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May 30th, 2007:

Metro’s partnership

This article on the status of Metro’s current projects such as the North Line BRT is both encouraging and frustrating.

Two of Metro’s bus rapid transit projects will be part of a federal pilot program to measure the potential cost savings of public-private partnerships, a move that could expedite the development of the transit corridors, officials announced today.

One private firm or a consortium of private companies will be responsible for all construction and project management under the terms of the Public-Private Partnership Pilot Program, known as Penta-P, U.S. Transportation Department officials said.

Washington Group Transit Management Co. was selected earlier this month to handle Metropolitan Transit Authority’s four corridor projects, including the North and Southeast bus rapid transit lines chosen for inclusion in the federal program. Although no formal agreement has been reached, the company would maintain and operate the lines, assume partial risk and share in the profits.

Metro and the Idaho-based parent company still are negotiating those issues.

It would be very nice to have some kind of basis for comparison to other public/private partnership projects here. How does this stack up to, say, the Trans Texas Corridor, or any of the local RMA toll road projects that are going on? These things have generated a lot of controversy, while I’ve not heard a peep about Metro’s plan so far. Maybe that’s because there are fundamental differences, and maybe it’s because not much is known about Metro’s plan yet. From what there is here, this sounds more like subcontracting than anything else, but I find myself groping for descriptors. More information, please!

This is the encouraging part:

Construction on the North and Southeast bus rapid transit lines, which ultimately may be converted to rail lines, will begin this year and service should be available in 2011, Metro spokeswoman Sandra Aponte Salazar said.

The capital cost for both lines comes to about $432 million, Salazar said. A combination of federal grants and Metro sales tax funds will cover the cost of the four lines, estimated at more than $1 billion, Metro officials have said.

“This shows that the federal leadership is interested in the project and committed to it,” she said.

The selection of one firm for the public-private project could save money and development time, Transportation Department officials said.

Salazar said the inclusion of the two corridors in the federal program could shave about two years from the project. She could not provide an estimate of cost savings.

“Metro’s inclusion in this program is a significant step toward our promise to Houstonians to build a comprehensive transit system plan to help solve our region’s traffic congestion and air quality problems,” Metro board chairman David Wolff said.

We knew a little of this already, but it’s nice to hear again, and it’s definitely nice to see real, tangible progress on the 2012 Solutions plan. I can’t wait till groundbreaking.

Sly for Speaker?

Yesterday, the Chron Texas Politics blog reported that House Speaker Pro Tem and staunch Tom Craddick ally Rep. Sylvester Turner was non-committal about who he’d support in 2009.

Turner says he’s a free agent as far as the 2009 speaker’s race is concerned.

Turner, who was already back in his Houston law firm Tuesday afternoon, said he’s had enough speaker’s politics to last him six months.

“I don’t want to think about the speaker’s race for the duration of the year,” said Turner. “I haven’t made any commitments or signed pledge cards.”

The first question members need to ask themselves is whether they plan to return to Austin in 2009, he said. Beyond that, they must assess who will best govern the House.

“Anyone who commits or tries to nail something down now would be acting prematurely,” Turner said.

Apparently, Turner is disregarding his own advice, because it seems he is thinking about the ’09 Speaker’s race, and he does have a candidate he’s committed to: Himself. QR has the scoop.


Key Craddick supporter jumps ship

In his statetment, Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) said, “I don’t ever want to have another legislative session like the one just completed where taking care of the people’s business took a back seat to political agendas. We have too many problems in this state to waste most of a legislative session on political agendas that do not include providing lower electric rates to the low-income and elderly or more funding for mental health programs.”

“I have worked effectively in the House under a Democratic majority,” Turner said, “and I have worked effectively in the House under a Republican majority. I have sought to treat every member with the utmost respect and I have worked to operate the House with the utmost degree of integrity.”

“I sincerely hope that over the next 18 months, members will evaluate and assess my abilities,” Turner continued. “I believe I am the best person to serve as Speaker in 2009 and I hope the members will give me the opportunity to serve as their Speaker.”

Turner’s full statement is here (Word doc). This just got a whole lot more interesting, and a whole lot messier for Craddick. The question is whether Turner can unify Democratic support, or if they’d prefer to stick to Senfronia Thompson. I have no idea right now how this will play out. But it’s all good from where I’m sitting. I don’t see how Craddick gets to 76 votes without Turner in his corner. That’s the best news I’ll hear this week.

UPDATE: Early indicators are not positive for Turner as the One True Democratic Candidate for Speaker, at least as far as BOR is concerned.

Fox versus Crosby

Diane Trautman alerts me to an interesting town hall meeting that took place in Crosby (small town northeast of Houston) last night.

[A] recent Fox-26 news [report] showed that supposedly 1 in every 30 residents in Crosby is a child molester. Turns out the lady who did the report has admitted she went to the “wrong website” to get her statistics but has never really apologized to the community for her error. The truth is more like 1 in 320…and the reporter said she spent 3 months investigating the story. This has the potential to hurt home sales, business development, and morale in this peaceful little town.

I just returned from a town hall meeting in Crosby where the chamber provided information on the stories, retractions, and lack of any real apology from the reporter. These people are really hurting about this story. They feel insulted, cut to the quick, and baffled as to why someone would do this. As a candidate for state representative last year, I became very well acquainted with the people of Crosby and very active in their chamber organization. Crosby is truly Hometown USA and could not be more friendly, down to earth, and family-friendly. They welcomed me with open arms even though I live in Humble.

I guess what I would like to see happen for these folks is a public apology from Fox and the reporter but more than that I would like to see Crosby get its due by showing the caring, community-minded, and collaborative spirit that I see everytime I visit.

Thanks to Diane, I have a copy of the PowerPoint presentation that was used at the meeting last night. I’ll excerpt the main point here:

[Reporter Carolyn] Canville reported that Crosby has a population of some 1700 people, and that there are 63 registered sex offenders living in Crosby, making the ratio of sex offenders to residents approximately one in thirty.

To come up with her numbers, Ms. Canville used different geographic areas for comparison. She took the number of registered sex offenders for the much larger geographic area served by the Crosby zip code, 77532, and compared that number with the total population of the significantly smaller geographical area comprised of an area called Crosby CDP by the Federal Census Bureau (please see the enclosed maps).

The Census Bureau does report the total population of the larger geographic area served by the Crosby zip code, 77532. Had Ms. Canville any interest in reporting the facts, she would have used that number, which is 20,143. However, 63 sex offenders in a population of 20,143 is not nearly as “news-worthy” as 63 sex offenders in a population of 1714. And this is still with using population data from 7 years ago compared to the sex offender registry of 2007, so even those numbers are askew.

In reality, there are 5 registered sex offenders who report residence addresses within the smaller Crosby CDP area. The actual ratio in the smaller Crosby CDP area is 1:343. The actual ratio in the larger Crosby zip code area is 1:320. Nothing near the 1:30 Ms. Canville would have us believe.

There’s more to the story, such as how Canville referred to the registered sex offenders as “sexual predators”, which is an obviously loaded phrase, as well as the fact that FOX26 declined to post a correction on their website, saying that they gave a correction on-air, and besides the story is no longer on their site. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m curious about how this will resolve itself, since the folks in Crosby are not satisfied with the lack of response they have gotten so far. If I get any updates, I’ll post about it.

Governor Perry’s first veto

According to Grits, Governor Perry’s first veto of 2007 was for HB770, a “bipartisan bill that drew no organized opposition at the Lege”. But it would have made it easier for ex-cons who have fully served their sentences to vote, and we just can’t have that. Read Grits’ analysis for why this was such a petty thing to do.

“We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

A little bit of California comes to the Panhandle.

“It is remote, and I’ll tell you what: It took a little getting used to,” said Richard Avila, who’s in the process of moving much of his family’s 119-year-old Northern California dairy operation to the Panhandle. “But every time I go back home to California, I can’t wait to get back to Texas. There are too many people there.”

Jobs abound in the northwestern Panhandle right now, but despite Dalhart’s quaint brick streets, tree-lined neighborhoods, clean air and water and country living, its isolation makes the town of 7,300 a tough sell.

How remote is it? The nearest city of more than 100,000 residents is Amarillo, 70 miles to the southeast. The closest large cities — Albuquerque, Oklahoma City and Denver — are more than 270 driving miles away.

Dalhart is nearer to six other state capitals (Cheyenne, Denver, Lincoln, Oklahoma City, Santa Fe and Topeka) than its own, and it’s a shorter drive to Mount Rushmore than to Houston, which is 690 miles down the road.

Yet those lonely High Plains around Dalhart, the scene of epic drought-born sandstorms in the 1930s, are now seeing an economic perfect storm of sorts, stoked by a massive cheese plant, the influx of large-scale dairies and a booming ethanol-fueled corn industry.

Add existing employers, such as feedlots, a meatpacker and the Dalhart Unit state prison, and the area’s slogan may as well be “Help Wanted.”

So far, Avila has moved 600 Jersey cows from California, and 750 more are on the way, with a goal of 2,400 head by 2009. He said fellow dairymen are resettling around Dalhart and Dumas at around $1,200 an acre after selling land back home at $25,000 an acre.

But money is only part of the reason behind the new migration, he said.

“It’s a $47 billion industry in California, and they’re hell-bent on forcing us out of there with all the crazy regulations they have,” Avila said, bemoaning an alphabet soup of state and local agencies, mostly environmental.

“It’s not that Texas doesn’t have regulations. Texas does, but they’re consistent and constant. Unlike California, they don’t change their minds every week.”

Well, there’s an argument for a biennial Legislature if ever I’ve heard one.

Hilmar Cheese, named for the central-California town, eventually plans to make a half-million pounds a day of cheddar, Colby, pepper jack and Monterey jack. Texas currently doesn’t produce enough cheese to be listed by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, but Hilmar by itself would cause it to rank 10th at full production.

“Our decision to expand our operations to Dalhart was based on several key factors, including Texas’ positive business climate, reliable regulatory environment and an up-and-coming local dairy industry in Dalhart and the greater Amarillo area,” said John Jeter, chief executive and president of Hilmar Cheese.

Taxpayers chipped in, too. In competition with Idaho, the Texas Enterprise Fund ponied up $7.5 million, and the plant secured millions more in grants, tax breaks and tax abatements from local and regional governments.

The plant will employ about 120, eventually ramping up to 300 as more dairies justify more production capacity. Avila said dairies hire approximately one person per 100 head of cattle, meaning more than 1,000 milkers would be needed for the Dalhart-Dumas area if all current and permitted projects stock their allotted number of Jerseys or Holsteins.

Let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope math here. We don’t know how much “millions more in grants, tax breaks and tax abatements from local and regional governments” means, but let’s say it’s equivalent to the $7.5 million that the Rick Perry Slush Fund ponied up. Let’s assume also that a total of 300 jobs will eventually exist, and that none of this would have happened without the incentives provided. That’s $50,000 per job, assuming all the moneys are one-time only. Does that make economic sense? I’m not qualified to answer that question, but I sure can ask it.

One more thing:

Panhandle milkers can earn about $36,000 after three years, Avila said, outstripping the base salary of veteran correctional officers at the Dalhart Unit, where overtime is mandatory because staffing is under 70 percent.

Warden Eddie Wheeler is trying to stay positive in the face of the area’s opportunity onslaught, which threatens to make his unattractive jobs even more so.

“You get a married couple that moves here, one works (in the dairy industry), and hopefully we pick up the other one,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it.”

You think any of that new prison spending that was just authorized will go towards helping Warden Wheeler with his employment situation? Call me crazy, but I’m thinking “No”.

“Lost” Season 3 screen cap recap

Did I mention that I finally got to see the Lost season three finale over the weekend, thanks to my in-laws’ TiVo? For those who still haven’t seen it, all I’ll say is Wow. Just, wow.

Now, for those of you who need to catch up a bit before finally cueing up the TiVo to watch that last episode, may I direct you to this Season Three recap, done entirely in screen caps and silly captions. It’s hilarious, and moderately disturbing to realize there are people with that kind of free time and fanatical devotion. On the other hand, if that’s not why God gave us the Internet, I don’t know why we have it. Enjoy! Link via Linkmeister.

CD Death Watch: One more Christmas

Another post in my occasional series on the impending death of the compact disc. Today’s entry: This could be the last good Christmas for the music industry and its CD sales.

Despite costly efforts to build buzz around new talent and thwart piracy, CD sales have plunged more than 20 percent this year, far outweighing any gains made by digital sales at iTunes and similar services. Aram Sinnreich, a media industry consultant at Radar Research in Los Angeles, said the CD format, introduced in the United States 24 years ago, is in its death throes.

“Everyone in the industry thinks of this Christmas as the last big holiday season for CD sales,” Sinnreich said, “and then everything goes kaput.”

It’s been four years since the last big shuffle in ownership of the major record labels. But now, with the sales plunge dimming hopes for a recovery any time soon, there is a new game of corporate musical chairs afoot that could shake up the industry hierarchy.

I’ll pause here to note that one of the features of the Chronicle’s online edition is a little box called “Search Results”, where they have links to related stories in their archives. One such piece is headlined Tough tactics give music industry new sales hope, dated January 14, 2004. It’s about how the industry’s combination of suing downloaders and aggressively entering the online music sales world would finally reverse four years’ worth of declining sales. So much for that.

For the companies that choose to plow ahead, the question is how to weather the worsening storm. One answer: diversify into businesses that do not rely directly on CD sales or downloads. The biggest one is music publishing, which represents songwriters (who may or may not also be performers) and earns money when their songs are used in TV commercials, video games or other media. Universal Music Group, already the biggest label, became the world’s biggest music publisher on Friday after closing its purchase of BMG Music, publisher of songs by artists like Keane, for more than $2 billion.

Now both Universal and Warner Music Group are said to be kicking the tires of Sanctuary, an independent British music and artist management company whose roster includes Iron Maiden and Elton John. The owners of all four of the major record companies also recently have chewed over deals to diversify into merchandise sales, concert tickets, advertising and other fields that are not part of their traditional business.

Even as the industry tries to branch out, though, there is no promise of an answer to a potentially more profound predicament: a creative drought and a corresponding lack of artists who ignite consumers’ interest in buying music. Sales of rap, which had provided the industry with a lifeboat in recent years, fell far more than the overall market last year with a drop of almost 21 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (And the marquee star 50 Cent just delayed his forthcoming album, Curtis.)

There’s a lot of good reasons why the music industry is in the tank, from their sue-the-customer approach to downloading to the stagnation of radio. But don’t overlook the abundance of crappy music as a factor. I realize I’m nobody’s target demographic, but I can count on one hand the number of major-label CDs that have come out in the last year or so that have made me think “I really ought to buy that”. I may not be representative of anything, but I bet I’m not the only person who feels this way.

One more thing, on a personal note:

More than half of all music acquired by fans last year came from unpaid sources, including Internet file sharing and CD burning, according to the market research company NPD Group. The “social” ripping and burning of CDs among friends — which takes place offline and almost entirely out of reach of industry policing efforts — accounted for 37 percent of all music consumption, more than file-sharing, NPD said.

So far, I have not ripped any CD that we don’t already own. I’ve only approached one person about it, and that’s my buddy Matt, who was my roommate for many years and whose CD collection I still think of as partly mine. I have this bizarre sense of guilt about borrowing other people’s CDs to rip, which I can’t quite explain. It’s not like I didn’t borrow friends’ albums and CDs back in the day to tape them. I’m sure I’ll get over this, but it’s still weird.