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.

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