DALLAS - Lee Walker, a pioneering entrepreneur and University of Texas professor who led the development of commuter rail in Austin, is stepping down as chairman of Capital Metro after a decade on the transit agency's board.
Walker's departure in May comes just a few months before the fall launch of Capital Metrorail, the $90 million commuter rail system that will travel between the northern suburb of Leander and downtown Austin.
Voters approved Metrorail in 2004, four years after the narrow defeat of a proposed $1.9 billion light-rail system. Austin Mayor Will Wynn is proposing another vote in November on light rail, which he says will reduce congestion and air pollution while boosting the rapidly growing city's economy.
Walker was named to a reorganized Cap Metro board in 1997 as the agency faced a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe and a review by the Texas comptroller that cited irresponsible management, "expensive, embarrassing mistakes," dubious contracting and purchasing practices, and an outlay of $118,000 for food, parties, and gifts for employees.
"We have never, in all the performance reviews we have conducted, seen an agency with such a lack of accountability," the report said.
"When I became chair in 1997, the authority was in great turmoil, facing indictments, and on the edge of imploding," Walker wrote in his letter of resignation to Sen. Kirk Watson, chairman of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and a former Austin mayor. "Many in the community openly questioned Capital Metro's value to Central Texas and its trustworthiness as a public service organization. The debate frequently fell back to whether Central Texas would provide public transit, and whether the agency should exist at all."
"Since then, my colleagues and I have worked to create an agency that provides a critical service to our community and to do so in an accountable and transparent manner," he wrote. "I believe we have shifted the debate that is no longer whether to offer transit, but how, what mix of modes to use, what role to play in the system, where to serve more people."
Walker, 66, said he is retiring from the board because his duties as a professor at the UT business school and the needs of his family and other duties have become too demanding. He has an 88-year-old mother, two grown daughters, and two daughters aged three and seven.
A 6-foot, 9-inch native Texan, Walker played college basketball at Texas A&M while earning a degree in nuclear physics. He earned an MBA from Harvard University before moving to New York. He first retired to Austin at age 36 after earning a fortune starting several businesses. He then became chief executive of a start-up company called PC Limited and convinced founder Michael Dell to change the name to Dell Computer Corp.
As a professor in the Graduate School of Business Management Department at UT, Walker's "Elements of Entrepreneurship" course has earned him a best teaching award three times.