Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"We don't need ideologies and a fixation on 100-year privatized highways."

Perry's transportation picks trouble San Antonio officials

April 30, 2008

The Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2008

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry today named his former chief of staff and a North Texas tollway official to the state Transportation Commission, filling the vacancy left by Ric Williamson's death and replacing San Antonio member Hope Andrade.

Perry's appointment of past chief of staff Deirdre Delisi, 35, and Fort Worth insurance executive Bill Meadows, 55, who serves on the North Texas Tollway Authority, leaves South Texas without a member on the powerful panel.

The news of Andrade's departure was taken badly in San Antonio, where officials feel the city over the years has tended to lack a voice on the Transportation Commission and often has been shortchanged on highway funding.

"Of course, this is not good for us," Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. "She's going to be sorely missed; I can guarantee you that."

Delisi was designated by the GOP governor to lead the commission, a spot that Perry had given Andrade on an interim basis after Williamson's death in late December.

Delisi, who has been a political and policy adviser to Perry, left as chief of staff last year after she and her husband, Ted, became parents of twin boys. She was Perry's 2002 campaign manager and worked in George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign.

Meadows, senior vice president of an insurance and financial service company, is a former Fort Worth city councilman who serves on the tollway authority. He will give Dallas-Fort Worth the representation that the area's leaders have said it should retain in the wake of the death of Williamson, who was from Weatherford.

The commission also includes Ned Holmes of Houston, Ted Houghton Jr. of El Paso and Fred A. Underwood of Lubbock.

Change is coming in the wake of a rocky relationship between the Legislature and the Perry-appointed Transportation Commission. Some top lawmakers have publicly butted heads with commissioners over the direction of Texas transportation as the commission seeks to implement Perry's vision of leaning on toll roads and private investments as the primary strategy.

Lawmakers last year sought to rein in public-private partnerships on tollways, and they have questioned transportation officials' figures in the face of ever-growing mobility needs and funding that doesn't keep pace.

Some have questioned whether Delisi is the right pick. Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee chairman, was quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram earlier this year as opposing Delisi, saying, "We don't need political hacks in that position."

Others praise Delisi's intelligence and said she would be able to work with lawmakers.

"I think Deirdre is a very smart and capable person who understands the governor's transportation policy and also understands the politics of the Legislature. So I think she'll be an asset to the commission," said Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.

Krusee isn't seeking re-election and has been rumored to be in line for such an appointment himself.

The appointments require Senate confirmation. Delisi lives in the district of Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee vice-chairman. Watson, who as her senator could block the appointment, said Tuesday he doesn't discuss such pending nominations.

"You've got to check with the governor's appointments office," Watson said. "I take this responsibility very seriously and have spent a significant amount of time working on this issue, visiting with Ms. Delisi and others regarding this appointment."

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee member, said, "What we need is a pragmatic debate on mobility needs, including mass transit. What we don't need is ideologies and a fixation on 100-year privatized highways."

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, a Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee member who served on the Transportation Commission before being elected to the Legislature, said of Delisi, "He (Perry) obviously has a working relationship with her and feels comfortable with her. I've worked with her before. She's a smart lady."

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, also a member of the Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said she believes Meadows can work well with the Legislature.

Meadows lives in the district of Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, who said in a statement, "I have urged Gov. Perry to appoint someone from the DFW region to the Transportation Commission. We are ground zero for the state's transportation challenges. The challenges we face affect the entire state, given how critical our region is to the state economy."

Andrade, who also has served on the now-defunct Texas Turnpike Commission and the VIA Metropolitan Transit board, joined the Transportation Commission in 2003 when it was expanded from three members to five. Out of 37 commissioners since World War II ended, she is just the third from San Antonio.

As Andrade stepped into the job, the commission was starting full-tilt to toll new road lanes whenever feasible and invite private involvement when possible. Also, bonds and a new fund supported by traffic fines were beginning to pump up construction statewide, a bubble that in recent years more than doubled highway projects in San Antonio.

Local leaders say having Andrade in Austin only helped.

"Having Hope Andrade there has been a great asset for us. Losing Hope will be a great loss," said Bill Thornton, chairman of the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which plans to start construction this year on the U.S. 281 tollway.

Wolff tried to be positive.

"We've got a lot of goodies in the last few years," he said. "I guess we've got to be thankful for what we got while she was there."

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