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July 14th, 2015:

Our forthcoming early voting problems

This is the view in front of the West Gray Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, also known as the busiest early voting location in Houston. 8,390 people voted early here in the 2013 election. There was a water main break there, which caused foundation damage, and as you can see it is closed for repairs. Given the seriousness of the damage (which happened before all the recent rain we’ve had) and the need to go through a competitive bid process to get a contractor to do the fix, this could take months. Early voting for the November election begins in a bit more than three months. What are the odds that the Metro Multi-Service Center will be available by then?

My guess is, pretty slim. So we’d better be thinking about alternate locations. I sure hope someone in the County Clerk’s office and City Secretary’s office is already on this, but in the (sadly probably likely) event that they’re not, let’s help them out a bit. Alternate locations should be 1) inside the Loop, since the West Gray location is about the only Inner Loop EV center outside of downtown (yes, I know, the Fiesta on Kirby at OST is inside the loop; I’m looking for something more central, ideally in HD134); accessible via public transit and on a main road; and 3) actually available, with no scheduling concerns, for at least a two week period in October. The West End Multi-Service Center is one possibility, though it’s not nearly as big as the West Gray center and hosts some public health events that might cause crowding issues. Another interesting possibility might be a vacant storefront – the old Audio/Video Plus on Waugh is still sitting empty, and it has a (small) parking lot, with street parking available around it. Maybe its owner would rent it out cheaply to the county for a month.

These are just a couple of suggestions. I rather think the best answer will be to find two or even three small locations to fill in for the West Gray center, as I seriously doubt there’s one location that’s big enough to substitute for it alone. Like I said, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this, and I hope there is a workable solution being planned. I’m just not willing to take any chances on that. What do you think? Leave any suggestions or other bright ideas in the comments.

Parker wants a vote on lifting the revenue cap

So do I.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker plans to press City Council this month to reconsider loosening a decade-old revenue cap for public safety spending as talk of a looming budget deficit and possible service cuts grows more ominous around the dais.

The cap limits the growth in city revenues to the combined rates of inflation and population growth. Last year, the city hit the cap for the first time, forcing a property tax rate trim and preventing $53 million from flowing to city coffers. Next fiscal year, the triple threat of soaring pensions costs, revenue cap limitations and debt payments will leave the city facing a $126 million deficit.

[…]

“I’m going to make them vote up or down,” Parker said of the revenue cap. “If they want to give a pay raise to firefighters without having to cut huge numbers of programs across the city they’re going to have to figure out that, you know, that’s one way to bring some relief in.”

Parker’s pledge followed a contentious eight-hour meeting Wednesday where City Council pushed to reinstate road and park projects that had been knocked off an $8.7 billion capital spending plan, in part because of the cap.

She would need to secure council approval in the next few weeks to qualify for the November ballot. The specifics of the revenue cap proposal, however, are still being hashed out.

You know how i feel about this, and I know how you feel about it, at for those of you that comment or email me, so let’s just skip the argument for now. Of interest is the tone in the article that suggests more members of Council are now open to the idea, thanks in part to the news about Moody’s going pessimistic on the city, in part because of the cap. There would have to be a significant shift for it to pass, given that Council has previously rejected the idea, and since you can pretty easily count seven No votes. For what it’s worth, in the short time I’ve been doing interviews so far, I’ve encountered more openness, or at least less resistance, to the idea than one might have expected. That would be a different Council under a different Mayor, however, so who knows what might happen. We’ll see what happens with this Council and this Mayor – I suspect a few arms would need to be twisted – and then we’d have to have a campaign, and you know how that will go. Stay tuned.

L’affaire Paxton gets larger

Oh, yeah.

Ken Paxton

When Attorney General Ken Paxton publicly admitted that he violated a state securities law last year, the State Securities Board was obligated by law to gather evidence against him and immediately refer it to prosecutors who could seek criminal charges.

But prosecutors in Travis and Collin counties said the securities regulators did not refer Paxton’s case to them, an apparent violation of requirements set by state law, the American-Statesman has confirmed.

In May 2014, when Paxton was a state senator running for attorney general in the Republican primary runoff, he accepted a reprimand and $1,000 fine from the State Securities Board, whose five members were appointed by former Gov. Rick Perry.

In that proceeding, Paxton admitted to soliciting clients for a Texas investment firm without registering as an investment adviser representative — a violation that can be prosecuted as a third-degree felony under the State Securities Act — and without disclosing that he would receive 30 percent of management fees.

But despite state law that required Securities Board Commissioner John Morgan to “at once” refer evidence of a criminal violation to the appropriate prosecutors — a standard that has been in place since 1957 — there is no evidence that securities regulators did so in the Paxton matter.

Robert Elder, a State Securities Board spokesman, said the agency would not comment.

In Collin County, where Paxton lived while soliciting investment clients three times between 2004 and 2012 as an unregistered adviser, prosecutors received no information about Paxton’s activities from the board, said Bill Dobiyanski, first assistant district attorney.

In addition, the Travis County Public Integrity Unit — which prosecutes corruption by public officials — did not hear from securities regulators about Paxton’s admission of violating securities law, said Gregg Cox, director of special prosecutions for the Travis County district attorney’s office, which includes the Public Integrity Unit.

[…]

Allegations that the State Securities Board hadn’t followed the law were raised last week in a strongly worded letter sent to Wice and Schaffer by the director of the left-leaning Progress Texas PAC.

In a July 8 letter, Glenn Smith suggested that Gov. Greg Abbott, who was still attorney general at the time, also didn’t follow requirements set out in the Texas Securities Act.

“On the surface, those failures raise suspicions of widespread conspiracy among several agencies and officials aimed at minimizing the criminal exposure of Mr. Paxton,” wrote Smith in the letter, which he provided to the Statesman.

Cait Meisenheimer, an Abbott spokeswoman, declined to comment on Smith’s letter. Wice also declined to comment on the letter, and Schaffer could not be reached for comment.

In his complaint, Smith specifically names Texas Securities Commissioner John Morgan and Collin County District Attorney Willis.

“With something like this, which is a clear confession of a felony by Sen. Paxton, the sort of silence and inactivity of public officials was very suspicious to me from the beginning,” Smith said. “They were compelled to act and failed to act, and this deserves attention.”

See here, here, and here for the background on the State Securities Board stuff, and see the original Statesman story for a copy of the letter. It’s always the coverup that gets you, isn’t it? The State Securities Board, full of Rick Perry appointees, should have followed the law and done its duty. Attorney General Greg Abbott should have followed the law and done his duty. Collin County DA Greg Willis should have done his duty a lot more quickly and without having to be pushed into it. That’s hindsight for you. Now I really can’t wait till the special prosecutors start laying out their case to the grand jury.

More on Houston’s transit deserts

James Llamas writes a guest post at the Kinder Institute blog about their earlier article on transit deserts in Houston.

HoustonMetro

As a planner at Traffic Engineers, Inc. I had the privilege of working with METRO staff and industry experts on the reimagining plan. The project has received quite a bit of attention around the country, and it’s encouraging to have well-respected researchers evaluating its effectiveness in different ways. Coincidentally, Reimagining was assailed early on by critics who alleged it would create “transit deserts,” presumably large areas with no transit service whatsoever. As it turned out, we were able to maintain service within a half mile of over 99.95 percent of existing riders (their boarding location, at least, which is all we actually know), including most of those in very low-ridership and hard-to-reach locations.

The notion that transit riders in large swaths of the city will be left high and dry is demonstrably false, and, of course, the vast majority of riders will see significantly improved service.

[…]

Reading through the study, the assumption on bus stops presents the first problem.

“Since information on the location of transit stops is not available yet,” the authors say, “points were placed along the future routes roughly every quarter mile and multiplied times two to account for a stop on either side of the road.”

Is this reasonable? In fact, all existing bus stops will be retained unless the street in front of them will no longer have service in the new network. This is a fate that will befall only a handful of stops each in Sharpstown and Gulfton, mostly located on end-of-line loops that will no longer exist. Practically all stops along major streets will remain.

So is the quarter mile spacing an accurate assumption? As many a weary bus rider can tell you, METRO local buses tend to stop much more often than that. The mile of Bellaire Boulevard centered on the intersection with Fondren Road in Sharpstown has seven bus stops in each direction. If the researchers placed four stops in each direction along this mile, they incorrectly assumed a 40 percent reduction in the number of stops. The typical spacing of stops along METRO’s local routes is more like one-sixth to one-fifth of a mile, so the quarter-mile assumption would provide a significant undercount. This likely explains part of the supply reduction alleged by the study.

But, perhaps more significantly, is the number of bus stops even a good measure of transit service quality? Most people on a bus stopping six times each mile would say no. Certainly, a base number of stops need to exist to allow people along the route to access the bus, but after a certain point (about quarter-mile spacing) adding stops has diminishing returns. According to the assumptions underlying the study, however, adding more stops is always better. This is an aspect of the methodology that should be reevaluated.

[…]

If the metrics used in the UT study could lead to incorrect conclusions about transit service supply, what measures should be used instead? I would suggest that weekday bus trips be replaced by total weekly bus trips since most people – even we transit riders – have places to go on the weekends. Inadequate weekend service is a great way to force people into car ownership who would rather do other things with their household budget.

We saw how basing the index on the gross number of routes could be problematic. At the same time, number of routes can be an indicator of the number of destinations reachable from a particular area. Perhaps double-counting routes that meet a certain frequency threshold like 15 minutes would yield more accurate results.

All of this isn’t to say that the parts of town called out in the study can’t use more transit service. They undeniably can. The methods developed by Nichols and Jiao hold great promise in helping transit planners identify areas where improved service is most needed. For instance, on this basis the 32 Renwick/San Felipe should be prioritized for a frequency increase when the budget allows.

See here for the study and here for the Kinder Institute post about it. I had my own critiques of the study, but I do agree with Llamas that it was a valuable idea that will help guide the discussion going forward. I don’t have anything to add to Llamas’ article, I just wanted to note what he said and to say again that I hope the study authors consider the feedback they have received and take another crack at it soon.