FORT WORTH — Bill Meadows’ reputation as a political bridge builder is one reason he was selected Wednesday to serve on the Texas Transportation Commission — and he’ll be put to the test immediately, pitching toll roads to a skeptical public and distrustful state Legislature.
The five-member governing body oversees the Texas Department of Transportation and is responsible for mapping out a plan to reduce gridlock, even as Texas’ population is expected to explode over the next 50 years. Perry also appointed his former chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, as commission chairwoman. Meadows and Delisi will begin serving immediately, although their appointments must be confirmed by the state Senate in 2009. Their terms end Feb. 1, 2013.
Meadows, who resigned his North Texas Tollway Authority board seat Wednesday shortly after his state appointment was made official, said toll roads aren’t the answer to every traffic problem. But, he said Texans need to get the message about the state’s bleak highway funding situation. Highways have traditionally been supported by gas taxes, but those funds haven’t kept pace with the cost of building roads. “Properly explained, I think the public will accept toll roads, particularly if we are careful and clear in explaining what the future capacity needs are going to be,” Meadows said. “The fact is this state is going to grow dramatically in the next 50 years. There are projections that put the population at 40 million people in 2060. We’re going to have to work hard to provide additional capacity to serve that sort of population growth.”
Influence in Austin
Meadows is the first Fort Worth resident to serve on the commission since Robert M. Bass was a member in 1986-87. Tarrant County leaders praised the appointment, saying they hope Meadows’ influence will speed up construction of projects such as Southwest Parkway, a proposed toll road from downtown to southwest Fort Worth, and new toll and nontoll lanes on Interstate 35W, Loop 820 and Airport Freeway. “Bill has a great sense of humor, which will help him on that board,” said Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, a longtime friend and hunting buddy of Meadows. “He’s got tremendous energy, focus and determination. On top of all that, he’s a pretty good shot. He understands how to put a target between the crosshairs and keep it there.”
A few years ago, Meadows persuaded the Plano-based tollway authority to build Southwest Parkway with extra landscaping and other amenities, so it would blend in with Fort Worth’s older neighborhoods, said state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth. Meadows also was a calming influence during the past two years, as the tollway authority and state transportation department fueded over which agency should be responsible for building Metroplex toll roads. Meadows is well-known in Tarrant County, Brimer said. But he added: “I think his service on the tollway authority proved to the east side of the Metroplex he was a good, fair man to work with.”
Meadows and Delisi must quickly prepare to defend the transportation department before the Sunset Review Commission, which periodically examines state agencies to determine if they’re still relevant. For the transportation department, that process hits high gear in July. Critics say it won’t be easy for Delisi, a staunch Perry supporter. “Rick Perry had to go in-house to find somebody, another bulldog,” said Linda Curtis of Bastrop, founder of Independent Texans, a group of self-described independent voters that opposes toll roads.
Curtis said many candidates for state offices are finding favor with voters by speaking out against toll roads, especially the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposed statewide tollway network. The transportation department would be wise to recognize that trend and reverse its pursuit of toll roads, she said. “It’s going to continue to be a huge issue, and there is going to be a breaking point,” she said. “Either they are going to just force this thing on Texans, or people of this state are going to find some avenue for making a change.”
But Delisi said in a phone interview that criticisms about toll roads are a byproduct of tackling a tough problem — how to pay for roads, to accommodate population and economic growth, without raising taxes. “Our transportation infrastructure and how we’re going to build it and pay for it are very difficult challenges that need to be addressed,” she said. “I think it’s what is reflected in the debate between the Legislature and the agency. My goal and what I’ve committed to the governor and other member of the Legislature is I intend to work with them to solve these problems through open dialog, creative thinking and hard work.”
GORDON DICKSON, 817-685-3816
New transportation blood
Bill Meadows of Fort Worth and Deirdre Delisi of Austin were appointed Wednesday to the Texas Transportation Commission. Meadows replaces Ric Williamson of Weatherford, who died in late December. Delisi replaces Hope Andrade of San Antonio, whose term expired in February.
Experience: Insurance executive, chairman of Hub International Rigg; vice chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority (resigned Wednesday); former Texas Water Development Board member; four-term Fort Worth City Council member and mayor pro tempore; served on many other boards and foundations.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Southwestern University; attended Harlaxton Institute, Grantham, England.
In his words: “I think anybody would recognize it’s a job that is going to be very challenging. The fact is, transportation is as fundamental of a public service as there is to the state of Texas. We clearly have some challenges in that arena. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in transportation over the last 18 years, from a local government perspective. I’ve enjoyed the transportation arena but more importantly I recognize its significance to the citizens of the state.”
Experience: Former chief of staff, Gov. Rick Perry; former policy advisor to Lamar Alexander and George W. Bush presidential campaigns.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Duke University; master’s degree, Stanford University.
In her words: “The mission from TxDot hasn’t changed. The goals of the agency and commission are to reduce congestion, enhance safety, expand economic opportunity, improve air quality and maintain the assets we have on the ground. The governor’s marching orders are for me to maintain the course.”
Gov. Rick Perry’s statement about Meadows and Delisi:
“I am confident their contribution to the commission will maintain the momentum of the late Commissioner Ric Williamson’s pioneering vision, and secure comprehensive transportation solutions that will reduce traffic congestion, improve safety and keep our state’s doors open to economic growth and success.”