Wednesday, January 02, 2008

"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.

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