Shift may loom in toll road debate

Push for higher gas tax could follow chief's death

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

The death of Ric Williamson, the fiery, whip-smart chairman of the state transportation commission, could upend the still-roiling debate over toll roads in Texas in the new year.

Mr. Williamson died Saturday of a heart attack at age 55, sending shock waves through the nearly 15,000-employee department he led as well as the political and policy circles where his combative style and pro-toll-road agenda had engendered enormous change – and criticism.

Always careful to credit Gov. Rick Perry, a close friend and former roommate, Mr. Williamson emerged as a lightning rod in recent years as he pushed to let private companies build and operate toll roads throughout Texas.

"We are [expletive] running out of money," he told The News in a wide-ranging interview a week before his death, allowing his usual thoughtful, precise vocabulary to give way to frustration over continued resistance to the governor's toll road policies. "It absolutely boggles my mind how men and women elected to make courageous decisions in leading this state cannot focus on the simple fact that our congestion is rapidly approaching an intolerable level."

It was Mr. Williamson's sometimes-abrasive approach that has those who clashed with him hoping his successor will take a more conciliatory tone and a balanced approach to the state's problems. One of those critics, Sen. John Carona, D-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he is hoping that Mr. Williamson's successor will support raising state gas taxes to help reduce the need for tolls.

Even Mr. Williamson's supporters acknowledge that he often bruised feelings. Still, fellow members of the commission say he was indispensable.

"Ric was focused laser-like on the issues, well read and always researched things thoroughly," said commissioner Ted Houghton of El Paso.

Mr. Williamson was focused on finding a way to pay for the new roads and added lanes that Texas' booming metropolitan areas need – even as such traditional revenues as gas taxes failed to keep up with costs. In general, new roads in Texas will have to be toll roads, Mr. Williamson said often in recent months.

Plenty of powerful voices have disagreed, however.

Last session, the Texas Legislature passed a partial moratorium on a centerpiece of Mr. Perry's strategy, slowing his plans to privatize toll roads. Mr. Williamson spent most of 2007 criticizing the moratorium as an example of fuzzy-headed legislative intrusiveness. But he also led a vigorous effort to work around the new rules, and within months of the session's close unveiled a list of more than 80 highway projects eligible for toll roads.

Those stormy debates are expected to carry into 2008.

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Anonymous said...

Ric was an oppressive thief, not a visionary.

He was far worse than Ken Lay- at least Enron only affected its employees, not the whole population.

Ric sought to increase traffic congestion, not relieve it, and then profit from his carefully induced misery. Ric sought to force drivers onto toll roads by reducing the quality of existing roads with added stoplights and lowered speed limits- profit by sabotage. It would have been nice if he would have resigned.

Anonymous said...

"at least Enron only affected its employees,"

Wish that were so but it is not.

Enron's practices had very strong and negative impact on the energy bills of Californians.