Episode Preview with TTI Agency Director Emeritus Dennis Christiansen (audio, 44s):
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June 20, 2023Episode 60. The Texas Transportation Hall of Honor: Recognizing vision, passion, and purpose.
FEATURING: Dennis Christiansen
Texas owes its transportation primacy in large part to an elite group of visionary leaders whose contributions merit permanent and meaningful places in the Lone Star State’s history.
About Our Guest
Agency Director Emeritus
Dr. Dennis L. Christiansen is agency director emeritus of TTI where he served for 45 years in a multitude of leadership roles. Also a Texas A&M University System Regents Fellow, Dr. Christiansen has extensive research experience in traffic operations, transportation planning, and transit planning, and is an international expert in high occupancy vehicle lanes. He was instrumental in forming the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor and has personal knowledge of and experience with many of its inductees. Dennis is pictured here with his nephews, Jeff and Doug.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:14):
Hello and welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Texas is recognized as having one of the finest transportation systems on earth. That system has been central to supporting the state’s economy and meeting the daily mobility needs of millions who call the state home. The system didn’t just happen, of course. It was the product of massive public investment, guided by the dreams and diligence of an elite number of visionary leaders. Some might be widely recognizable to most of us, while others would likely only be known to those who worked alongside them. Perhaps no one knows more about all of them than our guest today — Dr. Dennis Christensen, director emeritus of TTI and the founder of the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor. Dennis first joined TTI as a graduate research assistant in 1971, then worked in a number of research capacities, becoming an expert in traffic operations and transportation planning. He served as deputy director of the agency for 13 years and became director in 2006, serving in that role for the next 10 years. We’re honored that he would join us for this conversation. Thank you for doing this, Dennis.
Dennis Christiansen (guest) (01:48):
Appreciate the opportunity. Glad to be here.
Bernie Fette (01:51):
You started the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor more than 20 years ago. Since that time, honored 49 people. So can you begin our visit today by telling us why you created the Hall of Honor and what was your thinking at the time?
Dennis Christiansen (02:09):
Well, about a quarter of century ago, a number of us realized that other groups, other organizations, have a way of recognizing outstanding people in a permanent and meaningful manner. And that we had a lot of people involved in transportation in Texas that deserve that kind of recognition. But we had no way of doing it. So the concept of coming up with the Hall of Honor got discussed. And this was before email, so we actually typed a memo explaining what we were thinking about. Uh, sent it out to about 35 transportation leaders in the state of Texas asking what they thought of the idea. And I think we got 35 responses and they were all extremely positive with the caveat of, make sure you do this in some significant way where you recognize the people who made a difference and you don’t necessarily feel obligated to recognize everybody who served as governor of the state of Texas. So we spent a fair amount of time writing bylaws for the Hall of Honor, which were widely reviewed and approved and have turned out, I think, to be very good in the process. So we began it all with broad support, and I think we’ve had a lot of interest and a lot of success moving forward.
Bernie Fette (03:36):
Okay. So most, if not all the people who’ve been inducted would be instantly recognized by anyone who’s in the transportation field?
Dennis Christiansen (03:46):
Well, maybe yes, maybe no, because we’re we, were recognizing people who are well … airports, ports, highways, roadways, transit. So they would be recognized to people who are in their area. They may not all be recognized to everybody.
Bernie Fette (04:04):
Okay. You’re touching on something that I definitely wanted to ask about because the collection of honorees is rather diverse. What are the segments of the industry that you’ve covered that are represented?
Dennis Christiansen (04:15):
Well, the, the concept was to recognize anybody who is a Texan or who contributed greatly to Texas in a meaningful manner regardless of what mode of transportation they participated in and what they did. And you know, when you go through the list, which we can discuss in more detail, there’s people who created the Port of Houston, there’s people who grew airlines. Uh, there’s people who led highway programs, there’s people who led transit programs. There’s people who implemented toll road programs. What aspect of transportation you’re in is not relevant to the discussion. It’s only did you make a meaningful contribution at the state level.
Bernie Fette (04:59):
So you’ve really made a clean sweep of all the different modes of transportation.
Dennis Christiansen (05:02):
We think so.
Bernie Fette (05:04):
Okay. Let’s talk a little bit more about the honorees specifically. I know that many of them are your friends, so I suspect it would be difficult to pick out a few that really stand out. But since we don’t have time to go into detail on all 49, can I ask you to share some personal reflections about a few of them, maybe some stories that aren’t widely known about them, maybe go beyond their professional accomplishments and help us know them on a more personal level?
Dennis Christiansen (05:34):
Yeah, I think Bernie, as sort of a quick overview, it was pretty easy to select who the first inductee should be, and that was Frank Turner. And Frank is widely viewed in the profession, as the father of the Interstate Highway program. Worked for the Bureau of Public Roads in Washington, DC was also a Texas A&M class of ’39 graduate. And you know, I think with Frank, we set the bar pretty high. And Frank’s plaque would hang by itself for about two years before we added to that. But if you go to the next phase and names that people may or may not recognize, uh, Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, and we recognized him at a Southwest Airlines 30th anniversary celebration in Dallas. It was a great event, but since then you stay in the airline industry, Cyrus Smith took over American Airlines when it was a fledgling small airline. He led American Airlines for 34 years and he turned it into the large national carrier, number one carrier in the country at that point in time. And similarly, Gordon Bethune led Continental Airlines headquartered in Houston, and Gordon took Continental outta bankruptcy and turned it into a national carrier, which would ultimately merge with United Airlines. The Gordon story would be that he took over an airline that was bankrupt and he figured that he had virtually no assets and huge debt. And he walked into his meeting with these bankers who were holding the debt and he said: “This is the size of my assets. This is the size of my debt. Do I have a problem or do we have a problem?” And out of that, they negotiated refinancing the airline that Gordon turned into a national powerhouse. Tom Ball, father of the Port of Houston. Mm-hmm. Recognized by a city in Texas called Tomball.
Bernie Fette (07:56):
Dennis Christiansen (07:56):
And it’s interesting that he was a attorney for the railroads and the railroads named Tomball without discussing the idea with Tom Ball <laugh>, it was a, uh, typical perhaps railroad city of the age with a few brothels and a few bars and not much else. And Tom Ball would ultimately run for Governor of Texas, and his opponent would point out the decadence of the city named after him, which was influential and why Tom Ball was not elected governor of Texas. Dwight Eisenhower from Texas, Dwight developed the funding mechanism for the Interstate Highway Program. Of course, the Interstate Highway Program is now named after Dwight. Lady Bird Johnson for highway beautification. You know, a related Lady Bird story might be that her husband was president, she was very adamant of highway beautification. There was pending legislation in Congress to make highway beautification.
Dennis Christiansen (09:06):
And LBJ had a formal dinner planned that evening at the White House, and all of the spouses of the members were dressed for the formal event. And LBJ basically told them that this event is not taking place if you don’t pass the Highway Beautification Act today, which miraculously Congress passed it that day and the formal event went on at the White House that evening. There’s others probably aren’t as well known. You might take Neville Colson and Dolph Briscoe. They authored the Colson Briscoe Act. Colson being the senator, Briscoe being the representative that created the Texas Farm to Market program, which was literally designed to get the farmer out of the mud, open up the Texas economy. That system now has over 45,000 miles in it, which is more miles than the US Interstate Highway system has — a huge program. And you know, for those of us in Bryan-College Station, it’s kind of interesting. Neville Colson was a state senator from Navasota and Farm to Market Road Two is in Navasota, Farm to Market Road One is in Dolph Briscoe’s home district in Uvalde. Walt Humann, the Dallas corporate leader in the Hunt Industries. The fact that DART was created, rapid transit authority, the fact that the North Central Expressway got rebuilt was because Walt Humann provided the corporate citizen leadership that made that happen. H.B. Zachary outta San Antonio, Zachary construction firm, huge builder of our infrastructure system in Texas, and maybe a last example that I find kind of interesting is Drayton McLane. Drayton inherited a family grocery distribution business that was relatively small, totally privately owned. Drayton grew that into a $18 billion a year operation. And then Sam Walton showed up one day in Drayton’s house and said, you know, I’ve got this vision to create superstores and we’re gonna sell groceries, but I don’t wanna do it without you.
Dennis Christiansen (11:36):
And Drayton will tell you that his response was, he looked back at Sam Walton and said, nobody wants to go to a 200,000 square foot store to buy groceries, and nobody wants to buy barbecue sauce at two o’clock in the morning. So Drayton turned him down. And for about six months after that, Sam Walton continued to contact Drayton and all of his contacts with his opportunity. And Drayton kept saying no. So Drayton went to see his father who was aging and in poor health, and for something to talk about, he explained what Sam Walton was thinking about doing. And his father looked at him and said, that’s the next big idea. You need to do that. And the next day, Drayton flew to Arkansas and signed the paperwork with Sam Walton, and Drayton would become the number-two person at Walmart. Drayton turned his company into three times as big, but they also in 10 years took Walmart from not selling groceries to the largest grocery retailer in the world. So a lot of leadership, a lot of direction, and a lot of different areas of the people we’ve recognized.
Bernie Fette (12:53):
And I think one of the really interesting things about what you’re outlining here is that this is a Texas Transportation Hall of Honor. So these need to be Texans who are being honored, but a lot of the people that you’re talking about have had a reach with transportation that extends way beyond Texas borders.
Dennis Christiansen (13:12):
Definitely. I mean, Houston is one of the largest ports in the world right now. We’ve got air carriers that are national in structure, you know, Drayton McLane’s participation with Walmart. They may have Texas roots and Texas base and a Texas impact, but what they’ve done is way, way, way beyond the state borders.
Bernie Fette (13:31):
Those are just the kinds of stories I was hoping that you would share because those are stories that people don’t know about the people who are behind these honors. So we appreciate you sharing those with us. All of those people that you’ve mentioned, and frankly all 49, exemplify certain qualities, some being specific to transportation, maybe some distinctions that aren’t. Please share your thoughts on those. In your mind, what makes an ideal candidate for this honor?
Dennis Christiansen (14:05):
Well, let me use one additional person as an example for that and, that person would be Bob Lanier. Bob was born to a middle-class family in Baytown, moved to Houston, made a fortune being a lawyer, made a fortune being in the banking business, made a fortune being in the real estate business. And he would tell you that after doing each of those for about five years, he was bored with all of them. And then he got into transportation and he said, transportation’s fascinating. It not only impacts every aspect of our life, but every time you ask one question, it raises three more questions. And Bob would go on to chair the Houston Metro Board, chair the Texas Transportation Commission, and then be elected to two terms as mayor of the City of Houston. And in that career, he was, I believe, the last person in the state to get the state gas tax increased. He did that twice. He redid formulas to reallocate more money to the growing congested urban areas in the state, and was also very influential in toll road development in Harris County. So I mean, it’s the kind of person that in many cases was not really a transportation person, was just a natural leader that got interested in what was going on and was in a position to use their smarts, their experience, and their influence to make a huge difference. And you know, they, they created back at that timeframe in Houston, what got called the super group, which was basically the mayor, the county judge, and the highway commission chair Bob Lanier. And they met once a month for hours and provided clear leadership at the policy level for what was expected to happen at the political context to make it happen. And it’s amazing how effective staff can be when they have clear direction from their elected leadership as to what’s expected.
Bernie Fette (16:15):
So among all the other qualities that we might imagine, leadership was really high on the list.
Dennis Christiansen (16:21):
Absolutely. I mean, all of these people, either in the political world or in the corporate world, or the bureaucratic world, are clear recognized leaders. And Dewitt Greer headed the highway department from 1940 to 1967, and then was on the Highway Commission for two terms after that. Took him through the second World War, took him through the interstate highway system, and then he and Gibb Gilchrist — Gibb, uh, had headed the Texas Highway Department twice in the 1920s and came to Texas A&M as the first dean of engineering and would go on to become the first chancellor of the Texas A&M System. Greer and Gilchrist would create what’s become known as the Cooperative Research Agreement, which created the TxDOT, Texas Department of Transportation’s research program with state universities, which has been a clear difference maker and what a lot of us have done. You know, right now there’s a building on the Texas A&M campus named after Gilchrist. There’s a TxDOT headquarters building in downtown Austin named after Greer. So I mean, people who were more or less in staff level positions that made a gigantic difference that’s been recognized at a lot of levels.
Bernie Fette (17:45):
In addition to leadership, it sounds like maybe one of the qualifications or one of the distinctions is an aversion to boredom. If we can look at the example of Mayor Lanier, these are all people who had such a high level of energy that they seem to always be looking for the next challenge or the next opportunity to serve.
Dennis Christiansen (18:04):
Yeah, I that’s a good observation, Bernie. And I think that, you know, we’re just fortunate that so many of ’em chose transportation as that next area of interest because they all had capabilities to make a similar difference in a lot of other areas.
Bernie Fette (18:20):
All the people that have been inducted into the Hall of Honor had to start somewhere when they were much younger and making decisions about the career path that they might follow. And we might say then that future Hall of Honor inductees are just getting started right now. So Dennis, what would you say to those young people, perhaps fresh out of school who are deciding whether or not to pursue a career in transportation?
Dennis Christiansen (18:49):
An interesting question, Bernie, and I think the answer to that continues to change over time. One thing is that transportation is extremely important to the quality of life we have in Texas, extremely important to the economic competitiveness of the state. And we’re dealing with huge issues of congestion, intermodal travel, the problems are huge at the same time, transportation, which is probably at one point a relatively low-tech industry, is no longer a low-tech industry. I mean, technology, whether it’s autonomous vehicles or more sophisticated signal systems or better ways of deploying truck fleets, is becoming a huge part of what we do in transportation and the opportunities to marry technology advancement and transportation are huge right now. And you know, then I’ll come back to the Bob Lanier example of, uh, he got bored by banking. He got bored by real estate development. He got bored by being a lawyer. But transportation, most people, or at least a lot of people, is not a profession that you get bored in. I mean, it literally impacts everything. And if you ask one question, it generates three more questions and the intellectual curiosity goes on and it’s a problem that’s not going away. And the options of what we can do become somewhat limited by cost and land availability. So the challenge of how you take a rapidly growing state and continue to make it economically competitive and offer citizens a high quality of life is a giant challenge going forward with lots of technology applications coming into it.
Bernie Fette (20:39):
I think you may have already partly answered the next question that I was going to ask you, and it’s a question that I ask all of our guests. I know that you are not actively employed as the director of TTI. You are now director emeritus. What I ask those other guests, and what I’ll ask you is whenever you were coming to the office every day, what was it that got you up and excited about coming to work every day?
Dennis Christiansen (21:07):
I’m gonna take a step back from that of how do I ever get to TTI in the first place?
Bernie Fette (21:13):
Dennis Christiansen (21:13):
And I’d done undergraduate work at Northwestern and took a job with a consulting firm in Kansas City and decided I needed a master’s degree. And my boss was an Aggie. And he said, why don’t you go to Texas A&M? They got a good program in that area. And I think my response to that was, why would I go to Texas A&M and where is it <laugh>? And, uh, you know, but I applied and they offered money. So my wife and I packed everything we had into a U-Haul van and drove to College Station, which at that point in time, at least to us kind of resembled the end of the world. And we promised each other, we’d be in College Station for no longer than a year and a half, but got a good job offer with TTI. And TTI, I mean, the word unique gets overused, but there is no comparable TTI organization anywhere. The size, the scope, the breadth, the relationships that exist at TTI are just amazing — doing work in virtually every aspect of transportation. And I think I’m biased, but there’s a culture within TTI that a lot of us find very attractive, very appealing. And I look back at the times when I was in the leadership at TTI, and I’m still amazed at the quality of the people that we had in so many different positions and the fact that they were also people you were proud to be associated with, and people that you would enjoy getting in a car and driving to Houston or Austin for the day for meetings. It’s a, uh, one-of-a-kind organization that has made and is making a real difference in a lot of areas. And it was just a lot of fun.
Bernie Fette (23:00):
And you are actually the most recent inductee to the Hall of Honor. What has that meant to you?
Dennis Christiansen (23:08):
Well, you know, I got, the first thing that I thought of was when we talked about creating this 25 or so years ago, it never occurred to me that my name was gonna show up as one of the people in this group. It was a amazing surprise with a lot of very, very pleasant support. And it, it turned out, I mean, fortuitously, when I got inducted, it was just at the end of the Covid shutdown of everything. So a lot of people just wanted to get out and go someplace and socialize and have fun <laugh>, and we had a nice ceremony with nice people there. But it’s, looking back, it’s not the kind of thing you ever strive to get into in the first place, but it’s a nice capstone on a career to look back and think that, you know, at least somebody thought we made a difference somewhere.
Bernie Fette (23:59):
Well, it’s certainly a well-deserved honor for you, Dennis.
Dennis Christiansen (24:02):
Bernie Fette (24:03):
We have been visiting with Dennis Christensen, director emeritus of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and creator of the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor. Dennis, really, thank you so much for having this conversation with us, and thank you also for your commitment to public service.
Dennis Christiansen (24:23):
I appreciate the opportunity and wish you the best with more podcasts. And thanks for thinking of me.
Bernie Fette (24:31):
The people most responsible for the transportation history of Texas represent myriad personal backgrounds and widely diverse areas of expertise. They come from both the private and public sectors. They planned and built highways, airlines, seaports, and transit systems. They created companies and guided the work of transportation agencies. They were dedicated stewards of resources — both natural and financial. They envisioned the future and then set out to create it. In short, they are largely responsible for building the state of Texas. The Texas Transportation Hall of Honor board is accepting nominations for 2023 inductees through July 31. To learn more about nominating a deserving person for this honor, send an email to: email@example.com.Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe and share this episode, and please join us again next time for a conversation with Charles Gurganus and Nasir Gharaibeh, about the state of transportation infrastructure in America. Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.