Abbott makes mid-term shift in TxDOT leadership


San Antonio banker Bruce Bugg to take over chairmanship of the Texas Transportation Commission.

Bugg and Tryon Lewis, who was the chair, were both appointed by Gov. Abbott to the TxDOT board.

Past switches in the commission’s leadership have typically been one governor removing another’s chairman.

San Antonio banker J. Bruce Bugg, Jr., appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to the Texas Transportation Commission in 2015, has been named chairman of the five-member panel that oversees the Texas Department of Transportation.

Bugg succeeds Tryon Lewis, a former state representative and district judge from Odessa. The switch is unusual in that it comes in the middle of both of their six-year terms, and because Abbott appointed both men to the commission.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday why Abbott made the switch. The Abbott news release announcing it had just two sentences, along with a short bio of Bugg. Abbott’s office did not provide further comment.

“I can guarantee you that it’s not, ‘Tryon, you didn’t do a good job,’ ” said state Rep. Joe Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who formerly chaired the House Transportation Commission and was close to Lewis, a Republican, during the commissioner’s seven years in the House. “Tryon’s been one of the most active, involved chairmen since I’ve been in the Legislature. But I also know that Bugg has a closer relationship with the governor.”

Lewis, whose term does not expire until 2021, will continue to serve on the commission, said TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman.

READ: Lewis had opposed TxDOT funding amendments while in the House

Bugg, who has led a statewide “congestion relief” initiative that Abbott called for, said he heard about the promotion in a late morning phone call Tuesday. Asked about the reasons behind the change, Bugg pointed to the governor’s Monday announcement of several changes in his senior staff.

“I would interpret the timing as an affirmation of just how important transportation continues to be,” Bugg said, adding that his practice and strength in the business world has been to turn long-term plans into specific blueprints for execution.

Lewis and Bugg have been on the commission during a time of financial plenty, with billions of additional dollars coming to TxDOT from constitutional amendments approved by the public and from other legislative actions in 2014 and 2015. But it has also been a period of increasing resistance — including by Abbott — to the use of toll roads to address the state’s intense urban traffic congestion.

The commission, in allocating all the new money available, has had to thread a policy needle between urban and rural transportation needs while simultaneously deciding how sharply to limit tollway construction. Bugg said his practice with toll road proposals is to go with a local community’s preference, as expressed by local transportation leaders. But the voter-approved constitutional amendments prohibit the use of the funds generated by them on toll roads, and Bugg said the commission must ensure that none of those dollars end up in toll projects.

“Commissioner Bugg understands Central Texas better than anyone has on the commission for many years,” said Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which builds toll projects. “He will be looking at things from a chairman’s perspective, of course, but he also knows the congestion we’re dealing with every day here.”

There have been three other instances since 2001 when one transportation commissioner replaced another as chairman. Johnnie Johnson, a George W. Bush appointee, gave way in 2004 to Ric Williamson, a longtime friend and appointee of the then-Gov. Rick Perry. Deirdre DeLisi, a close Perry confidant who taken over from interim chairwoman Hope Andrade just four months after Williamson’s death, passed the baton in 2011 to Ted Houghton, another Perry appointee, but only because she was joining Perry’s presidential campaign.

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