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Phil Wilson: The TT Interview

Ten months into his tenure, the executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation on funding the state's transportation needs, the prospects for high-speed rail and what the expansion of the Panama Canal means for Texas ports.

Phil Wilson, the executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation

Last September, the Texas Transportation Commission voted to make Phil Wilson the new executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation.

The pick signaled the commissioners' desire to see a shift in the agency’s direction, as past executive directors had often been engineers promoted from within the agency. A 2010 audit from an independent consultant had argued that TxDOT lacked focus and needed to become more nimble to address the state's complicated transportation needs.

Wilson, a former Texas secretary of state, had spent much of his career in politics, working for years as an aide for Republican U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm. He later played various roles in Gov. Rick Perry’s administration, including director of communications and deputy chief of staff. At the time of his appointment, Wilson was a senior vice president of public affairs and a corporate officer for Luminant, an energy firm. 

Wilson said he has so far reorganized TxDOT so that it’s clearer where responsibilities lie. He has also focused on improving the agency’s safety record and cutting costs. On both fronts, he points to some early successes.

TxDOT is on track to claim its safest year in the agency's history, Wilson said recently. The agency also announced earlier this year that it had an extra $2 billion to spend on transportation projects, a large chunk of which came from the agency stretching its dollars further than previously expected. 

Wilson spoke with The Texas Tribune earlier this month while attending the Transportation & Infrastructure Summit, a four-day conference in Irving. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

TT: Congress recently passed a major highway bill. How did Texas make out in that, and how is that impacting TxDOT’s work?

Wilson: MAP-21 was a good bill. MAP-21 adopted a lot of the policy objectives TxDOT supported, especially on the environmental side. We’ve reorganized our entire environmental division. We took legislative directives in the bill that passed in the House and Senate last session and then we brought in some new talent. Carlos Swonke is our new leader there. And we think MAP-21 reflects a lot of the work that Texas thought should happen. Our team did a great job in D.C. of making sure Texas interests were represented on the policy front. And this bill advances how we can have, we think, better policy practices, especially environmentally for the state.

On the funding side, we are still challenged compared to the other states. ... We’re still not getting that proportional amount for a state of our size.

I would kind of break down MAP-21 into a couple of components. Policy, environmental: very good. Funding-wise, we would like to have in the future more of a parity position than we have today compared to other states.

TT: [Former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is leading a firm that wants to build a bullet train from Dallas to Houston without any public funding.] Does TxDOT have a position on that project?

Wilson: That is a very innovative type of approach. We’re also supportive of people who want to come in and risk their capital and take on the investment. [With] that initiative, or others who wish to do that, we want to support and ensure we are providing the right tools, analysis and responsiveness to them and others who are interested in that.

I think it’s a really interesting initiative and the fact that they’re doing it with private resources is something we should watch and monitor very closely and try to assist as best we can, along with anybody else who can bring this same type of initiative to us.

TT: Does TxDOT need to do anything to prepare for high-speed rail, or is it really just that some project has to move forward?

Wilson: You know, I think there are pieces we have to make sure that on the policy front and the connectivity side of planning that we’re doing the right things but in the case of projects like this, a lot of it is, the vast majority of it is driven by [the developers], whether it’s financing [or] route selection. There are some parts we’ll have to coordinate with them on because we are the state agency for transportation but a lot of it is going to be driven by them.

TT: I’m hearing a lot at this conference about the Panama Canal expansion [which is expected to double the capacity of its trade route by 2014 and could mean a large increase in business to Texas ports if they can expand to handle more ships.] What is TxDOT doing to prepare for this?

Wilson: We set up a task force. We asked Judge Ed Emmett to be our chair of that, who’s the Harris County judge. Judge Emmett is also a transportation export, so he has a very broad depth of understanding of these issues and we’ve had a series of meetings. We’ll have more over the next few months, getting ready for [the next legislative] session, to identify: Are we ready? Are we not ready? If we’re not ready, what do we have to do to be ready? If we did get ready, would they come? Those are all fundamental questions. … One of the primary challenges and charges we gave the task force was to look at how do we also enhance Texas exports. Texas for the 10th straight year is the largest importing and exporting state in the nation. So we want to make sure that as the Panama Canal does expand that we focus our dollars the right way so that we can export more.

The other part of the conversation which we have to have is not just with the Panamanians, which are important. … It’s the Wal-Marts. It’s the Chinese. It’s the Caterpillars. It’s those who actually choose to ship. And those are the conversations we have to have and say, if you’re choosing to ship, would you want to come to Texas and if you don’t come to Texas, why is that? And if you don’t come to Texas, what would make you come to Texas? And those are the conversations we have to have. Is it cheaper to go to Long Beach, or are you going to go to the East Coast and go to Savannah or to Charleston or other ports, or could we get you to come to Houston or Galveston or Victoria or Corpus Christi or any of those along the way?

TT: [With gas tax revenue failing to keep pace with the state’s transportation needs, toll roads have become a common method to fund major highway projects. Some lawmakers say Texans are getting “toll road fatigue.”] Is that a concern TxDOT has as well?

Wilson: Our objective is to be a people agency that facilitates economic development, and our product is transportation. Our charge by the legislature is to go out and find the ways we can to build infrastructure, mobility, to address congestion and safety. And so we look at all methods of financing, and I think that tolling and this kind of growth allows us to jump-start projects by three to four times faster. It’s the nature of what we have to do. … I think you have to look at tolls as one method of financing.

Another one the legislature has given us that we’re trying to promote is something called transportation reinvestment zones, TRZ. Basically you’re taking the tax increment value. So if a property’s worth a hypothetical $1,000 and you build a road [that] drives economic growth, you get up to $3,000. So that value, that $2,000, how do you capture part of that ad valorem growth and put it into local transportation? That’s a tool we’re hoping to promote even more. There are a few communities like El Paso that have set one up. Some in the Valley. We’d like to have that be a statewide initiative that TxDOT could help inform people on.

…Tolling is a tool. It’s not the only tool, but it’s a tool. Looking at that long term, it also allows us to extend those projects, as I talked about, and get us to the place where mobility can grow quicker. 

Your gas tax has been the same since 1991, so you’re getting 15 cents/gallon of the 20 cents [gas tax] basically that comes to TxDOT after diversions and school [funding commitments]. … You’ve got all of these new people driving a lot more cars with the fuel economy getting better and better, and your costs of construction has probably doubled since 1991. … We need about $4 billion here to maintain our capacity to maintain our infrastructure. Just to keep track of rehabilitation, repaving, resurfacing, all the work you’ve got to do. [Due to] current budget constraints, we’re spending about $3 billion a year. … So you have a billion-dollar shortfall that’s out there. 

Then you have this new [drilling] activity, which has been a challenge for us as a state but it’s a blessing. … Every time you drill a well, it takes about 1,200 trucks, and to maintain that well on an annual basis, about 300 [trucks] … most of these roads were built in the ’50s or ’60s. They were built as farm-to-market roads for country trucks and for agriculture. They weren’t built for 18-wheelers … so a road was built for 25 years and you get that level of traffic, it can diminish it down to six or seven years. …We know this activity is great for our state. We know there are benefits to jobs and wealth. But how do we pay for our infrastructure? … If I spend a dollar today on what I call armoring the road, where I make it wider or I make the concrete pavement thicker, then I have to spend less in the future and so my maintenance costs are a lot less. If you let it get to the point where it’s harmed or it gets stresses and cracks and gets real damage and stresses, it costs you a lot more money. We’re trying to work with our partners in industry to talk about how much it costs. And they need it, too. … They need to have a good system as well. There’s an economic and safety component for their guys and process as well. So we’re really trying to be thoughtful about the cost and how you do it and be proactive as opposed to reactive.

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