Road Warrior

If Ric Williamson is so smart—and he is—why is he letting the Trans-Texas Corridor take a toll on his reputation?

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.

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