The Texas Department of Transportation has rolled out more than $60 billion worth of transportation projects across the state over the past decade. That’s $190 spent every second of every day for 10 years.
Ted Houghton oversaw that spending as a member of the Texas Transportation Commission, where he served from December 2003 until last February, when his term ended. For the last four years, he headed the commission as its chair.
In an extended interview with El Paso Inc., Houghton looked back on his 11 years on the commission. He pondered the future and weighed in on road funding woes in Texas.
He also took El Paso leaders to task for the slow rollout of the signature quality of life bond projects and warned about the consequences of retreating from Austin, the state capital.
And he talked about his relationship with the new governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, and his decades-long relationship with Abbott’s predecessor, Rick Perry. That’s what led to Houghton’s appointment to the transportation commission.
When pressed, he would not rule out running for mayor in 2016 when Oscar Leeser’s term ends. But he wouldn’t confirm anything, either.
Houghton, the first El Pasoan to serve on the transportation commission, had a hand in securing more than $2 billion for much-needed transportation projects in El Paso, where infrastructure has been strained by a rapidly growing population.
The funding surge marked a significant shift for this far West Texas corner of the state, which had suffered for decades because of its lack of influence in Austin.
“Mr. Houghton represented the whole state of Texas and represented it well, but he also represented El Paso. Sometimes we get overlooked, and he made sure we didn’t,” Mayor Leeser told El Paso Inc.
In Houghton’s place, Gov. Abbot appointed San Antonio banker J. Bruce Bugg Jr. The commission’s new chair is Odessa Republican Tryon Lewis, who had been a state representative.
Houghton said he had no ambitions to serve on the Texas Transportation Commission back in 2003 when he got a surprise phone call from the governor’s appointments office. After an interrogation at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Austin, he became the commission’s fifth member.
Houghton had served on boards for years. He was on El Paso Electric’s board, the Public Service Board for eight years and the Texas General Land Office School Land Board for two years. He had also served as a member of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee.
Houghton, who turns 64 this month, is a fourth generation El Pasoan. He’s a man of few words, but what he says is often direct.
He attended Coronado High School, spending summers working on the family farm north of Amarillo. He went on to earn a business degree from the University of Texas at El Paso.
Houghton is the owner of Houghton Financial Partners, which moved its offices into Downtown El Paso last year, renovating a building at 210 N. Campbell. He and his wife Hettie have five grown children.
In his new office, Houghton spoke with El Paso Inc. about how communities need to work together, what local leaders need to watch out for, and what elected offices he might – or might not – run for.
Q: How much did you know about the machinations of the commission and how transportation works in Texas when you became a commissioner? I’m sure the learning curve was big.
It’s overwhelming when you come in as to the depth and breadth of what goes on there. It’s just absolutely amazing. From the regulatory side, to the construction side, to the planning side – I mean just all the way through it.
Q: What have you learned since?
If you boil everything down, it’s about communities coalescing behind projects. There has to be a champion, or champions, behind a project or it doesn’t happen. It’s not a top down; it’s a bottom up. The locals in the communities drive those projects.
Q: What do you mean by locals?
In several communities, it’s the metropolitan planning organization. There are also advocacy groups all over the state – whether it’s in Dallas or Houston or San Antonio – that focus on transportation and getting transportation assets built.
Q: Is it really bottom up? It seems like you and state Rep. Joe Pickett have had a lot to do with it, having influential transportation posts.
No. I disagree. The legislature and governor set the tone as to what you can do. From there, the community prioritizes what projects get done. It’s not the commissioner saying, “We are going to build that.” That just doesn’t happen.
Q: Anything you would do different if you could do it all over again?
I’m not sure if I would do anything different. We blew out more projects; we emptied the piggy bank. That was the charge: get this stuff out the door and done.
Q: You’re referring to the Texas bonds that provided billions in transportation funding for the state.
Time is money, and the longer we waited to build those projects the more it was going to cost. We kicked people in the backside and got our consultants on it. Delay wasn’t acceptable.
Q: In general, how do you feel about the direction of El Paso?
We are in pretty good shape. We need more driven leadership.
Q: Are you referring to the slow rollout of the signature quality of life bond projects – the arena, children’s museum and Hispanic cultural center?
Yeah. Every day that passes... We approved those projects how long ago?
Costs are going up and construction prices are going up; so by waiting, you are contracting the size of the projects.
That’s what we faced at TxDOT. We knew when we set out to build a project, by the time you go through the process – environmental, engineering and such – either the cost would be more or you would build less.
Q: The city has moved quickly on a number of the smaller neighborhood bond projects, but I’ve wondered what has held up the big projects.
It’s just leadership. I will give you an analogy. You remember when we had a citywide vote on the domestic partners issue and the citizens approved it?
Q: It was quite controversial back in 2011.
The citizens voted for it and then City Council overturned the citizens’ will. What happened to some of the members of that council?
Q: They were voted out of office.
That’s right. What this council needs to understand is the citizens have spoken in a huge way – overwhelming – 70 percent. That is a mandate.
Now, if they don’t understand a mandate, there is another election cycle coming this month and in two years there is another. And if these projects are not out the door or planned and ready to go, I think the citizens may have something to say about that again.
Q: TxDOT is one of the state’s largest agencies. How vast is it?
It maintains 81,000 miles of roads – the largest in the country.
Q: That transportation infrastructure has been under great strain with population growth in the state and the oil boom.
Hence the problem. The state is experiencing all this success and now we have the stress to accommodate it.
Q: How serious is the state’s road funding shortfall?
It is serious. We have maxed out most of the bond opportunities.
The problem is, with a growing state, the growth is outstripping the transportation system and people are saying, “I don’t want all this traffic.”
You have to recruit businesses, but they don’t want to be waiting in traffic; they don’t want their employees to be waiting in traffic.
Q: How did the state get to this point?
It’s not just Texas; it’s the entire country. Of course, the problem is more acute in the growing states. The problem the country is having as a whole is fixing the old system. I mean, the interstate highway system is more than 50 years old.
Q: Interstate 10 is almost 60 years old now, right?
And if you notice, it is like a patchwork quilt. It is coming up, so we have to replace it. In growing states like Texas, we have to replace the old system and provide new mobility.
Q: Like you said, the bond opportunities are about maxed out. So how might Texas fund transportation going forward?
You have to have the ability to finance the projects that are on the table now and then you have to have new resources, which they are working on in the legislature.
Q: What are they working on?
They’re looking at using a piece of the motor vehicle sales tax.
Q: Is that a good idea?
It is. When a car is sold, a piece of that would go toward the transportation system, which makes perfect sense.
Q: El Paso’s lack of clout in Austin had long been an issue and meant El Paso’s roads suffered as funding went to other, better-connected communities. Are things going to go back to the way they were?
It is going to be so important to this community to stay connected in Austin. If they don’t stay connected in Austin, guess what? Dallas is there all the time, Houston is there all the time, Austin is there and the squeaky wheel gets the oil. It’s just a fact.
If you aren’t advocating, if you aren’t trying to get your project done, if you don’t coalesce around certain projects, it’s just not going to happen. And you can’t leave it up to the elected class; it’s got to take local leadership in conjunction with elected leaders.
Part of our problem is our geography; we are located so far out west that the leadership in this town, whether it be charitable leadership, the chambers, advocacy groups, are not involved in Austin.
You can have El Paso Days in Austin, but that is once a year. There has to be a consistent involvement in advocating with agencies.
We had groups coming to see us at TxDOT on a regular basis, whether they were from Laredo or McAllen or Brownsville – I mean over and over and over – advocating for certain projects.
You can’t continue to gripe and complain and throw rocks, you have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And I think at one point in time, we were a problem.
Q: You’ve been an unlikely advocate for mass transit in a state that loves its big roads. Why is transit important?
You can’t pave your way to prosperity; it just doesn’t work. You run out of room at some point in time. Take I-10. If you tried to widen I-10 more, it would be a huge cost in right-of-way.
Q: That’s when you have to start looking at light rail, bus rapid transit, trolleys and the like.
Yeah. But it is not for me to say what this city or Austin or San Antonio ought to do – it’s the locals. It’s up to them to say what they think is important and we at TxDOT shouldn’t say, “No, that’s not important.”
Q: You’re alluding to the Downtown El Paso trolley project…
Q: When the commission voted to fund the trolley project, along with billions of other road projects across the state, some raised questions about the commission’s transparency.
Every one of those projects was approved by the local MPO. We chose to take strategic priority dollars at TxDOT, which we have the authority to do, and said, “We are going to fund these,” and we did. Now, much to the chagrin of some people; but you know, the locals spoke.
Q: Rep. Pickett is an influential voice on Texas transportation issues. How important has his leadership in Austin been to securing funding for road projects in El Paso?
In the legislature, it is very important.
Q: It’s no secret you and Rep. Pickett haven’t always seen eye to eye.
You’ve got to remember that I am an executive branch person and he is a legislative branch person. The members of the commission are appointed by the governor, who sets the tone. Now, I never had the governor call me once and say, “You’ve got to go do that project,” or “You’re messing up that project, Houghton.”
Q: Have you had an opportunity to meet the new governor, Greg Abbott?
Q: How well do you know him?
I know him pretty well.
Q: What do you think of the direction he is taking Texas?
Oh, I think he is doing fine transportation-wise. He’s got a focus on transportation; he wants to fund it. It’s easier said than done because there are so many other agencies that would like to have their initiatives funded.
Q: Is Abbott a departure from his predecessor, Rick Perry?
It’s just different styles. In general, the goals and objectives are pretty much the same.
Q: You donated $18,440 to the Perry campaign over a number of years. In 2013, you donated $5,000 to the Abbott campaign. Why?
I support people who are like-minded; I agree with their goals and objectives. Gov. Perry and I had a different relationship. I knew him when he ran for agriculture commissioner.
Q: More than 20 years ago.
I’ve known him and I’ve kept up with him and was involved in his campaigns, so we built a relationship. Probably that is one of the reasons I was appointed to the transportation commission. But I was like-minded. I liked what he did and agreed with his direction.
Q: You connected.
Q: What are you going to do with all of your new free time?
Work. Doing my thing here. Fourteen years on state boards is plenty. When you are chair, it is just a different dynamic. That phone in there rang all the time.
Q: You aren’t interested in serving on any other state boards or looking to run for office? No plans?
No plans. I wasn’t planning on being transportation commissioner.
Q: Do you worry about getting another call to serve on a board?
You know, if it is something I think would be enjoyable and worthwhile and rewarding, I’d do it.
Q: What about public office? Mayor, city council, state office?
I wouldn’t run for council. Not council…