Q&A: Bill Meadows

Bill Meadows

A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpress.net

Bill Meadows may no longer serve as commissioner of the Texas Transportation Commission, but Fort Worth infrastructure improvements remain foremost on his mind. “Fort Worth – and North Texas in general – has managed to gain a lot of funding for some really needed transportation projects,” said Meadows, 60, who is no stranger to finding such financial backing. Whether serving on the Fort Worth City Council or the Texas Transportation Commission, Meadows has fought for dollars that have helped seed $16 billion in North Texas road projects currently under way. Since stepping down from the state commission in April, the Fort Worth native has focused on Hub International Texas insurance brokerage, where he is chairman emeritus. Spending more time in his downtown office rather than racing to meetings in Austin pleases the longtime public servant, who reports no difficultly in adjusting to the shorter commute. His drive was equally brief when he received a plaque at the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition’s June 5 monthly meeting in downtown Fort Worth. “Few people have dedicated as much time, energy and commitment as Bill has given to the transportation issue,” said Euless Mayor Mary Lib Saleh also a coalition member, presenting Meadows with a plaque honoring that dedication. Meadows appreciates such accolades but keeps things in perspective. “It’s all about public service and doing what you can,” he said. Meadows took some time to chat while returning to Fort Worth from his ranch in Shackelford County northeast of Abilene.

You’re no longer on the Texas Transportation Commission. Are you experiencing public office withdrawal? No, not at all. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in one aspect of public service or another for 25 years going back to the parks board in Fort Worth and the city council and state water board and the North Texas Tollway Authority and, ultimately, the Texas Department of Transportation. Each one of those jobs was challenging and really fulfilling, but you know, I’ve really enjoyed not having that obligation to drive to Austin every week.

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Do you still wake up on autopilot, almost programmed for that commute? (laughs) You do get into a particular routine after years, but it does stop. There’s a little bit of that, ‘What am I going to do Monday morning if I’m not headed to Austin?’

What do you do nowadays? I’m still serving as chairman emeritus of Hub International – that is, of its Texas operation, which I had the opportunity to be CEO of that entity from really 2007 through last year, and so I still have business obligations and branch obligations. I also have two different ranches in Parker County and Shackelford County. I’m coming back from Shackelford right now, in fact.

Are they family ranches? Yes, one is a family ranch and the other I own with partners – the Shackelford one. We did get three-quarters of an inch of rain in [county seat] Albany last night, which is great, but we just don’t have any grass. It’s not only do you not have enough grass, but you’re concerned about surface water.

You’ve spent countless hours lobbying for transportation funding and pushing transportation issues. And of course, water is also important, as you just mentioned. What’s fueled your motivation? What I know is I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in critical and foundational public policy issues in Texas. One of those is transportation; the other one is water. I spent eight years on the state water board. Both those issues are about as basic or foundational as one could get. In terms of a predictable supply of water, without that or a functioning system of transportation, you really don’t have an economy and your quality of life is dramatically impacted. Since 2000, I’ve been directly involved in that. I was pleased to see the Legislature this time around come up with a $2 billion water initiative. It’s really an investment of rainy day funds on top of advancing water. That’s a critical thing at this point in time. I was disappointed that the Legislature did not make more of a financial commitment to transportation; I really believe the Legislature will come back in the next legislative session and make one. [Following this interview, Gov. Rick Perry added transportation funding to the current special session agenda.]

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What makes you think that? All the financial resources the state has available are going to be exhausted by 2015. The only thing left after 2015, the only dollars predictably ongoing, are gas tax revenue, which is really not enough to maintain the existing system in its current state. What you’ll see in the next two years are [that] projects in the Metroplex will be winding down. North Tarrant Express will be winding down by 2015, the DFW Connector by 2015, Chisholm Trail Parkway by 2015. Each of those will be complete. I-35W [improvements] will not be, but I think we’ll continue to have significant and impactful congestion in the roadways in our region and no construction activity. I think the people of Texas are going to demand their policymakers act on this situation.

Many folks see all the construction right now and might think everything’s funded. Yeah, I think when that work begins to wind down, people will realize that there is a problem because we’ve got significant congestion in many areas that is not being addressed. Serving the commission gave you a statewide perspective on transportation issues and needs. Where does Fort Worth fit in terms of transportation needs, and are there challenges unique to Fort Worth that perhaps other Texas cities do not have? If you look at urban areas of Texas, this state has experienced extraordinary growth over the last 25 years. Fort Worth is a great example because it’s one of the fastest-growing large cities in the state. The Metroplex and North Texas, quite frankly, if you look at the dollar amount of construction under way, is $16 billion now. You get to Houston and that’s half of that, San Antonio 20 percent of that. My point is that North Texas has been successful in securing transportation dollars. People would ask why is that the case? The answer is that local leadership through the Regional Transportation Commission, Michael Morris and that group [North Central Texas Council of Governments], working in conjunction with the NTTA [North Texas Transit Authority] and TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation], have managed to figure out how to work well together. You have to credit local leadership more so than TxDOT in bringing it to the attention of Texas to finance these major projects.

What’s your take on the increase of toll roads into modern roadways? There’s a major one about to cut through Fort Worth when the Chisholm Trail project opens. If you think about the motor vehicle fuel tax, those rates have not been reset since the early 1990s. We’ve had huge growth and extraordinarily more efficient vehicles. Cars aren’t burning as much gas, even though there are more of them. That source of revenue is not generating enough. You’re going to have to pay for roads somehow. There is no road fairy. I think tolls are going to be part of the solution, but they aren’t the solution for every challenge we have. Tolls will be very specific for high-traffic areas where traffic counts can justify the economics. Long term, the state is going to have to address transportation needs by providing additional funding.

Let’s go back to your city council years. What led you to run for Steve Murrin’s District 7 seat in 1990? What could Bill Meadows offer that Steve Murrin could not? I was actually Murrin’s appointee. I was on the parks board first. Prior to that, I served on another policy board. And I was active through United Way and the YMCA, just caring a lot about the community. Fort Worth is a very special place. I’ve always felt an obligation to get involved and try to contribute. It’s an obligation we have and I felt that.

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You’re with Hub International Texas. What does that involve? I attend board meetings or monthly meetings and am active and involved in client development.

What advice would you give Victor Vandergriff, appointed by Gov. Perry as your successor on the Texas Transportation Commission? The good news for North Texas is Victor Vandergriff is extremely bright and has a world of experience. He has served as chairman of the NTTA before he went on the commission and also chairman of the new DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] agency. He grew up in a household more involved [in political and transportation issues] than most other households. Victor doesn’t need any advice; he knows exactly what he needs to do. I think he’ll represent North Texas well.

What do you like doing in your spare time? Any hobbies? If I have spare time, I’m doing ranch work or am at the house on the coast, too [in Rockport, northeast of Corpus Christi]. I’m in dry West Texas to wet Rockport.