When Russell Laughlin worked for Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign, he had no idea how important a role politics would play in his career. The Hillwood exec comes from an architecture and master planning background—education he first put to use working in Saudi Arabia, learning about real estate and infrastructure development where “budgets weren’t a concern.” Pair that with his experience helping get Perot on the ballot, and Laughlin emerged uniquely prepared to work in the wonky arena in which he now finds himself: huge transportation projects that take years or even decades to come together. Along with the nuts and bolts of the plans, Laughlin is tasked with getting all the right government agencies and political leaders on board.
After Ross Perot Jr.’s Hillwood kicked off AllianceTexas in the late 1980s, the success of the sprawling development—centered around an industrial airport—led to transportation issues to and from downtown Fort Worth and toward Dallas. In the early 2000s, Laughlin began spearheading one of the largest transportation projects in Texas history—the North Tarrant Express. It encompasses more than 40 miles of highway improvements to Interstates 820 and 35W and State Highways 183 and 170.
To make it happen, Laughlin successfully convinced all the myriad, finicky players involved to allow the building of privately developed managed lanes. Crews will soon begin work on the final stretch of Interstate 35W.
AllianceTexas needed that connectivity back to Fort Worth and east toward Dallas, but how the company did it and sold it speaks to everything Laughlin has learned about real estate, infrastructure, and the public sphere: You have to show a benefit to all sides.
In his estimation, the state got a free highway rebuild. And, although drivers may not like the private owners’ ability to adjust managed lane prices as traffic dictates throughout the day, Laughlin says the project gives the public a new highway and the option to pay for a better, faster way of getting from here to there.
“It goes back to community benefit,” he says. “We understood that you couldn’t come over and build a toll road, and that’s the only option for all. It just wouldn’t work.”
Laughlin knew when he began work on the North Tarrant Express that he was looking at a project that would span two decades. Such is the nature of his business. He’s already looking out another 10 or 20 years, actively engaged in the 242-acre Frisco Station, in which Hillwood is a partner. And he’s working on planting vertiports across the region so that Uber Elevate can fly us around in air taxis. The regulatory complications will be plentiful there, but Uber tapped a guy for help who knows how to navigate those tricky waters.
“He’s been doing it for so long, I think he knows more about the roads system than a lot of public officials in the market,” says Perot Jr. That allows Laughlin to do a very important thing in making these long-term deals happen: gain trust. “Your elected officials come and go. Your city managers come and go. Your mayors come and go,” Perot says. “But Russell is still there.”