King of Texas Roads

The Dallas Morning News has an interesting profile today on Rik Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission. It’s well worth a read as an insight into a strong and controversial public official willing to take risks. For example, putting Gov. Rick Perry’s forward-thinking transportation vision into action:

When Mr. Perry became governor in December 2000, he tapped his friend to tackle one of the biggest problems he saw facing the state [transportation needs]. “It was his idea. He told me, ‘This is what you’re going to do,’ ” Mr. Williamson said. […] So he set about studying transportation. He laid out the dimensions of problems in financing roads and placed them against projected needs. He defined short-, mid- and long-term solutions and calculated the costs under a half-dozen scenarios, including taxes, bonds, private equity, private borrowing or public debt. He and Mr. Perry laid down some goals, including competition for roadway construction, regional decision-making and consumer choices. “Thus was born our strategic plan. That was actually the basis of the Trans-Texas Corridor,” Mr. Williamson said.

On the recent legislative challenges to Perry’s transportation plan (see here for Reason’s related work), and the challenges that face political visionaries:

Mr. Williamson said he worked with legislators and will try to be more responsive. He also said he knows he is challenging the inherent nature of government to leave tough problems until they become a crisis for some future Legislature, and that requires someone to stand up and fight. “I have had friends, even closet supporters, say to me that, ‘You should have explained in more detail what you were doing and not gotten so ahead of everyone, and people wouldn’t be nearly as mad at you,’ ” Mr. Williamson said. “In the last six years, had consensus been the goal, I’m not sure we could have gotten far enough, fast enough to make the progress I think we’ve made.” Most difficult things are achieved through confrontation and tenacity, he said. The day Mr. Perry is tired of hearing complaints about toll roads and sends him home to Weatherford, he will go happily, Mr. Williamson said. As it is, when he and the governor talk, Mr. Perry doesn’t comfort him or offer him that kind of relief. “He doesn’t console me and he doesn’t apologize and he doesn’t curse the darkness. He understood what he was getting into. And I certainly understood what I was getting into,” Mr. Williamson said. “And if it results in a long-term solution to what we think is one of the most pressing problems the state faces, then history will judge us as having made some good decisions,” he said.