Friday, January 04, 2008

"We need someone who is going to say 'no' to some of this crazy stuff, like selling our highway systems and making them into toll roads."

McReynolds gets last-minute opponent in state House race

January 04, 2008

Lufkin Daily News
Copyright 2007

An East Texas businessman on Wednesday filed to run against state Rep. Jim McReynolds (D-Lufkin) in the November general election.

Republican Van Brookshire, 40, a facilities and construction manager who lives on a ranch near Coldspring, filed the paperwork with the state Republican party to contest McReynolds, who has held the office for six terms.

A story in Thursday's paper indicated that McReynolds would be running unopposed, as the GOP's site did not list any candidate for Texas House District 12 — which serves four counties, including Angelina — as of late Wednesday night.

Brookshire, who said he filed at noon Wednesday, ran for the state Senate in 2000, losing in the primary election, and for the U.S. House in 2002, losing to Democrat Jim Turner.

"In each one, I've learned," he said Thursday. "I've made friends and contacts. I'm older and wiser now, too."

Brookshire said he has been considering re-entering the political arena for some time.

"I had been thinking about it for the better part of a year, or even longer than that," he said. It was contemplating the futures of his three young children, ages 12, 8 and 4, that made him decide to go forth, he said. "I want a voice in the future of Texas and what Texas becomes. My goal is to make East Texas a better place to live and work."

Although, he said, he has nothing against McReynolds, "It's time for a change."

A 1990 agricultural economics graduate of Texas A&M University who worked his way through college, Brookshire has owned several small businesses and served as the San Jacinto County Republican chairman for a year.

"My business background is setting up budgets, managing large budgets and creating a lot of jobs for people," Brookshire said. He was also appointed by the San Jacinto County Judge to temporarily fill in, while the judge recuperated from an illness. The judge who appointed Brookshire was a Democrat, and that bipartisanship is something Brookshire is counting on to make his campaign a success.

"I have lots of friends who are Democrats," he said. "It's not about parties. It's about having conservative ideas, wanting lower taxes, lower property taxes, and going back to the core beliefs we have drifted away from. It's about keeping people's money in their pockets and letting them spend it the way they want — not taxing people and then calling it something else."

Taxes and immigration issues will be on the forefront of Brookshire's campaign, he said.

"I think we need someone who is going to fight harder for things for East Texas and lower taxes," he said. "Immigration is a concern, and we need someone who is going to say 'no' to some of this crazy stuff, like selling our highway systems and making them into toll roads. Some of the things I hear coming out of our Legislature are just insane. I want to go over there and make a difference."

Also on his agenda is education, he said. Brookshire's wife of 14 years, Kristi, is a teacher, and his mother and mother-in-law are both retired teachers.

Subscribing to the belief that "you don't have the right to complain if you're not going to do something about it," Brookshire said he intends to work hard on his campaign in order to bring a conservative voice to East Texas.

"I think it's time for East Texas to have conservative representation," he said. "I want to fight for conservative values. We need a new, fresh energetic voice fighting for East Texas."

On the Web: Brookshire can be reached by e-mail at

Denise Hoepfner's e-mail address


© 2007 Lufkin Daily News:

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"Likely Williamson’s core policy themes will become priorities for his successor."

Ric Williamson Death Leaves Void at TxDOT

Jan 4, 2008,

by Will Lutz
Volume 12 Issue 19
The Lone Star Report
Copyright 2008

The tributes that flowed to former transportation commissioner Ric Williamson, who died Dec. 29 at 55, can’t disguise the magnitude of the challenges his successor faces -- how to find political support for the governor’s toll road policies, given the current political climate.

Said Gov. Rick Perry: “Anita and I are heartbroken at this sudden loss of a confidante, trusted advisor, and close personal friend of ours 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. He will be missed beyond words. “

Perry and Williamson served together in the Legislature during the 1980s, when both were part of a group of lawmakers called the “Pit Bulls,” on account of their focus on cutting government spending. Williamson was a key behind-the-scenes player in several of Perry’s statewide campaigns.

It was not surprising that Perry, on becoming governor, tapped Williamson for Commissioner of Transportation (also known as chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission). The two men shared a vision for how to move the state forward, using toll roads as the financing mechanism for new road construction.

Williamson’s legacy will likely be his blunt, realpolitik assessment of the state’s transportation financing dilemma. The cost of building roads had risen quickly over time. Yet the Legislature had diverted gas tax money to non-transportation uses and showed – still shows — no sign of losing its addiction to that source of revenue. Williamson said the state would need a new source for funding roads, as gas tax increases couldn’t pass the Legislature. For Williamson, that new source of funding was toll roads.

But what happens now? Likely Williamson’s core policy themes will become priorities for his successor. Perry is firmly on board with the policy that new freeways should be toll roads. He believes in private-sector involvement in financing those roads.

That said, the choice for Williamson’s successor could be one of the most important decisions of Perry’s third term.

Williamson was a controversial figure who drew criticism from lawmakers in 2007. Many of the obituaries in Texas newspapers characterized the controversy surrounding Williamson and TxDOT as a negative reaction to tolling and toll roads.

That is part of the story, but not the whole story. Yes, some Texans oppose toll roads generally, and they have vocally criticized the current commission. But much of the controversy surrounding the department is not over whether to toll but how to to do it.

That makes Perry’s appointment potentially crucial. The last Legislature reined in the Texas Department of Transportation in 2007 largely because a critical mass of opposition had surfaced: the anti-toll folks; rural Texans who objected to what they viewed as excessive use of the government’s powers of eminent domain; and local toll authorities who found TxDOT arrogant in its dealings with them.

For local officials, the tipping point was TxDOT’s attempt to take away and privatize local toll projects, along with commission attempts to demand higher tolls and more revenue than local leaders thought appropriate.

The new commissioner will have a choice: work with local leaders — legislators, county commissioners, etc. — or continue to pick fights with them.

A commissioner who chooses a cooperative strategy that empowers local communities could salvage key elements of the Perry-Williamson transportation policies. If the agency continues to feud with local toll authorities, the Legislature will likely dismember the commission and restructure the agency in 2009, when it undergoes Sunset review.

© 2007 The Lone Star Report:

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"Your chance to join the salmon run may be in the planning stages even now."

Turning Asphalt Into Salmon Runs

How Politicians conspire with owners of private highways to make you pay—twice.

January 2008

Patrick Bedard
Car And Driver Magazine
Copyright 2008

The topic of privately owned toll roads just won’t go away. So lets take another look.

Why would somebody buy a toll road? I explored that question in my November column. The answer: because the owner gets the money that motorists cough up in tolls.

Today’s question: why would a motorist cough up to drive on a toll road? That’s easy: to get somewhere he can’t go on a free road, or, more likely, to get there with less agony.

Now, let’s go back to the owner’s side. In order to harvest more cough-ups, what would it take to pile more agony in the paths of motorists who choose to avoid a toll road? I can think of a few dirty tricks. Hire a couple of freelancers to fake breakdowns during rush hours. Other days, they could lose mattresses off the backs of pickups, something that would cause chaos in traffic but no damage to anything but the mental health of commuters.

This is risky though: How would you keep these low-wage mischief makers from talking?

What you need is an accomplice with authority to block the road. Now, if you could make a deal with the government…. nah, the government always acts for the good of the people.

Yeah, right. Drivers in Austin, Texas noticed a disturbing coincidence just as segment three of the privately owned State Highway 130 Toll road opened for business in 2007—the free roads they had been driving on suddenly clogged up. An extra traffic signal appeared in State Highway 71. And U.S, 183 Liberty Hill traffic was shunted to a frontage road with—ta da! —a new stoplight.

No problem with avoiding this impediment. Take 183A, which just happens to be another toll road.

You bet there were complaints. A spokesman for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority—this is a tolling agency—answered by saying that the toll road is now “the primary corridor for traffic in that area.”

Just part of the plan, Ma’am.

It’s a lucrative plan, too. Citizens complain of toll rates as high as 1.50 a mile. It’s also a bare-faced bait-and-switch scheme by the planners. Just like light rail and other mass transit flimflams, this deal was floated with the promise that it would ease traffic on existing roads. Sure did! But only because they were intolerable.

Although the public is always kept in the dark until its too late, hobbling the free-road alternatives is SOP in these public-private toll roads. Read all about it in the contract’s noncompete clause.

When the last segment of the E-470 toll road opened in 2003 around Denver, Colorado, motorists in Commerce City were surprised to find that the speed limit in nearby Tower Road dropped from 55 mph to 40. Shiny new traffic signals also spouted up at 96the, 104th, and 112th avenues.

It took three years for irritated locals to ferret out the noncompete clause in the original contract between the state and the private toll agency. It demands the speed-limit reduction and the three new signals—and forbids all improvements to Tower Road before 2008 that would cause E-470 tolls to “be materially impaired or reduced.”

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “non-compete clauses have been key components of agreements between states and consortia” that build toll roads. “financial markets require assurances as part of the bonding agreement that competing facilities within the same travel corridor will not be built,” said the Colorado Department of Transportation.

The most notorious noncompete was surely the one negotiated between the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) and the California Private Transportation Company for building what are now called the 91 Express Lanes from Anaheim east about 10 miles to the Riverside County line, it forbade improvements out to year 2030 to the Riverside Freeway, which runs alongside. No mass transit could be built in that corridor either.

When motorists found out the gotcha side of this deal, protest forced the state to buy back the venture in 2002 for 207.5 million. It now operates without the no-improvements clause.

Toll roads are about the money, and governments are eager participants. They increase their harvest by jacking up lease fees, which private investors are happy to pay in exchange for the guarantee of more salmon flowing through the gates.

Your chance to join the salmon run may be in the planning stages even now. A number of states are scheming to set up toll booths on interstate highways. Pennsylvania announced a $3 million contract with McCormick Taylor to set up a system to track and record every car on interstate 80 for billing purposes. This is the same McCormick Taylor that has been pumping campaign donations into the coffers of Governor Edward Rendell and then Speaker of the House John Perzel.

Watch out for Maine, too. Lawmakers in that state have put forward a plan for tolls on sections of interstates 95 and 295 that have always been free roads. Such a scheme will require federal approval, but the fix is already in—the last highway bill set up a pilot program allowing these existing interstate facilities to be converted to tolls. Already, states are crowding in line to grab those three openings. Texas has been spending gas tax money on a PR campaign, “Keep Texas Moving,” to drum up public support for toll roads.

Now that we know how the government easily conspires with owners of private toll roads to funnel us through the toll gates, here’s the question we salmon should be asking about the future of government-owned toll roads: Will bottlenecks be thrown up on the competing “free roads,” a quaint term for the highways we’ve already paid for once?

Read the Author's Companion Article: 'Turning Asphalt Into Gold'

© 2008 Car & Driver:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Rick Perry snipes at critics of toll road policy and the TTC in Ric Williamson's eulogy

Gov. Perry remembers transportation chief Ric Williamson

January 3, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

WEATHERFORD -- Gov. Rick Perry remembered his friend, the late Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson, as a deeply loyal, courageous and passionate Texan.

"When a genius comes into the world you will know him by this sign: Dunces will be in confederacy against him," said Mr. Perry, quoting satirist Jonathan Swift in describing Mr. Williamson.

The governor, a former Austin roommate and longtime friend of Mr. Williamson's, spoke at an memorial service held in the Weatherford High School auditorium on Thursday. Mr. Williamson died of a heart attack Sunday. He was 55.

Several hundred gathered to say goodbye and listen to stories about Mr. Williamson's colorful life. Mr. Perry and others who served in the Texas House recalled the late night lectures, fondness for flip charts and absorption of details -- not to mention a heavy Camel cigarette habit and love of guns -- that characterized living and working with Mr. Williamson, who has kept an apartment in Austin for more than 20 years.

"Because he was my friend, he believed in me," the governor said in a eulogy. "He stood by me in every fight. We'll miss him greatly."

Also speaking were longtime friends, former Texas House colleagues and Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, the sprawling state agency for which Mr. Williamson's commission had set policy.

“It is difficult to believe that we have begun the new year without our chairman at the helm," Mr. Saenz said. "Governor Perry, you will appoint a successor to Ric Williamson, but no one can really take his place.”

Mr. Saenz recalled that Mr. Williamson's tenure as chairman coincided with a period of enormous change -- and controversy -- for the agency.

“With a roll of mints and a love of good discussion, he produced some of the longest meetings of the Texas Transportation Commission on record," he said. "What seemed like an endurance race to many people was a genuine effort to produce discussion and attention for the issues that he thought would shape the fate of his children and mine.”

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

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"Carlyle's new fund allows big foreign investors to purchase America's infrastructure indirectly. "

Soon, Roads Could Start Tolling for Carlyle


Thomas Heath and David Cho
Washington Post
Copyright 2008

Someday, the Carlyle Group may want to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. For real.

The District buyout firm has raised $1.15 billion for an infrastructure fund that it will use to partner with federal, state and local governments in running vital public projects in the United States, including water and sewer systems, bridges, tunnels, highways and airports.

From the long lines at Dulles International Airport to Capital Beltway traffic and Loudoun County growth pains, Carlyle and other investment firms see themselves as part of the solution for governments facing declining tax revenues and a troubled municipal bond market that has left them unable to complete or repair billions of dollars in public works projects.

A group of private firms closed a deal recently to build high-occupancy vehicle toll lanes on the Beltway in Virginia. And Carlyle would love to participate in an expansion of Interstate 270 in Montgomery County that could ease traffic congestion, said Robert Dove, who is co-managing Carlyle Infrastructure Partners, as the fund is known. Dove says his team can run most airports, highways and water systems better than the public authorities and governments now doing the job, and make a profit for investors to boot.

Carlyle would even consider putting money into the controversial Dulles Rail project, which does not have money from private sources. "If Governor Tim Kaine and state and local leaders decide to move ahead with private investment, as the hometown firm, Carlyle would be particularly interested in partnering with them and committed to the project's success," Barry Gold, a Carlyle managing director, said yesterday.

But transportation analysts say they expect opposition to the idea of government handing over key roads, ports and utilities to profit-driven private firms that do not have to disclose much about their business. The issue is also raising questions over who would be responsible for the security and safety of such projects.

An attempt by DP World, a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates, to buy the port management businesses at major U.S. seaports two years ago incited widespread political opposition over security concerns, leading DP World to withdraw.

Carlyle's new fund allows big foreign investors to purchase America's infrastructure indirectly. Last summer Carlyle sold a 7.5 percent stake to the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi for $1.35 billion. But Abu Dhabi has no say in Carlyle's day-to-day operations or investment decisions, Carlyle officials say.

Carlyle is already under attack from the Service Employees International Union over its takeover of the Manor Care nursing home chain, which SEIU has called a relentless pursuit of profit. James Bellessa, a utilities analyst with D.A. Davidson & Co., in Seattle, said Carlyle can expect similar opposition from unions and politicians if it starts buying the nation's infrastructure.

"How do they feel about a bunch of billionaires making a buck off roads and bridges and ports that municipalities built?" Bellessa said, voicing the view of critics. "Isn't there a concern that the drive for profit might outweigh public safety, security issues or even whether public employees could get fired? It raises issues of national security and safety as well as whether Carlyle could run it better."

Dove said, however, that unions could benefit from construction jobs on projects that might not have been built without the aid of private capital. He pointed out that union and public employee pensions will invest and profit from the fund, and governments will always oversee security and quality of service. "It's not like they are handing over the keys and walking away," Dove said. "These are long-term partnerships."

Carlyle, with more than $75 billion in assets under its control, views its foray into infrastructure as a low-risk way to make annual returns of about 15 percent. That is well below the high-flying profits Carlyle has earned from some of its traditional buyout funds. But turmoil in the credit markets has squeezed returns on Wall Street, and many of Carlyle's clients are seeking low-risk, lower-return investments.

The company hasn't sealed any infrastructure deals yet, but a spokesman said several are in the works.

"What we bring is capital," Dove said. "Maryland could raise taxes, put up sales tax and raise municipal bonds to build the intercounty connector. An alternative could be to say to the private sector, 'You build that, you run it in partnership with us and we [Maryland] will use the money to build schools, hospitals or health-care facilities.' Virginia is a state that does this now."

Carlyle raised the $1.15 billion for its infrastructure fund in 15 months from clients around the world. That money will allow Carlyle to borrow another $2.5 billion from banks to buy infrastructure. The firm hired John Flaherty, who was senior assistant to then-Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, to help run the operation and look for opportunities to partner with utilities and transportation agencies.

Preference for Partnership

Some toll roads, such as the Dulles Greenway, are owned and managed by private companies. But the push by private equity is different because buyout firms prefer to partner with municipalities rather than run the projects on their own. This type of relationship is more appealing to state and local governments and is expected to spark the privatization of huge swaths of infrastructure, transportation analyst say.

"The word is spreading and the climate of opinion has changed significantly in the last five years or so in that the public accepts tolls now much more readily than they used to," Ken Orski, who writes a newsletter on transportation and has worked in the field for more than three decades. "They don't necessarily love them, but view them as inevitable given the shortage of funds and the public's dislike of increasing the gas tax."

In October, Australia's Macquarie Bank led a foreign consortium that purchased Puget Energy in the Pacific Northwest, which regulators are expected to approve. In the first privatization of an existing U.S. road, Macquarie in 2005 led a group that paid the city of Chicago $1.83 billion for the right to operate and maintain the Chicago Skyway, a 7.8-mile toll road, for 99 years.

Other big Wall Street firms, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Bros., have made deals or are looking for similar ones for their investors, most of whom are pension funds, foreign governments, endowments and wealthy families and individuals.

Private companies have been running toll roads throughout Europe for decades. Toll roads in France, Italy and Portugal -- and increasingly Eastern Europe -- have turned to private firms to finance infrastructure. The Chunnel, the tunnel that runs under the English Channel, is also partly financed with private money.

"Private-equity funds invested heavily in public purpose infrastructures in Europe," Orski said. "Toll roads, water systems and other utility-like assets produce predictable streams of revenue, and this is what private equity is looking for."

Trading Contracts for Cash

As the U.S. highways age and the costs of repairing infrastructure exceed the revenue from highway trust funds, public authorities are looking to partner with private firms such as Macquarie to get upfront cash.

Virginia has been at the forefront of public-private partnerships for transportation projects, entering into long-term operations and maintenance contracts with private companies in return for upfront cash.

One project that appears off the table for now is Dulles Rail. Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer said yesterday that he has received numerous unsolicited proposals and expressions of interest from private equity firms who want to run the project after it is built. But state officials turned them down and gave control of the project to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which is responsible for overseeing its financing and construction. The authority could bring private partners into the Dulles Rail project later, Homer said.

Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation Barbara W. Reese said her office typically seeks to finance 20 percent of its needs through public-private partnerships.

The department finalized agreements on Dec. 20 with private operators for a $1.4 billion project, including $409 million in public money, to expand the stretch of the Capital Beltway between Springfield and the America Legion Bridge.

The project includes 56 miles of roadway and high-occupancy vehicle toll lanes. It is due to open around 2013 and will be run by a consortium that includes Fluor, a private U.S. company, and a U.S. subsidiary of Australian company Transurban.

Reese said the state sets performance standards and technical requirements that the private investors must adhere to throughout the life of the contract. Unforeseen events such as weather, earthquakes or the collapse of a bridge that raise liability issues are dealt with jointly through the agreement.

"To have a private partner that is willing to help you with that is a good thing," Reese said. "It's like a marriage. You have to work together."

© 2007 The Washington Post:

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

"This corridor is a top priority, not only for TxDOT but for Gov. Perry as well."

Despite Losing Leader, Trans Texas Corridor Moving Ahead.


Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2008

DALLAS -- Texas will move ahead with plans for the Trans Texas Corridor in early 2008, despite the loss of the project's leading promoter and a partial moratorium on private development of toll highways.

Texas Transportation Commission chairman Ric Williamson, a close ally of Gov. Rick Perry in promoting the TTC, died Saturday of a heart attack. The formerly five-member commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, is expected to continue with one of the board members acting as chairman until Perry names a replacement.

"This corridor is a top priority, not only for TxDOT but for Gov. Perry as well," said Ned Holmes, a TTC member. "We've met with leaders along the corridor in recent weeks explaining the work we have under way to accelerate this long-overdue project. The I-69 corridor has been a work in progress for the past 16 years, and it is high time we pour some concrete. In fact we are ready to proceed to the next step."

The so-called corridor is actually a network of highways and rail lines designed to relieve congestion on tax-funded interstate highways while speeding commercial traffic to and from the Mexican border. While one highway will parallel Interstate 35, another, known as Interstate 69, will carry traffic across far South Texas to Houston and northbound to eventually connect with the existing I-69.

Plans for the 650-mile Texas section of I-69 call for use of existing highways before acquiring new right-of-way, according to a draft environmental impact statement released in November.

Beginning Jan. 15, TxDOT will hold 11 town hall meetings followed by 46 public hearings starting Feb. 4.

"We want to hear the public's ideas and we want to answer their questions," said TTC member Ted Houghton. "It is their comments that will help shape the final decisions."

Last month, TxDOT issued a formal request for proposals to two private developer teams on how to finance, design, construct, operate, and maintain I-69. The teams, which submitted initial proposals last year, are ZAI ACS TTC-69 and Bluebonnet Infrastructure. ZAI ACS TTC-69 is led by Zachry American Infrastructure Inc. and ACS Infrastructure Development Inc. Bluebonnet Infrastructure is led by Spanish developer Cintra, which is also working on another section of the TTC between Austin and San Antonio.

Both teams must submit their proposals by March 5.

Williamson was the leader in the fight to tap private funding to build transit projects in Texas, as tax revenues and federal dollars fell increasingly short of the state's needs.

The search for a long-term private partner to finance and develop I-69/TTC is separate from environmental study, which Perry accelerated in 2002 with a streamlined review process.

I-69/TTC was designated a high priority corridor 16 years ago but lacked the billions of dollars in funding needed. Legislation passed in 2003 allowed TxDOT to pursue the project more vigorously.

In December 2005, Perry announced an ambitious plan to partner with the private sector to develop an interstate-quality highway corridor from Northeast Texas, the Gulf Coast, and the Rio Grande Valley. Perry proposed new rail freight capacity, connections to ports, and links to industrial hubs from South Texas and the Midwest.

In the last session of the Texas Legislature, SB 792 placed a two-year moratorium on privately funded toll roads, but made exceptions for planning the I-69 project, among several others.

The decision to develop existing highways first was a result of public comments to date, said Amadeo Saenz, TxDOT executive director.

"We are doing what the public asked us to do and that is look at existing highways first," Saenz said, pointing to public comments urging a better, more direct connection between the Port of Corpus Christi and the inland port of Laredo.

"That is a possibility that deserves additional study and public input, so it is included in the refined study area," Saenz said.

"The Trans-Texas Corridor will connect the state's metro and urban areas without cutting through the hearts of our cities," Saenz said. "We will work with local officials to consider how existing highways will be used to connect urban areas to the corridor."

© 2008 The Bond Buyer:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


"Some Valley leaders complain that TxDOT is aggressively pushing them to consider private company toll roads."

Valley region first to grab road funds under new law

Hidalgo County to finance project with tax revenues from development of new highway

Jan. 2, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — A multibillion-dollar backlog of needed highway projects around Texas has local communities scrambling for innovative ways to finance road construction.

The Rio Grande Valley appears to be the first Texas region planning to take advantage of a new state law that allows a portion of increased tax revenues spurred by development along a new highway to be used to pay off road construction bonds.

That's money not available for a county's general-purpose use for 25 years, or whatever the life of the bond. But without development that new highways bring, those additional tax revenues would not be there at all.

Hidalgo County leaders are planning the first phase of a highway project that will loop truck and other traffic around the western end of the county.

The loop's first, 38-mile section should be finished in about five years, including two years worth of planning, designing and environmental work.

Enhanced tax base

The first phase will cost an estimated $650 million, with about $200 million coming from the new Transportation Reinvestment Zone concept, which allows for a portion of the enhanced tax base from development along the highway to be used for paying off bonds.

"Other than TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation) reinvesting in South Texas, which they are supposed to be doing, this is the answer," Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas. said. "I'm not going to sit here and just cry and not have any results. We will just have to put our destiny in our own hands and invest in ourselves, and this is a creative way to do it."

Hidalgo County residents also will pay a $10 surcharge for vehicle registrations to help finance the transportation loop. Tolls also will be part of the financing mix.

The county is one of the fastest growing areas in the U.S. By the 2010 census, Hidalgo County will have an estimated 850,000 residents, compared to 500,000 in 2000, Salinas said.

"Knowing that, we need to make sure to invest in infrastructure, and we are way behind," Salinas said. "We are the only metropolitan area in the nation without an interstate."

Citing TxDOT statistics, Salinas said, 88 percent of traffic over the Pharr Bridge will go to Corpus Christi or to Houston. "The key to getting the traffic congestion out of our city is to have a (San Antonio) 410 or (Houston) 610 type of loop and get it around the city and into Corpus Christi and Houston."

Revenue generator

The new Transportation Reinvestment Zone concept creates another revenue source that makes projects such as the western Hidalgo County loop more financially predictable, said Gerry Pate, founder and chairman of Houston-based Pate Engineers, lead partner in a coalition building the highway. "People will be real interested in the financing plan and how it works," Pate said of the reinvestment zone. "It's a little different in that we are using a TRIZ in combination with other sources of financing. I believe ultimately the TRIZ would generate more revenue than it would take to finance this project."

Some Valley leaders complain that TxDOT is aggressively pushing them to consider private company toll roads. Those arrangements typically produce up-front payments from private companies, which collect tolls and keep control of the highway in exchange for their risk.

"They are putting pressure on the RMA (regional mobility authority) and on the commissioners' court to take that route and to them, I say, 'Baloney,' " state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said. "There's a role for private companies to play but not to the point that we are giving up our transportation system to the control of private enterprise. They are there to make a profit, not to take care of the public need."

But Mario Jorge, district engineer of TxDOT's Pharr district, said private toll roads make sense for some projects deemed too risky for the public sector. Jorge said the department is "not dictating" on how Valley leaders should finance the loop, which will cost more than $1 billion when completed and carry border traffic to both U.S. 281 and U.S. 77.

© 2007 Houston Chronicle:

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To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE


Eighty New Toll Roads and a Funeral

Ric Williamson remembered at Weatherford High School

Gov. Perry, others praise fallen state transportation chairman

January 03, 2008

Galen Scott
The Weatherford Democrat
Copyright 2008

At the front of a quiet, dimly-lit auditorium inside Weatherford High School Thursday, Gov. Rick Perry and other friends eulogized the late Ric Williamson.

Perry borrowed a quote from author Jonathan Swift to describe Williamson, who, as chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, was often at the center of controversy.

“When a genius comes into the word, you will know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him,” Perry recited. “Jonathan Swift didn’t know Ric Williamson, but he pegged him.”

Williamson, 55, was pronounced dead on Sunday after suffering an apparent heart attack while at home in Weatherford.

After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974, Williamson moved to Weatherford and co-founded RAW Energy. Later, he started his own natural gas production company, MKS Consulting, which continues to operate locally.

Williamson spent 14 years representing Parker and Wise Counties in the State Legislature. In 1998, he decided not to seek another term and Perry made him a transportation commissioner in 2001. He was named the commission’s chairman three years later.

Perry recalled the days when he and Williamson shared an apartment as freshman legislators in the mid-1980s. After a long day in committee meetings, Perry described how he and his other legislator roommates would want to, “kick back and watch football with a cold one.”

“Nope,” Perry said. “Here comes Ric with a flip chart giving a lesson on how the world ought to be. He would challenge us, he would tease us, he would sometimes even lecture us.”

The Governor compared his relationship with Williamson to the bond between soldiers on a battlefield.

“He was like a brother to me,” Perry said.

Perry claims Williamson was the person who convinced him to run for Lt. Governor.

“One-on-one, he was probably the most persuasive individual I’ve ever been around in my life,” Perry said.

A series of speakers, including Williamson’s daughters, Melissa, Katherine and Sara, shared personal memories with an audience full of dignitaries, friends and employees of Williamson’s business, MKS Consulting.

Williamson’s friends described him as a lover of debate who enjoyed crashing two divergent viewpoints together. They said he was heavy smoker who sometimes tried to solve the world’s problems late at night.

Amadeo Saenz, executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation, remembered Williamson handing out assignments printed on recycled well logs.

“I’m hear to say goodbye to a boss, a teacher and a mentor, and most importantly a very good friend,” Saenz said. “It’s difficult to believe that we began the year without a chairman at the helm. Governor Perry, you are going to name a successor to Ric Williamson, but no one can really take his place.”

Williamson’s efforts to bring private investment into large-scale transportation projects were widely criticized, especially among average citizens angry about proposed toll roads like the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Supporters tout Williamson’s ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking.

In his Sunday blog, Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly, acknowledged disagreeing with Williamson over some aspects of the Trans-Texas Corridor, but insists the pair always remained friends.

“Williamson had the most original mind that I have encountered in my years of covering Texas politics,” Burka wrote.

© 2008 The Weatherford Democrat:

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"Texans object to relying on private interests to build and operate public infrastructure, and they aren’t going away."

Moderate voice needed to steer highway system

January 3, 2008

The Editorial Board
Austin American-Statesman
Copyright 2008

2007 ended on a sad note for the family and friends of Ric Williamson, the chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission who died Sunday after a heart attack. Given his aggressive and often controversial role in reshaping Texas highway construction, his death leaves the state and Gov. Rick Perry with an important question about how to move forward after Williamson’s memorial service today.

Williamson, 55, a successful business owner and former state representative from Weatherford, was appointed to the transportation commission in 2001 by his good friend Perry and was named chairman in 2004. He became a passionate advocate of privatizing road construction, selling to companies the right to build, operate and collect tolls on new highways. Tolls also were favored for renovating and expanding existing highways.

The approach ran into criticism. In some places, such as the Austin area, many people were upset because they believed tolls were being slapped on highways they said had already been paid for with taxes, even if the tolls were to pay only for using new lanes or to finance local highway construction.

Others across the state were disturbed by the sale of one new highway project, part of the governor’s huge Trans-Texas Corridor proposal, to a partnership led by a Spanish company. Some didn’t like the idea of turning over highways to private companies, particularly foreign private companies.

Williamson was combative, and he had two heart attacks before the third killed him. He aroused anger among many legislators of both parties, not because he was a stout advocate for the governor’s policy, but because too often he did so in a way they took as contemptuous of them and their views.

In last year’s legislative session, the lawmakers struck back, putting restrictions on the privatization of highways, though exceptions were made. Fine, the transportation department responded late last year: There’s no more money for new highway projects.

Now Perry must find a new point man or woman for getting highways built. The governor appears likely to stick with his commitment to privatization and tolling and against raising the gasoline tax as a way to help finance construction of new roads and reconstruction of aging ones.

Texas needs better highways, but it has to pay for them. The gasoline tax, stuck at 20 cents a gallon since 1991, should be raised. Tolls also are a legitimate way to raise money, particularly on new highways or on lanes added to existing roadways. But a lot of Texans object to relying on private interests to build and operate public infrastructure, and they aren’t going away, especially those serving in the Legislature.

It’s time for the governor to appoint a skilled negotiator, not another lightening rod, to oversee new highway construction.

© 2008 Austin American-Statesman: www.

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Is there a 'Trans-Celestial Corridor?'

Ric Williamson's Last Toll Road

Ric Williamson2

© 2008

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"It's going to be a political position, so I don't have a whole lot of hope it's going to change much."

Houghton could be next transportation chairman


By Brandi Grissom, Austin Bureau
El Paso Times
Copyright 2007

AUSTIN -- The 7.4-mile stretch of highway that connects Fort Bliss to the city will be transportation chairman Ric Williamson's greatest legacy to El Paso, transportation commissioner Ted Houghton said today.

Houghton and a host of state officials, including Williamson's close friend Gov. Rick Perry, will attend a memorial service Thursday in Weatherford for the fiery leader who died Saturday at age 55. The first El Pasoan appointed to the commission, Houghton was also among those noted in Capitol circles as possible successors to Williamson.

Williamson was appointed to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2001 and was made chairman of the agency that oversees a multi-billion-dollar budget in 2004. He served in the Texas House from 1985 to 1998.

A passionate and outspoken proponent of building private toll roads to accommodate Texas' growing traffic crush, Williamson was both loved and loathed but was universally regarded as an intellectual giant.

"The guy was brilliant, he was insightful, he thought way ahead of most people," said Houghton, who joined the commission in 2003 and worked closely with Williamson to promote the transportation plan Williamson and Perry envisioned for Texas.

Houghton said Williamson and Perry helped expand plans for the Inner Loop, which will connect Loop 375 to U.S. 54 and include a new entrance to Fort Bliss, from a $50 million project into a $350 million project. The new highway was a linchpin in the U.S. Department of Defense decision to transfer tens of thousands of soldiers to Fort Bliss.

"Without the collaboration of Ric Williamson and the governor, that would have never happened," Houghton said.

Williamson also helped devise the Trans Texas Corridor plan, along with Perry. It has drawn the ire of anti-toll activists and of rural residents afraid huge swaths of farmland would be commandeered to make way for new roads and rails.

Legislators felt that wrath and during the 2007 legislative session held many a heated hearing with Williamson feeling the lashes of legislators working to rein in the agency's authority.

He remained steadfast to his argument that Texas was running out of money and looking to alternative funding sources was the only solution to keep up with traffic.

"Texas transportation issues and the governor's plan lost the best spokesman they had," said state Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso.

With many lawmakers still unhappy with the transportation agency, it faces a legislative review process this year that could result in major overhaul.

A timeline for appointing a commissioner to replace Williamson has not been established, said Perry spokeswoman Krista Moody.

Houghton's name was among a few whispered in Austin as potential candidates to take leadership at the agency.

He declined to comment on the matter today.

"In respect to Ric and his family, I'm not going to say anything about succession right now," Houghton said.

Harvey Kronberg, editor of the online political journal Quorum Report, said that although Houghton was a strong proponent of Perry's transportation policies, he might not get the nod.

"There is no name that seems to have a consensus," Kronberg said.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, often butted heads with Williamson and other commissioners over transportation policies.

He said new leadership wouldn't likely bring a revolution at the agency.

"It's going to be a political position, so I don't have a whole lot of hope it's going to change much," he said.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, said he hoped Houghton would become the next transportation leader.

"Ted Houghton is experienced, Ted Houghton is knowledgeable," he said. "Ted would make an outstanding chairman."

Brandi Grissom can be reached at; (512) 479-6606.

© 2008 El Paso Times:

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"There is too much at stake to stand idly by while TxDOT and others make decisions."

CBWC To Hold Informational Meetings

January 2, 2008

By: Trey Duhon
Citizens for a Better Waller County
Copyright 2007

Citizens for a Better Waller County will hold informational meetings for Waller County citizens on January 10, 2008 and January 16, 2008.

The purpose of these meetings will be to provide information to citizens about the federal Environmental study process, the current draft Environmental Impact Statement and the current proposed path of the TTC-69, and how to prepare for the upcoming TxDOT Town Hall and Public Hearings.

The meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the following locations:

Southern Waller County:

Thursday, Jan. 10, 2008 Pattison Volunteer Fire Department, 2950 F.M. 359N, Pattison, Texas. Map available HERE.

Northern Waller County:

Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 Carl's BBQ (backroom), 31315 F.M. 2920, Waller, Texas (Harlan's strip center). Map available HERE.

Based on the draft Environmental Impact Statement which was released in November of 2007, TxDOT is still intent on routing the TTC-69 through the center of Waller County.

The upcoming Town Hall meeting, and especially the Public Hearings, are going to be the primary method for Waller County citizens to voice their concerns and to provide input. It is essential that our citizens be prepared. There is too much at stake to stand idly by while TxDOT and others make decisions that will severely impact the quality of life in Waller County for generations to come.


Please join us on January 10th and/or the 16th.

Anyone interested in joining us in the fight against the TTC-69, please email us at or click HERE. Volunteers are badly needed to help keep Waller County citizens informed and prepared in the upcoming months.

Also, TxDOT has released a detailed map of the proposed route of the TTC-69 through Waller County that shows county roads. To view the map, click HERE. Please be patient, as the page is over 5 MB and may take several minutes to download.

© 2008 Citizens for a Better Waller County:

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"Williamson championed Perry's plans to use private funding for toll roads."

TTC Chairman Ric Williamson Sought New Way to Fund Transit.


Richard Williamson
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2008

DALLAS -- Richard F. "Ric" Williamson, chairman of the powerful Texas Transportation Commission, one of Texas' largest bond issuers, died of a heart attack Sunday at a Weatherford hospital. He was 55.

Williamson, who had survived two previous heart attacks while serving on the TTC, told Texas Monthly magazine in June, "I'm trying to avoid the third one, which the doctors tell me will be fatal."

Named to the five-member TTC board that supervises the Texas Department of Transportation in 2001, Williamson became chairman in January 2004.

As a close friend, former roommate, and political supporter of Gov. Rick Perry, Williamson had championed Perry's plans to use private funding for toll roads, including the massive Trans-Texas Corridor, envisioned as a $150 billion network of roads and rails for commercial traffic across the state.

Perry said that he and his wife Anita were "heartbroken at this sudden loss of a confidant, trusted adviser and close personal friend of ours 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. He will be missed beyond words."

Calling the chairman a "visionary," TxDOT executive director Amadeo Saenz said, "The entire TxDOT family will miss his dedication and his leadership."

State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee and author of SB 792 that realigned highway funding and imposed a two-year moratorium on the TTC's plans for privately funded tollways, praised Williamson's vision.

"In over 20 years of service to Texas, during a time of conflict and sweeping change, Ric Williamson exemplified courage, commitment, and dedication," Carona said.

Carona, who tangled with Williamson in the last legislative session and once called for his resignation, said even those who disagreed with the chairman respected him.

Under pressure from lawmakers and toll-road opponents, Williamson and the TTC were forced to backtrack on projects that involved private developers to build and operate toll projects. One of the most controversial was the $5 billion State Highway 121 project north of Dallas that was awarded to the private team of Cintra/JPMorgan in March. Under pressure from Carona, the TTC reopened the bidding to the North Texas Tollway Authority, a state entity that has operated previous toll projects in the area.

In June, the commission voted to give the project to NTTA. But NTTA was required to follow the same concession model as Cintra, paying $3.3 billion up front for the right to build the road. NTTA's offer surpassed Cintra's by nearly $1 billion.

Despite sometimes acrimonious relations with TxDOT, Paul Wageman, chairman of the NTTA, praised Williamson as "a vigorous force in transportation in Texas and beyond. He challenged TxDOT and other transportation providers throughout the state to approach mobility in new and creative ways. His passion for transportation policy has significantly impacted the manner in which transportation projects are developed in Texas."

Williamson, a native of Abilene, lived in the Fort Worth suburb of Weatherford. He served in the Texas Legislature from 1985 to 1998.

Perry and Williamson roomed together in an Austin apartment when they both served in the Legislature. Both were elected as Democrats before switching to the Republican Party that has since come to dominate the state.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974, Williamson went on to build his natural-gas production company.

Survivors include his wife, Mary Ann Williamson, three daughters, Melissa, Katherine, and Sara, 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.

© 2008 The Bond Buyer:

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"College grads might want to consider blue-collar careers."

College Not Necessary for Many New Careers

January 2, 2008

by Phyllis Schlafly
The Eagle Forum
Copyright 2008

U.S. News & World Report, which has made a name for itself by ranking and announcing the Best Colleges every year, is now ranking and listing the Best Careers for young people. A comparison of the latest lists shows a shocking disconnect and makes for dispiriting holiday reading.

While the price of a college education has skyrocketed far faster than inflation, many careers for which colleges prepare their graduates are disappearing. U.S. News' Best Careers guide concludes that "college grads might want to consider blue-collar careers" because B.A. diploma holders "are having trouble finding jobs that require college-graduate skills."

Incredibly, U.S. News is telling college graduates to look for jobs that do not require a college diploma. Among the 31 best opportunities for 2008 are the careers of firefighter, hairstylist, cosmetologist, locksmith, and security system technician.

Where did the higher-skill jobs go? Both large and small companies are "quietly increasing offshoring efforts."

Ten years ago we were told we really didn't need manufacturing because it can be done more cheaply elsewhere, that auto workers and others should move to Information Age jobs. But now the information jobs are moving offshore, too, as well as marketing research and even many varieties of innovation.

The flight overseas includes professional as well as low-wage jobs, with engineering jobs offshored to India and China. Thousands of bright Asian engineers are willing to work for a fraction of American wages, which is why Boeing just signed a 10-year, $1-billion-a-year deal with an Indian government-run company.

Society has been telling high school students that college is the ticket to get a life, and politicians are pandering to parents' desire for their children to be better educated and so have a higher standard of living. John Edwards wants the taxpayers to guarantee every kid a college education, and Mitt Romney says more education is the means for Americans to compete in a global economy.

But it doesn't make sense for parents to mortgage their homes, or for students to saddle themselves with long-term debt, in order to pay overpriced college tuition to prepare for jobs that no longer exist. Tuition at public universities has risen an unprecedented 51 percent over the past five years.

President Bush calls the loss of U.S. jobs "the pinch some of you folks are feeling." I guess his words are designed to show his "compassionate conservatism," but the reality is far more than a pinch.

U.S. News offers this advice for the nerds who still spend five to six years earning an engineering degree despite increasingly grim prospects of a well-paid engineering career: "Look for government work." Or maybe you can be an "Offshoring Manager" and be part of the process of shipping your fellow graduates' jobs overseas.

A Duke University spokesman said that 40 percent of Duke's engineering graduates cannot get engineering jobs. A Duke University publication suggests that the best prospect for good engineering jobs is for the U.S. government to start another major project like going to the moon.

U.S. News warns us that "government is becoming an employer of choice." Corporations are getting leaner, but government can continue to pay good salaries, with lots of vacation days, sick leave, health insurance and retirement benefits, because government rakes in more tax revenue in good times and can raise taxes in bad times; and if the Democrats win in 2008, we can expect government to expand even more.

Presidential candidates have gotten the message from grassroots Americans that we want our borders closed to illegal aliens. Headlines now proclaim "Immigration Moves to Front and Center of G.O.P. Race" and "G.O.P. Candidates Hold Fast on Immigration at Debate."

But G.O.P. candidates haven't yet gotten the message that jobs are just as big a gut issue as immigration. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey conducted December 14-17 reports that, by 58 to 28 percent, Americans believe globalization is bad because it subjects U.S. companies and employees to unfair competition and cheap labor.

Where are the limited-government fiscal-conservatives when we need them to refute the notion that the best an engineering graduate can hope for is a job with the government? Are the fiscal-conservatives too busy chanting the failed mantra of "free trade" even though it has resulted in millions of good American jobs being shipped overseas?

When are we going to call a halt to the way globalism is destroying U.S. jobs by foreign currency manipulation, theft of our intellectual property, shipping us poisonous seafood and toys, and unfair trade agreements that allow foreign subsidies (through the so-called Value Added Tax) to massively discriminate against U.S. producers and workers?

© 2008 The Eagle Forum

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Dallas Morning News lauds Ric Williamson and claims 'No one has been able to disprove the argument for building the TTC.'

Ric Williamson

Visionary leader made Texas a better place

January 2, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

The death of Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson means the passing of one of the state's most audacious and colorful personalities, one whose imprint will be felt for decades to come.

Mr. Williamson had already wrapped up a career of instigating in the Texas House when he assumed leadership of the transportation commission. He set out to confront other leaders with the difficult truth that Texas couldn't afford to build enough roads to keep up with explosive growth – unless it took radically different steps.

No one would disagree that Ric Williamson was unafraid to do things radically different. He attracted armies of detractors for his singled-mindedness in advancing an agenda for toll roads and private investment to build them. Absent that initiative, however, the state would have been guaranteed to fall further behind.

Mr. Williamson's most ambitious goal – the mammoth Trans-Texas Corridor intercity turnpike – remains too much for most Texans to fathom. It may not be built in time to benefit this generation of Texans, but no one has been able to disprove the argument for building it.

Ric Williamson was a visionary whose vision was always a matter of lively debate. Texas will miss his uncompromising dedication to making our state a better place.

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News Co

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

"There was only one Ric Williamson...The Governor [Rick Perry] has really leaned on Ric Williamson to take his hits for him."

Shift may loom in toll road debate

Push for higher gas tax could follow chief's death

January 1, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The death of Ric Williamson, the fiery, whip-smart chairman of the state transportation commission, could upend the still-roiling debate over toll roads in Texas in the new year.

Mr. Williamson died Saturday of a heart attack at age 55, sending shock waves through the nearly 15,000-employee department he led as well as the political and policy circles where his combative style and pro-toll-road agenda had engendered enormous change – and criticism.

Always careful to credit Gov. Rick Perry, a close friend and former roommate, Mr. Williamson emerged as a lightning rod in recent years as he pushed to let private companies build and operate toll roads throughout Texas.

"We are [expletive] running out of money," he told The News in a wide-ranging interview a week before his death, allowing his usual thoughtful, precise vocabulary to give way to frustration over continued resistance to the governor's toll road policies. "It absolutely boggles my mind how men and women elected to make courageous decisions in leading this state cannot focus on the simple fact that our congestion is rapidly approaching an intolerable level."

It was Mr. Williamson's sometimes-abrasive approach that has those who clashed with him hoping his successor will take a more conciliatory tone and a balanced approach to the state's problems. One of those critics, Sen. John Carona, D-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he is hoping that Mr. Williamson's successor will support raising state gas taxes to help reduce the need for tolls.

Even Mr. Williamson's supporters acknowledge that he often bruised feelings. Still, fellow members of the commission say he was indispensable.

"Ric was focused laser-like on the issues, well read and always researched things thoroughly," said commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso.

Mr. Williamson was focused on finding a way to pay for the new roads and added lanes that Texas' booming metropolitan areas need – even as such traditional revenues as gas taxes failed to keep up with costs. In general, new roads in Texas will have to be toll roads, Mr. Williamson said often in recent months.

Plenty of powerful voices have disagreed, however.

Last session, the Texas Legislature passed a partial moratorium on a centerpiece of Mr. Perry's strategy, slowing his plans to privatize toll roads. Mr. Williamson spent most of 2007 criticizing the moratorium as an example of fuzzy-headed legislative intrusiveness. But he also led a vigorous effort to work around the new rules, and within months of the session's close unveiled a list of more than 80 highway projects eligible for toll roads.

Those stormy debates are expected to carry into 2008.

A new panel will study the concept of private toll roads this year and report to the Legislature. In addition, and perhaps far more significantly, an independent sunset review commission will begin the top-to-bottom examination of TxDOT that all state agencies must undergo every 12 years.

No one expects the latter process to be free of conflict.

Mr. Carona said a new chairman will give TxDOT a less abrasive style.

"I think it will moderate the case for toll roads," Mr. Carona said. "Chairman Williamson was singular in his focus on the usage and expansion of toll roads. And as much as he will be missed, a change in leadership will undoubtedly result in a more multi-pronged approach."

A spokesman for the governor said Monday that it's far too early to comment on a replacement for Mr. Williamson, who was a close friend of Mr. Perry's for more than 20 years. Whoever is selected can begin serving immediately but will have to be confirmed by the state Senate next year.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano and a member of the transportation committee, said the sunset review panel's findings will help set the course for when the debate with the Legislature resumes in 2009.

"That commission is going to start meeting fairly quickly, and there will be some very creative and very innovative ideas that will come to the forefront," she said.

But the toll road debate won't be the same without Mr. Williamson, she and others said Monday.

"I think he was a very strong advocate for that [pro-toll-road] position," Ms. Shapiro said. "We probably won't have another chairman who will be as strong. But that doesn't mean that position and those ideas about toll roads and privatization will go away."

She's right, Mr. Williamson's fellow commissioners said Monday.

Mr. Houghton said Mr. Williamson and the governor had been pushing for private toll roads because they are a solution that works.

"All four of us are committed to this approach, and we understand the issues," Mr. Houghton said. "The issues are this: We are out of money."

Commissioner Ned Holmes of Houston agreed.

"We have to have a new methodology to fund our highway program," Mr. Holmes said, speaking in support of private toll roads. "The traditional ways of funding are just not adequate, and they are not likely to be. I don't believe those changes [embraced by TxDOT in recent years] will fall apart now."

He said higher gas taxes – the most often touted alternative to tolls – won't work, because rates would have to soar far beyond any acceptable level to provide the needed revenue. "That's not going to happen."

But Mr. Carona and others said more modest increases in the gas tax would greatly reduce, though not eliminate, the need for private toll roads in Texas.

Terri Hall, a grassroots activist who has led a citizens' group to sue TxDOT over its toll road push, said Mr. Williamson sometimes embraced a with-us or against-us approach when communities resisted his push for toll roads.

"I think you always knew where you stood with Ric Williamson," said Ms. Hall, whose group is called Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom. "You knew he was never going to back away from his position, no matter how many citizen concerns he heard. He'd stick to his gun no matter what."

She said she hopes the sunset review will recommend doing away with the commission and replacing the body with a single elected commissioner.

In the meantime, though, the dynamics of the toll road debate will change without Mr. Williamson. How much they change could depend on how involved Mr. Perry decides to be in pushing the policies he relied on Mr. Williamson to champion.

Mr. Carona said the governor will have to step up his involvement in the discussions if he wants to see his side advocated as strenuously as it has been by Mr. Williamson.

Ms. Hall agreed.

"I truly think there was only one Ric Williamson," Ms. Hall said. "How significantly his absence will affect the debate really is up to the governor. The governor has really leaned on Ric Williamson to take his hits for him."

© 2008 The Dallas Morning News Co

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