El Paso has experienced a renaissance in transportation since Ted Houghton became the first El Pasoan to serve on the Texas Transportation Commission in 2003 and was named chair in October.
Houghton, 60, brought his love for El Paso to Austin, and it's hard to overstate or measure the dramatic change in El Paso's transportation fortunes since, with new infrastructure to support El Paso's unprecedented economic growth.
"He has been our only political appointee to the Texas Department of Transportation in our history, and that in itself is historical," local businessman Woody Hunt says. "It's one of those agencies that has a reputation for being extremely demanding."
You'll never hear it from Houghton, but friends and colleagues say his behind the scenes work was crucial in securing approval for Spur 601 several years ago - a $360-million project that helped pave the way for the staggering $5-billion expansion of Fort Bliss.
"That has been absolutely critical," says state Rep. Dee Margo. "His work at TxDOT has been phenomenal."
Houghton's work was also crucial in securing almost $80 million to widen Transmountain Road in West El Paso, part of an overall plan to complete El Paso's outer loop.
"Ted has been the driving force in El Paso receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for new highway construction and improvements," says fellow businessman J. Robert Brown, who was one of many who nominated Houghton for El Pasoan of the Year.
The Far Eastside "spaghetti bowl" interchange is rising at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Loop 375, a new entrance to UTEP is under construction, and new lanes are being added to the Border Highway.
But those are not the only reasons why Houghton has been selected as El Paso Inc.'s El Pasoan of the Year for 2011.
Although heading one of the state's largest agencies and running his own business, Houghton Financial Partners, is demanding enough, Houghton's being recognized for what he has done above and beyond his role in transportation and business.
Getting things done
Friends and colleagues talk about Houghton like he's an iceberg - most of what he does happens below the surface. He's the man working behind the scenes who just gets things done, and transportation projects are the tip of the iceberg.
"One phone call and things happened; it was amazing. His importance cannot be overstated," says Rick Francis, chairman of local Bank of the West. Francis serves on the Texas Tech Board of Regents and played a key role in Tech's establishment of medical and nursing schools in El Paso.
He says Houghton also played a critical role in that effort to establish the med school.
"We believe the economic opportunity for this generation and the next generation, permanent jobs in this community, will be around the Texas Tech medical school and now the nursing school and now, hopefully, the dental school," Houghton says.
Houghton is quick to credit others, like the city and El Paso's state delegation, but his friends and colleagues say El Paso's growing influence in Austin has a lot to do with his involvement.
"If there is anything I have learned from serving is that people don't know about El Paso and its needs, and it takes somebody credible to articulate it," says state Rep. Margo.
The effort to improve El Paso's influence at the state level began quite deliberately about a decade ago, when a group of influential El Paso business people decided to change a long-time El Paso reality, insiders say. At the time, many felt that El Paso was not getting its fair share of state dollars.
"How communities get more dollars is they coalesce together," Houghton says, "they have a plan and they stick to the plan and they advocate for that plan."
Since that group of influential El Pasoans decided to change El Paso's fortunes, El Paso has become known as a state leader in transportation and several El Pasoans have been appointed to key boards and commissions.
Houghton was the first major appointment, and it's no coincidence that many more key appointments have followed, insiders say.
The list is long. Paul Foster is a UT System regent, Rick Francis is a Texas Tech regent, Harold Hahn is on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Robert Brown has been on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, Larry Patton and Cindy Lyons are on the Finance Commission of Texas, and Patrick Gordon is on the Rio Grande Compact Commission, which administers the Rio Grande Compact to ensure that Texas receives its equitable share of quality water.
"When you look at Dallas, Houston and Austin, they are closer together, so they have a better understanding of what is going on in each of the communities. But we are so far out there that we don't see that," Houghton says, "You get people on these boards and commissions and it makes a real difference."
Houghton's ability to get things done, friends and colleagues say, has a lot to do with his gift of bridging borders, whether it's giving a largely Democratic county a voice in a largely Republican state, or straddling the business and political worlds and making it look easy.
"As a native El Pasoan, Ted has seen the growth of our city and when given the opportunity has worked diligently to not only acquire the funding but to see the construction get underway," Brown says.
City Rep. Steve Ortega, who works with Houghton as a member of the Transportation Policy Board, says Houghton is somebody who gets things done.
"Ted Houghton has been a huge asset to our region. At the end of the day, it's not about titles, it's not about promises, it's not about visions, it's about delivering," he says.
Even democrats such as Ortega and El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar, who come from a different political persuasion than Houghton, say he has the ability to work with people no matter their party affiliation.
Indeed, Escobar says Houghton meets regularly with a diverse group of El Paso movers and shakers.
And it was at one of those meetings, insiders say, that Houghton fielded the idea of using the franchise funds paid to the city every year to support the Medical Center of the Americas Foundation.
The idea caught on, and City Council voted in June to do just that, allocating 75 percent of the franchise funds to the MCA Foundation for the next 20 years. The first allocation is expected to total about $3.3 million.
"City Council saw the incredible opportunity in that idea, and that money will help be an economic development catalyst," Escobar says. She works with Houghton as a member of the local Metropolitan Planning Organization.
"Ted is a great El Pasoan," Escobar says. "He is someone who is always thinking about our future, about how to make us competitive, about our assets and how to take full advantage of them, and, more importantly, about the families and people in the community. His work has been transformational. And despite the very high profile leadership position he has been given, he has always been El Paso-centric and humble - has always wanted to just ensure that El Paso gets the best it possibly can."
There another side of Houghton that is less known - that of a committed family man.
Houghton and his wife Hettie have five children. Three live in Houston, one in Dallas and one in College Station.
"Maybe I can get one or two of them back here. I would like to," Houghton says.
Pictures of his wife and sons cover the shelves in Houghton's office, along with a photo of Houghton running the Marine Corps Marathon with friend Rick Francis.
"He is a servant leader. He doesn't have a big ego, and he inspires us," Francis says. "You cannot overestimate the impact he has had on me."
Houghton is a fourth generation El Pasoan. His father - "a mentor of mine," Houghton says - was executive vice president of the original State National Bank and, before that, was president of Price's Creameries.
Houghton is not a big talker, although he doesn't shy away from telling it like he sees it. What he says is direct.
He spent high-school summers working on the family farm 90 miles north of Amarillo, and graduated from Coronado High School in 1970. He went on to earn a business degree from the University of Texas at El Paso.
About 15 years ago, Houghton started his business, Houghton Financial Partners, and got involved in politics as the campaign manager for Rick Francis's father Larry Francis, who served as El Paso mayor from 1993 to 1997.
Houghton served for eight years on the El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board and on El Paso's Rapid Transit Board. He has served on the School Land Board, El Paso Electric's board of directors, as a past president of the Sun Bowl Association, and was even a member of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Committee.
"He has a vast understanding of the politics of our region and how the state machinery works," Francis says.
He adds, "Infrastructure is what we're all starving for to advance our communities."
Houghton's term on the transportation commission ends in February 2015, although he can be reappointed at the pleasure of the governor.