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 www.dallasnews.com

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