His friends call him Wild Bill. Some weekends he can be found roaming rustic Bommer Canyon in Irvine, or sailing a 16-foot catamaran off the coast, or river rafting in Colorado.
But at age 61, William C. Woollett Jr. says he has met his biggest challenge: serving as executive director of Orange County's Transportation Corridor Agencies, which plan to build a 70-mile, $2-billion network of three tollways by mid-decade.
"I like this job because it involves something that's never been done before," Woollett said in a recent interview.
Indeed, Woollett presides over the first effort to bring major, publicly owned user-fee highways to California.
Although Woollett may not be well-known outside of Irvine, where he served for 17 years as the city's first city manager, he is one of Orange County's highest-paid public officials, receiving $118,000 a year.
It's a pressure-filled job. John Meyer, Woollett's predecessor, quit last summer, citing job burnout. Developers and politicians clamor to have the roads built "yesterday"; environmentalists threaten to file lawsuits at every turn, and engineers spend the agencies' money for design work faster than developer fees can pay for it.
Woollett has been at the tollway post less than four months, but agency board members, transportation officials and developers already give him high marks for boosting morale and gaining control of what was an understaffed, unfocused operation.
"I have been tremendously impressed by him," said San Juan Capistrano Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer, who chairs the Foothill-Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board. "He is a very quiet and competent leader. He's a good organizer. He is a quick learner who very quickly grasps very complicated transportation issues."
For instance, Hausdorfer said, Woollett hired a financial expert--Wallace D. Kreutzen--as a deputy director to bring board members much better cost and cash flow analyses than they had before. Also, Woollett has been giving board members written, weekly updates on financial, environmental and construction issues.
In addition, final design contracts have been signed for portions of the tollways, with construction expected to begin later this year or in early 1991.
But Woollett still faces major hurdles, including:
* Foothill-area opposition to federal legislation that would permit Orange County's tollways to pass through park land, and an almost-certain environmental lawsuit aimed at blocking the planned San Joaquin Hills tollway bridge across Laguna Canyon.
* Continuing criticism from some public officials and developers who complain that the San Joaquin Hills tollway project is already two years behind schedule, even though the planned Foothill tollway is far ahead of its original timetable.
* Pending final tollway financing plans, with tollway officials still negotiating developer fees and offsetting credits for donated rights of way and grading.
Even Hausdorfer has acknowledged that tollway financing will be "very tight" and critically dependent, perhaps, on projections that motorists will be willing to pay tolls higher than the $2 to $3 maximums previously anticipated.
"It's not going to be easy," Hausdorfer said. But I'm confident the roads will be built."
Said Woollett: "I didn't come here to fail."
Seeking to head off potential financial problems, Woollett has discussed with some officials the possibility of borrowing money from the state or other local transportation agencies, who would be repaid when tolls are collected.
"There's no question in my mind that the lack of an organizational framework over there cost them some time," said Stanley T. Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission. "But Woollett just got there, and he's definitely brought a high degree of professionalism with him."
Tollway employees say Woollett is best at bringing people of opposing views together and then quickly deciding what needs to be done.
But there are some people who remain unconvinced.
When the Tustin Hills Homeowners Assn. recently alleged that tollway officials were white-washing projected tollway noise levels in their community, Woollett promised to respond with the best scientific data available, even if it hurts his cause.
Said Jeffrey Katz, president of the homeowners' group: "We'll see. He listens to us, but it's clear that he knows who he works for. . . . He wants to get the (tollways) done."
Meanwhile, developers such as the Mission Viejo Co., which had griped last year that the tollways were taking too long to build, have been mostly quiet after a series of private briefings begun by Woollett's predecessor.
During such sessions, Woollett has developed a reputation for saying exactly what's on his mind, even to the influential Irvine Co., one of the agency's staunchest defenders and a major donor of rights of way.
"I was attending a meeting with him (Woollett) and several others recently, when we got into an argument and he turned to me and said simply, 'Hugh, you're full of crap,' " said Irvine Co. transportation planner Hugh Fitzpatrick,
Still, critics point out that the tollway agency has spent about $54 million since its inception in 1986, without any concrete poured. Much of the money, though, has gone for environmental and route alignment studies, legal advice and legislative lobbying in Sacramento, and costly design contracts.
And while Woollett is under pressure in some quarters to quickly appoint a respected transportation engineering expert to an unfilled, second deputy's position on his staff, he has bided his time, saying it's not easy to attract the best people at a salary the agency can afford.
Known for his off-the-wall humor, Woollett kids board members by offering to carry their bags on lobbying trips to Sacramento.
Woollett, the father of a son, 29, and a daughter, 27, reads historical novels and admits to a certain fascination both with futurism and management expertise, collecting works such as "Megatrends," "The One Minute Manager," and--most recently--"The Excellence Choice," by James A. Belasco, which Woollett said is about how vision creates excellence.
No stranger to issues such as growth control and land-use planning, Woollett once worked privately on the development of Hollister Ranch north of Santa Barbara, which is not unlike the Irvine Ranch.
While he was Irvine's city manager, his office discovered an error by the city's Community Development Department that had led to too many development permits being issued for the tightly controlled Irvine Business Complex.
And although urban planners have criticized Irvine's reliance on mostly pro-automobile, anti-pedestrian development, Woollett has a jaundiced view of the car.
"During World War II, we were forced to look at alternatives," Woollett said. "But now it just isn't as high a priority for us--at least not yet.
"Front porches allowed people to see what was going on around them, to communicate face to face with their neighbors and children playing in the neighborhood. Now nobody builds them anymore. We've lost that source of communication. Similarly, cars have cut us off from each other. We're wrapped in steel, chrome and glass."
But in a county where some government officials drive Cadillacs, Mercedeses and BMWs, Woollett wheels around town in a 1969 El Camino that was so much in need of a face lift that his former Irvine co-workers sprang for a bright red, $2,000 paint job.
"He's basically a cowboy at heart," said Paul Brady Jr., who succeeded Woollett as Irvine's city manager. "The El Camino fits right in."
But there's another side to Woollett.
In his spare time, he gets together with an architect and an upholsterer to build bird cages. The men call themselves Red Door, because they attach a little red-painted door to each cage they make. The cages are sold at Out of the Woods, a crafts shop in El Toro, where Woollett's wife, Diane, works as a floral designer.
Woollett said he sees no connection between his hobby and his job except the urge to be creative.
The tollways, he said, will be state-of-the art masterpieces for the world to copy.
Also, he's convinced that new development will not burden the tollways with so much traffic that they will be obsolete as soon as they open, citing so-called demand management strategies for the tollways that include the proposed installation of rail transit in the medians, as well as car-pool lanes.
And in addition to speeding traffic, he said, the tollways will include vista points that will open up thousands of acres of backcountry and spectacular views above the Irvine coast to public view for the first time.
"I love to travel around California and see the countryside," Woollett said. "And this is part of California."
PLANNED TRANSPORTATION CORRIDORS
Estimated Average Projected Daily Traffic* Opening Corridor Opening Day 2010 Date San Joaquin Hills 100,000 150,000 1994 Transportation Corridor Eastern Transportation 60,000 120,000 1995 Corridor Foothill Transportation 45,000 115,000 1994 Corridor (A) Foothill Transportation 30,000 75,000 1997 Corridor (B)
Organization: Transportation Corridor Agencies.
Purpose: Started in 1986 as joint powers authorities by Orange County and the cities along planned routes to finance and build freeways. State legislation later provided authority to collect tolls.
Top Administrator: William C. Woollett Jr., 61, of Irvine.
Headquarters: There are two corridor agencies that share the same office and staff, at 345 Clinton St., Costa Mesa.
Policy makers: The San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency is overseen by a board chaired by Newport Beach Councilman John Cox and consisting of County Supervisors Thomas F. Riley and Gaddi H. Vasquez and council members from Costa Mesa, Dana Point, Irvine, Mission Viejo, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Santa Ana. The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency is overseen by a board chaired by San Juan Capistrano Mayor Gary L. Hausdorfer and consisting of Riley, Vasquez, and city council members from Anaheim, Irvine, Mission Viejo, Orange, San Clemente, Santa Ana, Tustin and Yorba Linda.
* The 15-mile San Joaquin Hills toll road would extend from the Corona del Mar Freeway from its present terminus at MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach to Interstate 5 near San Juan Capistrano, through Laguna Hills, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel.
* The 23-mile Eastern toll road would begin at the Riverside Freeway near the Riverside County line and parallel the Costa Mesa Freeway through the Santa Ana Mountains, splitting into two legs near Santiago Canyon Road. The west leg would end at Jamboree Road near the Santa Ana Freeway, and the east leg would connect with the Laguna Freeway at the Santa Ana Freeway.
* The 32-mile Foothill toll road would connect the east leg of the Eastern toll road with Interstate 5 near the San Diego County line, through Portola Hills and Rancho Santa Margarita.
Construction: Ground-breaking on all three projects in 1991. Portions open at various intervals through 1997.
Cost: $2 billion-plus.
Tolls: Not final, but range could be 75 cents to $4, depending on facility and distance traveled.
Financing: Developers must donate 120-foot-wide right of way without compensation. In addition, 48.44% of the construction costs are to be paid through the collection of development fees. The rest of the money is expected to come from a combination of construction bonds, paid off with toll revenue and state and federal loans or grants. However, developers receive credits against the fees they owe when they donate additional land or do grading work that is included in the cost of building the toll roads. Officials expect development fees to increase, and tolls may be higher than originally planned. Tolls must be removed when construction debts end.
Source: Transportation Corridor Agencies