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Toll road agency looking to future
AUSTIN — The death of state Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson, the feather-ruffling toll road champion who left the agency with a sweeping vision and fences to mend with politicians and the public, may change the style of debate over Texas’ transportation future.But not its substance.
The five-member commission is appointed, and its new chairman will be named by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who has made clear that his support for toll roads and state-private partnerships hasn’t changed.
“In the days since his passing, there have been calls from some quarters to abandon the forward-thinking initiatives we championed to meet our state’s current and future transportation needs. That would be a big mistake,” Perry said in response to a national commission’s call for higher gasoline taxes and restrictions on states’ toll contracts with private companies.
Commission member Ted Houghton of El Paso was blunt about Perry’s influence.
“This is the governor’s program. If we go in and try to scrap some piece of his program, I think we’re going to have hell to pay with our boss, and that’s the governor,” Houghton said. “He was elected by the citizens, not us. We are an extension of what he believes.”
Houghton and commissioners Hope Andrade of San Antonio and Ned Holmes of Houston said they support tollways and private investment as a key part of the state’s transportation funding mix.
Despite some lawmakers’ support for raising the gas tax, some commissioners suggested that the needed increase would be so large as to be unduly difficult.
At the same time — and while praising Williamson’s intellect and drive — commissioners said they want to communicate better with lawmakers after tempers flared last year and the Legislature sought to rein in privately funded toll roads with a moratorium.
As officials work to pave over lingering hard feelings, the Texas Department of Transportation faces the scrutiny of a “sunset” review. Some lawmakers want the appointed commission to be replaced with an elected transportation commissioner.
“We are all committed to reaching out and working closely with our legislative leaders and our communities,” Andrade said. “Things haven’t changed, other than Ric’s not there. We still have the huge issues we need to address.”
Holmes said he wants a “working-together kind of atmosphere” with the Sunset Advisory Commission and lawmakers. Still, he said, “We really don’t have many choices in how we fund our system, and if we think we can depend totally on the gas tax and the current format, it is woefully inadequate.”
Holmes offered a long-term idea that could prove as controversial as privately funded toll roads: eventually taxing Texas motorists per mile driven as opposed to per gallon of gasoline. He said that’s likely more than a decade away in Texas but noted that it’s a response to cars’ increasing fuel efficiency.
Houghton said politics must be balanced against the economic reality, “and the reality of economics is … we have hit a wall in the state of Texas” on funding growth.
“We need to hone our communication skills with the Legislature,” he added.
Lawmakers, while giving Williamson respect, agree that transportation officials need to make changes.
“It is difficult, at least for this senator, to imagine TxDOT’s credibility being any lower,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the committee’s chairman, said TxDOT needs to listen.
“As one approach among many, public-private toll roads may, in fact, have a place in the overall funding scheme,” he said. “The real issue becomes one of listening to the concerns of the citizens and the direction of the Legislature. In that regard, the Transportation Commission has been wrongheaded in the last couple of years.”
Carona supports modestly increasing the gasoline tax, tying it to inflation and ending diversions from the highway fund to other state needs. He called private investment the most expensive option for taxpayers because it adds the element of profit.
Perry spokesman Robert Black disagreed, saying cost depends on how contracts are structured, citing companies’ up-front payments and officials’ approval of toll rates.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, a committee member who has supported a gasoline tax increase, said the moratorium gave lawmakers a “two-year breather” to consider private equity in toll roads. He said the need to smooth TxDOT-legislative relations should be a consideration for Perry in appointing Williamsons’ successor.
Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, a committee member, said, “I think he (Williamson) stepped way over the line on that (private equity financing of toll roads). But having said that, I think he saw a problem. He was trying to find the best way to solve that. He came up with a solution. I give him credit for that. I give the governor credit for that.”
On the House side, Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, a private-tollway moratorium supporter, agreed that Williamson highlighted the funding problem “in a manner that probably will never be seen again. … I told him: ‘Ric, in the end, you’re going to win. We’re going to fund them. Not necessarily the way you wanted them to be funded, but we’re going to find a way to fund them.'”
Kolkhorst supports the use of tollways, but not having them “given away for a half a century to private companies.”
The search to replace Williamson, who died of an apparent heart attack Dec. 30, “is ongoing,” said Black, the governor’s spokesman.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area is pushing for the representation it lacks with Williamson’s passing. Carona said Erle Nye, a Texas A&M regent and former TXU Energy chief executive and chairman, would be a strong contender.
Critics of TxDOT’s implementation of tollways said Williamson’s absence will be felt in conjunction with the sunset review.
“TxDOT will most likely have to bend just a little more,” said Sal Costello, founder of TexasTollParty.com.
Terri Hall of San Antonio, who leads Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, said, “I don’t expect any changes until we get a new governor.”
But she added, “Very few of these commissioners are going to be willing to take the hits for this governor the way Ric Williamson was willing to do. Most people are only willing to go so far for a friend.”