Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson will be remembered as the most stalwart Texas advocate of privatizing our public freeway system. What some called innovative and visionary, many called double taxation and highway robbery. Certainly, no one would have wished this would be the way Williamson would end his time on the Commission. Our hearts go out to his family.
Williamson was a lightning rod of controversy and known for his abrasive style and unretractable support for what’s known as public private partnerships (or PPPs). He relentlessly pushed the wholesale shift from gas tax funded freeways to a network of privatized tollways in the hands of foreign companies and unaccountable bureaucrats.
Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka summarizes the public sentiment this way in a Star-Telegram article:
In a column published in July, Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka described the blunt-spoken Mr. Williamson as “the most hated person in Texas, public enemy No. 1 to a million or more people,” having tried in vain to put the brakes on the frenzied dash to build privately run tollways.
Transportation Chairman Williamson dead at 55
By MATT CURRY
Dec. 31, 2007
DALLAS — Texas Transportation Commission Chairman and former longtime state lawmaker Ric Williamson died Sunday of an apparent heart attack, officials said. He was 55.
Williamson died at Weatherford Regional Medical Center just after 1 a.m., Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Chris Lippincott said.
“It is a great shock, everyone is very surprised to hear this news,” Lippincott told the Associated Press. “He certainly left his imprint on the commission and on the state with the vision he had for transportation.”
Gov. Rick Perry said Williamson was a longtime friend who will be greatly missed. The two were conservative Democratic colleagues in the Texas House during 1980s. Both later joined the GOP.
Williamson served in the Legislature for more than 20 years.
“Ric’s passion to serve his beloved state of Texas was unmatched and his determination to help our state meets its future challenges was unparalleled,” Perry said in a written statement. “He will be missed beyond words. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Williamson family during this very difficult time.”
Perry named Williamson to the transportation commission in 2001, and he became chairman in 2004. The five-member commission oversees the Texas Department of Transportation.
State lawmakers heavily criticized state transportation policy on toll roads and private contracts during this year’s legislative session.
The agency has traditionally been a pay-as-you-go organization, building roads with money collected from gas taxes and fees.
But under Perry and his appointees to the commission, notably Williamson, the agency has increasingly shifted to relying on toll roads and borrowed money to speed construction. The change has prompted intense criticism from the public and lawmakers.
Legislators from rural areas were concerned about private property rights. Those from urban districts complained of toll roads financed and owned by foreign companies.
“We were moving faster than most government agencies move and it spooked some people,” Williamson said in June.
TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Saenz said Williamson was a visionary.
“As a member and chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, he brought passion and focus to meeting many of the challenges facing Texas today and for generations to come,” he said.
Williamson served in the Legislature from 1985-98, and was on key committees such as the House/Senate Budget Conference Committee, Appropriations (vice chairman) and Ways and Means.
He received a bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974 and went into the natural gas production business.
Survivors include his wife, Mary Ann; three daughters; and two grandchildren.
Services were pending.
RIC WILLIAMSON 1952-2007
Key figure on Texas transport issues dies
By JOHN MORITZ
Star-Telegram staff writer
December 31, 2007
AUSTIN — Ric Williamson, one of Gov. Rick Perry’s closest friends and advisers and his point man at the Texas Department of Transportation, died early Sunday of an apparent heart attack.
He was 55.
Mr. Williamson, a seven-term state lawmaker from Weatherford, had had two heart attacks since being appointed to oversee one of the state’s largest bureaucracies during a period of intense controversy and this year expressed concern that a third one might prove fatal. Still, his death at a hospital near his home in Weatherford sent shock waves through the Capitol communities that had been largely dormant during the holiday season.
“Anita and I are heartbroken at this sudden loss of a confidant, trusted advisor and close personal friend of ours for more than 20 years,” Perry said in a statement. “Ric’s passion to serve his beloved State of Texas was unmatched and his determination to help our state meets its future challenges was unparalleled.
“He will be missed beyond words.”
House Speaker Tom Craddick, who had served with Mr. Williamson during his career in the Legislature from 1985 until 1998, said, “He dedicated his life to public service, and I have fond memories of the time we served in the Legislature together.”
Mr. Williamson, who in the private sector operated a natural gas company, was a conservative Democrat in 1984 when he first won a seat in the Texas House, representing a largely rural district west of Fort Worth anchored by Weatherford. He arrived at the House just before his 33rd birthday as Texas was reeling from a slump in the oil industry that strained the budget.
Along with other conservative Democrats and many of the then-outnumbered Republicans, Mr. Williamson pushed for steep cuts in state spending in an effort to hold the line on new taxes.
During that period he befriended Perry, another rookie lawmaker with similar West Texas roots and conservative Democratic leanings. Both would become Republicans as their careers advanced.
Perry was elected agriculture commissioner in 1990 and lieutenant governor in 1998. In December 2000, he ascended to the Governor’s Mansion as George W. Bush prepared to become president.
Within a few months of taking office, Perry named Mr. Williamson to the transportation commission and made him chairman in January 2004.
Leading the commission, Mr. Williamson became one of the chief crusaders for Perry’s ambitious Trans Texas Corridor, a system of toll and free roads intended to ease urban congestion.
The plan’s toll roads plan generated the most controversy, with critics denouncing the state’s contract with a Spanish company to build and operate the roads. Critics also said the plan would involve massive taking of private land.
During the 2007 legislative session, Mr. Williamson often butted heads with lawmakers who had expressed reservations over the pace of the toll road building plan.
State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, who leads the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee, said in January that Mr. Williamson’s abrasive style was undermining his effectiveness.
Mr. Williamson, Carona was quoted as saying, “has worn out his welcome in many communities across the state. I think it would be in the best interests of the state that he step aside.”
Carona and Mr. Williamson would later mend fences, and in a statement the senator praised his one-time adversary.
“In over 20 years of service to Texas, during a time of conflict and sweeping change, Ric Williamson exemplified courage, commitment and dedication,” Carona said. “His ability to see far into the future, coupled with his command of process and the here-and-now, ensure his place in our history books when the story of 21st century Texas is told.”
In a column published in July, Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka described the blunt-spoken Mr. Williamson as “the most hated person in Texas, public enemy No. 1 to a million or more people,” having tried in vain to put the brakes on the frenzied dash to build privately run tollways.
But Burka also described Mr. Williamson as a visionary who had “the most inventive mind that has passed through the Legislature” in modern history.
In the same column, Mr. Williamson told Burka that the strain of being in the Transportation Department hot seat was taking a toll. “Since I’ve started this,” he said, “I’ve had two heart attacks, and I’m trying to avoid the third one, which the doctors tell me will be fatal.”
Funeral arrangements were pending Sunday. Survivors include wife Mary Ann; daughters Melissa, Katherine and Sara; and two grandchildren.