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IKEA gets self-driving trucks

Not for home delivery. Not yet, anyway.

California-based self-driving big rig firm Kodiak Robotics is teaming up with IKEA to deliver ready-to-assemble furniture and home furnishings to the Swedish retailer’s store in Frisco.

It marks Kodiak’s first time delivering goods directly to a store, said Don Burnette, co-founder and CEO of Kodiak Robotics. The 300-mile pilot routes on Interstate 45 from IKEA’s Baytown distribution center to Frisco will operate through November with a safety driver behind the wheel to oversee deliveries.

Kodiak has been making daily trips since early August between the distribution center and the store. Kodiak and IKEA are discussing a long-term, multiyear commitment to work together, Burnette said.

“The purpose of this is to get a better understanding of Kodiak’s autonomous driving technology and how it can contribute to increased road safety and ultimately determine how to improve the quality of life for drivers,” Burnette said.

So far, so good for Kodiak. Burnette said the company hasn’t had any safety issues on its Interstate 45 routes, even though its trucks encountered everything from construction to stalled vehicles.

“Our autonomous driving technology is able to handle just about everything that the highway can throw at it,” Burnette said.

Just adding this to the pile of other self-driving trucks on I-45. At some point I suppose this won’t be news any more.

Election 2022 miscellania: Marijuana, Austin Mayor, CRT

Three items of interest for you. First up, several local initiatives to decriminalize marijuana were successful on Tuesday.

By the end of Election Day, five Texas cities have voted to decriminalize low-level marijuana possession.

After Austin voters overwhelmingly approved the proposition to decriminalize carrying small amounts of marijuana in May, Ground Game Texas — the progressive group behind that effort — successfully worked with local organizations and pushed for similar measures to appear on the ballots of Denton, San Marcos, Killeen, Elgin and Harker Heights for the midterms cycle.

Voters in these cities have now shown strong support for the proposals at the polls.

The campaign saw the highest level of support in San Marcos — home to Texas State University — with nearly 82% of the votes. Denton, which has several university campuses, saw more than 70% of the votes backing the proposition.

In Killeen, known for its proximity to military base Fort Hood, close to 70% of voters approved the proposition. Elgin, just outside of Austin, saw almost 75% of votes in support of the reform. And on the low end, more than 60% of voters in Harker Heights in Bell County casted ballots in favor of decriminalizing marijuana.

“These meaningful reforms will keep people out of jail and save scarce public resources for more important public safety needs,” said Mike Siegel, political director of Ground Game Texas and a former Democrat congressional candidate. “We’re extremely happy with our results.”

Like Austin’s ordinance, the successful propositions establish city ordinances that end low-level enforcement, including citations and arrests for possessing less than four ounces of marijuana and related drug paraphernalia, in most cases. They also largely ban using city funds and staff to test substances for THC, the cannabis plant’s chemical that gets users high.

[…]

Ultimately, Ground Game Texas hoped to use the campaign to boost turnout, especially among young voters.

“We wanted to use workers, wages and weed to engage new voters,” Siegel said.

Looking ahead, Ground Game Texas will continue working with on-the-ground groups to place progressive measures on local ballots. They aim to put the measure along with several other propositions, including abortion decriminalization, in front of San Antonio voters in May 2023. And similar efforts are likely to pop up in other big cities like Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston in the 2024 elections, Siegel added.

“We’re hoping that we can prove not only that these issues are popular, but they also boosted turnout in the communities that are on the ballot,” he said. “And in the days following this election, we’re going to be having lots of conversations with folks about the next cycle.”

See here for some background. As noted there, I’m not sure what the practical effect of this will be, and I worry about legislative backlash just because that’s the world we live in now. I’ll be very interested to see if there is any evidence that this drove turnout, because Lord knows we could have used more of it if it did. And while I’m glad to see that there’s interest in bringing this to Houston, please remember that we already have several charter amendments on the ballot next year, which means either this would have to happen then or you’ll need to wait until at least 2025, since there’s a mandatory two-year wait after a successful charter amendment election. Hope y’all are already engaging with folks here about this, Ground Game Texas, so there are no unpleasant surprises for anyone.

Item two: There will be a runoff for Mayor of Austin between two familiar faces.

Austin’s next mayor was not decided Tuesday, as a tight race between Celia Israel and Kirk Watson will continue into a runoff in December.

To win the race outright, a candidate would have had to earn more than half of all votes as of Tuesday. Israel took 40% and Watson 35% of the vote, according to final but unofficial results. They were separated by more than 15,000 votes.

Jennifer Virden, the only other candidate who conducted a significant campaign, earned 18%.

Three other candidates received limited support. Phil Brual received 2%, and Gary Spellman and Anthony Bradshaw each received 1%.

In total, 304,000 votes were recorded.

Heading into the day, political insiders who analyzed the election said they expected the race to go to a runoff, as voters seemed split between Watson, the former Austin mayor and state senator, and Israel, a sitting state representative. Although Watson outraised Israel $1.3 million to $409,000, it was Israel who enjoyed momentum heading into Tuesday with recent endorsements from the American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I like both of them and wish the eventual winner all the best.

And finally, a small bit of good news on the school board hysteria front:

A very welcome reversal from last year, in a different political climate. Well done, Round Rock and Leander.

Texas Central insists they’re still alive

It’s something, I guess.

A lawyer for nearly 100 property owners who are living with the threat of their land being seized said he will seek legal action against Texas Central, the company that for a decade has promised to build a bullet train between Dallas and Houston, if the company does not provide more details about the looming project.

Landowners whose property could be in the path of the train track have petitioned the company to answer their questions. Patrick McShan, the lawyer representing property owners, said he’s prepared to ask a judge to allow him to depose the company — which has said little about the project — to get answers for his clients.

[…]

McShan’s list of questions included inquiries about the company’s leadership and permits for the project.

Robert Neblett, Texas Central’s attorney, said the company spent a “considerable sum” of money acquiring property for this project. Neblett added the company owns hundreds of tracts of land purchased for this project, but he did not confirm The Texas Tribune’s analysis of property owned by Texas Central.

“Texas Central’s chief executive is Michael Bui. Texas Central is not currently looking for a CEO to replace him nor is it looking for a new Board of Directors,” Neblett said in an emailed statement to the Tribune.

Neblett added that Texas Central plans to obtain any and all federal Surface Transportation Board certifications required to construct and operate the project.

Bui is a senior management consultant with FTI Consulting, a business advisory that lists corporate recovery as one of his qualifications. Bui also served as an adviser to a private energy company that provided power to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas following its court-ordered restructuring after the February 2021 freeze that caused hundreds of deaths while knocking out power and heat to millions of people.

According to a news release Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office released Thursday, unnamed representatives of Texas Central said, “the landscape changed since March 2022, when the company underwent a restructuring effort, and the future of the high-speed train remains bright.”

Houston and Dallas leaders have long championed the project that would connect the two cities. Turner said the bullet train would be an economic stimulant for the entire state.

“We had some very productive and constructive discussions about the train in Japan,” Turner said. “The leadership in Houston is very supportive and wants it to happen. I look forward to working with Texas Central and our state and federal partners to advance this project. If you build it, people will take full advantage of it.”

Still in contention is how much land the company has acquired in the 10 years since the project was announced, and how much land is still needed for the bullet train.

See here, here, and here for the background. As noted in the story, the Texas Central Twitter page had its first new post since July, so that’s something. I’d like to see more activity than that, but at least the mirror test shows that there’s still some breath in there. For now, I’ll take it.

If we can’t get high speed rail in Texas…

… At least we can maybe get some more Amtrak service.

San Antonio residents finally may get new rail service connecting them to Dallas, Houston and Austin, according to a Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) filing.

In an Oct. 5 letter to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams requested federal funding for the expansion of several railroad corridors, including “new and enhanced, conventional intercity options” along traffic-clogged Interstate 35, which runs north-south through the state.

The proposed projects outlined in the letter include an increase in service on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle line connecting San Antonio and Dallas and additional hauls on the Sunset Limited between the Alamo City and Houston. Currently, the Texas Eagle only runs four days a week, while the Sunset Limited operates on a tri-weekly basis, according to the rail operator’s website.

The proposal also includes expanding the Texas Eagle Line south, connecting San Antonio with the Rio Grande Valley and adding a new station on the Sunset Limited Line in Flatonia — located between San Antonio and Houston — to expand rural service.

Williams’ request is in response to the FRA’s establishment of the Corridor Identification Program. That is funded via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by the U.S. Senate in November 2021. Not one Texas Republican in the U.S. House or Senate voted in favor of the measure.

The FRA is excepted to decide which projects to fund based on criteria including projected ridership, revenues and capital investment, among others.

See here for some background. The Texas Rail Advocates post on which this story is based also mentions the revival of the Dallas-to-Houston-via-College Station line that was ended in the 1990s, which is to say maybe bringing back a slower and presumably less frequent version of Texas Central. (Pause while I heave a deep and dramatic sigh.) The letter doesn’t mention ridership, and I’d assume that the Dallas-Houston line if and when it got built would be a couple of times a week deal, which is to say it would all be pretty limited. But at least it would be a thing, if indeed it does happen.

Another depressing story about the existential future of Texas Central

It’s sad, y’all.

People in the path of a proposed but floundering high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas last week filed a letter that in many ways labels Texas Central Railroad the little engine that will never be.

They think it can’t. They think it can’t. They think it can’t.

“Granted, Texas Central appears to be doing things,” attorney Patrick McShan said in the letter sent to the company on Sept. 29. “But none of the things Texas Central is now doing suggest in any manner whatsoever that it does, in fact, intend to construct the project.”

The planned rail line, once touted as mere months from construction, now is more paperwork than planning. Since its former CEO left in June, the company has said it is securing financing, but shown little other signs of life, beyond a July 8 statement after the Texas Supreme Court affirmed its right to use eminent domain to acquire property.

“Texas Central has made significant strides in the project over the last several years and we are moving forward on a path that we believe will ensure the project’s successful development,” the company said then. “We look forward to being able to say more about this at an appropriate time in the near future.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Citing various examples, McShan’s letter said it appears Texas Central is operating as a shell of a corporation, paying property taxes it owed in eight of the 11 counties where it owns property, but still owing HOA dues for numerous locations and property taxes in Ellis County.  It reportedly, McShan said, has lost investment from Japan once considered necessary for the project, and has sold some of the properties it acquired during six years of planning and design.

The company never has applied for any construction permits related to construction of the line, though it has certain federal clearances.

“We believe Texas Central has not filed, nor will it ever file, an application for a construction permit for two reasons,” McShan wrote. “One, Texas Central does not want to make these required financial disclosures; and two, it knows that if it did make these disclosures its application would be summarily denied.”

See here and here for the previous depressing examples. I note that the last post on the Texas Central Twitter page was July 8, in response to that last story. If you can’t even issue a pro forma denial to this sort of thing, it is eminently reasonable to wonder what the heck is going on over there, and if anyone is doing anything. I’d love to find some reason for a bit of optimism, but right now that just ain’t there. Please prove me wrong, guys.

Unifying the opposition to massive urban highway projects

Good idea, ought to have some effect, but changing the overall culture and philosophy about transportation in Texas is a very big lift.

Opponents of some of Texas’ largest transportation projects are unifying their messaging, pushing state highway officials to think differently about metro regions, where road widening can claim hundreds of homes and businesses, and urging them to consider alternatives to automobiles rather than adding more lanes.

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, then the Texas transportation system is insane,” said Robert Storch, an El Paso resident opposed to a plan to widen Interstate 10 in the city.

Led by organizers from Houston with the Stop TxDOT I-45 effort, protesters from most of the state’s biggest cities descended last week on the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin headquarters, where officials approved a 10-year $85 billion plan for state road projects. The aim, organizers said, was to send a Texas-wide message to a statewide agency by focusing on the root issue of freeway design in urban areas.

“People in communities should have the right to decide what mobility means for them,” said Ann Zadeh, executive director of Community Design Fort Worth and a former City Council member and mayoral candidate.

In many Texas metros, Zadeh said, the focus needs to shift from traffic flow to “mending the divisions” those freeways caused, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

That case can be better made if it comes from numerous sources, said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, an opponent of the state’s plans to widen I-10 through the downtown of the West Texas gateway city.

“I think it is important to come together because we are talking about the same agency and the same issues,” Stout said.

Among the projects drawing alarm:

Each of the projects is aimed at addressing growing traffic congestion, enjoys political support from the regional planning officials in the major metro areas, and has years of TxDOT-driven study to justify its design.

But opponents argue that they also are based on doing things largely the way TxDOT always has done them in metro regions that are becoming more urban. They also say those regions’ residents and some leaders are clamoring more for housing closer to jobs, maintained sidewalks and frequent transit instead of ever-expanding freeways.

“What could we do positively in our communities with $10 billion,” I-45 critic Walter Mallet told the Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

I’m a little surprised that this kind of coordination hadn’t happened before, but I’m glad to see it now. Given that TxDOT has already approved that $85 billion in spending, I’m not sure how much can be accomplished at this time, but it’s worth trying. To me, the big prize here would be electing Beto O’Rourke Governor, because that would allow him to start naming new people to the Texas Transportation Commission, and I feel very confident saying that we’re going to keep getting the same old thinking on the TTC for as long as we have the same old people serving as Commissioners. I know I sound like a broken record, but it really is the case that very little will change in this state until we start electing different people to office. I mean, why not try it and see? What do we have to lose?

Still wondering about the existential future of Texas Central

I really hoped this would be a thing. If it isn’t, it’s a great wasted opportunity.

Ten years ago, a company calling itself Texas Central High-Speed Railway announced plans for a trailblazing bullet train that would whisk passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes. Company leaders exuded confidence that the trains would be running up to 205 miles per hour by 2020.

The potential for an American high-speed rail line captured the imagination of Texans and national train enthusiasts alike. At one point during an event celebrating the unbuilt high-speed rail line, then-Vice President Joe Biden told a Dallas crowd, “You’re going to lead this country into an entirely new era of transportation.”

But a decade on, there are still no new tracks between Dallas and Houston.

Through multiple business entities who often use some version of the Texas Central moniker, developers of the project spent years raising hundreds of millions of dollars for construction, fighting conservative lawmakers’ attempts to dampen their plans and buying land needed to lay the tracks. Perhaps the biggest battle, though, came from legal challenges to the company’s claims that state law allows it to forcibly purchase property when owners aren’t willing to voluntarily sell.

In June, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter and handed the company what could be a watershed victory, ruling that Texas Central can use eminent domain for its high-profile project. By the time the court ruled, though, Texas Central’s board had reportedly disbanded and its CEO and president had resigned. The project’s original timeline had already gone off the rails (at one point the construction was slated to begin in 2017). And land acquisition seems to have all but stopped in the last two years, according to land records reviewed by The Texas Tribune.

A spokesperson for the company, who is employed by a consulting firm that handles Texas Central’s media requests, says the project is still in the works.

But the company and Becker have declined to answer specific questions about the leadership exodus, apparent slump in land acquisition, funding prospects and status of permits Texas Central would need to move forward. A federal transportation agency says it hasn’t had contact with the company in two years. The portion of Texas Central’s website that once listed executive leaders is now blank — as is the list of current job openings.

Texas Central’s relative silence on the recent developments has left supporters of the project, who would like to see two of the state’s largest economic engines more easily connected, in limbo. Opponents, who have long railed against the idea of a private company using eminent domain to seize Texans’ land, are cautiously hoping Texas Central won’t rebound.

Even if the company resurges, there remain major obstacles ahead to acquire land and finance an increasingly expensive project described as “shovel ready” as recently as 2020. The stakes of the high-speed rail project extend beyond the company and Texas. The 240 miles of relatively flat land between Dallas and Houston has long been heralded as the ideal location for what Texas Central and its supporters say could be the first leg of a national high-speed rail system that transforms the country.

There are few infrastructure projects in the country that can compare in size to the Texas rail line. A California high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco also faces significant political, financial and legal hurdles. But Michael Bennon, the program manager at Stanford University’s ​​Global Infrastructure Policy Research Initiative, hangs a lot of hope on the Texas project given the relatively short distance, estimated frequency of travel and the landscape between the two cities.

“If you can’t do high-speed rail in that corridor, it’s hard to imagine it working anywhere else,” Bennon said.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. This is not the first possible elegy to what might have been with TCR. I’m of the belief that nothing is truly dead until you see the body, but I’m not feeling very optimistic right now. The damn shame of it all is that this was a great idea, and it should have worked. Lots of factors combined to make it not work – again, if this is indeed the end, which I still hope it isn’t – and I have no idea what could make something else work in its place. Honestly, at this point I’m not sure I’d live to see whatever that might be, given the ponderously long times these things take, whether or not they ultimately go anywhere. All I can say is that I hope the reports of TCR’s death are exaggerated. But I don’t have much faith that they are.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Another story about driverless trucks on I-45

The driverless trucks start coming and they don’t stop coming.

Waymo will partner in coming weeks with manufacturer Daimler Truck to put self-driving 18-wheelers on the road, further expanding the technology company’s autonomous testing between Dallas and Houston.

The big rigs will travel between the state’s two largest metro areas on Interstate 45, a corridor that’s become one of the country’s key testing grounds for driverless trucks.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., creates the technology that can be attached to trucks and other vehicles to make them fully autonomous. Its partnership with Daimler
began in 2020.

“We’re very excited to share this really big milestone for this trade partnership with Daimler and Waymo,” said Boris Sofman, director of engineering and head of trucking for Waymo. “We knew from the very beginning it would be very critical for us to partner with the right group of experts.”

The Waymo Driver technology is touted as a way to eventually eliminate the need for a human driver. Trucks equipped with it don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks or to sleep overnight, making them a more efficient way of getting goods from one place to another.

Waymo Via is used for transporting commercial goods, and it combines the driving capabilities of the Waymo Driver with the redundant systems of the Daimler trucks. Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia has been specifically designed for autonomous trucking, with redundant steering and braking systems, as well as increased battery storage to power the autonomous features.

[…]

The trucks are ready for the road after what Waymo and Daimler described as rigorous testing.

“We will be putting the first batch of these trucks into autonomous testing on public freeways in the upcoming weeks across Dallas and Phoenix, and that is an incredible milestone that both teams have been working a number of years toward,” said Waymo’s Sofman.

Waymo partnered with Uber Freight in June to move goods along the I-45 corridor, building on a February partnership on the same route with C.H. Robinson, a company that moves 20 million shipments annually. Waymo also partners with J.B. Hunt and UPS in Texas.

Waymo has been mentioned before, with that second story mentioning the C.H. Robinson partnership. I don’t think there’s anything really new with this one, it’s more of what we have already seen with the note that Waymo is a significant presence in the market. I wish there were an easy way to identify these autonomous trucks on the road, so we could get a more intuitive feel for how common a presence they are. For now, all we have are the news accounts. The Chron has more.

Dallas passes its ordinance to protect abortion access

Good job.

Dallas City councilmembers almost unanimously passed the “Grace Act,” an ordinance aimed at deprioritizing investigations into abortions by local police departments.

[…]

This new resolution prevents city resources from being used to create records for a person seeking an abortion, or to provide governmental bodies or agencies about pregnancy outcomes or to conduct surveillance to determine if an abortion occurred.

Investigations or prosecutions of abortion allegations will also be the lowest priority for law enforcement under the “Grace Act.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia was in attendance for the City Council meeting and was asked before the ordinance passed how the Dallas Police Department would enforce the resolution while complying with their sworn oath to enforce state law.

“We don’t know yet,” Garcia said plainly. “Myself and other chiefs in other cities don’t know exactly how this is going to look.”

Once DPD gets some direction from other cities or the state, Garcia said he would work with the city manager to figure out what standard operating procedures will be with the new resolution in mind.

“Having a policy that says you will not enforce a law on the books would be a violation of our police officer’s oath,” Garcia said. “Using discretion is different than saying you will not enforce a law in the State of Texas.”

See here for some background. As we know, Austin, Denton, and San Antonio have already taken similar action. We’re still waiting for Waco, and I have no idea if this is on the radar for Houston. Only Mayor Turner can put it on the Council agenda, and I have not seen any quotes from him about his thinking on the matter. I’ve no doubt such an ordinance would pass, but so far I don’t know if one will be introduced. If you have some insight on this, I’d love to hear it.

Multiple cities sue streaming services over franchise fees

This has been coming for awhile, it seems.

A lawsuit filed Thursday by 25 Texas cities claims that Disney, Hulu and Netflix have for years stiffed the cities out of dollars the streaming giants are required to pay under state law — and now cities are coming to collect.

Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth are among the cities that sued the streaming services in Dallas County to recover money they say they has been owed since 2007 and to require the services to pay each year going forward. Under state law, the services have to pay cities a franchise fee — which traditional cable providers also pay — in exchange for using communication lines over public rights of way to transmit their services into homes.

As more people abandon cable subscriptions in favor of streaming services, cities have lost franchise fee revenue — money that goes to fund city services like police and fire protection as well as roads, parks and libraries.

Cities haven’t made up that revenue with fees from streaming services, said Steven Wolens, a former Texas lawmaker and lead attorney for the cities. Even though state law classifies them as video service providers that must pay the fees, the major streamers haven’t paid cities a dime, Wolens said.

“They should have been paying this fee from the very beginning,” Wolens said. “Shame on them because they are using the public right of way that every other company pays the city to use.”

Exactly how much the streaming giants owe Texas cities isn’t known, Wolens said. For a smaller city, the losses could number in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. For a larger city, that figure could be in the millions.

Other Texas cities that joined the lawsuit are Abilene, Allen, Amarillo, Arlington, Beaumont, Carrollton, Denton, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Irving, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Nacogdoches, Pearland, Plano, Rowlett, Sugar Land, Tyler and Waco.

The cities are seeking funds dating to when the services launched — Netflix in 2007, Hulu in 2008 and Disney+, The Walt Disney Co.’s streaming service, in late 2019.

The city of Beaumont, which as you can see is involved in this litigation, filed its own lawsuit against these three streaming services in February. I could not find any news about that lawsuit since then, so I don’t know if it has been dropped in favor of the current litigation or if there are now two separate actions. My searching did find that several cities were working on this at least as far back as last year. I’d sure like to see a more in depth story about this, but for now this is what we have. Any lawyers want to offer an opinion on their odds of success? The Chron has more.

San Antonio passes its abortion access ordinance

Good.

With a 9-2 vote, San Antonio City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that condemns Texas’ abortion ban and recommends that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to abortions.

“By passing this resolution, the City of San Antonio is committing to not using any city funds or data to sell out persons seeking out a safe abortion,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who spearheaded the resolution. “Furthermore, council is communicating to our governmental relations team that … protecting persons seeking an abortion is a priority heading into the state legislative session.”

More than 100 people signed up to speak during the raucous, nearly five-hour meeting. The speakers offered impassioned, often emotional testimony in favor and opposed to the resolution and the right to choose. Mayor Ron Nirenberg paused the meeting briefly after shouting erupted during testimony.

“While the legal authority over reproductive health policy lies with the state and federal governments, we do refuse to stand idly by and watch an important constitutional right, be taken away without speaking on behalf of our constituents,” Nirenberg said. “As federal and state law changes in the future, we must do all we can to support and gain ground for reproductive freedom.”

The resolution makes exceptions for investigations into instances where “coercion or force is used against the pregnant person, or in cases involving conduct criminally negligent to the health of the pregnant person seeking care.”

Several proponents of the resolution asked that more specific language be added to direct police to “deprioritize” abortion investigations.

The resolution does not prevent local law enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to state law and the city’s charter. Council can only make recommendations.

The resolution “does not decriminalize” abortion, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. “It does articulate a policy recommendation from the council.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has said he doesn’t plan on prosecuting abortion providers under the ban.

See here for the background. As we know, Dallas and Waco are also in the queue for similar action. As yet, I haven’t seen any response to ordinances like this one and the one passed by Austin from the likes of Abbott or Patrick or Paxton; they may just be talking on their channels and it hasn’t gotten to the regular news yet, or maybe they’re just keeping their powder dry for now. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure. The Current has more.

Dallas joins the abortion decriminalization queue

Good for them.

The Dallas City Council could consider a resolution in August aimed at blunting the impact of the Texas Legislature’s trigger law that will go into effect following the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Dallas’ measure would direct city staff—which includes the Dallas Police Department—to make investigating and prosecuting accusations of abortion “the lowest priority for enforcement” and instructs City Manager T.C. Broadnax to not use “city resources, including … funds, personnel, or hardware” to create records regarding individual pregnancy outcomes, provide information about pregnancy outcomes to any agency, or to investigate whether an abortion has occurred, a draft copy of the resolution obtained by D reads.

“I would say that it technically really does accomplish the decriminalization here locally,” said Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who worked on the resolution and chairs the committee that will consider the matter before it goes to the full Council. “Being the lowest priority, … there’s not much of an investigation that could be done if there’s no resources that are able to be allocated.”

The measure does not apply to instances where law enforcement officials might need to investigate cases of criminal negligence by a practitioner in the care of a pregnant person, or where force or coercion is used against a pregnant person.

The resolution will be introduced in a special-called meeting of the council’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee Tuesday. If approved by the committee, he aims to have it before the full Council at its Aug. 10 meeting. If it passes, Dallas would join many cities that have sought restrictions with similar resolutions, including Denton, Waco, and Austin. The San Antonio City Council will vote on its resolution Tuesday.

Yes, Denton and Waco. You knew about San Antonio and Austin, now you can add these three to the list.

Bazaldua said he knows the city can do little about the law itself, but he hopes this resolution would provide a measure of protection for healthcare providers who could face felony charges if suspected of providing an abortion. Pregnant people would also have similar protections, he said.

“There’s only so much that can be done at the local level and this is about as much as we can get,” he said, adding that after the resolution is passed, ideally the city would begin working with nonprofit and private-sector partners to help people locate resources if they need to travel to another state for an abortion.

He also doesn’t see this resolution endangering the city when it comes to another recently passed law that would penalize cities that “defund” their police departments. He argues that funding isn’t being reduced.

“What can they do? Punish a city for saying this should not be a priority of ours?” he said. “When we have violent crime that’s going on, that we should be focusing our resources and funding on?”

I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past Ken Paxton or the forced-birth fanatics in the Lege, but on its face that’s a strong argument. It’s also consistent with the earlier advice we saw about what cities can do on their end. I don’t know how this will play out – I cannot overemphasize how much effect the November elections could have in blunting the worst possible effects of the new anti-abortion laws and preventing the creation of new ones – but it feels good to do something, even if it may be transient. One has to wonder when there will be some action in Houston on this front. Is there a campaign going on about this that I haven’t seen yet?

We need more monkeypox vaccines

We have a chance to get on top of this. Let’s try to take it.

Houston-area leaders on Monday evening called for more vaccines to combat the small but growing number of local monkeypox infections.

There are 57 reported cases in the Houston area, including 10 in unincorporated Harris County. The Houston area recently received just over 5,000 doses of the JYNNEOS monkeypox vaccine from the state, but demand still far exceeds supply, health officials say. A two-dose series, administered four weeks apart, is required for full vaccination.

“What we learned from COVID is when the demand is high and supply is limited, people are very, very frustrated,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a news conference at Houston TranStar headquarters. “Now with monkeypox, with all the attention that’s been brought to it, the demand is very high.”

The World Health Organization over the weekend declared monkeypox a global health emergency. Monkeypox for years has been endemic in certain parts of Africa but has spread worldwide in recent weeks, with most cases among men who have sex with men.

[…]

The risk to the general public is low, health officials say. There have been no reported deaths among the roughly 2,800 cases in the U.S., and hospitalizations are mostly for pain management. There is at least one hospitalized monkeypox patient in Houston.

Even so, cases continue to rise around the world, and Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested at the press conference that a more preventative approach is needed in Houston.

“We have an opportunity to leap frog ahead of this virus to try to mitigate it in a way we couldn’t do with covid,” Hidalgo said.

Before the latest shipment, Houston and Harris County health departments have been making due with a few hundred monkeypox vaccines, prioritizing those suspected of coming into contact with a confirmed case.

There was a similar story from Dallas the day before this one came out. The monkeypox vaccine has been around for years, the issue was that it wasn’t readily available around the country. That is starting to change, and a broader group of people are eligible to receive it now, so as I said in the title, maybe we can get ahead of this before it gets to be too big. The good news is that this isn’t an easily transmitted virus, but it is very much out there now and the number of people who are infected with it will grow in the absence of action. Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo are on the right page here. They just need some support from the feds.

UPDATE: Followup story, Harris County has received more vaccines, a few hours after having to suspend vaccination appointments.

Houston wins its bid to be a 2026 World Cup host

Excellent.

The World Cup is coming to Houston.

FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, chose Houston as one of 16 sites for the 2026 Men’s World Cup, the first edition of the tournament to be co-hosted by three nations: the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Sixty games will be played in the U.S., including all from the quarterfinals on. Canada and Mexico are to host 10 games each.

Houston did not stage matches the last time the U.S. held the World Cup in 1994 — Dallas was the closest venue — but the Bayou City is now getting its shot.

[…]

World Cup games in Houston — likely five or six — will be played in 72,000-capacity NRG Stadium. Chris Canetti, the local bid committee CEO, said he is hopeful Houston hosts some knockout round matches as well as group stage matches. NRG Stadium is not a candidate for the semifinals or finals because FIFA requires a minimum of 80,000 seats for those games. MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and AT&T Stadium in Arlington are believed to be the top contenders to stage the final.

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which hosted the 1994 World Cup final, was left out, as was a combined bid representing Baltimore and Washington, D.C., meaning the United States capital will not play a role in its biggest sporting event in 2026.

FIFA will also select two training sites out of five proposed venues: PNC Stadium, Houston Sports Park, AVEVA Stadium, Rice University and University of Houston.

This will be the first 48-nation World Cup, up from the 32-team format used since 1998. In a tournament likely to run from June 11 to July 12, but possibly start and end a week later, there will be 16 groups of three nations. Each team will play two first-round games instead of three, meaning one nation in each group opens against an opponent who will have already played. The top two in each group advance to a 32-nation knockout bracket.

Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, said some of the last decisions on host cities were not made until Thursday. The decisions, he said, were made “to ensure fans did not have to travel too far, to ensure everyone has a fantastic experience.”

To reduce travel, FIFA plans to group participating teams by region. Houston is in the Central along with Kansas City, Dallas, Atlanta, Monterrey, Mexico, and Mexico City.

The East region is Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and New York/New Jersey. The West: Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles (SoFi Stadium) and Guadalajara, Mexico.

“This is the biggest, most popular, most prestigious, the most important sporting event in the world,” Canetti said. “Bigger than the Super Bowl, bigger than the Final Four, bigger than the Olympics and for our city to be able to land this event is spectacular. It’s going to be something unlike anything we’ve ever seen here before and it’s going to bring great value and great benefits to our city.”

As noted before, this has been a years-long process, and it’s great to be among the chosen locations at the end of it. You can see a map of the host cities in the story. Congrats to everyone involved. Just let me know when tickets will be on sale. CultureMap has more.

We will learn Houston’s fate as a World Cup site this week

It’s been a long road.

On June 16, FIFA will announce its host cities for the 2026 Men’s World Cup set to be held within the U.S., Canada and Mexico. If Houston is one of the 16 locations chosen for the 48-team tournament, the city’s robust international soccer culture will serve as a prominent backdrop.

The Houston metro area is more racially and ethnically diverse than the United States as a whole, and is notably home to the nation’s fourth-largest Hispanic and Latinx population. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Harris County’s Hispanic population grew by 363,000 from 2010 to 2020, the largest increase of any county in the United States.

Houston’s global culture is reflected in its two professional soccer teams. The Dynamo’s roster includes players from 13 different countries, including eight in Latin America. Seven countries are represented on the Dash, including Mexico and Argentina.

[…]

As part of the pitch from the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee, in which Dynamo FC majority owner Ted Segal has taken an active role, the Dynamo offered up PNC Stadium and its Houston Sports Park practice ground as locations for training or other events around the World Cup.

That would give the Dynamo some operational responsibility for the tournament. But more importantly, [Dynamo President of Business Operations John] Walker said, “I think it’s about the buzz that it’s going to create in the city for the next four years around soccer.”

“The programming that will go on that leads up to it will be so soccer-focused and we think that’s a benefit to us,” he continued. “Because the more discussion about soccer that is going on in the city, the more relevant it becomes as a sport and hopefully our teams become relevant as well.”

NRG Stadium would serve as the primary venue for World Cup games in Houston. The arena, with a capacity of 72,000, has hosted soccer friendlies featuring powerhouse European clubs FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Manchester United.

The city made its initial pitch in 2017, and survived the first round of cuts the following year. All that was happening while the joint US/Mexico/Canada bid was still competing to be the host countries for the 2026 FIFA World Cup; they were officially named as hosts later in 2018. We got annual updates with not much in the way of actual news after that, and the most recent dispatch was last October. I sure hope we make it after all that. I plan to buy some tickets if we do.

Our still-smoggy skies

We’re being called on the carpet for them.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday sought to list the Houston and Dallas metro areas as “severe” violators of 2008 federal ozone pollution standards, kicking off a process that will likely impose stricter pollution controls in both regions to reduce local smog.

Ground-level ozone pollution, known as smog, harms human health by constricting lung muscles, making it harder to breathe and exacerbating lung diseases such as asthma. More than 79 million Americans live in areas that do not meet national air quality health standards for smog, according to the EPA.

“Smog pollution is a serious threat to public health,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a Wednesday statement on the proposed rule. “With these proposed determinations, we are fulfilling our duty under the Clean Air Act.”

Ozone pollution results from car and truck emissions, industrial emissions from facilities such as refineries and electric generation plants, as well as from natural sources (trees, for example, emit organic compounds that react with other emissions to form ozone).

The 2008 rule requires metro regions to stay below 75 parts per billion of ozone in the air; the EPA looks at the fourth worst ozone pollution days between 2018 and 2020 to determine the limit was violated. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, a 10-county region, exceeded the threshold at 76 parts per billion, while the eight-county Houston region exceeded it at 79 parts per billion.

Three other metro regions — Denver, Chicago and New York — also failed to meet the standard and would be listed as “severe” violators under the EPA’s proposal.

“It is a big deal,” said Victor Flatt, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston who has studied the Clean Air Act. “Once you change those designations, it requires the state to do more in that locality to reduce pollution.”

In addition, the EPA is seeking to designate the San Antonio region as a “moderate” violator of the more recent 2015 ozone standard of 70 parts per billion, with a measurement of 72 parts per billion.

The new designations in the Dallas and Houston regions would trigger more aggressive pollution control requirements on businesses by requiring the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to revise its plans to control smog in those regions. The changes could include stricter air pollution permits and requiring businesses to install better pollution control technology, as well as requiring a greater reduction in pollution before an area can approve new additional pollution sources.

A TCEQ spokesperson declined to comment on the EPA’s proposal on Wednesday.

Flatt said he wouldn’t be surprised if Texas sues the EPA to protest the new designations, although winning would be difficult since the EPA’s authority to enforce the ozone requirements is well settled, he said.

“But the attorney general of the state of Texas is running for reelection,” Flatt said. “He plays to a base by opposing EPA or the Biden administration.”

I think there’s a 100% chance that the state files suit over this, and given the debasement of the federal judiciary in recent years I’d be surprised if Kan Paxton can’t find a judge that will give him what he wants. After that, who knows what might happen. In the meantime, maybe we can hope for a bit of voluntary compliance, and maybe we can put some local pressure on the larger offenders. Don’t take anything for granted about this. The San Antonio Report has more.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

Here comes Waymo on I-45

They’ve actually been on this road for a couple of months, but now they’re doing more.

Waymo will begin hauling freight for North America’s largest logistics firm on autonomous big rigs traveling between Dallas and Houston on Interstate 45.

The California-based subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., announced the partnership Wednesday with C.H. Robinson, which moves 20 million shipments a year. The self-driving trucks will carry a safety driver in the front seat.

Waymo spokesperson Julianne McGoldrick said pilot runs will start in the coming months on what is becoming a common Dallas-to-Houston testing ground. Waymo has been hauling freight between the Texas cities with self-driving trucks since last year for other partners like J.B. Hunt and UPS.

[…]

In partnership with France-based public transport company Transdev, the Texas routes will create hundreds of jobs at Waymo’s new 9-acre hub in South Dallas. The new hub was built specifically for Waymo Via, the company’s autonomous trucking operations and accommodates hundreds of trucks from its carrier partners.

In June, Waymo began testing self-driving freight runs between Fort Worth and Houston on Interstate 45 in partnership with trucking company J.B. Hunt. The company reported zero accidents or speeding events involving the vehicles, concluding that the trials were a success. This led to a long-term partnership with the trucking company.

McGoldrick said Texas’ reputation as one of the biggest freight hubs in the U.S. makes it a key spot to test the vehicles. The Dallas-to-Houston route on Interstate 45 is especially important because it connects freight arriving at major cargo airports such as DFW International and AllianceTexas and at railroad yards in southern Dallas with Houston’s busy shipping port.

“We can test our Waymo Driver on highly dense highways and shipper lanes, further understand how other truck and passenger car drivers behave on these routes, and continue to refine the way our Waymo Driver reacts and responds in these busy driving regions as we advance our operations,” McGoldrick said.

As noted, driverless trucks love I-45. That post mentioned Waymo’s entry into I-45 trucking, but I didn’t have a post specifically about it. Just another thing to watch out for if you’re driving that same route. The Dallas Observer has more.

A broader look at the Houston project to track COVID in wastewater

The DMN tells me things I did not know about my current favorite public works project.

The [Houston] health department is conducting the wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 in partnership with researchers at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. Wastewater testing cannot identify individual people who have COVID-19, but it can identify neighborhoods with particular virus variants or relatively high virus loads.

Dallas County is not participating in similar wastewater surveillance to track the virus, said Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services. He said he doesn’t know of any other organizations or municipalities in North Texas that are operating similar programs.

While Dallas County previously considered using wastewater surveillance, the price of creating such a system was too high. “It’s actually quite expensive to set that up,” Huang said.

“After the 10-week survey, [the water district] discontinued its participation in the study due to inconsistent data that required continuous interpretation by local and state public health officials,” said Kathleen Vaught, public relations specialist at the water district.

Public health experts have long used wastewater samples to track the growth and spread of bacteria and viruses, like the poliovirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began discussing the use of the tool to study COVID-19 in February 2020.

By September of that same year, the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System, also known as NWSS, to help state, tribal and local health departments track and respond to COVID-19.

[…]

Houston is the only Texas city to participate in the NWSS, although that could change as the program grows in the next month, said NWSS team lead and CDC microbiologist Dr. Amy Kirby. Data taken from Houston wastewater samples is submitted to a national database tracking similar data from nearly 400 utilities across the country.

The University of California, Merced’s Naughton Lab created and maintains a dashboard, called COVIDPoops19, to track global wastewater testing for the virus.

I just want to say that learning of the existence of a dashboard called COVIDPoops19 has improved my life in ways I could not have imagined. You can zoom in on Houston in this dashboard and click on the various icons to learn more; clicking on the icon for Baylor College of Medicine led me to the actual Houston dashboard for this, which I had not seen before. If you play around with the slider, which shows you what the viral levels were for past weeks, you can see that the inflection point for this year was the week of June 21 – levels had been dropping through June 7, then you saw a few upticks on June 14, and on the 21st it was all increases, and it got worse for the next few weeks. We’re on more of an upward trend right now (December 6 is the most recent date), but there are increases and decreases in the various locations. I’m going to be bookmarking this page. Anyway, if you want to know more about this project, there you go.

Why do driverless trucks love I-45?

For a combination of reasons.

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states.

Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems.

And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

Officials with Aurora and Waymo say the combination of stable weather along the stretch, a relatively flat drive and the amount of freight driven between the two population hubs made the interstate a good choice. Statewide regulations about driverless vehicles also help, said Pablo Abad, a product manager with Waymo.

“Whenever we go to a particular market or think about implementing the Waymo driver, we have to look at the regulations to see how favorably they view autonomous tech,” he said. “Texas has been very helpful on that side — it’s part of the reason why we’re commercializing in Texas.”

The state’s autonomous-friendly business environment is by design, said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at UT Austin. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2017 allowing autonomous vehicles to drive in the state without a driver present, and that same year, the entire state was designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle testing.

“Texas wants to be on the lead on this,” she said. “Texas has a lot of crossroads for a state, with at least five or six major population centers. That’s a great set up for moving freight.”

Whether by accident or design, it’s working. There have been multiple trials of driverless trucks in Texas over the past few years, mostly on I-45. It’s the same combination of moderate distance, flatness, relative emptiness, and big population centers on either end that was attractive for high speed rail, too. There’s some interesting stuff in the story about the different kinds of automated vehicles and how the addition of driverless trucks could be good both for business and for truck drivers, especially in this time of supply chain issues, so go read the rest.

Last chance to make a good FIFA impression

Coming to the end of this very long process.

Houston’s diversity is being played up in the city’s recent push to host the 2026 men’s World Cup. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined forces with prominent business people and community leaders to highlight the benefits of featuring such a rich multicultural community on the biggest stage for the global pastime.

Houston is one of 17 U.S. candidates that will be whittled down to 11 host slots for the 2026 games, hosted jointly between the United States, Canada and Mexico, which will provide another five host cities. With FIFA officials set to make a site visit to Houston Oct. 26 to prepare for their final decision later this year, local stakeholders are hammering the point harder than ever.

“Soccer is the world’s game, and as one of the most diverse cities in North America, bringing the World Cup here is a perfect match,” said Chris Canetti, former president of the Houston Dynamo and Dash and president of the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.

If chosen, Houston would host six games that would likely bring tens of thousands of fans to the city. Some would watch the game at the 70,000-plus seat NRG Stadium and more would simply soak up the atmosphere at bars, restaurants and gathering spots around the city.

Host cities could net between $90 million and $480 million beyond taxpayer contributions, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group. Previous World Cups, including the 1994 U.S. tournament, have burdened public funds, but North American stakeholders say host cities can avoid unnecessary expenditures in 2026 by utilizing preexisting infrastructure, such as the Houston Texans’ home.

Officials said that 2026 is still working through the cost estimates with FIFA and expect to have more details after the Oct. 26 site visits.

[…]

While many media rankings give Dallas the slight edge over Houston due to the city’s larger AT&T Stadium, the Bayou City’s bid committee is touting Houston’s diversity and pointing to the city’s successful track record of hosting major sporting events, including the Super Bowl and Final Four.

See here for the last update. I’ll skip my usual nattering about the uselessness of these sports-related economic projections and just admit up front that it would be cool to host some World Cup games. The linked article at the end tries to suss out which 11 cities from the 17 contenders will get to host those games. I don’t see why Houston and Dallas have to be in competition with each other any more than they are with the other 15 wannabes, but we’ll know soon enough. I’m ready for this to be settled.

Still more driverless trucks

A familiar story by now.

Some trucks hauling FedEx deliveries from Dallas to Houston may soon be missing a key feature: drivers.

Autonomous vehicle company Aurora announced this month it has partnered with FedEx and truck-manufacturer PACCAR to begin testing driverless big rigs along the 250-mile stretch of I-45 between Texas’ two largest cities. While the trucks will make the trek with a safety driver up front until at least 2023, almost all of the roadway decision-making and driving will be left to Aurora’s software systems and location-sensing hardware.

Gerardo Interiano, VP of Government Relations and Public Affairs at Aurora, said Texas seemed like an obvious place to test their trucking service.

“Trucking is the backbone of our economy, and Texas moves more goods by truck than any other state,” he said. “The weather is favorable and it’s a welcoming state for new technologies, both of which are advantageous as we refine and deploy our technology and service with a trusted transportation company like FedEx.”

[…]

Aurora’s trucks will deal exclusively with “middle mile” applications, which usually involve shipping goods between large cities. They will not yet experiment with last-mile deliveries, which deliver products directly to stores and doorsteps, or cross-country trips. The trucks will pick up loads at a delivery facility on the outskirts of Dallas and drop them off at a FedEx facility north of Houston, avoiding the more congested and urban stretches of the freeway.

The new trucks will use a combination of cameras, radar and lidar, which uses reflected light and the Doppler effect to detect traffic conditions about 1,000 feet up the road.

The story notes some autonomous car rollouts in various Texas cities, but does not note that there have been announcements of driverless trucks in Texas before, with Otto supposed to be on I-45 and TuSimple on I-10. I have no idea if they are actually doing the things they claimed to be ready to do in 2019, but they did claim them, and now they have more company. Mashable and TechCrunch have more.

No vax needed to see a Rockets game

No, thanks.

The Rockets will not have any entry or seating restrictions beyond those required by NBA health and safety rules this season, according to Rockets president of business operations Gretchen Sheirr. The team does provide an option for fans to purchase seats in sections with social distancing provided in a variety of areas in Toyota Center.

The NBA requires that all those within 15 feet of the court be able to show proof that they are fully vaccinated or can provide a negative test for COVID.

The Dallas Mavericks last week announced that all fans be fully vaccinated or provide a negative test, joining Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder, along with teams in New York (the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks) and in San Francisco (the Golden State Warriors) where local guidelines require it.

The Rockets’ policy for Toyota Center is in line with policies for Texans games at NRG Stadium and Astros games at Minute Maid Park.

But those are at least generally held outdoors, and even if the roof is closed on those stadia there’s still a lot more open space. The Rockets play in a much more enclosed space, and while they do have some limited “socially distanced” seating available, this sure seems like a recipe for transmission. It’s also quite different from last season, when face masks were required and attendance was capped at about 20% of capacity. I don’t begrudge them wanting to have fuller crowds – they gotta make money – but if the Mavericks can require proof of vaccination or a negative test in order to attend a game, I don’t see why the Rockets can’t. You can do better than that, y’all.

The electoral dress code lawsuit

Still interesting.

A U.S. magistrate judge this week recommended striking down parts of Texas law that prohibit wearing political apparel within 100 feet of a polling place as unconstitutionally vague — but upholding a narrower provision that specifies that clothing bearing messages related to what’s on the ballot can be banned.

The issue first arose in 2018 when Harris County resident Jillian Ostrewich wore a Houston firefighters T-shirt to a polling place and election workers told her to turn it inside out because it related to Prop B, a pay parity measure for firefighters on that ballot that year. Claiming she was unconstitutionally censored and her right to free speech infringed upon, she sued Harris County and state officials.

The case puts to the test a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from June of that year in which the justices struck down a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue-oriented” apparel at the polls for being overbroad. The Texas suit was brought by Pacific Legal Foundation, the same California-based libertarian public interest law firm that won the Minnesota case.

[…]

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew M. Edison in his report on Tuesday said the election judge had a constitutional basis for rejecting Ostrewich’s shirt because it had a clear relationship to the ballot measure, even if it did not explicitly say to vote for that measure. Under that law, Edison said, Ostrewich had not been harmed and therefore was not entitled to damages.

Other parts of the law, however, which define “electioneering” as advocating “for or against any candidate, measure, or political party” through “posting, use, or distribution of political signs or literature” leaves room for misunderstanding, he said. Ostrewich would have no way of knowing whether wearing that same shirt in a future election, even if the measure weren’t on the ballot then, could also be considered illegal electioneering.

Those parts of the law “do not give Texas voters notice of what is expected of them in the polling place, and they do not provide election judges with objective, workable standards to rein in their discretion,” Edison wrote. “This is impermissible under the First Amendment and these statutory provisions should be struck down as unconstitutional.”

See here for the background. Seems reasonable to me to say that you can be barred from the restricted area for wearing a shirt that directly addresses the current election, but barring a shirt that’s not about that election may be too broad. The plaintiffs are claiming a victory, even though their main actor was denied any relief; I think the defendants can be reasonably satisfied with this as well. This was a recommendation and not a ruling – the parties have two weeks to hammer out an agreement of some kind, which will then need to be approved by the judge. I’ll be honest, I had no idea that was a thing, but here we are. The lawyers out there, what do you think about this?

There actually is still a court order that allows for mask mandates in place

Hey, remember that other lawsuit filed against Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy? I noted it in passing in this post, and then like you I forgot about it. And then on Sunday afternoon, this happened:

As of Monday morning, I had not seen any news coverage of this. As discussed before, that Supreme Court ruling only applied to Dallas and Bexar counties, and the affected school districts in those counties appeared to be interpreting it in a way that said it didn’t apply to them. Other jurisdictions like Harris County and Austin were not covered, so their mandates were also not affected.

Later in the day, there was this story:

After the Texas Supreme Court’s decision, several Dallas County school districts started backtracking, making masks optional once again, though Dallas ISD held firm.

But that same evening, a Travis County judge granted a new restraining order that temporarily blocks Gov. Greg Abbott from prohibiting mask mandates in Texas public schools.

The restraining order was granted in a case involving The Southern Center for Child Advocacy. Officials from the center did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday but noted on the group’s Facebook page that the restraining order — issued by Judge Jan Soifer in the 345th Judicial District — was in effect statewide.

“It was not one of the TROs blocked by the Texas Supreme Court yesterday afternoon,” the group wrote.

Richardson [ISD] Superintendent Jeannie Stone said the order allowed her district to keep a mask mandate in place as the school year is set to start on Tuesday.

“This ruling, at least temporarily, puts this decision where it should be — at the local level,” Stone said in a video announcement. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Stone said Richardson is committed to following the law and would adapt its decision making if the law changes.

The restraining order essentially allows individual districts the leeway to set their own mandates independent from their counties. Officials with the attorney general’s office asked the Supreme Court of Texas to block this order as well. The Texas Supreme Court did not grant the attorney general’s request on Monday for an immediate block based on the day before’s decision.

Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote to the Southern Center for Child Advocacy on Monday, asking the group to acknowledge on Monday that their temporary restraining order is “void and of no effect” because of the Texas Supreme Court decision.

Henry Green Bostwick II, an attorney representing the center, countered that he would withdraw the lawsuit against the state if Gov. Abbott altered his order to allow school districts to enforce mask mandates.

Paxton has vowed to take all school districts that violate Abbott’s mask mandate ban to court. Paxton falsely claimed Sunday evening that the Supreme Court’s decision ordered Dallas County and Dallas ISD to follow the governor’s order.

However, the decision did not mention Dallas ISD. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment on whether the attorney general planned to sue DISD over its mask requirement.

“Until there’s an official order of the court that applies to the Dallas Independent School District, we will continue to have the mask mandate,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said late Sunday.

[…]

Other school districts are signaling their intentions to jump into the legal fray, too.

DeSoto ISD trustees are scheduled to meet tonight to discuss authorizing their legal counsel to file a lawsuit against Abbott in order to allow the districts “to make local decisions regarding the health and safety of its students and employees,” according to the board’s agenda. Arlington ISD is expected to take up a similar vote later this week.

So, safe to say that for now, as of Monday afternoon, school districts that wanted to keep a mask mandate in place could do so. And then there’s this:

Here’s the DMN story if you can read it. Again I ask: Who is actually bound by that Supreme Court order? Far as I can tell, no one is paying it any heed, and now there’s the second court order that would seem to invalidate it, or at least contradict it. I can’t see this as anything but a temporary situation, and yet here we are. Until something else happens, it’s what the counties and school districts are saying that is in effect. I for one prefer it that way.

Bexar County mask mandate back on

And in an update to the original mask mandate lawsuit story, the district court that issues the temporary restraining order that was later stayed by the Supreme Court has now issued a temporary injunction, barring the state from forbidding San Antonio and Bexar County from requiring masks. Confused? Keep reading.

Bexar County’s mask mandate for public schools is allowed to remain in effect after the latest in a back-and-forth court battle between the county and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Just one day after the Texas Supreme Court lifted a temporary restraining order that allowed for Bexar County’s mask mandate last week, 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga ruled in favor of the county again on Monday.

“I’m aware of the importance of this decision and, as before, I don’t take it lightly,” Arteaga said. “My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools who don’t have access to the vaccine but must attend school coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County hospitals.”

The ruling grants a temporary injunction that prevents the enforcement of Abbott’s executive order that barred local governments from issuing coronavirus-related mandates. The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling allowed for injunction hearings to continue in Bexar and Dallas counties.

Like the order granted last week, the latest ruling is likely to be appealed by the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The mask mandate on public schools and city employees will remain in effect until the trial is scheduled, unless higher courts reverse the decision before then.

In their closing arguments, lawyers representing Bexar County relied on testimony from local officials, who painted a grim picture of what frontline responders are facing during the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant.

“The city and county both face a situation where, unless they do everything they can to curb the increase in cases, the health care system is threatened to be overwhelmed … and the city is struggling to provide essential services including ambulance, fire and other services that members of our community relay on every day,” said attorney Bill Christian, who represented the City of San Antonio.

The state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gdula, argued that local officials would be violating state law by issuing orders that conflict with Abbott’s executive orders. The governor is granted broad power through the Texas Disaster Act, she said.

“This court is not the forum for a policy debate regarding masks,” Gdula said. “Plaintiffs have made it clear today that they have opinions about masking policy. But this court can only address legal questions.”

See here for the previous report, which noted that the plaintiffs had not exactly been eager to comply with the SCOTx ruling in the first place. This is all separate from the other lawsuit that resulted in a statewide restraining order on Sunday night. As I, a noted non-lawyer, understand it, the purpose of the initial restraining order that was granted was to address claims by the plaintiffs that they are suffering harm right now as a result of the thing they’re suing over – the TRO is to mitigate that harm until there’s an evidentiary hearing. That TRO is what was lifted by SCOTx, who said in effect that any such harm was either insignificant or irrelevant, and no mitigation needed to be in place at this time. The purpose of the injunction is to say that the plaintiffs have presented enough evidence to suggest that they will prevail on the merits, and thus they can get what they are asking for until a final ruling is made. This too can and surely will be appealed, and I would be surprised if it is not stayed, but as before until such time the plaintiffs have gotten what they wanted.

The San Antonio Report adds on.

Arteaga said that like her decision to grant a temporary restraining order last week, the choice to grant a temporary injunction was not made lightly. She acknowledged the testimony of Bexar County resident Michelle Means, who told the court Monday that she did not want to send her youngest child to school with a face mask and was disappointed by the sudden mask mandate issued last week.

“I just wanted to apologize to all those parents, school administrators, the superheroes that we call teachers, for what someone called the equivalent to a legal tug-of-war,” Arteaga said. “Unfortunately, … our children are right in the middle.”

Arteaga’s ruling on Monday is only a temporary extension; the mask mandate will not be permanently in place until the case goes to trial. Once appealed, the 4th Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court would also have to rule in the city and county’s favor.

[…]

The city and county must now set a trial date with the state over a permanent injunction.

Arteaga heard from five witnesses during a hearing Monday, with four testifying on behalf of San Antonio and Bexar County and one for the state. During the hearing, local officials testified about rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and said the need to require masks in schools was urgent as more of them opened their doors to students.

Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, making them more vulnerable, said Dr. Junda Woo, who testified in her capacity as the public health authority for San Antonio and Bexar County. She also serves as the medical director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Though children generally have better health outcomes if they contract the virus, they can still bring it home to older, more vulnerable adults.

“People are out and about more and we have a large number of people who are unvaccinated,” she said. “And the delta variant is more contagious than the earlier version of COVID, where every person who had COVID will infect one or two people. With the delta variant, every person infects eight to nine people.”

Woo also cited rising hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the area. Those increases are now accompanied by smaller staff numbers at area hospitals compared to previous surges, Woo said.

“As a physician, I really worry we’re going to break our health care system,” Woo said. “The level of burnout, of anger that I see among health care providers who I have known for years, is at levels I have never seen before. We can’t keep asking people to do this over and over again.”

We’ll see how long it takes for this to get back before SCOTx, and how long it takes them to give Greg Abbott everything he wants. In case you’re wondering, the temporary injunction hearing for the Dallas lawsuit is August 24, so depending on where we are it’s possible we’ll go through this again in that court.

The Trib reports that the general reaction so far to all this is confusion and a mess of differing local actions.

Colleges in Travis County must require masks — but not two hours south in Bexar County. There, officials decided to keep the mandate just to K-12 — a move intended to give state officials challenging the order in court fewer opportunities to strike it down.

“We restricted it because we didn’t want to overreach and have another reason [for the state] to knock down our order,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

[…]

Amid the legal disarray, many school districts have walked back plans to require masks.

​​Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio imposed a mask order after Bexar County officials convinced a judge to pause Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. But after Sunday’s Supreme Court ruling, the district scuttled its plans.

The same goes for Fort Bend ISD — another district that was set to require masks, but changed course in defiance of Fort Bend County Judge KP George’s mask order for the county, which includes public schools.

Some districts aren’t waiting for the state to challenge local mask orders to reverse course. In Travis County, Eanes Independent School District pulled back its mask mandate after the state Supreme Court decision — even though the decision didn’t apply to Travis County and the county mask mandate remains in effect.

“We will follow the law as it is determined by the highest court at the time in this legal chess match,” the school district posted on Twitter.

Others have stuck with their mandates through the chaos. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio ISDs will continue to require masks despite the Supreme Court order.

In parts of the state where masking orders remain untouched by the legal crossfire, officials are weighing the possibility of expanding the mandate beyond schools and colleges.

Plenty of businesses in Austin have adopted their own masking requirements without a local mandate, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. But he hasn’t ruled out mandating masks for private businesses if the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals continues to rise — though Adler doesn’t relish the idea.

“We’re all just trying to keep people safe and to keep the economy open,” he said.

It’s a mess, it’s Greg Abbott’s fault, and there should be more resistance to his nonsense. Thank you for attending my TED talk.

And in the meantime, a new player has entered the fight.

El Paso health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said on Monday he would issue an order requiring masks in indoor settings, including schools. The City Council voted 5-3 to approve a motion to join legal challenges to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders that strip local governments of the ability to issue mask mandates.

“It is my intent to have a local health authority order to have a mask mandate throughout the city and the county in all indoor establishments to include the schools,” Ocaranza told the City Council at an emergency meeting conducted over Zoom.

He said he would allow exceptions to the mandate, which he plans to make effective Wednesday morning, but did not specify them. He said his order would align with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could be re-evaluated in 30 days.

[…]

City Attorney Karla Nieman said a lawsuit against Abbott would be filed tonight and the city hoped to be heard by a judge on Tuesday.

“Tonight” was Monday night – as far as I could tell late Monday there were no news stories confirming that such a suit had been filed. I’ll keep an eye on this. The Current has more.

UPDATE: The latest version of the Yallitics podcast does a nice job explaining all the legal mumbo jumbo, in case you still need some help understanding it all.

Dallas ISD to require masks

Good for them.

Starting Tuesday, Dallas ISD will require students and teachers to wear masks at its campuses, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that bars districts from issuing mask mandates.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the change during a Monday morning press conference, saying that it was within his discretion to ensure the health and safety of his employees and the district’s students.

“We’re in a situation that has gotten significantly more urgent,” Hinojosa said.

Dallas is the first district in the state to flout the governor’s order; Houston — the state’s largest district — is considering such a move. Its new superintendent, Millard House II, announced last week that he would bring a mask mandate in front of Houston trustees at their next board meeting, Aug. 12.

School officials say it’s necessary in the face of the highly contagious delta variant. The youngest students remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a statement, Ben Mackey, Dallas’ board president, said he was fully supportive of Hinojosa’s stance.

“The superintendent is the educational leader and chief executive officer of our school district tasked with the day-to-day operations of the district, which includes implementing safety protocols,” Mackey said. “Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the new delta variant.

“Towards the end of last school year, we saw very low transmissions rates on campuses, thanks in part to masks being worn consistently by educators and students.”

Abbott’s executive order, issued in May, bars public schools and the Texas Education Agency from issuing any requirements on mask usage. Those who defy Abbott’s order could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. It’s unclear how such a penalty could be applied to school districts.

Asked about a potential fine, Hinojosa responded: “Who knows?”

“All this is going to play itself out, and we’re not going to be the only ones taking this action,” Hinojosa said.

That certainly seems to be the case, as we have discussed before. HISD will vote on whether or not to follow through on Thursday, while Austin ISD may have made a decision by now as well. There’s also this:

Meanwhile, the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, filed a lawsuit Sunday night in Travis County against Abbott and his executive order prohibiting school districts, governmental bodies or any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds from requiring masks.

In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, the group seeks to give the power to enforce mask wearing back to local school districts, said Hank Bostwick, volunteer center coordinator and lawyer.

[…]

The lawsuit claims that Abbott is overreaching his authority and that his emergency powers should be used to take proactive steps and “not to advance an anti-mask political agenda that has no discernible basis in the data regarding the COVID-19 contagion rate.”

“This is purely political gamesmanship, and has nothing to do with the health and safety of Texas children or their teachers,” Bostwick said.

The lawsuit highlights that people of color are still lagging behind in vaccination rates and getting these families back in schools without proper protection makes them vulnerable to an increased rate of infection.

“The threat to the health and safety of Texas public school students and teachers is imminent and real,” the lawsuit states.

The group also claims that the governor is in violation of Texas education code because children with disabilities “are entitled to learn and interact with their non-disabled or typical peers in a safe and healthy educational environment.” The order not allowing masks means some of these students may be unable to attend school in-person if masking is not required, the lawsuit claims.

I looked around but was unable to find anything else about this lawsuit. From the Trib story, it seems they are making a couple of statutory claims – the Governor does not have the legal authority under the law to forbid school districts (and presumably other local governmental entities) from forbidding them from adopting mask mandates, and the lack of a mask mandate violates state law about providing an equal educational opportunity to all students. This Chron story suggests that these plaintiffs are not alone in that position.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee contends Abbott is misusing the Disaster Act. He cautioned that the governor’s power “is not absolute.”

“While he acknowledges that COVID is a health crisis that needs addressing, he then bars measures that would help mitigate this disaster,” the county attorney said in a statement. “The Disaster Act doesn’t allow him to do that, and local county and city officials should be able to take actions needed to stop the spread of COVID — including issuing a mask mandate.”

It would be fine by me if the Harris County Attorney were to take more direct action on that point. It may well be that this legal argument fails in court, but I see no harm in making that argument, as forcefully as possible. Maybe it’s Greg Abbott who is wrong in his interpretation of the law. Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Only one way to find out.

UPDATE: The Chron writes about the SCCA suit but has no further details.

UPDATE: Austin ISD will require masks as well.

The non-high speed rail option

Here comes Amtrak.

Amtrak is all aboard the Texas Triangle, but there is a long way to go before more trains roll into Houston, headed for San Antonio and Dallas.

The national rail system’s new plan for expanding service, released Thursday, identifies potential routes to create or expand nationwide by 2035. The Texas Triangle, involving Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — and including Austin and Fort Worth — receives significant attention. Three daily round-trip trains are planned between Houston and Dallas, in addition to three between Houston and San Antonio.

For Houston travelers, Austin would be accessible via San Antonio.

Amtrak also identified potential stops along the routes where new passenger stations could be added, including Rosenberg on the way to San Antonio and College Station on the way to Dallas.

[…]

Amtrak trains along the Sunset Limited roll into Houston three days a week. As a result, use of the Houston Amtrak station — often mocked for being a single platform for the nation’s fifth-largest metro area — is low. In 2017, fewer than 20,000 people boarded Amtrak in Houston, a yearly total that is less than hopped aboard Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail on the typical workday.

The last time the Houston Amtrak station saw a large crowd, it was to welcome the world’s largest steam train, during a 2019 stop by Union Pacific.

Many argue that is because Amtrak trains to and from Houston only come every other day and often not on time. The Northeast corridor, where Amtrak is a common way to move between cities, offers more than 100 weekday trains.

That is in part because of the dominance of Amtrak in owning railroad tracks in the Northeast, compared with the rest of the nation, where most major lines are controlled by freight railroads. In many cases, including Texas, adding the service is likely to come with federal investment in projects aimed at improving reliability or speed of service.

Even then, with various stops, the trains would lag behind air travel or most car trips. Both Houston-to-Dallas and Houston-to-San Antonio would take more than 4½ hours.

The appeal is a more predictable trip than driving, with fewer hassles than air travel, said James Llamas, a principal planner at Houston-based Traffic Engineers Inc. Llamas, who recreationally and professionally travels by train often, said that where Amtrak or officials have invested in frequent train service, riders have embraced it. He noted investments in California, which historically suffered from a lack of passenger rail options until the state opted to develop them, have increased ridership to where it is the most-used lines in Amtrak outside the Northeast.

Though Amtrak can seek federal funding to start service, it is likely Texas would have to support the service or agree to some funding to continue it beyond the first few years. Texas has supported rail lines in the Dallas area but has not made any commitments to Houston services.

Increased train service also is likely to change if a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas happens. Texas Central Railroad continues development of its proposed 220-mile line between the metro areas, though the plan continues to face stiff opposition.

This has come up before, as part of the Infrastructure Not-Yet-A-Bill discussion. You can see the national rail line map Amtrak proposed at that time, which includes the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle. I’m all in favor of more passenger rail service in Texas, but I don’t know how competitive this would be versus Texas Central and its high speed option, which if things go as they have planned would be up and running well before a Houston-Dallas Amtrak train would be. There have also been other high speed rail lines proposed, which would cover more of Texas than what is currently planned for Texas Central, but at this point I think we can consider them to be vaporware, at least until and unless something tangible gets put forward.

If Amtrak can get up and running in between Austin and San Antonio, that would serve as a version of the long-song Lone Star Rail line. Note that the issue there has long been availability of the existing freight rail tracks – without being able to share them, new track would have to be built, which is far more expensive and time-consuming and runs into the same kind of eminent domain issues that Texas Central has had to deal with (though one presumes that no one would get any traction claiming that Amtrak is not really a railroad). All of this is to say that while the idea is sound, there are many obstacles. I would sadly bet against anything like this being fully operational by 2035, assuming we’re all still here to see for ourselves.

More May election post-mortems

From the DMN: Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson bet the second half of his first term on these two council seats. Here’s how it looked after polls closed.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson bet the second half of his first four-year term on flipping two City Council seats held by members with whom he has battled during the last year.

He appeared to have lost that gambit.

Neither candidate he endorsed — Yolanda Faye Williams in District 5 and Donald Parish Jr. in District 7 — dealt a fatal blow to incumbents Jaime Resendez and Adam Bazaldua, according to unofficial results.

Resendez staved off a runoff against Terry Perkins, a former pastor at Abundant Grace Church. And in District 7, Bazaldua will face former council member Kevin Felder, not Parish.

In a late-night statement, Johnson acknowledged several races were headed to run-offs next month.

“No matter what voters in those districts ultimately decide, I am eager to work with our new City Council on an ambitious agenda that focuses on the basics — such as public safety, infrastructure investment, economic growth, and property tax relief — and builds for the future of this great city,” he said.

While it was never clear why the mayor chose to break a long-standing tradition against endorsing candidates as he did with Williams and Parish, the outcome was coming into focus after polls closed. Johnson never discussed his picks with The Dallas Morning News.

Johnson likely will still have a sizeable bloc of adversaries on the 15-member body.

“In a weak mayor system, allies and a coalition are critical,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Endorsing a challenger is a gamble. If you fail, you have deeply alienated people who will continue to serve on the council. However, if you succeed, then you’ve pretty well created the beginning of the mayoral fraction.”

[…]

A list of catastrophes, especially the coronavirus pandemic, has sidelined the mayor and his nascent agenda that included increasing workforce readiness, ending division on the council and blurring the city’s historic racial divide.

The pandemic and demand to reform policing and reinvestment in Black and Hispanic communities could have served as a launching pad for those issues — and that may still be the case. However, the mayor was often eclipsed by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on both fronts.

“This past year has been the year of Clay Jenkins, not the year of Eric Johnson,” Wilson said, adding that the mayor’s window of exercising any additional authority in an emergency situation is closing.

But as we emerge from the pandemic and move beyond the election, the mayor will have a chance to reboot.

“This is a time for enterprising mayors to put their cities ahead,” Wilson said.

I don’t follow Dallas municipal politics and I don’t know the players here, but this interested me for a couple of reasons. One is that as noted it’s pretty rare for a Mayor to directly oppose an incumbent Council member. Houston Mayors will support friendly incumbents and preferred candidates in open seat races, but otherwise usually stay in their own lane. For one thing, they’re always on the ballot as well, so there’s always that fish to be fried. Even in our strong Mayor system, the risk of picking a losing fight against someone who will then have incentive to oppose you is a risk that Mayors usually avoid (or at least do it very much on the down low). As a theoretical matter, I have no issue with this – I can think of more than a few Council incumbents I would have liked past Mayors to oppose – but the risk/reward calculation has to make sense, and there’s no better way to look like a bully that’s just been run off than backing a losing challenger.

Two, in the same way that I have an interest in San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, I see Mayor Johnson as a potential future statewide candidate. He was a legislator, he won his seat by ousting an incumbent in a primary, and he got some things done as a member of the minority party. He’s also young and clearly ambitious, which is in relatively short supply among the big city Mayors. The better the record of accomplishment he can build in the current job, the better his chances statewide down the line. The line about this being the year of Clay Jenkins and not Eric Johnson will leave a mark, but then Clay Jenkins is also someone I have my eye on for a statewide run at some point. Make the most of the next two years, Mayor Johnson.

Moving a bit north, opponents of anti-racism education won big in Southlake.

Nine months after officials in the affluent Carroll Independent School District introduced a proposal to combat racial and cultural intolerance in schools, voters delivered a resounding victory Saturday to a slate of school board and City Council candidates who opposed the plan.

In an unusually bitter campaign that echoed a growing national divide over how to address issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools, candidates in the city of Southlake were split between two camps: those who supported new diversity and inclusion training requirements for Carroll students and teachers and those backed by a political action committee that was formed last year to defeat the plan.

On one side, progressives argued that curriculum and disciplinary changes were needed to make all children feel safe and welcome in Carroll, a mostly white but quickly diversifying school district. On the other, conservatives in Southlake rejected the school diversity plan as an effort to indoctrinate students with a far-left ideology that, according to some, would institutionalize discrimination against white children and those with conservative Christian values.

Candidates and voters on both sides described the election as a “fork in the road” for Southlake, a wealthy suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas. “So goes Southlake,” a local conservative commentator warned in the weeks leading up to the election, “so goes the rest of America.”

In the end, the contest was not close. Candidates backed by the conservative Southlake Families PAC, which has raised more than $200,000 since last summer, won every race by about 70 percent to 30 percent, including those for two school board positions, two City Council seats and mayor. More than 9,000 voters cast ballots, three times as many as in similar contests in the past.

[…]

Hernandez and other candidates running in support of new diversity and inclusion programs said they were not particularly surprised by the outcome in a historically conservative city where about two-thirds of voters backed President Donald Trump last year, but they were dismayed by the margin of their defeat.

Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico, said he worries about the signal the outcome sends to dozens of Carroll high school students and recent graduates who came forward with stories about racist and anti-gay bullying over the past two years. To demonstrate the need for change, members of the student-led Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition collected more than 300 accounts from current and former Carroll students last year who said they had been mistreated because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

“I don’t want to think about all these kids that shared their stories, their testimonies,” Hernandez said, growing emotional Saturday moments after having learned the election results. “I don’t want to think about that right now, because it’s really, really hard for me. I feel really bad for all those kids, every single one of them that shared a story. I don’t have any words for them.”

As the story notes, the origin of all this was a viral video of white Carrolton high school students chanting the N word in 2018. The town, which has become less white as its population has boomed in recent years, attempted to address that through listening sessions and the school curriculum, and not too surprisingly some people that it was All Just Too Much, because we can’t go about hurting their feelings. I do believe that the trends in Southlake are pointing in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some backsliding.

And finally, Collin College candidates address concerns of free speech, retaliation:

Ongoing controversies at Collin College could impact Saturday’s election where longtime trustees are aiming to keep their seats on the board.

The growing college system has made national headlines over allegations of retaliation and its response to the pandemic. Protestors have attended board meetings after administrators let go three women who criticized the school’s COVID-19 response.

Trustees seeking another six-year term include Jim Orr, Andy Hardin and Bob Collins, who has been on the board since the founding of the Collin College in 1985.

But their opponents say the board needs people who will push for transparency across the school and can bring in diversity and fresh ideas.

Last week, nearly 90 people gathered to protest the way school officials have handled free speech, including professors Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones — who were told by college leadership that their contracts would not be renewed at the end of the semester.

The two women had previously criticized the school’s handling of the pandemic and were leaders of the college’s chapter of the Texas Faculty Association.

Volunteers then went to nearby Collin County neighborhoods to speak to voters and discuss issues leading up to Saturday’s election.

Misty Irby, a risk manager, said it shocked her to learn that Collin College is on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list for top 10 worst colleges for free speech.

“That’s very disheartening to me,” Irby said. “You have something that’s rotten at the core of the college that needs to be fixed.”

Irby, who is challenging Collins, said she wants to promote transparency within the college, repair its reputation and foster freedom of speech for students, faculty and staff.

That article was from before the election – in the end, the three challengers all lost, though two of them lost by single digits. The Dallas Observer has been following this story closely, and you can find all of their relevant articles here. For a rapidly blue-trending county, Collin has some truly awful local officials. The day of reckoning for them can’t come quickly enough. In the meantime, if you want to talk “cancel culture”, please be sure to address the cases of Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones in your monologue.

The best time to buy a house in Houston was last year

Or the year before that, or the year before that

The O’Neals are part of a nationwide real estate frenzy playing out in Houston that is propelling prices to new highs. Houses are frequently drawing multiple offers, often above the asking price and can sell in a matter of days if they’re in good condition, according to local real estate agents.

The median price of a single-family home reached $260,212 in 2020, up 6.2 percent from 2019, according to an analysis of home sales and prices compiled by the Houston Association of Realtors for the Houston Chronicle. The increase in the median sales price was nearly twice the 3.2 percent year-over-year gain in 2019, according to HAR.

The increase came amid demand fueled by continued low interest rates, an extreme shortage of houses on the market and a rekindled desire for homes in the suburbs stemming from the pandemic as people spend more time at home. At the same time, despite the rising prices, the pandemic forced people to cancel vacations, stop eating out and allowed them to pay down debt, giving them more buying power than ever. Some of that may carry over to the future.

“We have a new habit of spending a lot of time at home,” said Ted C. Jones, chief economist with Stewart Title. “We’ll definitely eat out more, but maybe not as much as we did 24 months ago.”

Meantime, said Frank Lucco, an appraiser with Accurity Qualified Analytics, “Houses are flying off the shelves.”

Lucco said he has never seen Houston home prices rise this quickly in his 43 years as an appraiser. Traditionally, home prices have risen 3 percent to 4 percent annually over the last two decades. The veteran appraiser has been constantly adjusting his appraisals upward to reflect Houston’s fast rising prices.

“There’s multiple contracts on houses,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for houses to sell in the same day it’s listed.”

In March, 2,165 houses in the Houston area — 23.2 percent of the month’s sales — sold for above asking price, according to HAR. That’s nearly three times the 8 percent that sold for more than asking a year ago.

Everyone reading this in Austin and its environs is no doubt nodding their head grimly. You want crazy home prices and bidding wars, that’s the place for it. The same is going on in the greater D/FW area as well. As this story notes, there’s a lot of demand out in the burbs, with their bigger houses and spacious yards that have been a blessing for many in the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of demand for the urban core, especially among younger buyers. There’s plenty of construction in my neighborhood, and I can’t think of any lots that have been on the market for more than a couple of weeks. Whatever else you might say, it’s better to be a place where people want to live.

Is there an infrastructure boost in the works for Texas Central?

Maybe!

The federal government is serious about spending money on high-speed rail, and Texas could be among the first beneficiaries.

The recent interest in investing in bullet trains capable of going 200 mph or faster comes at a time when many Texans — after hearing promises about high-speed rail for the past 12 years — are skeptical that such a project will ever come to fruition.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is talking up the potential of using modernized passenger trains to revolutionize the way people travel across the Lone Star State. And several members of Congress, including a former official with the proposed Texas Central Railway high-speed rail project who now represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, have filed a bill that would provide $205 billion in funding for projects nationwide over the next five years.

[…]

Buttigieg championed Texas high-speed rail during several recent public appearances, including during a Wall Street Journal podcast March 23 in which he mentioned the state by name without being prompted.

“I mean, if you just imagine what it would mean for Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Louisville and Cincinnati and Detroit and all these cities, all to be within a swift ride of each other,” Buttigieg said on The Journal podcast last week. “But also think about Texas, think about what it would mean in Texas to have excellent high speed rail.”

When asked if his vision for rail was achievable in a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor and Democratic presidential candidate replied that it was unacceptable for the U.S. to lack a passenger rail system on par with other countries.

“Yeah, I mean, my question is, when it comes to rail, why should Texas be inferior to China?,” he said. “And I’m going to keep putting it that way and see if it resonates.”

[…]

The Biden administration is expected to soon introduce a $3 trillion economic plan that could include a record amount of funding for development of high-speed rail.

And several members of Congress have filed a bill dubbed the American High-Speed Rail Act that would provide $41 billion annually for five years. Among those members is Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who in the early 2010s lived in the Dallas area and served as a managing director with Texas Central Railway.

The American High-Speed Rail Act would create at least 2.6 million jobs over five years, Moulton said.

“High-speed rail is faster, cleaner, safer and better for our economy,” Moulton said in a statement. “It will connect people to more jobs in new places, give Americans freedom and choice in how they travel, and put us on par with the rest of the world.”

In addition to the $41 billion in annual federal grants available for rail projects, the bill would provide incentives worth $38 billion for high-speed rail construction, he said.

This story came out before the announcement of the Biden Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, and I’ve covered some aspects of it elsewhere, for the Ike Dike and the power grid. Whether there is something specific in here for high speed rail in general or Texas Central in particular remains unclear at this time. The eventual infrastructure bill will likely contain piece from other already existing bills, so the Moulton bill could be in there as well. But let’s not count our chickens before the eggs are even laid. Back in the glory days of 2009 when we were all daydreaming about the Obama stimulus plan and various SUPERTRAIN proposals, it was very easy to get swept up in the hype and lose sight of the fact that high-speed rail is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and among the first things to get ditched in favor of higher priorities when the going gets tough.

That said, we know that President Biden is a train guy, and the plan does specifically mention Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a proposal for a bunch of new routes, including several cities in Texas that have little or no service today. If you look at the map that accompanied their statement, you may wonder what that means:

I assume we wouldn’t have both the Texas Central high-speed line and a normal-speed Amtrak line between Houston and Dallas, plus the proposed extension to Fort Worth. At some point, there ought to be clarity about that.

Now, even with federal funds, there remain obstacles to Texas Central. Those obstacles in Texas include a big fight over eminent domain, which won’t be resolved by federal grants. (There have been efforts to strictly limit any state funding to Texas Central, so this wouldn’t be for nothing.) For whatever it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything about the usual sorts of anti-TCR legislation so far this session, but that may just be a matter of timing, since the “emergency” items have taken up all the oxygen so far. The bottom line is that this is all encouraging if you’re a Texas Central fan, but we’re a long way from anything actually happening. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see.

NCAA warns Texas about anti-transgender bills

It’s not just the voter suppression bills that will do great harm to the state of Texas and its people if the Republicans ram them through.

Amid all the talk of boycotts and corporate criticism of election bills going through the Texas Legislature, major resistance is also shaping up to another top priority of the Republican state lawmakers.

With the Texas Senate cued up to debate a bill this week that would ban transgender girls from competing in girls’ interscholastic sports, the NCAA recently issued a stern warning that they are watching the legislation.

“The NCAA continues to closely monitor state bills that impact transgender student-athlete participation,” NCAA officials said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. “The NCAA believes in fair and respectful student-athlete participation at all levels of sport. The association’s transgender student-athlete participation policy and other diversity policies are designed to facilitate and support inclusion.”

The NCAA policies allow transgender athletes to participate without limitations.

It is very similar to the statements the NCAA put out just before Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a transgender bill similar to the one Texas is considering and one that South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem backed away from while warning of an unwinnable showdown with the college sports association.

SB 29, sponsored by Lubbock Republican Sen. Charles Perry would ban a student from participating in a sport “opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth…”

[…]

Critics of the Texas legislation and others like it say it’s all part of a wave of bills in statehouses around the nation that are not only discriminatory against transgender children, but dangerous to them.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and the very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Council, a national group that fights violence, discrimination and fear of LGBTQ people. “Like the bathroom bills and the bills targeting marriage equality before them, these bills are nothing more than a coordinated effort by anti-LGBTQ extremists spreading fear and misinformation about transgender people in order to score cheap political points.”

[…]

The NCAA has been a notable voice against anti-transgender legislation. In 2017, it pulled major sporting events out of North Carolina because of that state passing a version of the bathroom bill. Eventually, North Carolina lawmakers amended the legislation to end the boycott.

The NCAA has major financial commitments in Texas. The men’s basketball Final Four is scheduled to be in Houston in 2023 and then in San Antonio again in 2025. Dallas hosts the women’s Final Four in 2023, and the College Football Championship is set for Houston in 2024.

In 2017, studies suggested Texas could lose nearly $250 million if the Final Four was taken away then. With three Final Fours and the football championships, Texas would be looking at more than $1 billion in economic impact.

“The NCAA believes diversity and inclusion improve the learning environment and it encourages its member colleges and universities to support the well-being of all student-athletes,” the NCAA said in its recent statement to Hearst Newspapers about Texas’ transgender legislation.

That was an early story. The Trib filed a little later, and the NCAA was a bit more specific this time.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Board of Governors said it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination. The Monday warning sets the stage for a political fight with multiple states, including Texas, that are considering bills in their legislatures that would require students to play sports with only teammates who align with their biological sex.

“Inclusion and fairness can coexist for all student-athletes, including transgender athletes, at all levels of sport,” the NCAA statement said. “Our clear expectation as the Association’s top governing body is that all student-athletes will be treated with dignity and respect. We are committed to ensuring that NCAA championships are open for all who earn the right to compete in them.”

See here for the preview. I for one would very much like these sporting events to be in our cities in those years. But if the Lege follows through on these terrible, harmful bills then the NCAA absolutely should follow through and pull them all until such time as these bills are repealed.

While the legislation has seen some traction in the upper chamber, it’s unclear whether there will be support in the House, where similar bills have yet to get assigned a committee hearing.

In the past, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has pushed back against bills that would weaken protections for LGBTQ people. After the Senate passed a bill in 2019 that removed nondiscrimination protections based on sexual orientation, the House State Affairs Committee, which Phelan chaired, had the language reinstated.

Phelan said in an interview at the time that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”

“It’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “This is 2019.”

I would have thought we’d learned this lesson in 2017, but apparently some lessons need to be learned the hard way. We still have a chance to escape that fate, but if we don’t it’s 100% on the Republicans. I hope Dade Phelan meant what he said, but it remains to be seen. To learn more and hear from the advocates of the transgender children who are being targeted by our Legislature, you can follow Rebecca Marques, Jessica Shortall, Equality Texas (the woman you see testifying in that video is my friend Mandy Giles), Kimberly Shappley, and Amber Briggle on Twitter. USA Today, the Texas Signal, and Mother Jones have more.

Houston’s scooter problem

Wait, when did we get scooters?

A plan in Houston to prohibit vendors from renting motorized scooters on city sidewalks has suppliers of the two-wheel contraptions revved up, and city officials holding the line to have scooters clear the way.

To address what it says are growing issues along sidewalks, especially in the central business district, Houston’s administration and regulatory affairs department plans to ask City Council to amend three codes that would push vendors off public spaces around parks and other gathering spots and move scooters off downtown sidewalks into the streets.

“These vendors at times become a nuisance or even a threat to public safety,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the regulatory affairs department and head of ParkHouston, which operates the city’s paid parking and parking enforcement systems.

Rental companies said they have tried to work with the city to develop rules that would allow them to stay, but the city has scooted past that to an outright ban.

“Instead of coming up with a permit for us, like they did with ice cream trucks or the (Houston B-Cycle) bikes, they say we are blocking the right of way,” said Juan Valentine, owner of Glyderz, which started setting up by Discovery Green in May.

The rule changes would outlaw parking a vehicle or trailer on public property for the purposes of renting a good or service, ban the parking of motor-assisted scooters on sidewalks, streets and any rights of way, and outlaw the blocking of any part of a sidewalk that makes it impassable.

“The sidewalk exists for pedestrian use,” Irshad said. “It is not set up for a business.”

Separately, Irshad said officials want to tweak the rule that applies only in the central business district related to sidewalks so scooter riders would have to use the street. Bicycles are banned from downtown sidewalks and only may operate legally in the streets — the proposed change would add language putting scooters on an equal footing and out in the road.

[…]

Customers rent scooters and return them to the same location. Scooters are powered by a small electric motor, with many models capable of speeds around 20 mph. Valentine said most scooters have a range of around 40 miles before running out of power.

Not all vendors, however, opposed the city rules while reacting cautiously to the city code changes. Randy McCoy, owner of ScootsTx that operates in Midtown and Galveston, told city officials in a letter that he only set up near Discovery Green when other vendors appeared on the street.

“I would not want to limit my scooters just to give street vendors a competitive advantage over me,” McCoy wrote.

Others say they went where the customers wanted them. In less than a year, Glyderz has gone from 20 scooters operating out of a trailer to 100. Valentine is preparing to open a permanent location, but said staying on the street is smart business, especially at his location just off Discovery Green.

“You swing by here at 9 or 10 at night and we have a bunch of people renting scooters,” he said.

He questioned why officials allowed Houston B-Cycle to install kiosks on sidewalks, but will not allow him to park a trailer at nights and operate off the sidewalk.

A variety of businesses can obtain permits for street vending, including food trucks, ice cream vendors and sellers during special events.

Irshad said there are no plans to establish permits for scooter companies.

I’ve been following scooters for awhile. There seemed to be a brief moment for bringing scooters to Houston in 2019, but that never went anywhere. Other cities have had a more extensive relationship with them. San Antonio banned them from sidewalks, while Dallas has banned them entirely. The Chron article for that story, from last September, had no mention of Glyderz or ScootsTx, so I haven’t missed much. These things may be here now, but they haven’t been here for long.

For what it’s worth, I favor banning them from the sidewalks, and not just downtown – anyplace these things are going to be viable as a rental business, there will be a high concentration of pedestrians. I would either ban them from hike and bike trails or require them to cap the top speed for trail-use scooters at 15 MPH, which is about the speed of a pedal-powered bike being driven by a normal person. There should be some kind of enforced mechanism to ensure the scooters are picked up quickly and not left scattered on sidewalks, which is a hazard to all but especially to people with disabilities. With all of those caveats in place, I’d find a way to establish permits for these companies, and let them park a trailer in the same way that a food truck vendor can. We’re lucky we didn’t have to serve as the beta testers like other cities (Austin very much included), but now that we have their experience, let’s try to make them happen in a way that prioritizes safety but still lets them operate. If you have any thought about this, the city was soliciting feedback from the public here, though it’s past their stated deadline now. You can also reach out to your Council member and the At Large members. What would you prefer to see happen with scooters in Houston?