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A too-early look at who’s running for Houston city offices in 2023

Because it’s never not election season.

With the midterm elections behind us, city election season is now heating up. Next November, Houston will elect a new mayor, a new controller and 16 City Council members.

The campaigns actually got underway long before the midterm elections were over. State Sen. John Whitmire, the longest serving member of the Texas Senate, announced his plans to run for mayor way back in November 2021. Chris Hollins, the former Harris County clerk, announced in February, and former City Councilmember Amanda Edwards launched her campaign in March.

Those announcements, and the millions of dollars the mayoral candidates collectively have raised for their bids so far, have set Houston off on its earliest start to campaign season to date.

As the candidates start making more public appearances and vying for voters’ attention, here’s your early primer on city elections, and who is running so far:

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner is serving out his second and final term, which means Houston will elect a new mayor in 2023. Voters also will decide 16 spots on City Council — 11 members representing geographic districts, and five members elected citywide in at-large seats — to round out the City Hall horseshoe.

City Controller Chris Brown also is term-limited, meaning the city will have a new controller as well. The controller is the city’s independently elected financial watchdog.

Six council members face term limits, meaning their seats will be open. Ten council members are eligible for re-election and presumably running.

They have a list of the Council members who are not term-limited, as well as a list of people who claim they are running for something at this time. We’ll get some idea of who is serious and who is just a name when the January finance reports come out. From past experience, nothing is truly set in stone until the filing deadline, and we’re a long way away from that.

One more name that is out there as a potential Mayoral candidate is former Metro chair Gilbert Garcia. Don’t be surprised to hear of other names, though at this point it’s not very likely there will be any more high-profile names.

The incumbent Council members who are term limited include Dave Martin (District E), Karla Cisneros (H), Robert Gallegos (I), Mike Knox (At Large #1), David Robinson (AL #2), and Michael Kubosh (AL #3). I expect there to be a lot of At Large candidates, assuming At Large seats are still a thing next November.

There are also races for HISD and HCC boards of trustees. In HISD, Kathy Blueford-Daniels (District II), Dani Hernandez (III), Patricia Allen (IV), and Judith Cruz (VIII) are up for re-election. In HCC, the candidates whose terms are up are Reagan Flowers (Distrct 4), Robert Glaser (5), and Pretta VanDible Stallworth (9). Glaser is under accusation of sexual harassment, and as such I have to think there’s a decent chance he’ll choose not to run again. That is 100% fact-free speculation on my part, so take it for what it’s worth.

This is the situation as it stands now. As I said, we’ll know more when we see the January finance reports. If you know of someone not listed in the Chron story who’s running for something next year, please let us know in the comments.

Concept Neighborhood’s Second Ward project

Sounds really cool. I hope they can pull it off, and in a reasonable amount of time.

Plans to turn a swath of the East End into a walkable district are getting larger and more ambitious – setting the groundwork for what could become Houston’s next 15-minute neighborhood — where everything a resident needs is within 15 minutes of walking distance.

Houston real estate firm Concept Neighborhood – a group of entrepreneurs that include some of founders of the Axelrad beer garden — previously unveiled plans to convert the former W-K-M warehouse complex in the East End into a mixed-use destination with hyperlocal businesses and walkable streets.

Now, the scale of the project — estimated at $350 million — has grown to 17 acres, and developers plan to incorporate up to 1,000 mixed-income apartments with 250,000 square-feet of retail and office space over the next decade. Working with global architecture firm Gensler on a master plan, Concept Neighborhood is expanding its vision for the district after purchasing additional land from Union Pacific Railway and a handful of other property owners over the past few months.

While some neighbors are nervous about gentrification, the developers, if successful, could achieve what urban planners say could be the first project of its kind in the city: a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of adaptive reuse buildings where low- and middle-income residents can live affordably, and where owning a car would be optional.

“Houston does not have a neighborhood for people that want to rely on micro mobility, biking and transit,” said Jeff Kaplan, principal with Concept Neighborhood who lives in the district he’s helping to redevelop. “People can choose to have a car if they want to, and if they want to live car-free, they can.”

In the project called The Plant/Second Ward, developers are stitching several parcels together to create a nearly mile-long corridor of streets lined with small businesses, restaurants and housing across a mix of about 21 old and new buildings — starting from Harrisburg Boulevard in the south and extending north to Navigation Boulevard, a critical thoroughfare in the East End a few blocks south of Buffalo Bayou. Concept Neighborhood also plans to convert a section of a former Union Pacific railway into a hike-and-bike trail running one-third of a mile through the development from Commerce Street to Navigation Boulevard.

Concept Neighborhood’s website is here and a website for this project, called The Plant/Second Ward, is here. The southeast end of this neighborhood abuts the Coffee Plant/Second Ward light rail stop on the Harrisburg (Green) line, as you can see in the embedded image. One of the bigger issues they’ll be dealing with is maintaining affordability for the mostly lower-income residents already in the area. It’s safe to say that if this succeeds it will be the first of its kind in Houston. I’m rooting for them, but I also know that we often hear of large planned real estate projects that seem to go nowhere. I hope this one achieves its vision. (And boy do I wish Swamplot was still around to have a take on it.)

Remnants of the Challenger found

Wow.

By Acroterion – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Divers searching the Bermuda Triangle for World War II-era aircraft found a piece of NASA history: wreckage from the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff Jan. 28, 1986.

This wreckage, discovered well northwest of the Bermuda Triangle, will be part of a History Channel documentary called “The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters,” which will air Nov. 22.

“While it has been nearly 37 years since seven daring and brave explorers lost their lives aboard Challenger, this tragedy will forever be seared in the collective memory of our country. For millions around the globe, myself included, Jan. 28, 1986, still feels like yesterday,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This discovery gives us an opportunity to pause once again, to uplift the legacies of the seven pioneers we lost and to reflect on how this tragedy changed us. At NASA, the core value of safety is — and must forever remain — our top priority, especially as our missions explore more of the cosmos than ever before.”

The last Challenger mission, STS-51L, was commanded by Francis R. “Dick” Scobee and piloted by Michael J. Smith. The other crew members were mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka and Judith A. Resnik; payload specialist Gregory B. Jarvis; and teacher S. Christa McAuliffe.

All seven astronauts died. A second space shuttle disaster in February 2003, when Columbia broke apart upon reentry, killed an additional seven astronauts.

NASA said it’s considering how to use the newly found artifact to honor the legacy of Challenger’s astronauts. It also emphasized that space shuttle artifacts remain property of the U.S. government. Anyone who finds artifacts should contact NASA at [email protected]mail.nasa.gov to return the items.

Gotta say, as someone who vividly remembers the news of the Challenger exploding, this hit me when I read it. Regardless of whether you remember that day or not, I urge you to listen to this episode of One Year: 1986, in which three of the teachers that were finalists for the Teacher in Space contest talk about their experiences. Be prepared to feel some real feels when you do. CultureMap has more.

HISD redistricting is on the docket

Already happening, in fact.

Current districts

Houston ISD plans to redraw the boundary lines for its nine school board trustees based on population changes reflected in the latest U.S. Census.

HISD officials emphasized that the changes only impact voting, not what schools children are zoned to. The district is required to adjust those boundaries when the U.S. Census reflects a significant population shift.

The board presented two plans, which are fairly similar, and aim to decide by mid-December. Both aim to return each district to within 10 percent of a predetermined ideal size of about 164,000 people.

District VII, represented by Bridget Wade and spanning from River Oaks to Briarmeadow in west Houston, has seen the most growth, so it will be redrawn.

That district also saw growth 10 years ago, the last time the Census was done. However, the growth wasn’t considered significant enough to warrant being restructured. District I, which represented the north side, and District IX, the south, were the only two to be restructured 10 years ago after the last Census.

On the flip side, this year’s Census data showed that District III in southeast Houston shrank. Dani Hernandez represents that district.

It’s difficult to adjust just one or two districts, said Sydney Falk, an attorney of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado and Acosta LLP, an Austin-based law firm that did the analysis.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Falk said. “As soon as you touch one, you need to adjust the others.”

He added that all the changes were relatively minor. Districts I, III, IV, VII and VIII will all be restructured. Districts II, V, VI, IX generally won’t change.

I couldn’t find anything about the proposed plans on the HISD website, but I’m sure something will appear sooner or later. There are some community meetings happening if you want to discuss the matter; I’m sure the proposed maps will be present at these.

HISD did a small redistricting in 2011 as noted, and then had to do it again in 2014 after the annexation of North Forest ISD. I expect the process to be pretty peaceful and straightforward this time around.

And if you’re wondering if HCC will go through a similar process, the answer is Yes, they will, and they are.

The Houston Community College Board of Trustees is conducting a once-per-decade redistricting process to better align HCC districts based on equitable population distribution.

The board is considering redistricting options at meetings over the next several months. Options currently under consideration are available for the public to comment on and review at an HCC information web page on redistricting located at www.hccs.edu/about-hcc/board-of-trustees/hcc-redistricting-information.

Community residents can review proposed maps and provide map suggestions via a redistricting form at the web page or by emailing [email protected] All submitters must provide their full name, home address, a phone number and, if available, an email address.

“Redistricting is the process by which the boundaries of elective single-member districts are periodically redrawn in response to changes in population,” said Board Chair Dr. Cynthia Lenton-Gary. “We encourage members of the public to visit this site for information and updates concerning redistricting and the proposed maps we will be reviewing.”

Districts are determined based upon U.S. Census data. If population numbers show that a single-member district exceeds the population of the least populated, single-member district by more than 10 percent, the district map must be re-drawn. The goal is to ensure that each single-member district consists of near equal population across the system.

That was posted on October 10; I trust you’ll forgive me for not having that at the forefront of my mind at the time. Their index page for redistricting has all the information you could want. Current and proposed maps are here – not surprisingly, they all look very similar – and the timeline tab indicates they plan to adopt a map next April. Like I said, all the info is there for you to see.

Commissioner-elect Briones

Good story.

Lesley Briones

Yes, Lesley Briones secured a victory that handed Democrats a stall-proof majority on Harris County Commissioners Court.

And yes, she upset Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle in a precinct where he has won reelection every cycle since 2011, beating the incumbent by about 3 points when polling in the week before the election marked Cagle with a firm lead in the race.

It’s also true that Briones’ election to office marks the first instance in its 145-year history that two women have served on Harris County Commissioners Court at the same time. It should also be noted that her presence adds a third representative with Latin American heritage to the five-member body in a county where Latinos make up the largest racial demographic group and have been growing every year since 2010.

But Briones maintains that the circumstances and implications surrounding her victory will not color her decisions as she prepares to assume her role as Harris County’s newly elected Precinct 4 Commissioner. A former Harris County Civil Court Judge who graduated from Harvard and went to law school at Yale, told Chron that she plans to approach her role as commissioner “just the way I did in court.”

“In my court, I wear a black robe, not a blue robe, not a red robe or any other color. And I listen to both sides of a case, or all sides if there are multiple parties. And I listened to the evidence and made my rulings in the fairest way possible,” Briones said.

“I am a proud lifelong Democrat, but it’s beyond partisanship,” said Briones. “It’s about being Americans, being Houstonians, being Texans. It’s about fixing potholes, improving parks, maintaining ditches. It’s about making sure we have the number of law enforcement officers we have,” she added.

Looking back at her and Democratic Judge Lina Hidalgo’s re-election victories, Briones said that “when people box themselves into corners, if it’s hyperpartisanship or polarization or however you want to frame it, it wasn’t serving people, and things weren’t getting done.”

First, that was the same poll that had claimed Judge Hidalgo was losing in her race; it underestimated her support by six points. To be fair, that poll showed a lot of undecided voters and noted that they came primarily from demographics that would favor Democrats. I’m just noting this all for the record, so we can examine the polls of 2024 more carefully.

I like the subtlety with which Commissioner-elect Briones calls out her vanquished opponent for his quorum busting – there’s more later in the story – which she had taken the opportunity to attack as it was happening in the latter stages of the campaign. I have no idea if this had an effect on the outcome – we don’t have any data on that – but as the victor one gets to write the narrative. Seems like a pretty good way to start telling the story of her tenure.

Finally, given that we will be talking a lot about Latino representation on Houston City Council in the coming year, not to mention the promised lawsuit to get rid of the At Large Council seats, it’s worthwhile to compare Harris County to Houston and note the disparity in their governing bodies. I will note that County Commissioner races are a lot more expensive than At Large City Council races, and that Briones won in a district that was not specifically drawn to elect a Latino. She had to defeat a diverse slate of opponents in her primary to get onto the November ballot. To be sure, she’s running in a partisan race, which can be (but isn’t necessarily) a boost to one’s fundraising prospects. She’s also running in an even-numbered year, which as we’ve discussed before in the City Council context means much higher turnout and thus a more diverse electorate than our odd-year municipal elections. If we had city elections in even-numbered years, we would almost certainly have a different-looking City Council. There are good reasons to not want to have those elections in even years, I’m just saying it’s another option, and something to keep in mind as we have this longer conversation in 2023. Campos has more.

The state of the AstroWorld lawsuits

We’re still at the beginning of a very long road.

The roughly 2,500 plaintiffs who filed lawsuits in the aftermath of the Astroworld Festival are now part of what is expected to be a yearslong legal process to seek recourse from a variety of defendant for deaths and injuries suffered during the Travis Scott performance. 

Who can be held responsible is one of the first questions the team of prominent personal injury lawyers is tackling as the lawsuits have been consolidated into one case in the Harris County civil courts against nearly a dozen defendants, including Live Nation Entertainment and rap icon Travis Scott. Other targeted for contributing to the deadly chaos include Apple, concert promoter Scoremore Shows and event management ASM Global, all of who deny responsibility.

While Judge Kristen Hawkins has issued a gag order, preventing attorneys, plaintiffs and defendants from addressing the cases outside of court proceedings — and upheld it despite the objection of news outlets — records show an arduous process that has attorneys bogged down in debates over jurisdiction and responsibility for the 10 compression asphyxia deaths and the hundreds more injured.

Tactically, defendants can either point blame at one another or become a unified front to fight off the lawsuits, he continued.

He likened the sweeping multi-district litigation to the aftermath of the 2005 BP plant explosion in Texas City, which similarly had numerous plaintiffs and fatalities and was consolidated by the courts as a result. At one point, there were 4,000 lawsuits stemming from the explosion. Civil suits stemming from the BP plant explosion stretched on through 2008.

Astroworld may be an even larger undertaking because the case has about a dozen defendants, he said.

William Hubbard, professor of law at the University of Chicago, said many of the defendants will try shirking responsibility in order to dismiss the case against them.

Most of the cases will likely never go to trial in their original courts, he continued. As lawyers from both sides continue to meet in court, debating over evidence and jurisdiction, the end game is likely to settle and for how much.

“The defendants don’t want to defend thousands of trials,” Hubbard said.

At least two lawsuits have been settled, and suits for hundreds of plaintiffs have been resolved — although it remains unknown if those disputes were settled or dismissed. Most surviving plaintiffs are seeking $1 million, contending they suffered physical pain, emotional distress and mental anguish as a result of the concert chaos.

See here for the previous update and read the rest. I seriously doubt I’m going to be able to keep track of everything with this story, since a lot of the basic procedural stuff happens out of sight of the news and thus bloggers like myself, but I’ll at least keep an eye on the things that do get into the papers. In re: the reference to the 2005 Texas City explosion, I fully expect this to take more than the three years indicated for that because there will be appeals, and we know how long those can take. The one thing that can shorted this process is a settlement. I suspect we’re in for the long haul.

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.

Shepherd/Durham construction update

Good long story in the Chron.

When the workers clear — still months away — Shepherd and Durham, along with some major side streets, will be remade, and in many ways reformed. The streets, dual thoroughfares that funnel traffic between Memorial Drive and Loop 610, will remain major commuting corridors, but with wider sidewalks, bike lanes and spruced-up trees and intersections.

“It certainly could look a lot better,” Heights resident Christie Aycock said. “As it is, there is all this building going on, but you cannot get to it without a car.”

Lack of viable options beyond automobiles is a constant in many Houston neighborhoods, to which the city, various management districts, Harris County and other entities are taking a piecemeal approach to correcting. Some projects, including the $120 million plan for Shepherd within Loop 610, also have federal funding attached.

When completed in sections between 2024 and 2028, the work along Shepherd and Durham will have added sidewalks and a separated bike lane to both streets. The sidewalk redo also will bring the entire route up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a huge improvement for those who use wheelchairs or other assistance.

To make room for cyclists and walkers in the same right of way, the four-lane streets will be trimmed to three lanes, with some dedicated turn lanes at major intersections.

Analyses showed traffic congestion on both streets was due to turns, so losing a lane but gaining turn areas should help drivers proceed more efficiently.

“Both our study and the city’s show it improves congestion,” said Sherry Weesner, president of the redevelopment authority.

[…]

South of Washington Avenue to Memorial Drive, Houston Public Works is more than halfway through a rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that resurfaces both the streets atop new drainage pipes, along with rebuilding six smaller streets between the two thoroughfares. The $12 million project also is adding lighting and bike lanes, and like the northern segment, will trim vehicle lanes from four to three to make room for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“While the contractor has faced supply and staffing issues due to the pandemic, they have a plan in place to finish in the spring,” said Erin Jones, spokeswoman for Houston Public Works.

Farther south, between Westheimer and Richmond, a $27 million rebuild of Shepherd has frustrated businesses and travelers for months, but promises better drainage for the western Montrose and Upper Kirby neighborhoods nearby. Shepherd, meanwhile, will get similar sidewalks and rebuilt intersections aimed at making the street less chaotic, but with the same two lanes in each direction for drivers.

Once the Shepherd work moves to the next phase south of 15th, the bike lanes will connect with bike lanes being developed along 11th Street through the Heights.

Though controversial with some residents, the 11th Street lanes form an east-west route from Shepherd that feed into other trails closer to downtown Houston.

Another east-west route, meanwhile, could carry many more commuters into downtown. Metropolitan Transit Authority’s planned Inner Katy bus rapid transit line includes a proposed stop at Shepherd-Durham on the south side of Interstate 10. As Metro creates the line, it has said connectivity by bike and on foot is crucial, along with improved bus service along the entire Shepherd corridor so residents as far north as Acres Homes have access.

See here and here for more on this project; the 11th Street makeover and the Inner Katy BRT line are also mentioned. As noted before, I’m driving this stretch of road pretty regularly now as part of school pickup duties. It’s not been too bad so far, and I’m excited to see what the finished product looks like. That area is so much more residential now than it was 20 years ago, it just makes sense to redo those roads in a way that fits in with a neighborhood. We need to do this in more parts of the city.

Omnibus 2022 election results post

It’s already midnight as I start writing this. I’m just going to do the highlights with the best information I have at this time.

– Nationally, Dems are doing pretty well, all things considered. As of this writing, Dems had picked up the Pennsylvania Senate seat and they were leading in Georgia and Arizona. They held on in a bunch of close House races. The GOP is still expected to have a majority in the House, but not by much. The Senate remains very close.

– Some tweets to sum up the national scene:

– On that score, Republicans appear to have picked up CD15, which they drew to be slightly red, while the Dems took back CD34. Henry Cuellar is still with us, holding onto CD28.

– Statewide, well. It just wasn’t to be. The running tallies on the SOS Election Result site are a bit skewed as many smaller red counties have their full results in while the big urban counties have mostly just the early votes counted. Heck, they didn’t even have Harris County early results there until after 10:30 PM (the point at which I went and snoozed on the couch for an hour because I was driving myself crazy). It will be a ten-point or more win for Abbott, I just can’t say yet what. A survey of some county results early on suggested Beto was around where he’d been percentage-wise in most of the big counties (Tarrant, where he was a few points behind, being an exception) but was going to need some decent Election Day numbers to approach his raw vote margins. He didn’t do as well as he had done in 2018 in some of the larger suburban counties like Collin and Denton and didn’t do as well in South Texas.

– He also didn’t do as well in Harris, which made for some close races and a few Republican judicial candidates with early leads. A couple of those had eroded by the 11:30 addition of more Election Day and mail ballots, but we might see a few Republican judges on the bench next year. As of that 11:30 PM vote dump, Beto was leading Harris County by nine points, well short of where he had been in 2018.

– But as of this time, and with the proviso that I don’t know which voting centers have reported and which are still out, the Harris County Democratic delegation was all ahead, though not be a lot. This includes Lesley Briones for County Commissioner, which if it all holds would give Dems the 4-1 margin on Commissioners Court that they sought. There are still a lot of votes to be counted as I type this.

– Going back to the state races, Republicans may pick up a seat or two in the Lege. HD37 was leaning their way, and they may hold onto HD118. Dems were leading in HDs 70 (by a little) and 92 (by a more comfortable amount), two seats that had been drawn to siphon off Dem voters in formerly red areas. As of this writing, the open SD27 (Eddie Lucio’s former fiefdom) was super close but all of the remaining votes were from Hidalgo County, where Dem Morgan LaMantia had a good lead in early voting. That one will likely be a hold for Dems. On the other hand, SBOE2 was leaning Republican, so Dems may be back to only five members on the SBOE.

– There were of course some technical issues.

Tight races in Harris County, where around 1 million votes will be tallied, could hinge on whether ballots cast after 7 p.m. will be included in the count, after an Election Day filled with glitches and uncertainty for voters and poll workers alike.

Harris County District Court Judge Dawn Rogers signed an order keeping all county voting sites open until 8 p.m., only to have the Texas Supreme Court stay her order just in time to create confusion at voting locations letting voters arrive late.

In a three-sentence order, the court said voting “should occur only as permitted by Texas Election Code.” The high court also ruled that votes cast in the final hour should be segregated. That means those votes can’t be counted until the court issues a final ruling.

That ruling could be critical in the event that certain county races, including the hard-fought battle for county judge between Democratic incumbent Lina Hidalgo and Republican challenger Alexandra del Moral Mealer, are close enough to be decided by those set-aside votes.

“Every single vote counts,” said Laila Khalili, a director at the voter engagement group Houston in Action. “Some elections can be won by just a couple of votes.”

Khalili watched a handful of voters file provisional ballots at the Moody Park voting location.

The request to keep the polling sites open late was made by the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and ACLU of Texas, citing what they said were late election location openings and poor planning that disenfranchised some voters.

“These delays have forced countless voters to leave polling places without being able to vote,” the groups said.

Harris County was unable to estimate or confirm how many votes were cast after the typical 7 p.m. cutoff that allows for anyone in line by that time to cast a ballot.

Voters who arrived between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. cast a provisional ballot, according to the county attorney’s office. Some voters, later in the evening, complained that election workers even denied them that option, as the Supreme Court stay was broadcast to the 782 polling locations.

There were some issues with temporarily running out of paper at some locations and some long lines at others. We’ll just have to see how many provisional votes there are.

– Finally, for now, all of the county and city bond issues were passing. The closest ones as of this time were city of Houston prop E, up by eight points, and Harris County prop A, up by 11.

I’m going to hit Publish on this now and go to bed. I’ll make updates in the morning, either here or in a new post.

UPDATE: It’s 2:30 and I never actually got to sleep. With 334 of 782 voting centers reporting, Dems have gained some more ground in Harris County. Beto leads by nine points, while Judge Hidalgo is up by almost two full points and over 15K votes. She has led each aspect of voting. A couple of Dem judges who trailed early on are now leading, with a couple more in striking distance. There will be some Republican judges next year barring something very unexpected, but the losses are modest. All things considered, and again while acknowledging there are still a lot of votes out there, not too bad.

UPDATE:

An email with the summary file hit my inbox at 4:51 AM. Democrats officially have a 4-1 majority on Harris County Commissioners Court. By my count, Republicans won five judicial races in Harris County.

More on hoax school shooter reports

I don’t know when this ends, but I continue to be worried that they will cause a major problem eventually.

This year has seen a significant number of hoax calls across the country. In the three weeks between mid-September and early October, according to an NPR analysis, local news reports documented 113 false calls across the country. Experts say this increase isn’t surprising given that most school shootings inspire copycats to call in false reports of shootings to law enforcement.

The source of these fake threats remains largely unknown. Law enforcement said some originated from local agitators, while others appeared to come from as far away as Ethiopia, NPR reported.

Regardless of the source, Texas law enforcement agencies say all threats are treated as credible until an investigation proves otherwise. But before threats are deemed hoaxes, law enforcement and parents must grapple with the very real fear that another mass shooting could be underway.

The families with children at Robb Elementary School, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, also clashed with police outside the building on the day of the tragedy. Law enforcement took over an hour to confront the shooter, despite the fact that some officers knew children were calling 911 from the classrooms. Police outside the building prevented parents from entering the school, even putting some parents in handcuffs.

Prior to the shooting in Uvalde, the chaotic scene outside of Jefferson High School last month wasn’t the norm, said Deputy Chief David Hightower with the San Antonio Police Department.

“Now we see an increase in parents wanting to sort of take matters into their own hands in order to retrieve their children,” Hightower said.

He said the protocols for responding to active-shooter threats have not changed since the Uvalde shooting, but the heightened anxiety of parents and officers reflects the trauma still resonating across Texas. As a result of elevated fears, Hightower said there have been more officers assigned to communicating with parents.

One of the most recent examples of false active shooter threats in Texas was on Monday, when there was a false active-shooter call at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio. Police evacuated the roughly 500 students from the campus in response. After the lockdown was lifted, school officials said they would make counseling available for its students.

“Events like this shake everyone to the core,” said Kathy Martinez-Prather, the director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. “It is definitely a situation that is at the top of mind of parents right now.”

Martinez-Prather added students are sharing in the anxiety, which she sees as an opportunity to teach schools about how to remain vigilant. Communicating with teachers and students about how to identify potential threats or concerning behavior is one area Martinez-Prather said schools can target to improve school safety. She also pointed to a guide for parents that details key components of school safety as another communication tool.

See here for some background. I couldn’t get all the ay through that story about the 911 calls from Robb Elementary, it was too upsetting. As I said before, when one of these happened at Heights High School, I think the first job is for law enforcement to make extra sure they not only know what their response procedures are but also that they know how they will operate with other agencies that arrive – at HHS, there was HPD, the Sheriff, various Constables, and I’m sure HISD’s police force in response – and who is in charge. And they very much need to communicate that to the parents, who have a justifiable fear following the tragedy at Robb that they can’t simply rely on law enforcement. That’s a problem in itself, and one of many other things that our state leadership has failed to address after this massacre. It’s on the locals in their absence, and I hope they realize that.

Army Corps ordered to pay $550K to reservoir flooding victims

This could turn into a lot more if it is upheld.

More than five years after their homes and businesses were flooded, residents above the Addicks and Barker dams are learning how much money the federal government owes them for damage from Houston’s overflowing reservoirs.

A federal judge last week ruled that the owners of six upstream properties flooded during Hurricane Harvey should collectively receive nearly $550,000. The six were chosen — jointly by Justice Department lawyers and attorneys for hundreds of property owners — as test cases in a massive case initiated just moths after the historic deluge.

The decision could open the door to thousands more judgments for property owners and could result in the government paying out tens of millions more dollars, attorneys for the flooded residents said Wednesday.

The case falls under a special jurisdiction that oversees so called “takings” cases, involving allegations the government temporarily took control of private land for a legitimate purpose. If the court’s ruling survives anticipated appeals by the Justice Department, it could become the largest government takings case in U.S. history, according to attorneys representing property owners.

A ruling is still pending for separate group of residents and business owners whose properties flooded when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Addicks and Barker floodgates. The downstream property owners saw their claims dismissed in 2020, but in June a federal appeals court reversed the dismissal and remanded it to the lower court for further proceedings.

[…]

After the storm, more than 1,600 businesses and homeowners sued the Army Corps in the specialized U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., contending the government intentionally planned for the reservoirs to flood their land. In 2019, U.S. Judge Charles F. Lettow ruled government officials had knowingly and intentionally used private property to store rising floodwaters.

Then, in separate hearings, Lettow set about assessing how much money these property owners were owed. On Oct. 28, Lettow ruled on damages, laying out explicitly how much some property owners were owed for decreases in their property values, the damage or destruction of their personal property and the costs of being displaced by the floods.

“The plaintiffs are entitled to just compensation for the permanent flowage easement the government took through its construction, maintenance, and operation of the Addicks and Barker Dams,” Lettow wrote.

The six property owners included homeowners and owners of rental properties. The decision in these test cases will trigger a process for Lettow to assess how much compensation property owners might be owed in thousands of other complaints. If Lettow’s standard is applied to all the upstream homes and businesses believed to be flooded, the total compensation would top $1 billion, according to Daniel Charest, a lead attorney for the upstream plaintiffs.

Charest said he expected the Department of Justice to file an appeal within the next 60 days and will likely challenge property owners’ rights to damages.

See here for the previous update, and here for more on the other lawsuit. I have no idea what will happen with this on appeal, but note that we are five full years out from Hurricane Harvey, and the appellate process hasn’t actually started yet. Settle in the the long haul, is what I’m saying.

Mayor Turner’s cancer treatment

I’m very glad to hear he’s doing well.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner revealed Wednesday that he was diagnosed with cancer this summer, for which he had surgery and received six weeks of radiation treatment.

Turner said he went to the dentist for a root canal, and doctors ultimately found osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in his jaw. He had surgery for nine hours on July 30, the mayor said, followed by an eight-day hospital stay and weeks of radiation in August and September.

Turner discussed the illness publicly for the first time in a question-and-answer discussion with former ABC-13 anchor Tom Koch after his seventh annual “State of the City” address.

“I’ve also had my own personal medical situation. For all of my life, I’ve been the healthiest ever,” Turner said. “I go to the dentist to get a root canal, on my way to France with the trade mission. Doctors come and say, ‘Well, it’s a little bit more than a root canal.'”

The mayor said he got a biopsy, and just before departing for France doctors told him he would not be able to make the trip. During the operation, Turner said surgeons took part of his leg bone to restructure his jaw. He had radiation every weekday morning at 7:30 a.m. from Aug. 1 to Sept. 12.

“Back at City Council that day, I continued to do what I needed to do in the city of Houston. Let me tell you, I have been blessed,” Turner said to applause. “As I look at the seven federally declared disasters, and then I look at what I’ve had to endure myself, and then you bounce back. What I would say to you is this is an incredible, incredible city.”

[…]

Turner’s office did not elaborate on the mayor’s prognosis after the event.

“That’s the extent of what he plans to share at this time,” said Mary Benton, Turner’s communications director.

There’s a larger conversation we could have about how much our political leaders need to tell us about their health, but I’ll save that for another time. In retrospect, given that there was no noticeable change in how the city was operating, it’s hard for me to say that we needed to know this information any sooner than now. Reasonable people may see it differently. As I said, I’m very glad that Mayor Turner is doing well, and I wish him all the best.

White Oak bike trail extension: The final polish

I haven’t seen a news story or press release to say that the White Oak bike trail extension is now fully open, but what I have seen is bicyclists using the trail. So open it must be. And since the last update a month ago, there have been a couple of finishing touches. Observe:

HeightsTrailExtensionDone

HeightsTrailExtensionFullViewDone

If you zoom in, you can see bike riders in each of those photos. I have not yet had the opportunity to use the trail myself yet, but it’s on my to do list.

One more thing: All the construction equipment is gone, and I was wondering if there had been a finishing touch added to the Frasier Street entrance to the MKT Trail. Alas, that is still a no:

MKTTrailFrasierEntranceDone

Maybe I can will it into existence someday.

Since I’m sure you’re all wondering what public works project in my neighborhood I’ll obsessively chronicle now that this one is finally in the books, well, it looks like work is about to begin on 11th Street. These signs appeared about a month ago:

BigChangesComingTo11thStreet

And hopefully there will be some action on the A Tale Of Two Bridges project. So don’t you worry, there will be more pictures soon.

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.

Math test scores took a hit during the pandemic

The decline started before the pandemic, but kept on going from there.

Students in Houston and across the nation showed “appalling and unacceptable” declines on the 2022 Nation’s Report Card, adding to mounting evidence that the pandemic impacted young people already facing academic and mental health challenges.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said low-performing students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were faltering even before the pandemic and now all performance levels are showing sharp declines. The nation must take swift action and invest more in education to reverse these troubling trends, he said.

“It’s heartbreaking, and it’s horrible,” Cardona said. “It’s an urgent call of action. We must raise the bar in education.”

The U.S. Department of Education administers the NAEP every other year to fourth- and eighth-graders across the country. Comparisons can be made among states, as well as among 27 of the country’s largest school districts. Desegregated results from Houston, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth ISDs are available, as are state totals. Score range from 0 to 500.

Results for Houston ISD show:

  • In math, the number of fourth-grade students performing “below basic” on the math NAEP increased 14 percentage points to 37 percent since 2019. On average, Houston ISD fourth-graders scored a 226, compared to 235 in 2019. The national average this year fell to 227.
  • The average score of a white fourth-grader in HISD on the math test was a 260, compared to a 212 for Black students and a 223 for Hispanic students. Additionally, 22 percent of white fourth-graders reached the “advanced” benchmarks of the math test, compared to 2 percent of Black and Hispanic students.
  • About 44 percent of eighth-graders in Houston ISD performed “below basic” on the reading NAEP, an increase from 41 percent in 2019. Their average score was 247, falling 2 points lower than 2019 scores and 8 points lower than the national average. White students averaged a 275, while Black students averaged 236 and Hispanics 244.
  • Additionally, only 4 percent of white eighth-graders in Houston ISD reached the “advanced” benchmark on the reading test.

Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II said support services will be key to improving scores.

“While these challenges are not unique to HISD, providing students and families with the necessary academic and non-academic supports as detailed in our community driven five-year strategic plan, will address many of these needs,” House said in a statement. “We are confident that these investments in our students such as requiring a librarian, counselor or social worker, and supporting our schools with the highest need through our RISE program, will ensure a more equitable, targeted approach increasing positive academic outcomes.”

The first STAAR results post-pandemic weren’t so bad, but there was definitely an impact on poorer students. I feel reasonably confident that we can make up the lost ground, but what we can’t ever get back is those years of those kids’ lives. At a certain point, the effect of the learning loss has real long-term negative effects. That’s a problem that won’t go away.

One more thing:

There’s more to the thread, but you get the idea. Don’t let people go jumping to conclusions around you. The Trib and Texas Public Radio have more.

Houston leads the way in resettling Afghan refugees

Nicely done.

The sudden crush of thousands of Afghans who arrived in Houston last fall forced local refugee resettlement agencies to drastically expand services in a matter of weeks.

Houston’s role as the top destination for evacuated Afghans stressed these agencies, which had diminished in scope following Trump-era cuts to refugee resettlement.

But leaders for these groups say there’s an unforeseen silver lining to the logistical hurdle of resettling more than 5,500 Afghans: Refugee resettlement in Houston is back and organizations are better prepared to welcome refugees from around the world.

“That was a test,” said Ali Al Sudani, who oversaw the quick expansion of refugee resettlement at Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston last fall. “That’s going to help us prepare for coming years.”

[…]

In the unpredictable world of refugee resettlement, organizations rely on a mix of public and private funds to maintain their programs. Agencies get money from the U.S. State Department for each new person they resettle. So when the Trump administration dropped the number of refugee arrivals to a fraction of Obama-era numbers, that funding stream largely dried up.

The Houston area has been a historic hub for refugee resettlement. During the time of these funding cuts, local agencies took a major hit, limiting their capacity to serve local refugees. Larger groups got help from the region’s deep-pocketed philanthropists. But one small Houston-area organization retained just a single staffer to handle all new arrivals; other agencies shuffled positions or didn’t replace staff when people quit.

Elsewhere in the U.S. small refugee resettlement agencies shut their doors.

Then, about a year ago, everything changed. In September 2021, planes began shuttling beleaguered Afghan families from U.S. military bases to Houston. Many were starting new lives with just a suitcase, limited or no English and still wrecked from the trauma of a violent and sudden departure from their homes.

Agencies staffed up and scaled up their operations — refugee resettlement was back.

It was a rough ride. Some frustrated Afghans waited weeks in extended stay hotels and overworked caseworkers drove pregnant mothers, who suddenly had to worry about insurance and health care costs, to doctor appointments. Social Security cards were mailed to addresses people had left.

Staff stepped up, working long hours to meet Afghan families’ needs, and faith communities, veterans, hotel owners also came together to lend a hand — one person even donated a cow that could be slaughtered according to halal guidelines. A significant boost in support could be attributed to Americans’ rare bipartisan support for this particular immigrant population, due in part to the fierce allyship of U.S. veterans who depended on Afghans during the 20-year occupation of their country.

More evacuated Afghans resettled in Houston than any other U.S. city — in fact, Houston took in more of these families than 47 U.S. states — some 5,600 evacuated Afghans. Houston became home for about half of all Afghans who resettled in Texas.

Now that early interventions — the airport pickups, the apartment placements and school enrollments — have concluded the next phase of services involves language education, career counseling and time-intensive case support to help immigrants file the paperwork to remain in the country legally.

I don’t really have anything to add here except “welcome”. It’s not that long ago that Greg Abbott was demonizing Syrian refugees, so at least we’re not going through that again. God bless all the helpers, and I wish our new neighbors the very best.

Endorsement watch: The bonds

The Chron endorses a Yes vote for the Harris County bond propositions.

The Castlewood subdivision in northeast Harris County was one of many neighborhoods blighted by Hurricane Harvey’s torrential rains. One too many floods inundated the shallow drainage ditches and cracked the asphalt streets. The well-kept character of the affordable single-family homes and small businesses frayed.

Five years later, thanks to the $2.5 billion 2018 flood control bond that Harris County voters approved, Castlewood has transformed. The asphalt roads have been replaced with fresh concrete and lowered to improve drainage. Roadside ditches were replaced with sidewalks and curbs, with an underground storm sewer.

This year, county commissioners are asking voters for another $1.2 billion bond, divided into three separate ballot referendums: $900 million for roads, drainage, and multimodal transportation; $200 million for parks; and $100 million for public safety facilities. If not for these periodic bonds, projects like the Castlewood improvements would either never happen or languish in the planning process for years until funds became available.

Every six to eight years, the county asks voters to authorize leveraging its strong credit — an AAA rating, according to Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch rating agencies — to issue debt for investments into improving county infrastructure. Some bonds are dedicated to specific types of projects — the 2018 bond that included the Castlewood improvements was put on the ballot after Harvey exposed the dire flood control needs across the county — while previous bonds, such as the 2015 $850 million infrastructure bond, were more broadly defined.

While these bonds typically get approved, many voters may be wondering why the county is once again asking them to go back to the well this year, particularly as each bond comes with a slight increase to their property tax bills. Why not fund projects through a pay-as-you-go model, such as the one that the city of Houston has for roads and drainage projects?

The reason is primarily statutory; even if the county wanted to adopt a pay-as-you-go system, it would require a change to state law. The Texas tax system essentially forces counties to use debt as the primary instrument for capital improvements. And because Harris County has a healthy cash balance and credit rating with a rapidly growing real estate market, it can borrow for cheaper than most jurisdictions.

If voters approve the 2022 bonds, each county precinct will receive a baseline of $220 million worth of funding, though some will receive more based on the “worst-first” criteria the county has adopted to prioritize projects based on the number of people they benefit.

The average homeowner would pay an additional $32 per year in property taxes for the life of the bond program — 25 years — based on estimated 2022 tax values. But voters likely won’t see that large of an increase for years, because the county continues to retire more and more debt each year. For instance, the county is spending $54 million less on debt than it did four years ago and will pay off approximately $193 million of its general obligation debt next year. And as more properties get built every year across the county, the tax burden will be spread out even further.

See here for the background. Bond issuances usually pass, and I don’t see anything to suggest these will have much trouble. There are also city of Houston bonds on the ballot, but as of Monday evening the Chron had not weighed in on them yet. I don’t know if their decision to not endorse in the non-criminal courts will carry over from the primaries to the general; if so, then those races still need their attention as well. Otherwise, I think they’re basically done.

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.

Today is a court day for Steven Hotze

As you may recall, local wingnut crackpot Steven Hotze was sued last May by air conditioner repairman David Lopez after a couple of Hotze goons led by former HPD Captain Mark Aguirre assaulted him on the road in an unhinged attempt to prove that he was somehow handling mail ballots from the 2020 election. In April of this year Hotze was indicted on charges of unlawful restraint and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and we have since learned more about his role in the attack.

What I had not seen before this weekend was anything new on that civil case. I’ve been sent a few court documents from it, which tell me that today there will be a hearing and that quite a bit has already happened.

The hearing today is about an objection by Hotze to a previous ruling that compels him to make a net worth disclosure to the plaintiff. Hotze, who as noted has been indicted for his role in the assault on Lopez, is trying to invoke the Fifth Amendment to prevent this disclosure. The plaintiff’s response to Hotze’s claim contains the following very interesting opening statements:

A. The Court has already determined, as a matter of law, that the Plaintiff has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits against Hotze. (See previous motion and court order).
B. Hotze cannot assert his Fifth Amendment rights to producing net worth documents.
C. Hotze fails to explain or prove why providing net worth would have anything to do with the criminal assault charges against him.
D. The Court’s net worth order does not invade the constitutional rights of Hotze. The only case cited by Hotze, Hoffman, is inapplicable to this case.

Emphasis mine. I don’t have any more information on that assertion, but it sure sounds to me like Hotze is in some doo-doo. You can see Hotze’s arguments here, in which he argues that the civil suit should wait until the criminal matter is resolved (among other things) and also adds this piece to the timeline:

On July 1, 2022, Lopez filed Plaintiff’s Motion to Compel Net Worth Discovery From Defendant Steve Hotze and Defendant Liberty Center For God and Country and Motion to ReDepose Defendant Steven Hotze Individually and as Representative of Liberty Center for God and Country, requesting, among other things, an order from this Court “allowing him to conduct net worth discovery, including, but not limited to, request for production and interrogatories propounded to Steven Hotze, Individually and The Liberty Center for God and Country and a deposition of Steven Hotze in both capacities.” (Plaintiff’s Motion to Compel p. 9) Plaintiff does not particularize the request, but, instead, makes a generalized request for discovery regarding “net worth.”

He also argues that Lopez has not met the standard to compel such a discovery. That was filed on August 10, the plaintiff’s response was filed on September 15, and the court overruled the objection on September 21. Hotze also made a writ of mandamus to the 14th Court of Appeals on September 9 to vacate the earlier order allowing net worth discovery and upholding the objection; it was denied on October 11. The notice of today’s hearing was given on August 31, and I’m a little confused by the order of operations, but here we are.

Anyway. If people who are more in the know want to look through these filings and fill in some blanks I would welcome the feedback. We know there’s a hearing today, and I hope there will be a news story after to help clear things up some more. If what you need right now in your life is to hear of a legal setback for Steven Hotze, I hope this suffices.

Is this just the calm before the next COVID wave?

Things look good now, at least in the Houston area, but COVID never sleeps.

As the U.S. heads into a third pandemic winter, the first hints are emerging that another possible surge of COVID-19 infections could be on its way.

So far, no national surge has started yet. The number of people getting infected, hospitalized and dying from COVID in the U.S. has been gently declining from a fairly high plateau.

But as the weather cools and people start spending more time inside, where the virus spreads more easily, the risks of a resurgence increase.

The first hint of what could be in store is what’s happening in Europe. Infections have been rising in many European countries, including the U.K., France, and Italy.

“In the past, what’s happened in Europe often has been a harbinger for what’s about to happen in the United States,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “So I think the bottom line message for us in this country is: We have to be prepared for what they are beginning to see in Europe.”

Several computer models are projecting that COVID infections will continue to recede at least through the end of the year. But researchers stress there are many uncertainties that could change that, such as whether more infectious variants start to spread fast in the U.S.

In fact, scientists are watching a menagerie of new omicron subvariants that have emerged recently that appear to be even better at dodging immunity.

“We look around the world and see countries such as Germany and France are seeing increases as we speak,” says Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin. “That gives me pause. It adds uncertainty about what we can expect in the coming weeks and the coming months.”

However, it’s not certain the U.S. experience will echo Europe’s, says Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina who helps run the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub.

That’s because it’s not clear whether Europe’s rising cases are related to people’s greater susceptibility to new subvariants they’ve not yet been exposed to. In addition, different countries have different levels of immunity.

“If it is mostly just behavioral changes and climate, we might be able to avoid similar upticks if there is broad uptake of the bivalent vaccine,” Lessler says. “If it is immune escape across several variants with convergent evolution, the outlook for the U.S. may be more concerning.”

In fact, some researchers say the U.S. is already starting to see early signs of that. For example, the levels of virus being detected in wastewater are up in some parts of the country, such in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and other parts of the Northeast. That could an early-warning sign of what’s coming, though overall the virus is declining nationally.

“It’s really too early to say something big is happening, but it’s something that we’re keeping an eye on,” says Amy Kirby, national wastewater surveillance program lead at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But infections and even hospitalizations have started rising in some of the same parts of New England, as well as some other northern areas, such as the Pacific Northwest, according to Dr. David Rubin, the director of the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which tracks the pandemic.

“We’re seeing the northern rim of the country beginning to show some evidence of increasing transmission,” Rubin says. “The winter resurgence is beginning.”

As the story notes, we’re overall in a much better place because there’s a lot more immunity thanks to vaccinations and our previous high rate of infections. The COVID levels in wastewater here is low now, and while we’re hardly a leader in vaccinations, we at least have warmer winters so there are still plenty of opportunities to be outside, and fewer times where you have to be congregated inside. But also, not nearly enough people have had their bivalent boosters yet, and there are concerns about the flu season. So, you know, remain appropriately cautious – masking in places where you used to have to mask is still an excellent idea – and get those shots.

New regulations for outdoor music events proposed

Good idea, but it feels to me like there ought to be more.

Houston is considering tightening up permitting requirements for some large outdoor music events to avoid wasting city resources accommodating last-minute notices.

On Thursday, officials from the Houston police and fire departments went before City Council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to discuss proposed revisions to how the city regulates special events. The suggested changes would apply only to outdoor music events with more than 500 attendees that take place on private property.

Meanwhile, regulations concerning events on public property, which have garnered considerable attention following the Astroworld tragedy last year, have not undergone significant changes, according to city officials.

Outdoor music events on private property currently are not subject to the same level of review and monitoring as those on public land, according to Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events. The latest proposal is aimed at closing that gap, she said.

Under the proposal, organizers would have to outline a detailed safety plan and submit permit applications at least 60 days prior to the event or pay a late fee. Organizers who violate any requirements could be on the hook for extra public expenses incurred by the city in connection with the event.

The proposal was prompted by a rising number of incidents in recent years in which organizers did not inform the city of their plans in a timely manner — often not until days before the events took place — sometimes resulting in thousands of dollars in additional costs for city staff and first responders, Christian said.

“A lot have happened since COVID, and we’ve seen on several occasions where this particular issue arises that has cost us a lot of money and pulled resources away,” Christian said. “We just need some help so that we’re not having to stop everything we do with some of these bad players.”

Seems reasonable. I’m a little puzzled by the statements about events on public property not getting any significant changes, but maybe there’s a semantics issue in there. There is a city-county task force reviewing “procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events”, which may still have something to say. There was also a state task force that issued some recommendations about permitting, which may or may not have any effect. I don’t know if any of this is enough, but I do want to know that everything is being reviewed and nothing is off the table.

New sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Deshaun Watson

Number 26, that we know of.

A new sexual assault lawsuit has been filed against former Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, accusing him of pressuring a Houston massage therapist into giving him oral sex.

The lawsuit was filed in Harris County on Thursday afternoon by a woman identified only as Jane Doe. She is represented by Houston attorney Anissah Nguyen.

The lawsuit accuses Watson, who is now the quarterback of the Cleveland Browns, of reaching out to the woman through Instagram in December 2020, arranging a meeting in a hotel room and then her pressuring into the sex act. The woman is seeking damage for physical and mental pain and suffering and loss of earnings, among other things, according to the lawsuit.

“Watson used his celebrity to take advantage of a young woman working hard for her success,” the lawsuit said. “Due to his behavior, she has suffered from severe depression and anxiety. Plaintiff is currently seeking counseling.”

[…]

Watson was previously sued by two dozen women, who made similar allegation he assaulted and harassed them. He has denied the allegations and has not been charged with any crimes. Since June, Watson has reached settlements with 23 of 24 the women who accused him of assault. In July, the Houston Texas reached settlements with 30 women preparing to sue the team over their role in the allegations against Watson.

See here for more on the other active lawsuit against Watson. As ESPN notes, there was a lawsuit that was dismissed in addition to the now-two active ones and the 23 settled ones, which is how we get to 26. We had heard about two more potential suits against Watson back in June; it’s possible this is one of those two, but I note that this plaintiff is not represented by Tony Buzbee, so who knows. Based on previous reporting, the possibility exists that even more could be filed. This is a reminder that no matter how much you don’t want to think about Deshaun Watson, we still have to think about Deshaun Watson.

Houston City Council approves its new map

Now we wait for the lawsuit(s).

City Council on Wednesday approved new boundaries for the city’s 11 districts for the 2023 elections, featuring modest adjustments affecting parts of downtown, Braeburn, Greater Inwood and a few areas in southeast Houston.

The new boundaries aim to balance district populations based on the latest census data.

By law, the most populous district should not have more than 10 percent more residents than the smallest district. Based on the 2020 census, Districts C and G need to give up some neighborhoods. Districts H, I and J, on the other hand, have lost too many constituents and need to expand. Overall, fewer than 3 percent of the Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts.

The redistricting plan had gone through several iterations based on months of internal discussions and public feedback. On Wednesday, four council members also offered amendments to the proposal, three of which were successful.

Despite the majority support for the new maps, council had to vote twice to approve them after it was revealed late Wednesday that the city secretary called out the wrong agenda item before the council voted during the morning session.

The council reconvened at 6 p.m. for a public hearing on a proposed bond election. Following the hearing, which drew no speakers, the council confirmed the new maps by a 14-2 vote, with District I Councilmember Robert Gallegos and District E Councilmember Dave Martin dissenting.

[…]

City Demographer Jerry Wood said throughout the design process he had to juggle competing interests from council members and the public and was unable to accommodate some requests.

“If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make everybody happy, you’re going to be sorry for thinking that,” Wood said. “If you go into this thinking that you’re going to make as few people unhappy as possible, then you might have some success.”

See here for some background. The map I’ve embedded is from the early part of the process and doesn’t include any of the changes made at that Council meeting, so go here for the latest details. CM Gallegos has some issues with the process and with an amendment that affected District I; the story did not say why CM Martin voted no. Overall, this was pretty painless, certainly easier than it was in 2011 when we had to add two new districts. That doesn’t mean there won’t be legal issues:

Much of the discussion around redistricting has centered on the lack of Hispanic representation at City Hall.

While about 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic, Gallegos of District I is the only Hispanic council member out of the 16, even though the city previously created two other Hispanic-opportunity districts, H and J.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the council.

The goal of the lawsuit is to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area, to improve minority representation.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of the legal challenge.

“We are asking for equity and fairness, and we just don’t have that with the current districts,” said Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with the organization. “That’s why we are filing the lawsuit to push for changes.”

Some are worried that Kamin’s amendment could have an adverse effect on Hispanic votes.

The areas set to move to District H instead of Freedmen’s Town, have high percentages of Hispanic constituents, but are experiencing gentrification and are expected to see a decline in Hispanic populations in the following years, according to Wood.

Gallegos said that he did not originally agree with LULAC’s demand to abolish Houston’s at-large seats, but in light of these new developments, he plans to work closely with the organization to advance its cause.

“After what happened this morning, I agree that we need all single-member districts to make sure that we have the representation we need,” he said.

See here for some background. I don’t have anything to add to what I wrote then. I think the plaintiffs would have a decent chance of prevailing if they file, but it’s not a slam dunk. An alternate possible outcome would be to agree to move City Council elections to even-numbered years, as the natural boost in turnout would create a more diverse electorate and thus could raise the chances of Latino candidates in citywide races. That was one of the things that happened in Austin, in addition to the switch to districts from At Large; their elections had been in May of odd years, for maximal non-turnout. Greg Wythe wrote on this topic some years ago at his sadly defunct blog, and it’s stuck with me ever since. There are good reasons to keep city elections in the odd years – Lord knows, we have enough to vote on in the even years, and putting them in the even years would very likely make them more overtly partisan – I’m just saying it’s a possible option. We’ll see what happens.

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.

We could maybe vote on a piece of the stupid revenue cap next year

Yippie.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he will ask voters in 2023 to amend the city’s cap on property tax revenue to allow for more public safety spending, as the council cut the city’s tax rate for the eighth time in nine years to get under that limit.

Turner said he would bring language to City Council shortly to put the measure on the November 2023 ballot, after At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh expressed concern about how the city will be able to afford the increasing police and fire budgets with strained resources.

“If there is strong sentiment on this council to at least allow the voters to decide, well, let’s put it this way: I’m willing to put it before you and then allow the voters to make that decision,” Turner said. “I will put it before you to be placed on the November ballot of next year.”

City Council voted unanimously to cut its property tax rate by about 3 percent, moving from 55.08 cents to 53.36 cents per $100 in valuation. The city accounts for about 20 to 25 percent of a standard Houston property tax bill, with about half going to the local school district.

The city’s cap on property taxes limits the growth in revenue to a formula that combines inflation and population increases, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower. The city hit the former mark this year, as is standard.

Houston first hit the cap in the 2015 fiscal year, and its tax rate since has fallen about 16 percent, down from 63.88 cents per $100. The city has missed out on about $1.5 billion in revenue as a result of those cuts, according to Turner’s administration. The owner of the median Houston home in that time has saved about $946, or about $105 per year.

[…]

Voters tweaked the cap in 2006 to allow the city to raise an additional $90 million in revenue for public safety spending. It was not immediately clear whether the ballot language Turner is proposing would increase that number or seek to carve out public safety spending entirely. The police and fire departments account for $1.5 billion in spending in the city’s current budget.

You know how I feel about revenue caps. At least this will give all those who rail against “defunding the police” the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. I expect there will be at least one lawsuit filed over this regardless, and given what we’ve seen with other litigation it will still be ongoing in 2033.

The wastewater is looking good now

In terms of COVID levels, anyway.

The COVID-19 viral load in Houston’s wastewater has sunk to its lowest point in seven months as the city puts the latest wave, driven by the highly contagious omicron subvariant BA.5, in the rear view.

The wastewater levels are 71 percent of what the Houston Health Department detected during the July 2020 wave, which the city uses as a benchmark, according to Texas Medical Center data published Tuesday. The COVID hospitalization rate and positivity rate also continue to decline steadily.

Harris County last week dropped its COVID community level from “medium” to “low,” which recommends staying up to date on vaccinations and testing if you have symptoms. Scientists are looking to other countries for signs of what comes next.

“Our history has typically been a winter surge,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “So let’s enjoy it while we can.”

Several new omicron off-shoots have been detected in the United Kingdom, India, Singapore, Denmark and Australia, according to the journal Nature. BA.5 continues to dominate cases in the United States, though one subvariant, BA.4.6, has gained some traction and now makes up roughly 12 percent of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ostrosky urged people to get their updated booster shots, which better target omicron variants.

The dashboard is here, and you can see it as a graph here. COVID from the omicron wave peaked in the wastewater in July, but it was at almost ten times the level as it had been in July of 2020. It is now at 71% of the July 2020 levels, which is much better in so many respects. Get up to date on your boosters – I got my bivalent booster the other day – and get a flu shot (got one of those as well, at the same time), because there’s concern this could be a bad flu season. And even with these levels going down, hopefully for the foreseeable future, it’s still a good idea to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces. Might help you avoid catching a winter cold, too.

City news release website hacked

Oops.

Looking for a mail-order Russian bride or wondering how to order a school term paper online? Or maybe you want to improve your slot machine skills by playing online casino games. The city of Houston’s official website for news releases has you covered.

The page on Wednesday morning featured a spate of blog entries on a variety of confounding topics that were decidedly unrelated to City Hall. They were taken down by the afternoon, after the Houston Chronicle inquired about them.

The source of the blog entries, many of which were nonsensical, was unknown Wednesday. Mary Benton, the city’s communications director, said she alerted the information technology department to the posts. The listed author on the articles, a housing department employee named Ashley Lawson, did not actually write and post them, Benton said.

The entries appeared on the city’s news site, cityofhouston.news, a WordPress blog that does not share a domain with the city’s primary website, houstontx.gov.

Christopher Mitchell, the city’s chief information security officer, said no city information was compromised.

“We were recently made aware of improper posts appearing on a blog site utilized by the city to allow individual departments to post departmental content,” Mitchell said in a statement. “The blog site is hosted on a third-party platform and is not connected to any City of Houston enterprise systems. At no point did the city experience a compromise of city systems, data, or information. The origin of the posts was from an active account that was no longer in use, and the city is taking all necessary precautions to correct the issue and prevent a recurrence.”

The posts, often in broken or garbled English, had appeared at least 29 times since Sept. 13, displayed as “uncategorized” entries among more routine posts about police and fire investigations and where to get a flu shot.

Yeah, from a cybersecurity perspective this is (most likely) more of an embarrassment than a breach. It’s a good reminder of why obsolete accounts should be routinely deleted, or at least disabled. There are simple ways to monitor for this kind of activity – even fairly low-tech solutions, like automatically emailing new post notifications to an admin, are worthwhile – and I suspect the city will be doing that in the future. If you have to experience a public cybersecurity failure, there are much worse ways to do so. Please take this relatively painless opportunity to learn from it.

That US Soccer report on abuse allegations in the NWSL

It’s a lot, and as the head of US Soccer says, it’s just the first step.

The independent investigation into player abuse in women’s professional soccer found a long list of failures by National Women’s Soccer League coaches and executives, as well as the United States Soccer Federation itself.

“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” the report read. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”

The summary report, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, also details recommendations for the USSF to implement going forward. The investigation was conducted by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, on behalf of the USSF.

The report includes a previously undisclosed revelation as to the manner of Racing Louisville’s firing of Christy Holly as manager back in August 2021. The report details how Holly called a player, identified as Erin Simon, in for a film session, stating he would touch her “for every pass” she made a mistake on. (ESPN’s policy is to not publicly identify victims of abuse, but Simon, through a spokesperson, agreed to be identified.)

Holly then proceeded to put his hand “down her pants and up her shirt.” Simon would try to “tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him,” adds the report, stating that when her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.

Holly was later fired for cause, though the reason for his firing wasn’t publicly disclosed.

“There are too many athletes who still suffer in silence because they are scared that no one will help them or hear them,” Simon said in a statement through a spokesperson. “I know because that is how I felt. Through many difficult days, my faith alone sustained me and kept me going. I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player must experience what I did. This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve. It is my sincere hope that the pain we have all experienced and the change we have all brought about will be for the good of our league and this game we all deeply love.”

In a statement, USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone said: “This investigation’s findings are heartbreaking and deeply troubling. The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace. As the national governing body for our sport, U.S. Soccer is fully committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that all players — at all levels — have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete. We are taking the immediate action that we can today, and will convene leaders in soccer at all levels across the country to collaborate on the recommendations so we can create meaningful, long-lasting change throughout the soccer ecosystem.”

[…]

The abuse by coaches wasn’t always sexual in nature, the report found, with former Chicago Red Stars manager Rory Dames among those found to have verbally and emotionally abused players.

“We heard report after report of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward,” the report read.

Among the report’s findings was that throughout the league’s existence, teams, the NWSL and USSF failed to put in place basic measures for player safety. The report also detailed how abuse in the NWSL was systemic and that NWSL teams, the league and the federation failed to adequately address reports and evidence of misconduct.

“Teams, the League, and the Federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections,” the report read. “As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct. Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the League, or the Federation demanded better of coaches.”

Because the teams, the NWSL and USSF failed to identify and inform others of coaches’ misconduct, the abuse was allowed to continue. This was due in part to a culture of abuse, silence and fear of retaliation due to a lack of job security.

See here and here for the background. The US Soccer statement is here and the full report is here. I searched it for the name James Clarkson, the now-suspended coach of the Houston Dash, to see what it said about him, since his name was not popping up in the news stories. There was just one mention, on page 54, in a section on “Recent Allegations”. I suppose whatever happened, or at least the allegations about whatever happened, was too late for this report. I would welcome some further investigation, because we need to get this all out into the open. I hope a comprehensive plan of prevention, detection, and enforcement will follow. More here from ESPN and NPR.

White Oak bike trail extension: I think we’re done now?

When we last looked about a month ago, it was clear that the construction on the White Oak Bike Trail extension was almost done, as there was just a small amount of concrete to be poured to connect the trail to the existing MKT Trail. As of last weekend, when these pictures were taken, it seems that at least the concrete work is now finished.

HeightsTrailExtensionReallyAlmostDone

You can see two things of interest in this picture. One is that the concrete trail is now farther along – more on that in a minute – and two is that there is no longer a dirt trail dug for construction equipment to access the more southern parts of the extension. What you see to the left (south) of the trail is the dirt (and eventual grass that will cover it) being smoothed back into place. This has a much more finished look to it than what we saw a month ago.

That picture was taken from the overpass on Studewood. I moved over to the MKT Trail to get a better look from the other side. Here’s the last bit of concrete that was poured:

HeightsTrailExtenaionMostRecentProgress

And as of the previous weekend, here’s the last bit that was still to be poured, at least as far as the trail itself was concerned:

HeightsTrailExtensionLastBit

The Heights Trail extension connects with the MKT Trail just west of the MKT Bridge, To my left as I took this picture there was a box about eight or ten feet square that had rebar in it and was clearly awaiting some concrete. It was not attached to either trail and it had workers all around it so I didn’t get a picture. Maybe next time. I couldn’t say offhand what that box was for, but once it’s done it may be obvious to me.

In case you’re wondering where all the construction equipment was at that time:

HeightsTrailExtensionConstructionEquipment

As you can see, that dirt path is parallel and right next to the MKT Trail, and it is curving onto Frasier Street, which we have discussed before. The fate of that connection to Frasier Street was still not clear to me at that time, but I’m a little worried:

HeightsTrailExtensionAtFrasier

Initially, and even as of a month ago, that looked like a connection from Frasier Street to the MKT Trail, which I assumed from the beginning would eventually be paved over and become a part of the trail system. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not vital – you can still get there even if you have to cross over grass or mud or whatever, and a block farther west you can access the trail directly from Oxford Street. It’s just that this is a little closer to Studewood, so if you’re coming from that side it’s more convenient. From my perspective as someone who lives on the other side of Studewood, I would just use the Heights trail extension now if I intended to get onto the MKT Trail. All I’m saying is we’re here, we have the equipment, adding just a little more concrete would make it just a little easier for some folks to access the trail, so why not do it? I’ll see what it looks like once it’s clear that the construction is officially over. I hope there will be a ribbon-cutting of some kind to celebrate the completion of this task. If not, I’ll just celebrate it here.

Too many bicyclists die on the roads around here

We should be more upset about this.

More than 100 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads over the past five years, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation.

A Chronicle analysis of TxDOT roadway crash data found that 103 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads since 2017. Aside from a slight dip in 2018, the annual total has risen each year.

The data reviewed by the Chronicle comes from vehicle-related crash reports involving a bicyclist. It includes fatalities that occurred within 30 days due to injuries sustained from a crash.

[…]

Only crashes with running motor vehicles that result in injuries, deaths or personal property damage over $1000 are required to be reported, according to TxDOT guidelines. If none of those things occurred, it’s usually up to the discretion of the responding agency.

According to a Sept. 1 news release from TxDOT, Texas crashes involving bicyclists claimed the lives of 92 people total in 2021. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths accounted for 20 percent of the 4,490 fatalities on Texas roadways last year, according to TxDOT.

[…]

According to the data, some of the contributing factors to Harris County’s fatal crashes include:

  • Drivers failing to control their speed
  • Drivers disregarding stop signs or lights
  • Drivers failing to drive in a single lane or changing lanes when it’s unsafe
  • Drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Pedestrians failing to yield the right of way to vehicles

TxDOT is currently undergoing it’s “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign aimed at reminding Texans to know and follow laws for safe driving, walking and biking. The laws include the Lisa Torry Smith Act, which went into effect in 2021 and requires drivers to stop and yield the right of way to people in crosswalks. Drivers must also required to yield the right of way to pedestrians and bicyclists when turning.

Did you know that we had such a law in Texas now? I admit that I did not. That was SB1055, and here’s some background on it, the short version of which is that it was named for a Fort Bend woman who was killed while in a crosswalk by an apparently inattentive driver. She was walking her 6-year-old son (who was badly injured as well) to school at the time. There are now criminal penalties for this, including felony charges if the driver injures or kills the person in the crosswalk. Good to know, and I’m glad it passed. Now if we could make sure everyone else knows about it.

Anyway. There were 24 bicyclists killed on Harris County roads last year, up from 14 in 2017 and 13 in 2018. There’s a chart with the totals in the story, along with maps showing all crash locations and all fatal crash locations in that time. The number so far for 2022 is 11, which would reverse the trend of increases but would likely still end up higher than 2018 and is still too many. Between initiatives like Vision Zero and the general investment in non-automotive transportation, things are going in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. And maybe we should prioritize reducing the number of people who die this way a bit more.

Is this enough lipstick for the I-45 project?

You decide.

A downtown economic development group hopes proposed “green” and multimodal amenities will make the controversial I-45 expansion plan more palatable for the project’s critics.

The multi-billion-dollar plan by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to widen and reroute the freeway between downtown Houston and Beltway 8 to the north has drawn vocal opposition from impacted residents, regional stakeholders and local elected officials.

The project is largely paused while the Federal Highway Administration investigates civil rights and environmental concerns that have been raised, which also prompted Harris County to sue the state agency last year and ask a federal judge to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to input from the community.

A series of related amenities proposed by Central Houston, an economic development organization representing the interests of the downtown area, is being billed as a way to address some criticism of the project. Central Houston’s $737 million vision – which includes elevated parks, a 5-mile trail around downtown, stormwater detention basins and several bridges that connect downtown to nearby neighborhoods – might also ease some of the concerns being evaluated by the federal government and push the project forward.

The proposed amenities, first reported Tuesday by Axios Houston, have been in the works since 2012, according to Allen Douglas, general counsel and chief operating officer for Central Houston. He said the ideas as well as a cost estimate for executing them were presented earlier this year to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in response to its ongoing investigation and as testimony for why Central Houston supports the I-45 project.

[…]

Here is a rundown of what Central Houston is proposing, with an estimated overall cost of more than $737 million:

  • EaDo Cap Park: An elevated park above a depression in the freeway east of downtown.
  • Pierce Skypark Corridor: A transformation of the Pierce Elevated on the west and south edges of downtown into an expansive park with multimodal transportation amenities as well as the possibility for residential and commercial development.
  • Green Loop: A 5-mile trail circuit around downtown, touching on multiple neighboring communities, partly where the Pierce Elevated is now located.
  • Garden Bridges: Twenty-four street bridges throughout the downtown segment, with high-comfort passageways for pedestrians and cyclists, that would connect downtown to the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards.
  • Andrews Street Bridge: Would connect downtown to Freedmen’s Town to the southwest.
  • Midtown Caps & Bridges: Three freeway cap parks and wider bridges over a depressed portion of I-69 south of Midtown.
  • Third Ward Signature Bridges: Scenic bridges connecting downtown to the Third Ward.
  • Northside Street Reconnections: Would reconnect communities north of downtown, with one of the reconnections being on North San Jacinto Street.
  • White Oak Bayou: Expanding the trail network and stormwater detention capacity along White Oak Bayou.
  • Westside: Crossings to the west of downtown, along with green space.

Danny Perez, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Houston office, confirmed the agency has coordinated with Central Houston and other stakeholders and tailored its project design to mesh with some of the proposed amenities. They could be constructed at the same time as the freeway expansion or after the fact, Perez said.

“TxDOT has consistently maintained the project provides an opportunity for partnerships that could lead to the integration of amenities into the project,” Perez said. “TxDOT has also consistently maintained that such partnerships would require funding provided by third-party stakeholders for certain types of amenities.”

It is unclear how the ideas have been received by the FHWA and whether the federal agency, a wing of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will require TxDOT to implement them. The FHWA, in an emailed statement, said it “continues to make progress in the Title VI investigation of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and will be prepared to provide specifics once the investigation is completed.”

Douglas said Tuesday that Central Houston had not yet received a response from the FHWA. After initially presenting its ideas in March, Douglas said the FHWA asked for a detailed cost estimate, which Central Houston submitted in April.

“We hope and believe the Federal Highway Administration will make TxDOT do it,” Douglas said. “What we called ‘civic opportunities,’ they called ‘mitigation factors.’ They said, ‘We like what you’re proposing with these mitigation factors. We would like you to tell us what you think it will cost.’ We took that to mean they need to have a picture of what they could ask for, what they could demand.”

The Axios Houston story is here, and the full proposal from Central Houston is here. I haven’t had a chance to fully review that, so I don’t have a good picture of what these proposals would actually mean. I will note that the Stop TxDOT I-45 folks are not in favor of this, so that should tell you something. We could have a world in which we got these improvements and an I-45 project that was acceptable to the people who will be directly affected by it, I’m just saying. By the way, my headline was written before I got all the way to the end of that HPM story and saw that Allen Douglas of Central Houston was quoted saying their proposal was “not lipstick on a pig”. Great minds do think alike.

Houston’s first unionized Starbucks

Well done.

A Starbucks in Houston’s Upper Kirby neighborhood has become the first in the city to form a union, and the 10th in Texas, after an organizing drive that began in July.

The results of store’s union election were announced Thursday by the National Labor Relations Board. Eleven associates at the store, located on Shepherd Drive at Harold Street, voted in favor of the union. Three opposed and one ballot is being contested by Starbucks. The lead organizer, Josh DeLeon, said the contested ballot could be his own; he said he was fired Saturday, the last day of voting.

“I really don’t think the outcome is what (Starbucks) expected. I think they predominantly thought it was just myself, leading the organizing,” said DeLeon, referring to management. “I was not surprised and I don’t think anyone in the store was surprised. If anything, we were a little surprised at the three “no” votes.”

The Houston workers were backed by Starbucks Workers United, a collective of company employees organizing Starbucks stores across the country. Starbucks Workers United has the support of Workers United Upstate, a New York-based affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Employees at a Buffalo, N.Y., Starbucks became the first outpost of the chain to unionize, in December 2021. Since then, some 200 Starbucks stores have followed suit.

[…]

As Starbucks stores across the country continue to announce union drives, the company has taken steps in an effort to counter this trend. Last week, for example, Starbucks announced several new benefits—a savings account program and student loan repayment tools—for employees who are not union members.

Employees, however, worry that those who publicly organizing efforts may face adverse consequences, including termination or the closure of stores. In July, shortly after the union drive went public, DeLeon said that the decision to organize had not been an easy because it could put jobs at risk, including his own.

Congratulations to Josh DeLeon and the workers for this accomplishment. That said, it’s one thing to vote for a union and another thing to get the mother company to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. For the most part, companies like Starbucks have done everything they can to avoid coming to any deals with the many new unions that have cropped up. I have no idea what will happen with that, but I wish those workers all the best in taking the next step.

Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.