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May 16th, 2009:


I drive through the Washinton on Westcott roundabout every now and then, and find it to be a more pleasant and efficient experience than waiting at a light or playing the “which one of us goes next?” game that you often get at a four-way stop. I’m told there are more such roundabouts in the works at some locations, with Washington at Heights and Yale being on the list. I’d driven through roundabouts elsewhere before – Tiffany and I took a trip to France just before Olivia was born, and the road from Paris to champagne country is littered with them – and find them easy to navigate, but they’re still pretty new here, and some folks may not know what to do with them.

There’s a bill related to roundabouts – HB2214 – that has passed the House and is now pending in the Senate that would require driver’s ed students to receive instructions on how to deal with circular intersections. Monica Savino, President of the WOW Roundabout Board of Directors, gave testimony to the House Transportation Committee in favor of HB2214 as follows:

Since its completion in 2006, our Roundabout has had great success in meeting our goals.

The rate of serious accidents has virtually disappeared and our rate of minor accidents is very small.

During the first full year of operation in 2006, the City of Houston documented only 10 accidents – all minor with no injuries.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has determined that the modern roundabout is significantly more safe than a standard signalized intersection.

Mobility has been very good; currently, we move approximately 34,000 cars per day through the WOW Roundabout.

And we move them; vehicles don’t idle waiting for light changes, they don’t stop and start as they inch their way through the intersection when turns are made as in a four-way stop.

As a result, auto emissions are reduced as are other negatives that traffic congestion can bring.

During the days and weeks after Hurricane Ike, the WOW Roundabout performed as it does on any other day.

I have quickly located several new Roundabouts in the State and there are many more “on the boards”, as they say.

Traffic professionals and communities are finding in some cases that this is a more appropriate solution than the old-fashioned standard intersection.

The Federal Highway Administration is endorsing roundabouts for future projects.
We expect that Texans will see and drive through more Roundabouts in the future.

When WOW is asked by the community, “what are the proper procedures when driving through the roundabout?”, all we can do is direct them to one of the other states that makes this information available for their residents: Washington, Kansas, Colorado, Florida and New York. WOW would like the State of Texas to be the definitive resource for Texans.

Seems reasonable enough, wouldn’t you say? This CTC forum thread, from which I got Savino’s testimony, is asking folks to contact the members of the Senate transportation committee, which includes Sen. Rodney Ellis and Sen. Joan Huffman, to ask for their support of HB2214. A sample letter is included if you want to email or fax their office. HB2214 passed the House on a 142-2 vote, so it shouldn’t be controversial. It just needs to come up in time. And if you need a little incentive, try this:

The power of Jon Anderson and Chris Squire compels you.

Kuempel out of coma

Good news.

Rep. Edmund Kuempel, R-Seguin, is now out of a medically induced coma and his body temperature has been raised to normal, said his friend Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

“I saw him last night, and he looked a whole lot better than he did when he left here,” Geren said.

Kuempel collapsed late Tuesday and was discovered by a House sergeant at arms. He was revived by a legislator who is a doctor and by Texas Department of Public Safety officers.

On Friday, Kuempel moved his foot, attempted to respond to his son’s and daughter’s voices, and opened his eyes, Geren told House members.

“It was exciting. The family, as you can imagine, is very, very excited,” he said.

More here. Rep. Kuempel still has a long road ahead of him, but his progress so far is encouraging. My continued best wishes to him and his family for a full and fast recovery.

Brown and Locke spar over education

At a Mayoral forum on Thursday, Gene Locke and Peter Brown get into it over the school system.

Gene Locke, the former city attorney, targeted Councilman Peter Brown’s recent statement to the Chronicle that Houstonians should consider forming an urban school district heavily influenced by the mayor through board appointments.

“I think that’s an awful idea,” Locke said. “It’s going to be hard enough to make sure this city is safe, to make sure the business development grows.”

Brown retorted, “We cannot punt on education like my colleague said.”

Several independent school districts, overseen by elected school boards, operate inside the city limits. Brown said Thursday he does not favor having city government take over the Houston school district in the way that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has suggested for urban areas.

Here’s an earlier Chron story with more on Brown’s position, with which Annise Parker, Roy Morales, and current Mayor Bill White say they disagree.

City Councilman Brown is pitching the formation of a new “urban school district,” perhaps spanning from downtown past the 610 Loop, that would fall under the mayor’s power.

“I would favor the creation of this urban school district that is controlled by the mayor, that has a board that is largely appointed by the mayor, so there’s accountability,” he said.

Brown added that a task force should study several ideas, including breaking the 200,000-student Houston ISD into smaller districts.

“I wouldn’t want to say, ‘I’m elected mayor, and the second week I’m elected mayor we’re going to dismantle HISD,’ ” he said.

I actually think that’s an interesting idea and would like to hear more about it. I don’t know what I think about it yet, but that’s what these debates are for, to hash stuff like this out and let the competing visions actually compete. Brown and Locke metaphorically took it outside after the event by sending out press releases touting their positions and attacking the other’s; I’ve reproduced one of each beneath the fold. If this is a sign that the heat level has been turned up a notch in the race, as you know I think that’s just fine. As long as it’s about issues and not trivialities, I say keep it up, y’all. Stace has more on this, as well as a candidate forum in Kingwood at which immigration was the hot topic.

One more thing:

Morales asserted that when he served on a grand jury, “50 percent of Hispanics who came across our court were illegals and 90 percent of them were committing crimes against their children and other children.” The figures could not be confirmed late Thursday.

Most of the candidates dodged a question about whether they would propose no annual spending increases in the city government budget. Morales, however, said he would cut the budget and that police and firefighters have told him billions of dollars are wasted in their departments. He did not cite specifics.

Sure, Roy. Whatever you say. We believe you.


Another win for CHIP

Good news on the CHIP front.

The Texas House today gave final approval to a measure that would expand the Children’s Heath Insurance Program by allowing certain families who earn more than the current income limit to pay to join the program. The vote was 87-55.

The measure could add some 80,000 children to CHIP. It now heads to the Senate, which has already passed a similar measure.

The bill passed yesterday is HB2962. The Senate measure that had passed earlier is SB841.

The author of the CHIP bill, Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said he fully agrees with expanding the Medicaid enrollment period. But he said that sending the CHIP bill to the Senate with the Medicaid measure attached may have doomed the entire measure. “It would have become a poison pill,” Coleman said.

The Medicaid proposal by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D- Houston, has a much larger price tag than the CHIP one — nearly $300 million over two years, compared to about $40 million for the CHIP bill. The Medicaid proposal could add some 258,000 children to Medicaid.

Coleman said that it’s become clear that the state budget won’t include money for the Medicaid proposal. Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who is on the House team negotiating the final version of the budget with members of the Senate, said that though the Medicaid bill has “a pretty steep price tag,” it’s too early to say for sure whether it has a future in the budget.

The income limit for CHIP is now $44,100 for a family of four. (It’s $22,050 for Medicaid).

Under the CHIP bill, a family of four earning between $44,100 and and $66,150 a year could join the program. Unlike the existing CHIP program, families would pay monthly premiums on a sliding scale based on income and family size. The House version would also allow families of four earning between $66,150 and $88,200 to pay the full cost of the program to join (roughly $150 per child per month). Also, the House version would reinstate a “medically needy” program for adults that the Legislature cut in 2003 — it covers health care costs for people with catastrophic medical needs.

It would be very nice to be able to add those kids to Medicaid, but given the Senate’s manufactured crisis over Medicaid, I’m not optimistic. Still, it’s great to see CHIP getting re-expanded back towards pre-2003 numbers. The need for it is as great as it’s ever been, that’s for sure. I’ve got a statement from Rep. Coleman about this beneath the fold.


Villafranca loses in Farmers Branch

Back in March, I noted that businesswoman Elizabeth Villafranca, one of the leading voices in Farmers Branch against its anti-immigrant xenophobia, was running for City Council there. Alas, she did not win.

Among other municipal races from Saturday, a leading opponent of efforts in Farmers Branch to stop landlords from renting to illegal immigrants failed to win a city council seat.

Restaurant owner Elizabeth Villafranca lost to executive assistant Michelle Holmes, but she said some good came out of her run for council.

Villafranca: We called attention to a lot of things that are going on. And this is a good thing. This is a good day. Sometimes winning is not necessarily the most important thing. And certainly in this case that has proven to be the truth.

Villafranca said Farmers Branch has never had any minority representation on the city council and that needs to change.

There was a lawsuit filed last year to force Farmers Branch to draw single-member Council districts, but it was dismissed by a federal judge; the plaintiffs are appealing that ruling. As for Villafranca, she got 1315 votes out of 3851, or just over 34%. Given that the opponents to the 2007 referendum that ratified the latest version of their still-illegal ban on renting apartments to undocumented immigrants got 32% of the vote, this represents a tiny bit of progress. I hope they can pick up the pace of that progress for the next election.