Texas Loses a Transportation Visionary, Ric Williamson

Upon hearing the news of the passing today of Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, I am reminded of a quote attributed to Goethe: “Boldness has genius, and magic and power in it.” After serving seven terms in the Texas legislature from 1985 to 1998, Williamson was appointed to the Texas Transportation Commission by Governor Rick Perry in 2001 and became perhaps the key architect of the state’s bold embrace of tolling and public-private partnerships as the primary means of addressing the state’s massive urban congestion woes and staggering transportation infrastructure needs. While other states had taken tentative steps in this direction, Texas took the bull by the horns and ran with these ideas in a way that catapulted it to the front of the pack, placing it far ahead of other states in its willingness to not only facilitate, but also to institutionalize, the use of these cutting-edge concepts. Charged by Gov. Perry with modernizing a transportation system that had not been managed to deal with the rapid population and economic growth that was occurring in Texas, Williamson undertook a methodical process of quantifying the extent and scope of the state’s transportation needs and identifying a range of short-, mid-, and long-term strategies and solutions to address the needs. Then came the herculean task of implementation, and bolstered by Williamson’s vision and leadership the Commission has presided over something unfortunately rare in government–a paradigm shift of massive proportions in a major state agency (the Texas Department of Transportation). So often in government, innovative ideas and bold visions are relegated to large reports that ultimately gather dust on dark bookshelves hidden from the light of day. But in this case, TxDOT jumped headfirst into a new way of doing business, a fact that owes much to Williamson. From these efforts came a powerful set of new tools–such as private-sector financing, pass through tolls, the Texas Mobility Fund, and the Trans-Texas Corridor–designed to allow the state to address its congestion, mobility, goods movement, and environmental challenges. I’ve met numerous elected and appointed officials in recent years, many of them intelligent, passionate and accomplished, but I can honestly say that no one impressed me as much as Ric Williamson. I had the fortune of conducting a lengthy interview with him this past fall, during which he blew my mind with his ability to spontaneously articulate the different aspects of the “Texas model” with clarity, intelligence, depth, and purpose. Beyond that, having previously read description after description of Williamson as a “bully,” or as “arrogant”–the “most hated man in Texas,” according to Texas Monthly writer Paul Burka–I was pleasantly surprised to find that, in person, Williamson’s intelligence and purposefulness was only exceeded by his humanity. Instead of starting our interview immediately, he spent the first several minutes asking me about my life, my work at Reason, and my mother (who’s from San Antonio), and I then spent the next 45 minutes or so glimpsing into the mind of an intelligent and shrewd, while simultaneously thoughtful and gentle, man. When I saw him at a conference again in November (figuring he wouldn’t remember me), he greeted me like an old colleague and the same humanity shined through. What I came to realize is that Ric Williamson exemplified that rare breed of public steward–a gentleman, leader, and innovator bolstered by his experience and the courage of his convictions. Individuals like Williamson that are willing to push the envelope and move in bold new directions are often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and shunned until the rest of society catches up to them. As Texas Senator John Carona stated today, “[Williamson’s] 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.” Not only is Texas better off for his leadership, but given the degree to which other states are starting to emulate Texas on the transportation front, I’d bet that Williamson’s impact will ultimately be felt far beyond the borders of Texas. For more on Ric Williamson, these pieces are well worth a read:

UPDATE: My original post focused exclusively on transportation, but I failed to highlight Ric Williamson’s leadership on tax and fiscal policy during his tenure as a legislator. As the Dallas Morning News notes this morning:

Mr. Williamson spent 13 years in the Texas Legislature, much of it fighting for sensible state spending, colleagues say. […] He went to the Legislature in 1985 a Democrat and left in 1998 a Republican. Serving on the House Appropriations Committee, he was one of the “Pit Bulls,” conservative lawmakers (including Mr. Williamson’s Austin roommate, Mr. Perry) who questioned how the state spent its money. He believed that agencies should get money based on the goals they set and met ââ?¬â?? not just based on what they ask for. That concept, performance-based budgeting, is used today.

More from the FWST:

Williamson, who in the private sector operated a natural gas production 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 came to the House at age 33 as Texas was reeling from a slump in the oil industry, which strained the state budget. Along with a coalition of other conservative Democrats and many of the then-outnumbered Republicans in the Legislature, Williamson pushed for steep cuts in state spending in an effort to hold the line on new taxes. It was during that period that he befriended Perry, another rookie lawmaker with similar West Texas roots and conservative Democratic leanings. Both would change their party affiliations to Republican as their careers advanced.

This excerpt from my recent interview with Williamson gives a glimpse into his thinking on tax policy:

“I determined from my years in politicsââ?¬â??and just observing, just common sense, listening to peopleââ?¬â??that there was a reason why, all across our country, citizens less and less support general taxes into a common pool to be distributed by political decision makers. There’s a reason why people vote for Republicans and Democrats who claim that they won’t raise those common taxes, and the reason is, our citizens, whether we like it or not, have decided that it’s not in their best interest to permit themselves to be taxed in common and the money put into a common pool to be distributed based on political will. They have rightfully, I think, ascertained that when that occurs, the investment of the tax revenue is not made in the best interest of their welfare, but rather in the best interest of the welfare of the elected class.”