didn't back down at all. He didn't get all red-faced."
Williamson strongly believed that injecting competition and market forces into the state's highway system would drive down the cost of building and maintaining roads. He spoke in big-picture terms, often shocking listeners with long-term predictions. He was fond of saying that in fewer than 50 years, the Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio areas would form a single megaregion and that it was his generation's responsibility to plan properly for that explosive growth.
He vehemently defended the Transportation Department's attempts to lease roads to private companies, many of them foreign-owned, saying he wanted investors -- not taxpayers -- to assume the financial risk of paying back debt issued on toll roads.
But Williamson also reluctantly compromised this year when he went along with the RTC's desire to have the North Texas Tollway Authority, not a private developer, build and collect tolls on Texas 121 north of Grapevine.
"In the long run, he came around to our way of thinking," Trevino said.
"He understood what the region wanted, and he backed the region on it."
Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, had lunch with Williamson, Carrollton Mayor Becky Miller and other regional leaders just a few weeks ago.
Williamson insisted on paying for his food.
"He politely explained that if you let someone buy you lunch, what are they going to expect in return?" Morris said.
"He had a strong commitment to his principles and absolutely no tolerance for folks who were operating in a self-serving mode," Morris said. "I think transportation is in good hands because of his leadership. You'll see dividends over the next 50 years because of his efforts."
Williamson embraced his role as a lightning rod, believing that the state would be in better shape long-term if today's residents frankly discussed the economics of transportation.
"I don't think it bothered him at all," Morris said.
"Leaders who fully comprehend their responsibilities, especially a person with these strong principles, they don't get shy when things get hot. When there's controversy, I think it almost recommits them."
Gordon Dickson, 817-685-3816
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