Williamson, who led Texas toll road push, dies at 55
Ric Williamson, the Texas Transportation Commission chairman and a take-no-prisoners advocate for his longtime friend Rick Perry's toll road policy, died early Sunday at a Weatherford hospital.
Williamson, 55, who had been on the five-member commission since 2001 and chairman since January 2004, died of a heart attack, said state Rep. Mike Krusee, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Williamson, who died at 1 a.m. Sunday, had had two previous heart attacks.
Williamson represented the Weatherford area in the Texas House for 14 years, leaving in 1999. He and Perry, who served in the House during a good deal of Williamson's time there, roomed together in an Austin apartment during several legislative sessions.
"Anita and I are heartbroken at this sudden loss of a confidant, trusted adviseer and close personal friend of ours for more than 20 years," Perry said. "Ric's passion to serve his beloved state of Texas was unmatched and his determination to help our state meet its future challenges was unparalleled."
Williamson's six-year term expired Feb. 1. But Perry made no new appointment, and Williamson did not step down, so he was still serving as chairman in what amounted to overtime. In his absence, the remaining commissioners will elect a chairman from among themselves. Perry, who appoints all members of the body, will need to name a replacement for Williamson.
Williamson dominated discussion of Texas transportation policy for most of the past decade, holding forth at commission meetings in a uniquely ornate but still straightforward style that sometimes infuriated opponents of the Perry administration's toll-road initiatives. Williamson, in particular, was four-square behind granting private companies long-term leases to finance, build and operate publicly owned toll roads, an approach that he said would raise billions for other roads. Opponents suggested that such agreements give away too much control of public assets.
The Legislature this year considered a ban on private toll road leases before passing a measure that stopped them though with about a dozen exceptions. The session was stormy for Williamson. State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, upset at what he called Williamson's failure to answer Carona's requests to visit, in January called on Perry to replace Williamson on the commission. Carona later softened his tone toward Williamson, who testified many times before legislative committees through the spring — often taking direct heat from lawmakers — as the Legislature debated changes to toll road policy.
"I think we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Ric Williamson for bringing transportation to the forefront," Carona said Sunday. "And no one, even his harshest critics, could deny what a leader he was on transportation issues. And though I did not always agree with him, I had tremendous respect for him."
Once the latest changes in toll-road laws occurred, Williamson and TxDOT had spent months digesting what the legislation meant to the agency's cash situation and ability to build roads. Their answer, delivered in late November, was that the loss of large concession payments from potential private toll-road builders meant many projects would have to be indefinitely delayed. That conclusion, which had many other ramifications, threw five proposed Austin-area toll-road projects into limbo, and set off a new round of criticism of TxDOT and the commission.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat and vice chairman of Carona's committee, was among the critics.
Watson said Sunday of Williamson: "While many times I disagreed, sometimes strongly, with his methods and proposed solutions, I didn't doubt his intellect, creativity, conviction, or dedication to the people of Texas. His death marks an important crossroads for this state. I deeply hope all Texans can come together around the enormous challenges that drove him these last several years and find solutions that will secure the future of Texas."
Texas Monthly in a June article called Williamson "the most hated person in Texas, public enemy number one to a million or more people." In the article, Williamson told political columnist Paul Burka, "I've had two heart attacks, and I'm trying to avoid the third one, which the doctors tell me will be fatal."
While plenty of legislators and others took issue with Williamson's policy stands and his blunt approach over the past few years, few questioned the horsepower of his intellect.
"Ric was the smartest and most farsighted person I'd ever seen in public life," Krusee said. "I learned so much whenever I was around Ric, and I don't just mean transportation policy."
David Stall, a Fayette County resident who founded CorridorWatch to oppose Perry and Williamson's Trans-Texas Corridor plan for 4,000 miles of cross-state tollways, gave credit to Williamson for good intentions. "We always believed that he was doing what he thought was good for the state of Texas," Stall said. "And we respect that, although we have a differing opinion on how you get there."
Williamson is survived by his wife, Mary Ann, three daughters and two grandchildren.
Published in Austin American-Statesman from Dec. 30, 2007 to Jan. 4, 2008