Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"Toll roads — and private toll roads — will continue to be on the state’s agenda."

Perry's picks for Texas Transportation Commission highlight commitment to toll roads

April 30, 2008

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2008

A week after Gov. Rick Perry said in a speech that he’ll fight to keep toll roads at the center of any plans to solve Texas’ transportation needs, he proved it by naming his former chief of staff to lead the Texas Transportation Commission.

Mr. Perry also reached inside the board room of the North Texas Tollway Authority Wednesday, selecting that agency’s vice chairman to also serve on the five-member commission, which sets policy for the nearly 15,000-employee Texas Department of Transportation.

The new chairman is Mr. Perry’s former aide, Deirdre Delisi, 35 of Austin. Ms. Delisi replaces Hope Andrade of San Antonio, who had been serving as interim chairman.

The appointment of NTTA vice chairman William Meadows, a Fort Worth businessman, fills the vacancy left open by the December death of commission chairman Ric Williamson. By appointing Mr. Meadows, the governor satisfied demands by North Texas lawmakers who had insisted that the Dallas-Fort Worth area be represented on the commission.

Commissioners meet once a month, and often travel throughout the state. They are paid $15,914 per year.

Mr. Williamson was an old friend of Mr. Perry’s whose outsized personality had helped push TxDOT’s pro-toll road policies through several sessions of the Legislature, until they ran into a road block last session.

Like Mr. Williamson, Ms. Delisi is a close ally of the governor, and is expected to use relationships she built with lawmakers as the governor’s chief o staff to shepherd the agency through the 2009 session, which is expected to be no less bumpy than last year’s.

“Texas faces serious challenges in providing a transportation infrastructure that will sustain our state’s rapid pace of population and trade growth," Gov. Perry said in a statement. "I am confident (Mr. Meadows’ and Ms. Delisi’s) contribution to the commission will maintain the momentum of the late Commissioner Ric Williamson’s pioneering vision.”

Mr. Perry had been said to favor appointing Ms. Delisi months ago, but had been bogged down in discussions with her state senator, Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a leading critic of the transportation department.

Wednesday’s announcement indicates Sen. Watson has lifted those objections. In an interview last week, the senator complimented the governor for allowing him the time to meet several times with Ms. Delisi to discuss the approach she would bring to her new role.

In an interview just after her appointment, Ms. Delisi said she had promised to be honest, and make the agency more transparent.

“I have made a commitment to provide as much transparency as possible,” she said in an interview. “That is especially the case when it comes to the agency’s finances. People want to know how much money we have, where is the money coming from, how the money is being used.”

Toll roads — and private toll roads — will continue to be on the state’s agenda, she said, but she also said the commission will be looking for other solutions to build the new roads Texas needs.

“I am looking from a global perspective. I am not real interested in process, all I care about are results,” she said. “These solutions have to be come to us from a very cooperative approach. We want to see as many options on the table as possible.”

The appointment of Mr. Meadows takes the vice chairman of the one agency other than the Legislature with whom TxDOT has clashed most often, the NTTA, and makes him one of five members who will set transportation policy for all of Texas.

Mr. Meadows said his appointment forecasts a more harmonious approach. “I have a very good conversation with Gov Perry,” he said. “What I recognized first and foreman is that transportation is, if not the top priority, one of the very top priorities of this governor. These challenges are huge and must be met.”

He said he believes his appointment comes at a time when NTTA itself is looking for a more conciliatory approach with TxDOT, after nearly two years of bruising and highly visible clashes between the two.

“I think the board recognizes, and I know the commission does, that we need to work cooperatively,” Mr. Meadows said.

Those predictions will likely be tested not just in the Legislature, where NTTA and TxDOT are expected to fight over revisions to last session’s toll legislation, but also in the coming negotiations over the Trinity parkway, Southwestern Parkway and other North Texas-area toll projects.

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