If Ric Williamson is so smart—and he is—why is he letting the Trans-Texas Corridor take a toll on his reputation?
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“SINCE I STARTED THIS,” Ric Williamson said, referring to his six-year tenure on the Texas Transportation Commission, “I’ve had two heart attacks, and I’m trying to avoid the third one, which the doctors tell me will be fatal.” Imagine yourself as the most hated person in Texas, public enemy number one to a million or more people, the object of vitriol wherever you go, with scarcely a friend in the Legislature, and you will have a pretty good idea of what life is like these days for the man who conceived and executed the most controversial public policy to come out of Austin in my lifetime: the Trans-Texas Corridor.
The Corridor, if anyone needs reminding, is a plan to relieve congestion on major highways—Interstates 10, 35, and 45 and U.S. 59 (soon to become Interstate 69)—by allowing private companies to bid for the right to build and operate toll roads. These routes, which will include rail lines for freight and commuter travel and, possibly, pipelines and electric transmission lines, will cut a wide swath through rural Texas, severing farms and ranches. At the same time, regional transportation planners will be building toll roads as well, many of which will be privatized. These are not really part of the Corridor, but the distinction is lost on the public. If you set out to do it, you could not devise a more unpopular plan. Rural Texans hate what it will do to their land. Urban Texans hate having to choose between free roads that are choked with traffic or paying to get to work every day. Lawmakers hate that concession payments in the billions of dollars are changing hands without legislative scrutiny over contract provisions. The public thinks that it’s already paid for roads through the gasoline tax and that tolls are double taxation. I know better, but I’m still mad as hell about it.
Unpopular policies are nothing new in state government, particularly lately, but Williamson has broken new ground: He’s an unpopular policy maker. Unlike most citizen appointees who head the dozens of boards and commissions that oversee state agencies, Williamson has escaped anonymity. He has faced his critics at dozens of forums around the state and has refused to back down in his belief that his transportation plan is the right thing for Texas. He is unapologetic and unyielding. The Williamson that his critics see today is the same person state bureaucrats encountered as a state representative twenty years ago, when he was a member of the House Appropriations Committee. The Weatherford oilman was the leader of the Pit Bulls, a group of second-termers (one of whom was Rick Perry) determined to challenge the prevailing wisdom that state agencies were entitled to more money than they had gotten in the previous budget without having to justify that they really needed it. His bombastic style earned him the still-appropriate nickname Nitro. The bushy mustache that he sported in those days is long gone. Pulsating eyes and a buzz cut that aptly accents his sometimes bristly personality give him the look of a mad genius.
Which he is. Williamson has the most inventive mind that has passed through the Legislature since I have been covering it. He was the first to suggest that tuition at state colleges and universities ought to be market driven; that notion became law in 2003. He was the first to suggest that appropriations ought to be tied to desired outcomes. Today, when agencies tell budget writers about their “strategies” (for performing their assigned tasks), they are following the budget pattern Williamson conceived. Like it or not, the highway plan bears the Williamson trademark: It represents out-of-the-box thinking to solve a real problem, which is the inability of the revenue stream to keep up with the demand for mobility. As inventive as his mind is, however, it tends to close when confronted with criticism. He is totally invested in his own ideas.
I had hoped to sit down and visit with Williamson one-on-one—I had spent a lot of time talking with him when he was in the Legislature—but it was not to be. We had maybe two minutes alone, enough time for me to admire his coffee mug emblazoned with the words “Bob Bullock, Democrat for Lieutenant Governor” and listen to him praise Rick Perry (“The most honest politician I’ve ever met in my life. He won’t lie or abide a lie. He will never abandon a friend. He has a capacity to understand a long view more than most people who aspire to higher office”). Then we moved to a conference room. My heart sank when I saw that there were four Texas Department of Transportation staffers around the table (soon to be joined by another commissioner) and a screen with a PowerPoint presentation labeled “Paul Burka, May 2, 2007.”
The thing that I was most interested in was how his mind works. How did he look at the budgeting process in the eighties and figure out how to fix it? What did he see when he looked at the state’s highway system after Perry named him to the Transportation Commission in 2001 (he became chairman in 2004) and how did he figure out a way to fix it?
“In the thirties and forties we had the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and World War II,” he said. “Disruption was the norm. People lost their homes, people were killed, families were torn apart. Then the war was over, and suddenly the United States had all the world’s gold, all its credit, all its factories—we had it all. Out of this era of struggle followed by great wealth came centralized government, which was designed to prevent deprivation. But there was a tremendous disconnect between the authority to make a decision and the power to act upon that decision. We had the authority to tell people what to do, but we didn’t give the people who had to do it the resources. The budget focus was all on process, not performance. That’s classic central government.”
That was the way it worked, all right. At TxDOT, the focus was on projects. Local communities got behind their projects, sent a delegation to Austin, and begged for their bypass or their loop. Influential legislators helped them get their wish. Politically connected highway contractors helped too. That this system was driven by political influence and dividing up the pie rather than addressing the issue of congestion did not seem to bother anybody. The process mattered more than the long-term issue of reducing congestion.
But it wasn’t just the hidebound system that concerned Williamson. It was the enormity of the mobility problem. I didn’t have to watch the PowerPoint presentation to know the score. The vast majority of the state’s population—84 percent by 2010—lives in the triangle bound by I-10 on the south, I-35 on the west, and I-45 on the east, an area smaller than the state of Ohio. Outside the triangle, traffic moves relatively freely. Inside the big cities and their surrounding suburbs, the major arteries are overwhelmed. The main source of funds for highway construction, the state gasoline tax, cannot keep up with the demand. Worse, the revenue it produces is declining. The tax is levied by the gallon, and cars are getting better mileage every year (my Suburban excepted). The Legislature continues to raid the gasoline tax for non-highway purposes; in the current budget, for example, the Senate proposes diverting more than $1 billion in gas tax revenue from road building to fund the Department of Public Safety. Without new revenue, TxDOT barely has enough money to maintain the current highway system, much less add to it.
Any critic of TxDOT, including me, must come to grips with the fundamentals of the problem: (1) Mobility is essential for economic growth; (2) the gasoline tax can’t provide enough revenue to build the roads we need, even if it is increased, which it won’t be, because the politicians would rather gripe about toll roads than vote to increase taxes; (3) the cost of new roads is enormous ($8 billion to $9 billion for the proposed loop around the Metroplex); (4) congestion will only get worse (every day, Texas adds an average of a thousand people and eight hundred vehicles). Privatization was Williamson’s answer to this dilemma. He remembered the 1989 session, when the state didn’t have enough money to meet the demand for new prisons and turned to the private sector. Why couldn’t it work for highways? “What do you care where the money comes from when you need the project?” he asked me. “What difference does it make who owns the road?”
Here is where Williamson and I part company. I think it does make a difference who owns the road, because if the state owns it, I can be confident that the political system will respond to public criticism. I’m not confident that a private company, domestic or foreign, will respond—or that TxDOT will. I think it matters, too, because I can be confident that TxDOT will build and operate the road in the public interest, but I can’t be confident that TxDOT, with billions of dollars dangled in front of its face, will write a contract that protects the public interest against noncompete agreements that may limit the agency’s ability to build roads in the future.
Another concern I have is that TxDOT has such a strong preference for toll roads that it has tried to bully local transportation agencies into tolling. Williamson denies this, and when I cite the names of legislators who have told this to me, he dismisses them as “part of the old power structure.” The system he has created ought to work well in theory: The local agency makes the decision of what roads it wants, and TxDOT offers to provide money and advice about how to meet it. This is the model Williamson extols: The state has the authority to act and the local agency has the power to act—but I worry that in practice it works like the old command-and-control model that Williamson professes to despise.
My last, and greatest, concern is that Williamson wants a system that relies on user fees rather than taxes. I acknowledge that we need toll roads and that user fees are appropriate in many cases. But I also believe that TxDOT has lost sight of the principle that roads are a common good and that we must have superior free roads as well as toll roads.
And there is a way we can afford them. Transportation experts at the Texas Transportation Institute, at Texas A&M University, have determined that by increasing the gas tax by a modest amount, indexing the tax to inflation, and issuing bonds, we’ll have the capability to build free roads again. The state can’t afford to ignore any potential solution. If Ric Williamson would show the same fervor for free roads that he has shown for toll roads, he might actually make a few friends.