Don’t Blame Ric Williamson
A correspondent writes:
What is this nonsense that when someone dies and he has done you dirt, you suddenly are expected to pretend to be sad not to have to deal with him? It’s pure hypocrisy, and particularly annoying that it’s held up as some sort of virtue. Certainly we feel for the grieving family and sort of wonder at the friends of the deceased, but death is no reason to forsake reality; Ric Williamson engineering some really bad road plans that will devastate a lot—A LOT– of Texans.
It is important to understand WHY Ric Williamson came up with “some really bad road plans”–that is, the Trans-Texas Corridor–after Rick Perry appointed him to the Texas Highway Commission in 2001. TxDOT projected that by 2010, which is yesterday in roadbuilding time, 84 percent of the state’s population would live within a few miles of the triangle formed by the highway network (Interstates 10, 35, and 45) that connect Houson, San Antonio, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Inside the big cities and their surrounding suburbs, the major arteries would be overwhelmed. The state gasoline tax, the main source of funds for highway construction, could no longer keep up with the demand for new roads. The tax is levied by the gallon, and higher fuel efficiency standards mean that people are using fewer gallons than they used to. Making matters worse, the Legislature was, and still is, diverting billions of dollars of gasoline tax revenue away from highway construction into other areas of the budget, such as funding the Department of Public Safety.
One obvious answer to the problem of the shrinking gasoline tax was to raise the tax, which was last done in 1991. Williamson, however, was convinced that a Republican legislature would never vote for any tax increase, and, of course, he knew that his close friend, Rick Perry, would not support one either. So when you blame Williamson for coming up with the Trans-Texas Corridor, your beef is really with Perry and the Legislature.
And so Williamson decided that the only way to solve Texas’s mobility problems was to build toll roads. I know of no responsible policy maker who believes that toll roads should not be part of the state’s transportation future. That said, the way Williamson proposed to build toll roads — by privatizing them — made him and TxDOT lightning rods for controversy. His idea was to offer concessions to private companies, for up to fifty years, in exchange for up-front payments of several billion dollars, which could be leveraged to build other roads. While the idea made sense as an economic transaction, it did not make sense as a political transaction. Foreign ownership and control of toll roads was a non-starter in this state. Williamson created an enormous constituency against his own proposal. His mistake was to became so invested in the rightness of his own ideas that he lost touch with how the public thinks. The more that became known about the Corridor — that TxDOT contemplated tolling existing free roads, for example, or that it could enter into agreements with concessionaires promising not to build roads or make improvements that might reduce traffic on toll roads — the more the public hated the idea.
Where do we go from here? The answer is obvious. The Legislature should gut up, raise the gasoline tax, and index it to inflation. Governor Perry should support it as the only way to salvage Williamson’s vision. The new tax revenue can then be leveraged to issue bonds that can be used to build new free roads as well as toll roads where they are appropriate. Control of the roads — and of toll rates in particular — would remain in the hands of a state agency subject to legislative oversight. The Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M has already concluded that this type of financing would provide enough funding to address the state’s current backlog of transporation needs. Maybe, just once, the dysfunctional state leadership could get together and do the right thing. Ric Williamson deserves it.