Phil Wilson's War

Traffic congestion on Interstate 35 in Austin. The freeway through central Austin is among the state's most congested road segments, according to a TxDOT study.
Traffic congestion on Interstate 35 in Austin. The freeway through central Austin is among the state's most congested road segments, according to a TxDOT study.

Phil Wilson, a former Texas secretary of state and aide to Gov. Rick Perry, on Thursday was named executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. He had been working as a senior vice president of public affairs for Luminant. The new job comes with a big salary — and even bigger challenges.

Texas Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton announced that Wilson’s annual salary will be $292,500 — a $100,000 increase from that of Wilson's predecessor, Amadeo Saenz.

For those who have followed the process, such a leap might not come as a surprise. A 2010 report from consulting firm Grant Thornton found that the executive director’s salary was competitive with the median of his peers' in the public sector, but roughly half that of his peers in the private sector.

In 2011, the TxDOT Restructure Council, a group assembled to review the Grant Thornton report and others to help revitalize the agency, observed that the legislative salary caps applicable to TxDOT’s most senior executive positions posed an “immediate challenge and possible handicap” for the agency in terms of attracting talent.  

In the last session, lawmakers added a rider to the appropriations bill allowing TxDOT to request approval to exceed the cap up to the level of the median private sector salary — or $381,000. TxDOT officials say they will indeed request more funds under that provision to add to Wilson’s compensation.

But Wilson also has his work cut out for him at the agency, which has found itself at odds with the Legislature.

The overstressed transportation system is a growing problem nationwide. According to a study released this week by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University, the average U.S. commuter is delayed 34 hours each year, up from 14 in 1982. The cost of congestion is now more than $100 billion, nearly $750 for every commuter in the U.S.

Many of the worst cities for traffic are right here in Texas: Houston and Dallas are ranked fourth and fifth worst in the country, respectively.

The TxDOT Restructure Council found that in order to address the state’s situation, the culture of the organization must change. “Behavior that is resistant to change presents a major challenge for new leadership in TxDOT,” it found.

“While TxDOT is certainly a national leader in transportation infrastructure development,” Houghton said in a statement, “there are opportunities for Phil to guide the department through this period of transition, emerging a more responsive and efficient organization.”

Wilson indicated in a statement that he was up for the challenge. “I look forward to working with the agency, Commission, Legislature and local communities on the most efficient and effective ways to build infrastructure for Texas,” he said.