"Likely Williamson’s core policy themes will become priorities for his successor."
Jan 4, 2008,
by Will Lutz
Volume 12 Issue 19
The Lone Star Report
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.
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