Thursday, January 03, 2008

"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.

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