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Texas A&M

The Big 12 will play football

That’s their plan, anyway.

The start of the Big 12 Conference’s college football season will move forward as scheduled, conference officials said Wednesday, meaning four major Texas football programs are one step closer to playing this fall.

“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a statement. The season will kick off Sept. 26, with the conference championship pegged for Dec. 12.

Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin are Big 12 members. The conference presidents’ decision to allow football during the coronavirus pandemic was made official Wednesday morning, a day after the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced their seasons would be postponed until the spring semester.

Bowlsby said member schools have committed to enhanced COVID-19 testing, with three tests per week in high contact sports. Non-conference football opponents must also adhere to testing protocols that match conference standards.

Texas A&M University is part of the Southeastern Conference, which has also signaled its intent to allow teams to play this fall.

“We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports as we monitor developments around COVID-19 in a continued effort to support, educate and care for our student-athletes every day,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in a statement Tuesday.

So that’s two Power 5 conferences not playing in the fall, two that say they are, and the ACC. Of course, there are a ton of questions that will have to be addressed before this can be taken seriously, such as “how exactly are you going to keep all those people safe”, “what will be the protocol when someone (or several someones) tests positive”, and “do you really think that allowing fans in the stands is a good idea”. You can have all the bravado you want, but you better have some idea of what you’re doing when something inevitably goes wrong. In the meantime, all I can say is that it’s going to be an interesting autumn. Or possibly spring, if things do change. Reform Austin has more.

Optimism abounds in the AAC

Good luck with that.

In the face of a pandemic, the American Athletic Conference will attempt to conduct business as usual this football season.

A plan announced Wednesday will allow AAC schools, including the University of Houston, to play a full 12-game schedule, if they so choose, and begin the season on time, even as COVID-19 continues to grip the U.S.

The AAC will play all eight of its conference games as originally scheduled beginning Sept. 19, and schools can schedule as many as four nonconference opponents, according to the plan unanimously approved by the AAC’s Board of Directors.

“We wanted to keep our eight-game schedule the way it was, not to be too disruptive to the teams,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said during a phone interview Wednesday. Asked about the uncertainty of playing a full 12-game schedule due to COVID-19, Aresco added: “We’re not sure that our teams can get to 12. There’s a lot that could affect that. This is the most unusual year we’ve ever faced.”

UH is expected to play an 11-game schedule, which begins Sept. 3 against Rice at TDECU Stadium. A 12th game — a nonconference trip to Washington State on Sept. 12 — was canceled with the Pac-12’s decision to play a conference-only schedule and is unlikely to be filled, a person with knowledge of the situation said.

I mean, I’m sure they’d like to do that. Many conferences are greatly restricting or eliminating non-conference games – the Big XII will allow for one non-conference game, others like the PAC 12 are doing none – so the extra games for AAC members may prove challenging to set up. Well, extra games with major-conference schools, anyway.

I remain perplexed by the belief that we’re going to have college football as if it were a normal year. The “bubble” concept seems to be working (or has worked) for basketball and soccer, while MLB baseball has had more than its share of problems with its rollout. I don’t see any reason to think that the players will be safe – never mind the coaches and staff and everyone else – and the idea that there could be fans in the stands is even more bizarre. On the other end of that spectrum, former AAC member UConn will not play football at all this fall. Maybe they’re the forward-thinking ones. The Trib has a more comprehensive roundup of what the various conferences are planning, for now. I’d assume all of that is written on the sand, at low tide. All I can say is, there’s not much time for things to get better before the games, such as they may be, begin.

Will college football shift to the spring?

Maybe.

[Dell] Billings, who graduated from A&M in 1995, also realizes it’s looking more like the brakes are about to be mashed on any “full speed ahead” approach, perhaps within a few weeks.

“I can’t see how we would be in the stands at Kyle Field when you have situations like ‘The Basketball Tournament’ that’s happening on ESPN right now and there are no fans,” Billings said. “That’s just a small tournament. How are you going to put 100,000 people inside a stadium in September?”

That is the multimillion-dollar question, one A&M, the Southeastern Conference and the rest of college football likely must answer by the end of this month.

“We said from the onset of this pandemic that circumstances around the virus would guide our decision-making, and it’s clear recent developments related to COVID-19 have not been trending in the right direction,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said this week. “There are important decisions to be made in the coming weeks, and by late July there should be more clarity about the fall season.”

The Ivy League on Wednesday is expected to announce that it will shift its football schedule to the spring semester. One Power Five administrator told The Athletic that could lead to a domino effect in college football.

“My suspicion is the majority of presidents in the (Football Bowl Subdivision) are uncomfortable with the notion of playing football this fall, but for various reasons don’t want to be the first to step out and say that,” the administrator told the website, adding that the Ivy League’s bold salvo “provides the cover” for others to follow suit.

The Ivy League has in fact suspended its fall sports schedule, including football. Other conferences are now taking baby steps in that direction.

The ACC will delay the start of competition for all fall sports until at least Sept. 1, the league announced Thursday. The move, which follows a similar decision by the Patriot League, will affect several sports, including soccer and field hockey, but not football.

The league said that affected games might be rescheduled and that there’s an understanding that cancellation of nonconference games will not result in financial penalties.

The ACC’s decision to delay the start of the fall season is the first by a Power 5 conference. The Patriot League has pushed its start back until Sept. 4, and the Ivy League announced the cancellation of all fall sports earlier this week.

The ACC’s football schedule is set to begin on Sept. 2 when NC State visits Louisville.

The decision was unanimously approved by the ACC board of directors.

As that story notes, while the football schedule hasn’t been affected yet, multiple schools have had to suspend workouts due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Big Ten has taken a different tack, cancelling all non-conference games. I don’t know what’s going to happen – pushing everything off till spring seems like a remote possibility at this time, at least for the big conferences – but having stadia packed with fans seems even crazier now. I’ll say this much – if the various pro sports leagues are successfully operating as of August, then maybe the NCAA can do so as well. But if the pros can’t do it, there’s no way in hell the collegians can do it.

We need to understand what we did wrong

So yeah, we need this.

Two of the nation’s most influential experts on the coronavirus pandemic, both based in Texas, are calling for an independent, nonpartisan investigation of the U.S. response to the novel coronavirus.

“We must prevent this from happening again,” said Gerald Parker, who directs the pandemic and biosecurity program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Public Service. “This is not going to be our last pandemic.”

Peter Hotez, a Houston-based vaccine researcher and frequent commentator on cable news, noted that the current virus, SARS-CoV-2, is the third coronavirus to pose a major health threat in the last 20 years. And given that outbreaks had already wreaked havoc in China and Europe, U.S. public health systems were notably slow to respond.

“What hurt Wuhan was what hurt New York City,” said Hotez, “which is that virus transmission went on for six weeks before there was any public health intervention.”

In a videotaped interview with John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, Parker suggested an investigation modeled on the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission.

[…]

Hotez, who also participated in the interview with Sharp, said later that he feared a congressional panel would become “a political circus.” Instead he proposed a review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Among the questions Hotez wants answered: How, for the whole month of February, did the U.S. miss evidence that the virus was already here? Given the crowding and high number of underlying conditions in low-income neighborhoods, what was done to prepare African-American and Hispanic communities in the early days? Why didn’t the CDC have a centralized epidemiological model, including models of cities and metropolitan areas? And how can the U.S. prepare for future epidemics?

For those who are fans of comparing government to business, this is a very standard business thing to do. Call it an after-action review, or a root cause analysis, or just a plain old audit, it really is vital to learn from experiences, good and bad, so that you can understand what happened and why it happened, and what you can do better next time. I think we can all agree that there is plenty to be learned from this saga, and we all owe it to ourselves to do that. I would hope that much is non-controversial.

But let’s be real, there’s no way to do this that won’t involve politics. You can put together the bluest of blue ribbon panels, staff it with the bona fidiest of experts, and stick entirely to a just-the-facts narrative, it’s still going to be political. That’s because the single biggest actor in this drama was Donald Trump, and his influence on the decisions made at the state and local level was entirely political. Any review that doesn’t do a thorough accounting of this isn’t worth the effort. If Republicans haven’t figured out that Trump’s mishandling of this is what’s killing them in the polls right now, I can’t help them, but I would think they’d want to help themselves. If we manage to get an all-Democratic government next year (please, please), I won’t really expect Republicans to like anything such a report would say. That’s shouldn’t be the point, or anyone’s concern. Do a thorough review, get all the facts out into the open, learn everything there is to be learned, and let the chips fall where they may.

Fauci and football

I hate to rain on your tailgate, but…

The NFL is planning to begin its season on time, but Dr. Anthony Fauci pulled the reins on that optimistic view Wednesday.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble – insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day – it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on CNN. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

The NBA and MLS are planning to resume their seasons in July with players in a bubble. So far, the NFL hasn’t publicly discussed that option. A bubble also seems particularly untenable for college football teams on school campuses.

“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL Players Association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches, and other essential personnel,” the NFL’s chief medical offers Dr. Allen Sills told ESPN on Thursday. “We are developing a comprehensive and rapid-result testing program and rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem. This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts, and other sports leagues.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel, and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.”

The NFL has maintained that training camps will start in late July and its regular season will begin as scheduled with the Texans playing at Kansas City on Sept. 10.

Don’t anyone tell Greg Abbott or Ross Bjork about this. That story appeared a day before we got stories about MLB and NHL teams closing their training facilities following positive COVID-19 tests. We’ve already seen other stories about NFL and NCAA teams doing the same. It’s more than fair to ask if teams can even keep their own people safe, let alone their customers. I’m as ready as anyone to see my favorite sports leagues and teams again. I just want it to be done safely, and right now the evidence that can be done at this time is not abundant.

What kind of college football season will there be?

News item: Governor says to expect half-full stadiums for college football.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told athletic directors from the state’s largest schools to expect 50 percent capacity at football games this fall, USA Today reported, but Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork is remaining optimistic.

With more than 80 days to Texas A&M’s first scheduled game against Abilene Christian at Kyle Field, Bjork said this is no time for absolutes when determining college attendance in the late summer and fall, based on the global pandemic.

“As of today, we still have time on our side,” Bjork said Saturday. “And we will not make decisions based on incomplete information.”

USA Today reported that Abbott met with the dozen athletic directors from the state’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs via teleconference Friday, and “told them not to expect capacity at their stadiums to be above 50 percent this fall.”

“The governor was very gracious with his time and provided us with insights into the current situation,” Bjork responded Saturday. “It’s disappointing that information from the meeting leaked since the discussion was meant to be confidential, and I will not disclose the details of the conversation and violate Gov. Abbott’s trust.”

Bjork, hired by A&M a year ago from the same position at Mississippi, added: “As we’ve learned throughout this unprecedented situation, everything remains fluid, and there are a number of scenarios for attending upcoming pro and college sporting events.”

Bjork has expressed confidence this month that Kyle Field might be near its capacity of more than 100,000 as the fall schedule presses on. The Aggies are scheduled to host ACU on Sept. 5 in coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season.

Emphasis mine, and the Chron has a separate story expanding on Bjork’s rather optimistic hypothesis. Abbott had previously stated that he expected college football to be played, though he didn’t specify at what capacity the stadia might be. I will remind you that at this point, all of the professional sports leagues, from the ones that are now playing to those that are still planning their comebacks, are playing in empty arenas. It’s impossible for me to square that with the likes of Kyle Field at full capacity. They can’t both be right.

And on that note, we have this:

The University of Houston abruptly halted voluntary workouts Friday after six student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

In a release, UH said it was suspending workouts – which began June 1 with football and men’s and women’s basketball – “out of an abundance of caution.” The school said the six symptomatic student-athletes had been placed in isolation and contract tracing procedures have been initiated.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks since voluntary workouts began and as the Houston area has seen a recent surge in positive tests for COVID-19.

UH becomes the first school to suspend athletic activities since the NCAA cleared the return of student-athletes back to campus following a nearly three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UH only tested student-athletes that showed symptoms or came from areas that had a high number of positive cases, a person with knowledge of the protocol told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. Athletic officials have declined comment.

In other words, there are others they didn’t test that might possibly be positive as well. The story lists fourteen other schools that have reported athletes with positive COVID-19 tests, including three in the SEC. It is very likely that all of these athletes will recover fully – I certainly hope they all do – and now that they have been tested they can be quarantined so as not to pass the virus on to anyone else. UH is the only school in this story that actually stopped its voluntary workouts as a result of this, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. My point here is that whatever the likes of Greg Abbott and Ross Bjork may say or do, they ultimately have very little control over this virus. And as I keep saying, they don’t seem to have much of a plan for it, either.

UPDATE: Welp.

Several Texans and Cowboys players have tested positive for COVID-19, including Dallas star running back Ezekiel Elliott, according to the NFL Network.

The players who tested positive reportedly weren’t in attendance at their team facilities, which have remained closed due to NFL restrictions limiting their use only to rehabilitating injured players during this global pandemic. Both teams have followed medical protocols.

[…]

NFL teams, including the Texans, have taken steps to ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff. The Texans created a new position, hiring a facility hygiene coordinator earlier this offseason. The Texans are believed to be the first professional sports team to add this type of specialized position.

The intention is to minimize the risk factor of getting or spreading COVID-19 and supervise the custodial staff, which is provided by Aramark.

I know, that’s NFL, not NCAA. My point is, it’s not just a question of whether or not it’s safe to have fans in the stands. There’s still the little matter of whether it’s actually safe to have the players practice and play together.

Abbott expects there to be college football this fall

Pretty optimistic, if you ask me.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he believes college football will begin on schedule in Texas with some fans in the stands, he told KXAN during an interview Friday.

“My prediction is yes we’re going to have college football beginning as scheduled, on schedule, with at least some level of fans in the stands,” the governor said.

Abbott said what is unclear at the moment is what the capacity level would be.

“Would it be strategic and limited to ensure that we have safe distancing practices, there are factors we simply do not know at this time,” Abbott explained about the potential health risks of reopening UT football in the fall.

Abbott stated that the University of Texas at Austin’s athletic director needs a decision by early August. He said the state thinks it should be able to make a decision by then.

This isn’t out of the blue. In April, the chancellors of Texas A&M and Texas Tech said they expect there will be football when they reopen in the fall, though that story didn’t address the question of fans. ESPN quoted Abbott referring to the reopening plans of MLB and the NBA, though those sports and others like MLS are all talking about fan-free games, possibly at a single location. It’s one thing to imagine the games happening, especially if the campuses are open anyway. It’s another to imagine sixty thousand people or more packed into a stadium screaming their lungs out, especially if the pro sports leagues are still playing before nothing but empty seats. Texas A&M at least is thinking about what this might mean.

“We have not gone down the path of examining every section,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said of exactly how many fans Kyle Field will hold with mandated social distancing in place. “There are a lot of scenarios being discussed.”

Like that proverbial glass, Bjork prefers to envision a stadium as half full, not half empty, should restrictions be in place this season.

“We want a full experience, and we’re staying positive — that’s the approach we’re taking right now,” Bjork said. “We know we can pivot quickly if we have to, but we have not mapped that out.”

[…]

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has gradually reopened the state in the past month, but he has held off on potentially crowded events such as county fairs. With that in mind, what exactly would Kyle Field look like at, say, 25 percent capacity?

Roughly 25,000 fans would be spread throughout the stadium, and which fans would be allowed in would be determined in a potentially convoluted process.

“You’ve got 102,733 seats,” Bjork said. “Last year we sold about 85,000 season tickets, including right around 35,000 student tickets. That leaves you about 18,000 empty seats. The great thing about Kyle Field is we have a lot of space. So you would start with your infrastructure and analyze it from there, but we would not (ideally) want to decrease our season ticket base. …

“We have a huge footprint, and we just haven’t had to go down that (downsizing) path yet.”

Should social distancing be required at Kyle Field this fall, not only would fans be spaced at least 6 feet apart throughout the stadium, but multiple measures would be in place to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

That might mean everyone but the players and those on the sideline would be required to wear masks (further muffling touchdown celebrations and the Aggies’ tradition of kissing after a score); an abundance of hand sanitizers spread throughout the stadium; and scheduled times for different sections to enter the stadium so there is no squeeze at the gates, where body temperatures might also be checked.

Bjork added that it might be helpful for fans to bring their own beverage containers to limit the number of hands on a cup, making last year’s new policy of selling alcohol throughout the stadium a bit trickier. A&M and its concessions cohort made more than $1 million off alcohol sales at Kyle Field in 2019, according to the university.

“One of the things that we’ve had to do with the alcohol policy is have (employees) pour the bottle or can of beer into a cup (for fans); that’s an SEC policy,” Bjork said. “Does that need to change so you limit as many contacts as possible? Those approaches are being studied right now.”

So are the possibilities of limiting the university-sanctioned tailgating scene around Kyle Field, and the myriad activities in the Aggie Fan Zone on the plaza north of the stadium that create a festival-like atmosphere in the hours before kickoff.

“There’s nothing you can really put in writing right now or have a ‘backup’ plan yet, because there’s too much uncertainty, and it’s way too early,” Bjork said of the Aggies’ plans for Kyle Field starting with the Sept. 5 opener against Abilene Christian.

Which fans would get to attend would also present a knotty question for them. I do expect there to be a lot of pressure for playing college football, for various financial and social reasons. How that manifests remains an open question, and that’s before we take into account the possibility of a resurgence, in which case all of this will seem extremely stupid.

This is an issue that has more than the usual amount of resonance for me. As you know if you’ve been reading this site for awhile or know me in Real Life, I’ve been a member of the Rice Marching Owl Band (MOB) for many years. I don’t know at this point what Rice plans to go regarding its sports teams, nor do I know at this point what the MOB plans to do. (They’ve been busy with the usual end-of-semester activities, saying goodbye to graduating seniors and installing the new drum major and drum minor, that sort of thing.) I really don’t know what I plan to do just yet if everyone is going ahead like normal. On the one hand, we’ll be outside and there will be a reasonable amount of space for us all in the stands. On the other hand, there’s only so much social distancing a band can do and still sound like a band, the deep breathing that playing a wind instrument requires is an extra risk factor for COVID transmission, and everything else about the stadium experience will involve a lot of closer-than-I’m-comfortable-with contact with other people. Maybe if we’ve really got infection rates under control, or there’s true universal testing, I’d be willing to trot out there for another season like it was the Before Times. I’m not feeling that right now. Ask me again in August and we’ll see. The Chron has more.

How about an Arizona/Florida/Texas plan for MLB?

Call it the MLB Plan 3.0 for having a season.

With the spread of the novel coronavirus threatening Major League Baseball’s 2020 season, the league and the union continue to seek ways to salvage the year as best they can. Predictably, that has entailed any number of proposals and contingency plans, including those that would see teams either all isolated in Arizona, or split between Arizona and Florida. On Monday, multiple league sources informed CBS Sports about a different idea that has been discussed in recent days.

In this arrangement, the league would have teams stationed in one of three hubs: Florida, Arizona or Texas. The clubs would then make use of the local major- and minor-league (or spring training) facilities and play regular season games behind closed doors without fans.

One source even expressed guarded optimism about the idea’s chances of coming to fruition.

Ballparks in St. Petersburg (Florida), Phoenix (Arizona), and Arlington (Texas) each have roofs, retractable or otherwise, that would safeguard against rainouts and other extreme weather, allowing for multiple games to be hosted at those sites per day. Theoretically, MLB could also ask teams stationed in Florida and Texas to drive three-plus hours to other MLB parks (Houston’s Minute Maid Park and Miami’s Marlins Park).

It’s unclear if MLB would assign 10 teams to each metropolitan area, or if it would opt for an unbalanced approach that would see 12 teams in one area and eight in another.

[…]

“From our perspective, we don’t have a plan, we have lots of ideas,” [MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred] told Fox Business. “What ideas come to fruition depends on what the restrictions are, what the public health situation is, but we are intent on the idea of making baseball a part of the economic recovery and sort of a milestone on the return to normalcy.”

See here and here for the previous iterations of this idea. The DMN adds more details.

While teams would need to drive as much as two or three hours in Florida to visit certain sites, Texas can offer two Major League stadiums: Globe Life Field in Arlington and Minute Maid Park in Houston. There are also numerous minor league facilities such as Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco and The Dell Diamond in Round Rock. There are also numerous top-tier college facilities, if those are made available.

[…]

Among things to be decided if Texas becomes more realistic: How would MLB temporarily realign from two 15-team leagues to three 10-team leagues? Under the Arizona/Florida idea, rather than having teams divided into the National and American Leagues, they would compete in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

Also, which teams would be asked to give up the relative comforts of their own spring training facilities to temporarily plan in Texas? If MLB moves towards a league that is geared simply to be TV-friendly without fans, it might make sense to have leagues set up based on time zones, with East Coast teams in Florida, teams in the Central in Texas and the rest of the teams in Arizona.

There are eight teams with Central Time Zone home bases: Both Chicago teams, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Houston and the Rangers. Colorado is a Mountain Time Zone-based club, an hour behind the Central. A team from the Eastern Time Zone, perhaps Detroit, might need to be added.

Another question: Would the Rangers be able to use all of the numerous state-of-the-art amenities afforded them in Globe Life Field? Or would teams playing in their home stadiums have to give up some access to major league amenities if the majority of teams are playing in minor league stadiums?

Teams would also need some secondary bases for depth options since the minor league season is becoming more and more unlikely. That’s where minor league and college facilities could become more of a point of conversation.

As the Chron notes, Texas A&M has expressed interest in letting its stadium be used in this scenario. I’m sure other colleges would as well. Normally, even the biggest college stadium would be far too small for an MLB game, but with there being no spectators, that’s not an issue. So who knows? One other obstacle, as the CBS story notes, is that some prominent players, like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, have said they don’t want to be separated from their families for the four months this would take (assuming no return to regular stadium action in the interim). I feel like that is surmountable if this ever gets past the “there are no bad ideas” stage of the discussion. For now, MLB is just making sure that it has something it can try to execute in the event that things have improved enough to move forward with a season.

Whither college football?

All NCAA spring sports were canceled due to coronavirus, beginning with March Madness and going through baseball and softball and soccer and everything else. Everyone has been looking forward to the fall when things were supposed to be back to “normal” again, but no one knows for sure what might happen.

NCAA Division I college sports in Texas is a billion-dollar business for the 23 participating schools, and athletic directors estimate 75 percent to 85 percent of that revenue is tied directly to football in terms of ticket sales, sponsorships, media rights fees and, for most schools, direct contributions from the students or the university.

All those revenue streams are in jeopardy with 20 weeks to go before the scheduled football season openers in late August, which is why college athletic directors are game-planning every potential scenario that comes to mind.

“The financial repercussions of not playing a football season are so significant there is going to be a way to do it and play it and do it responsibly,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said last week on KBME (790 AM), the school’s sports flagship station.

“If you don’t have that revenue stream that is associated with football, it gets dire very fast. … I am confident we are going to find a way through this and we’ll be able to play the season, whether it’s pushed back a little bit or the idea of playing in the spring.”

At Texas A&M, athletic director Ross Bjork is running through similar scenarios involving the mathematics of time and money.

Regular and postseason football requires four months with the addition of the College Football Playoff, and that must be preceded, Bjork said during a conference call last week, by a 60- to 75-day preparation period for players who have been outside the watchful, demanding eyes of strength coaches for several weeks.

John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said last week October would not be too late to begin a complete 2020 season, which would presume a return of players, based on Bjork’s time model, in mid-July.

However, what flies in Texas might not work in other states.

As an example, the executive officer of Santa Clara County in northern California, which includes Stanford University and Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, said last week he did not expect “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”

A&M, Bjork noted, is scheduled to play Colorado at College Station on Sept. 19. There’s no guarantee, however, Colorado will be in the same stage of recovery as Texas by mid-September.

Accordingly, Bjork said he expects a “layered” approach to football’s return, based on the advice of conference and university leaders and local and state governments.

“There’s not one trigger point,” he said. “We’re all just guessing, really. We don’t know what the data will tell us. We can model, but until you know when you’re starting or when you can have togetherness, it’s kind of hard to predict.”

It’s hard to imagine how sports like Major League Baseball can contemplate their return if the start of the NCAA football season is in jeopardy. Of course, MLB has the “play their games in hermetically sealed stadia in a small number of locations with no fans” option, which college football does not. I don’t doubt the desire or the intent to bring the games back, even if starting the season in December and essentially playing a spring season is a possible way forward. But as with everything else, there’s only so long you can push back one season before you push up against the next one, and there’s no way to know what the effects will be on fans, who may not be ready to tailgate and pack into venues just yet. It’s good for the leagues to prepare for all possibilities. You never know, things might go better than expected. It’s just all so massively weird right now.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

Flying motorcycles

Look out above.

A team of engineers at Texas A&M University is participating in the $2 million-plus GoFly Prize competition, an event sponsored by the aerospace company Boeing to challenge engineers to develop flying devices that are relatively quiet, fit in the garage and can carry one person for 20 miles without refueling or recharging.

The College Station team, called Texas A&M Harmony, and its motorcycle-like device has so far received $70,000 as a winning team in the competition’s paper design and prototype phases. It’s now preparing for the final competition in which teams fly full-scale designs in early 2020.

[…]

“People have been trying to build flying cars for the last 70, 80 years,” said Moble Benedict, team captain and assistant professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Aerospace Engineering. “We still don’t see flying cars anywhere. And that’s because there are some inherent issues with the designs people are coming up with.”

Some designs would produce flying transports that are too loud for neighborhoods, he said, others that are too large for the typical commuter. The GoFly Prize competition addresses such problems by requiring that competing devices be no larger than 8½ feet in any direction. And from 50 feet away, they can’t be louder than 87 decibels – the sound level of a hair dryer.

“At first we thought this was impossible,” Benedict said. “We thought these were unrealistic requirements from GoFly. But then we said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

They soon came up with Aria. Like its namesake, the operatic aria sung by just one person, the flying device is designed for one person sitting upright. Two stacked rotors, essentially large fans that sit on top of each other and turn in opposite directions, enable it to fly.

The Aria could reach top speeds between 80 mph and 90 mph when the driver throttles forward. A flight computer stabilizes the vehicle and allows it to be controlled with a flight stick, almost like playing a video game. For the GoFly competition, the team will pilot the vehicle remotely and have a 200-pound dummy in the driver’s seat.

The rotors are specially designed to hold down the noise and not to pester neighbors when early-morning commuters take off for work.

“It won’t sound like a swarm of hornets in the morning,” said Farid Saemi, the team’s lead on electric powertrain propulsion and a doctoral student studying aerospace engineering.

Between this and the Uber flying cars that are (supposedly) being tested by NASA, 2020 could be a banner year for flying vehicles. Or possibly a banner year for internal combustion engines falling from the sky. I don’t envy the next head of the FAA when the rulemaking process gets started. The cost of thie A&M flying motorcycle is $500K, and I presume that’s without the customization options. Start saving your pennies now if you want one of these babies, is what I’m saying. I’ll try to keep an eye on these developments, while hopefully remaining safely under cover. The downtown tunnels have never looked better.

Army Corps to present Ike Dike options

About time.

Later this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recommend a multi-billion-dollar plan to help protect the Texas coast — the Houston area in particular — from hurricanes. When it will become a reality, however, is anyone’s guess.

The more than 200-year-old agency — in partnership with the Texas General Land Office — embarked on the largest study in its history in 2014 to determine how best to guard the Bayou City and other coastal communities from devastating storm surge.

Four years later, the agency has devised four proposals for the Houston area; it will announce which one it thinks is best on Oct. 26 and open a 75-day public comment period, according to Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager at the Army Corps’ Galveston District.

The plans are distinctly different — one of them has an alternate variation — but all include a mixture of new levees, improvements to existing levees and seawalls and the installation of so-called “navigation” gates, which would be closed ahead of storms to protect densely populated areas southeast of Houston and the city’s port — home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the nation, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey — from the deadly swells generated by a hurricane’s strong winds. That storm surge can result in major flooding even before a storm makes landfall.

One of the plans calls for the construction of a 17-foot-high levee along the entirety of Galveston Island, which is about 27 miles long, and the barrier island to its north, Bolivar Peninsula — a concept that has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” Another includes a levee through most of Bolivar but not Galveston. Others call for the construction of new levees and floodwalls further inland. All the plans include the installation of navigation gates in various places and the construction of a so-called “ring levee” around the heart of the Galveston that would protect the island’s backside from retreating storm surge.

Here’s the study. The four proposals are:

Alternative A: Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Galveston Ring Levee
Alternative B: Coastal Barrier (Modified)
Alternative C: Mid Bay Barrier
Alternative D: Upper Bay Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Bay Rim

Click over to read what they mean. There are also nine Ecosystem Restoration proposals to go along with this. As the story notes, both the original “Ike Dike” idea, proposed in 2008, and the more recent SSPEED Centennial Gate, or maybe the even more recent mid-bay gate, I’m honestly not sure, are in the running. Like I said, go see for yourself what’s on the table. One winner will emerge, and we’ll get a public comment period after that, and then we just need to solve the trivial problem of funding. No big deal, right?

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

What’s next for the now-canceled white nationalist rally at A&M

The legal experts are weighing in.

Saunie Schuster, an attorney for The NCHERM Group, which provides consulting for schools on First Amendment issues, said that was the organizer’s big mistake.

“You can be here and you can speak even if we hate what you’re saying, but you can’t disrupt the function of Texas A&M,” Schuster said. “Because a person was killed and people were seriously injured in Charlottesville, the potential for harm is not just speculative. If he’s linking the two events together, he’s seeing that as an outcome.”

Southern Methodist University constitutional law professor Dale Carpenter said the school’s position — that the rally presents a huge public safety risk and could disrupt normal activities on campus — is “legitimate,” but the school may face some legal backlash anyway. On Monday evening, rally organizer Wiginton said as much: “I guess my lawyers will now be suing the state of Texas.”

Carpenter said the university “can’t simply ban a controversial speaker because others might react violently.” He said blocking speech is an absolute last resort to prevent violence, not a first resort. He suggested the university may be able to negotiate a different time or place for the rally but said he doubts A&M will “succeed in simply prohibiting this event and its subject matter on campus.”

“That billing is too vague to constitute a true threat of violence, in my view. Indeed, the fact that Texas A&M specifically cited that billing as a justification may weaken its claim that the cancellation was for content-neutral reasons,” Carpenter added.

Meanwhile, Schuster said, “if the people coming to do a ‘White Lives Matter’ rally remain in a public area or do so in a manner that doesn’t disrupt the educational function of the institution, the school is going to be highly unlikely to be able to shut it down or restrict it.”

See here for the background. The racist organizer had talked about having a march on campus instead, which might be harder to restrict, but in the end decided to call it off, at least for now. He’s still talking lawsuit, however. My layman’s opinion of what A&M did was that it was defensible on public safety grounds, but that is no guarantee they would prevail in court if it comes down to it, which it may yet do. Other legal experts were less sanguine.

“If all it took to shut down a speaker was to threaten a riot, we would all find ourselves with very little free speech at all,” said Ari Cohn, the director of the Individual Rights Defense Program, a campus civil rights watchdog group. “Allowing the possibility of a bottle-throwing mob to justify curtailing speech only incentivizes violence. That is an untenable result, from a legal and practical standpoint.”

Cohn said that the [racist jerk]’s link between Charlottesville and the planned A&M rally—a main reason the university gave for canceling the event—is protected under free speech. “Under applicable constitutional precedent, it constitutes neither incitement to imminent lawless action nor a true threat, and without more, that notice does not justify canceling the event,” Cohn said. “Moreover, violence committed in one place does not justify curtailing freedom of expression in other places. We do not discard the First Amendment’s protections because someone, somewhere reacted inappropriately to speech—and to be clear, violence is never an acceptable response to speech. But to sacrifice our First Amendment rights on the altar of preventing violence is incompatible with our understanding of free speech.”

[…]

“[Texas A&M], in denying White Lives Matters [and other racist jerk]’s access to public areas to engage in speech—notwithstanding how deplorable and lacking in value that speech may be—more likely than not is violating the First Amendment by engaging in viewpoint-based discrimination,” JT Morris, an Austin-based attorney specializing in First Amendment law, said in an email. Morris said [racist jerk] could file a lawsuit immediately seeking an emergency temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, asking a judge to force the university to grant [racist jerk]’s group access to campus for the rally. “This is a really tough situation to balance First Amendment rights and public safety,” Morris said. “We’re looking at protecting speech of minimal value—to put it gently—that is espoused by a very small group of people, at the risk of serious harm to public safety.” As Morris notes, the First Amendment protects what most of us consider to be hate speech, unless that speech crosses the line and incites violence. “I’m not sure the White Lives Matter [and] [other racist jerk] stuff is quite there—yet,” Morris said.

As I’ve said, I support A&M’s actions here. If they wind up losing in court, that would be unfortunate, but at least they tried. Slate, which takes a national look at this issue, has more.

White nationalist rally at A&M canceled

I’ve been on the road with limited Internet access, so I’m just now catching up on recent events. Unlike our garbage president, I wholeheartedly condemn the appalling racist violence committed in Charlottesville by a bunch of Nazi scum. As such, I was heartened to see this.

A white nationalist rally planned on Texas A&M University’s campus has been canceled, apparently out of concern for student safety, officials confirmed Monday.

The school made the decision after consulting law enforcement and “considerable study” because of “concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff and the public.”

“Texas A&M’s support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned,” the university said in a statement Monday afternoon.

“However, in this case circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event.”

You can learn the details of this now-canceled event here; I have no desire to give these jackwads any mentions. The asshole who organized this thing says in the story that he plans to sue. I think based on the deplorable events in Charlottesville that A&M has a pretty good public safety argument to make, but I guess we’ll see what the courts have to say. It’s certainly possible A&M could get overruled. Given that, you might want to make note of this Maroon Wall counterprotest, which had been prepped to go on at the same time, just in case it is still needed. It would be best for this to now be obsolete, but if that is not the case then it sure would be nice to completely overwhelm these fascists with huge numbers of actual decent people. Beyond that, kudos to the legislators who called on A&M Chancellor John Sharp to cancel the event, and to Sharp for heeding the call. In the meantime, if you need something to do now, there are things that can be done in Austin, in Missouri City, and in Houston. People need to speak up, but we also need to take action. The Rivard Report has more.

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

Ready for driverless cars, Houston?

Well, they’re coming, ready or not.

Researchers, business leaders and elected officials are about to turn Texas into the biggest laboratory for connected cars in the nation, with the likeliest place to spot a self-driving car in Houston along the high occupancy vehicle and toll lanes along some of the region’s busiest freeways.

Officials are moving quickly to create a welcoming environment for the vehicles and the scientists and engineers who will fine tune them, though safety standards and even testing methods remain a work in progress.

“We want companies to come to Texas and develop (autonomous and connected vehicle) technologies,” said Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute and head of the agency’s connected and automated vehicle program.

[…]

In the Houston area, some of the first tests could be along high occupancy vehicle and high occupancy toll lanes where the cars could drive themselves in typical situations and then cede control to a person for stop-and-go traffic, Poe and others said.

To prepare for the cars, the A&M transportation institute and the Texas Department of Transportation earlier this month forged an agreement that allows researchers to test wireless-connected and automated vehicle technologies on state highways. The agreement will pave the way for installing devices on state highway rights of way such as signs readable by automated vehicles and even detectors that can communicate with cars to provide traffic information and even control traffic signals.

The development will take automated cars from closed areas such as the Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus west of College Station to the streets of Texas cities.

Before that, however, researchers and local officials in various Texas cities will develop locations where certain driverless vehicle technologies can be tested. In Houston, officials have identified the Texas Medical Center, high occupancy vehicle lanes maintained by Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Port of Houston as potential live testing locations. Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso also are readying for live testing.

Plans are to test facets of connected cars, such as traffic signals that could relay information and communicate in the Texas Medical Center, or autonomous vehicles that could lug freight from the docks of the Port of Houston to a central sorting operation.

Freight, along with public transit, are two transportation sectors in which businesses and local governments see the most potential for connected and autonomous vehicles. Texas, meanwhile, is ripe with opportunities for both, with increasing demand predicted for both trucks, freight rail and options other than solo driving in the state’s largest metro regions.

Local officials, especially Metro transit leaders, are particularly eyeing a western stretch of Westheimer, said Terence Fontaine, the transit agency’s executive vice president and chief innovation officer. The 12 miles of road between Loop 610 and Texas 6 – technically part of the state highway system as FM 1093 – is a major thoroughfare and big headache for drivers, with stops and starts because of traffic flow and seemingly ill-timed traffic lights.

There’s a lot more, so go read the whole thing. Much of this isn’t about fully autonomous vehicles but about integrating traffic and transportation systems to be able to work with those vehicles when the are ready, and as noted above there’s a light-synchronization piece for Metro. In the meantime, there’s a pilot program coming.

A program piloting self-driving vehicles around Texas, starting at closed facilities but one day moving to busy streets, will join nine others as the first proving grounds in the U.S. for autonomous vehicles.

U.S. Department of Transportation officials made the announcement late last week, among a dash of decisions in the last days of the Obama Administration before federal offices handed power to Donald Trump and his cabinet.

The proving grounds are a significant step in helping develop cars and trucks that can safely travel on American roads, including setting the standards for what regulations will oversee vehicles moving autonomously.

“This group will openly share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations as they are developed, enabling the participants and the general public to learn at a faster rate and accelerating the pace of safe deployment,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Thursday.

[…]

Under terms of the proving ground program overseen by federal officials, the proving grounds will be operational by Jan. 1, 2018.

Can’t wait to see what that looks like. Beyond this, consumer testing is farther out because Texas law hasn’t been updated to accommodate it. One such attempt in the last session went down to defeat after Google and other manufacturers didn’t like what was in it. I’m sure something else will get introduced this year, so we’ll see if it is more successful this time. Are you ready to look over at the car next to you and not see someone in the driver’s seat?

Fire ant-killing robots

Let’s just luxuriate in the glory of that headline for a moment, shall we?

Harley Myler is working on a “war of the worlds.”

That’s what the Lamar Electrical Engineering Department chair calls his latest project: a walking robot that incinerates red fire ants.

The idea is to use a camera to identify the species the same way computers and sites like Facebook can recognize faces, and then fire at them with a blue laser taken from inside a DVD burner, he said.

Sophomore Qiuyi Ma, who recently received an undergraduate research grant to work on the project with Myler, said they just got the materials for the robot at the end of November. She expects to be working on the project through May.

The ants, which can attack and sting humans and animals, are not native to the United States and, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, displace native ant species.

Myler first proposed the project several years ago, but only recently received funding. He’s spent the last year working on another invasive species-targeting robot, which will help control the lionfish population in the Gulf of Mexico.

Though he originally envisioned an underwater vehicle shooting darts at the fish, which has venomous spines and preys on native species, other scientists worried about collateral damage and quickly put a stop to that.

“The marine biologists were [saying], ‘no, no, no, we can’t have a robot swimming around on reefs shooting darts at a lionfish,'” he said. Instead, the goal now is to make it easier and more efficient for humans to capture them, “just like a hunter has a trained dog,” he said.

I just want to say three things. One, Harley Myler is now my favorite scientist ever. Two, the only way this project could be any better is if the ant-killing laser-firing robots were built to resemble Star Wars AT-AT walkers. I mean, it’s obvious, right? And three, for the love of God please don’t let the Defense Department or the NSA give this guy a grant. I can’t wait till May to see what the prototype looks like, but until then if you want some more practical advice about fire ants, here’s the A&M fire ant page for you to peruse. You’re welcome.

Still more hyperloops

They had a hyperloop design contest at Texas A&M:

In the end, Elon Musk couldn’t resist showing up to the competition he helped inspire. The billionaire SpaceX CEO made a surprise appearance at the end of the Hyperloop pod design competition at Texas A&M University Saturday, eliciting a rapturous reaction from the thousand-plus audience of high school and college engineers who were there to compete for a chance to test their designs on Musk’s personal Hyperloop track later this year.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s team was awarded the top prize, and will now go on to build an actual pod to race on the under-construction track near SpaceX’s Hawthorne, Calif. headquarters. The Delft University of Technology from the Netherlands were the next runners-up. Auburn University won in the category of best overall subsystem. Twenty-two teams in all will go on to test their pods in Hawthorne, although up to 10 other teams could also qualify after further judging in the coming weeks, according to SpaceX.

Dozens of other winners in propulsion, design, levitation, and braking were also announced at the end of the two-day competition, which also featured technology demonstrations like Arx Pax’s hover engine, and a speech by US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

The event was meant to generate excitement among engineers and the public for the tube-based, transonic, vacuum transport system popularized by the billionaire Musk in 2013. But it was also meant to serve as a rebuttal to skeptics who dismissed the Hyperloop as too fanciful, impractical, and expensive to exist in the real world.

“The public wants something new,” Musk told the attendees. “And you’re going to give it to them.”

See here and here for some background. I still think this is all pie in the sky, but it is nice to think that there might be better ways to travel than what we have now. Maybe if this doesn’t work something like it will. Texas Monthly has more.

On to the benefits

Now that same sex marriage is the law of the land, Texas employers need to make sure that the spousal benefits they offer apply to all spouses.

RedEquality

“If an employer provides benefits to anyone who is currently married, they must now treat gay and lesbian employees the same and offer them the exact same benefits,” said Neel Lane, a San Antonio lawyer at corporate law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

“The ruling has an enormous impact on employers and employees in Texas,” said Lane, who represents on a pro bono basis a gay couple in Texas who have challenged the state’s ban on same-sex marriages.

[…]

Lawyers said they have been inundated with calls – mainly from small- and medium-sized business owners – seeking legal advice on updating employment and benefits forms but also asking if there are ways under Texas law to avoid having to make changes.

James Griffin, an expert on employment benefits and federal tax law at Jackson Walker in Dallas, said the legal advice he is giving his business clients is simple.

“Don’t waste your time looking for ways to defeat this,” Griffin said. “The Supreme Court decision is very broad. This issue is done. Make the changes and move on.”

Griffin and other lawyers say most large corporations implemented policies years ago that extend benefits to same-sex couples.

But they say some Texas-based companies that operate exclusively within the state have not addressed the issue because they have never had employees come forward and say they are gay and want benefits for their partners. Lawyers say that because Texas political leaders have been adamantly anti-same-sex marriage and benefits, many workers were afraid to step forward.

“Now, because of the Supreme Court ruling, a lot of people who have been reluctant are going to raise their hand for the benefits and the companies have to address it,” said Mark Shank, an employment law partner at Gruber Hurst Elrod Johansen Hail Shank in Dallas.

Among the employers who have already taken action is the state of Texas.

The state’s bureaucracy is moving forward to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision, even as state elected officials – including Gov. Greg Abbott – have lambasted the landmark ruling.

Starting Wednesday – less than a week after the decision – the Employees Retirement System of Texas, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M System will extend benefits to spouses of gay and lesbian employees.

That means the state’s largest employer, the State of Texas, will join the list of those providing equal benefits to same-sex partners.

The decision is latest sign that state government is accepting the ruling, which struck down gay marriage bans in Texas and other states. And that bureaucratic churn provides a notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling by Abbott and other top Republicans.

“This is all kind of new for us,” said Catherine Terrell, a spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System of Texas. “We’re just looking at what other employers have seen.”

The state employees some 311,000 people, according to the state auditor’s office. Terrell said ERS, which handles benefits for most state employees, was anticipating that about 1,500 spouses of gay employees would now enroll for benefits.

A “notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling”. I like that. When you consider all the county clerks who ignored Ken Paxton’s legal “advice”, it’s quite clear who’s really out of touch here. That doesn’t mean they’re going to acknowledge it any time soon.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas is also providing these benefits now; they weren’t included in the Trail Blazers post. Regarding the UT and A&M systems, I like the quote in this Trib story about that:

Professors at Texas’ public universities celebrated the extension of benefits, saying the policy change will offer relief for many gay and lesbian employees and reduce the rate at which they leave Texas institutions in search of schools that accommodate same-sex couples.

Patrick Burkart, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, said extending benefits for same-sex couples will put the university on the “same competitive footing” as other research universities across the country because it will help retain and recruit top faculty and staffers.

“What we’re going to find out is how expensive it’s been to keep a discriminatory policy on the books as we have,” said Burkart, the secretary and treasurer of the A&M chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which has pushed for the benefits for years.

Burkart, who has served on several faculty search committees, indicated that the previous policy denying benefits to same-sex spouses or partners kept potential candidates from applying for posts at the school.

Hundreds of colleges across the country offer benefits to same-sex spouses or same-sex domestic partners.

”I think our university has suffered for it, and now is a great time to catch up and gather our strengths,” Burkart said.

I’m willing to bet none of our “saber-rattling” state leaders ever considered that, and if any of them did, I seriously doubt they cared. It is of course one big reason why so many private employers have been doing this for so long – you’ve got to keep up with the competition. Burying your head in the sand never works.

Let’s go back to the first story for a minute to see an example of another place where they can demonstrate that:

Legal experts also say the first major domino likely to fall will occur in federal court in Wichita Falls, where a federal judge in March, at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Paxton, issued an injunction that prevented the federal Family and Medical Leave Act from applying to same-sex couples in Texas.

Because of the ruling, Texas was one of four states in the U.S. where FMLA benefits have been denied to gay couples involved in civil unions.

“That decision will almost certainly be reversed right away,” said David Coale, a partner at Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox. “State political leaders may try to fight it, but they are going to lose, and then they are going to have to pay a lot of money to lawyers for pursuing frivolous legal claims.”

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit involved federal employees in Texas, who were covered by an Obama executive order extending employment benefits to same-sex spouses. In the face of Obergfell v. Hodges, the injunction that was granted is clearly out of order. I presume a motion to lift the injunction will be filed shortly, and will be granted right away. Any other outcome is unfathomable.

Moving on, all the newly-married couples in Texas can now sign up for health insurance if they need to.

Same-sex couples who marry have had what the Affordable Care Act considers a “qualifying life event.” And that triggers a special 60-day enrollment period to purchase health insurance from Texas’ federally run, online marketplace, a group promoting enrollment said Tuesday.

Enroll America, a nonprofit supporting Obamacare, said in a release that under the health law, marriage is one of the unusual phenomena that allow consumers a mid-year bite at the apple. The others are having a baby, moving to a different coverage area, getting divorced and experiencing certain changes of income that would affect tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies.

“People don’t know that the special enrollment period exists,” Enroll America spokeswoman Annette Raveneau said in an interview.

[…]

Newly married same-sex couples and others with qualifying life events can sign up all by themselves, using HealthCare.gov.

Raveneau, though, strongly recommends that shoppers meet in person with a certified assistance counselor or Obamacare navigator. They can schedule appointments using Enroll America’s “Get Covered Connector.”

“The people who use an in-person assister, which are free, are twice as likely to finish the enrollment process and actually get a plan,” she said.

How many people might be able to do this? We can only guess, in part because the state has no plans to count how many same-sex couples get hitched.

Though Texas collects detailed data on marriages by county and age, getting better information on same-sex marriage rates in Texas could take years since the state has no plans to separately track those unions. Following Friday’s ruling, the Department of State Health Services released a new gender-neutral marriage application for counties to use. The application does not ask for the sex of either of the applicants.

“We are not specifically tracking those at this time,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the department. “The application asks for Applicant One and Applicant Two and currently does not ask for gender.”

States in which same-sex marriage was legal before Friday have taken different record-keeping approaches. Oregon, Vermont and Washington track marriage licenses specifically issued to same-sex couples. California and Florida simply track all marriages, and do not differentiate between same-sex and opposite-sex unions.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated in 2013 that there were 252,000 married same-sex couples in the country, but later said that was likely an overestimate, citing flawed data. A recent paper from a census researcher put the figure at closer to 170,000.

The patchwork of data collection means reliable numbers on how many same-sex couples are getting married in different states may not be available until the next census in 2020, said Drew DeSilver, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center who has researched the issue.

I guess I’m not too bothered by this, since there doesn’t seem to be a single standard practice nationwide. It would be nice to know, but given the way the updated form is worded, I understand the reasoning. I’m sure there will be a million ways to come up with reasonably accurate estimates – new Obamacare enrollments will be one data point – and we’ll have Census data soon enough.

Moving on to the benefits issue

And as we move on to other fights, the terrain changes.

RedEquality

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened the door for state agencies to withhold benefits from same-sex couples Friday, hours after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

In a letter released Friday afternoon, Abbott ordered heads of state agencies to prioritize religious freedom, writing that no adverse action should be taken against a state official “on account of the person’s act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by sincere religious belief.”

“This order applies to any agency decision, including but not limited to granting or denying benefits, managing agency employees, entering or enforcing agency contracts, licensing and permitting decisions, or enforcing state laws and regulations,” Abbott wrote.

In anticipation of this response, a lawsuit has already been filed for force the state to recognize the same-sex unions of its employees and grant them the same benefits. I have no idea what legal justification Abbott thinks he has for this, but we already knew he was a crappy lawyer.

The Trib makes it clear that this is little more than saber-rattling on Abbott’s part.

Public employers including Texas agencies, universities and schools may now be required to extend benefits to spouses of married gay employees in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Friday that marriages between same-sex couples are constitutional.

But when those benefits will be extended is unclear as state officials examine the high court’s ruling and consider new policies.

“At this point, all I can say is we’re aware of the ruling and we’re examining it,” said Catherine Terrell, director of governmental affairs for the state Employee Retirement System, which oversees retirement and health benefits for state employees and those of most public universities and community colleges.

A spokeswoman for the Teachers Retirement System of Texas, which serves public education employees, echoed that sentiment, saying it was also “analyzing” the ruling’s impact on the programs it administers.

The ruling is likely to have little impact on state employees’ retirement benefits, because employees can already assign any person as a beneficiary, Terrell said. But “the major benefit issue” could be with employees’ health insurance plans.

[…]

Legal experts agreed that when it comes to extending benefits for same-sex couples, the state is now bound by the Supreme Court ruling to recognize all marriages.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor and Texas Constitution expert at the University of Houston, said the state has no legal basis to exclude same-sex couples from the benefits it offers married couples.

“If you’re legally married by the law, no agency or government can restrict you,” Rottinghaus said. “Exactly how this is applied in Texas is going to be a bit shaky.”

But he added that extending benefits to same-sex couples is inevitable. “It’s not a question of when, but how,” Rottinghaus said.

That’s true of county clerks, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s a straight line to get there. There’s already been a lawsuit filed to push the issue, in anticipation of this reaction from Abbott. It would be nice to think that we could avoid doing this the hard way, but of course we won’t. We will get where we need to be, We’re just gonna be mulish about it.

The feral hogs of Montgomery County

Because three blog posts about feral hogs are better than two.

Feral hogs – which some find more pesky than mosquitoes and more invasive than fire ants – are alive and well in Montgomery County.

Officials in The Woodlands say that there have been no recent sightings of wild pigs in neighborhoods – but in a growing problem has been reported throughout the county.

“We have not been hearing anything about feral hogs for the better part of several years,” Chris Nunes, director of parks and recreation for the Township, said.

He said that the boars generally reside in larger spaces – closer to water sources like creeks.

“We know of them in natural preserves,” Nunes added. “When it’s dry, they come into neighborhoods looking for food.”

Recent rains have resulted in no sightings, he said.

Keith Crenshaw, with the Houston branch of Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Urban Wildlife Program, said swine in the city stay near drainage ditches and flood control corridors.

Crenshaw said Kingwood had an increase in sightings in October, after land was cleared and the way was opened for hogs to move into neighborhoods.

“The wildlife will disperse,” he said. “And hogs don’t have a major predator other than people.”

Still, Crenshaw maintains that wild pigs may live in suburban areas without humans knowing.

“It’s totally likely that people aren’t even aware they’re here,” he said.

[…]

As the county’s human population continues to grow and more land is developed, [Montgomery County extension agent for agriculture Michael] Heimer expects more hogs will move into neighborhoods.

For example, he said several homes will be constructed in what was formerly Camp Strake, a 2,000-acre property north of The Woodlands.

“When they start developing that, we’ll see a lot of wildlife displaced,” Heimer said.

In the meantime, he said it would help the extension office if county residents would report any hog sightings.

“A lot of this goes unrecorded,” he said. “Anything we can do to get information will help. It gives us a way to document what’s going on.”

We’re familiar with the feral hogs of Kingwood. Am I a bad person for admitting that the thought of feral hogs roaming the master-planned streets of Kingwood and The Woodlands makes me giggle? As for what the good people of The Woodlands can do about this menace, I recommend they start by downloading the Texas A&M feral hog app for helpful advice. Keeping the little buggers in line is everyone’s job.

Yes, but why is traffic so bad at these places?

Two things that aren’t mentioned in this story but need to be.

Two adjoining stretches of U.S. 59 in downtown and west Houston fared the worst regionally on an annual list of the 100-most congested freeways in the state, compiled by Texas Department of Transportation and Texas A&M Transportation Institute officials.

[David] Schrank, a co-author of the report, said changes to methodology led to some spikes in average congestion along certain routes. Areas with major freeway interchanges saw average congestion estimates increase, giving planners a fuller view of the gridlock afflicting most areas of the state.

The additional traffic is having a pronounced effect in certain areas, Schrank said: “These areas are teetering on really, really heavy congestion for long hours of the day.”

Houston’s two worst freeway segments are along U.S. 59. The stretch from Interstate 10 to Texas 288 ranks second-worst in the state, with an average of 743,006 hours of delay annually, per mile. The freeway from 288 to Loop 610 West ranks third-worst, with 730,655 hours of annual delay, per mile. Only a segment of Interstate 35 in downtown Austin fares worse.

Along both parts of U.S. 59, the new figures show a worsening pattern. Traffic on the eastern segment increased roughly 50 percent. Intense traffic at the interchanges with I-10 and Texas 288 was largely to blame, Schrank said.

“When you have a really, really bad quarter-mile or half-mile, it makes the whole area much worse,” he said.

Part of the problem is design and high demand for the freeway during many hours of the day, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“You clearly have as much traffic going north and eastbound on 59 in the afternoon as you do in the morning,” Emmett said, saying any remedy needs to consider the traffic flow.

That same problem causes backups on 288 northbound as well. Interchanges are a big part of the problem, no doubt. I-10 eastbound at I-45 South, where the one exit lane can be backed up to the Studemont exit or farther, is a classic example of this. But as I’ve noted before, the main issue with 59 northbound as you approach 288/45 is that it narrows down from five lanes to three at the downtown spur, then down to two lanes at the 288/45 turnoff. The volume of traffic that wants to continue north on 59 past these points is just too much for the available capacity. I hesitate to make absolute statements, but I don’t see how this can ever be resolved by adding more lane capacity, because there just isn’t the room for it. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away.

The other point is that one big reason why there’s so much demand for that limited amount of lane space is because we’ve spent the past 20 years building much more lane capacity from Loop 610 and/or Beltway 8 outward on all the major freeways. A lot more people now live out where those expanded freeways take them, and they’re all trying to fit into those squeezed spaces on their way to and from their homes. That’s not the only reason for this – as noted, the traffic problem exists well outside the rush hours these days – but the same principle is in play. There’s much more demand for these freeways outside these urban core congestion zones, and that demand puts extra pressure on the places that are least able to handle it.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: We’ve pretty much maxed out our ability to deal with traffic by throwing more lanes at it. Unless we start double-decking or building tunnels, what we’ve got most places is what we’re going to have. One thing we can do but have not done is provide viable alternatives to taking the freeways for the people who are mostly moving about in town. Taking the people who are making short trips out of the equation and you can free up some space for the long haul drivers who have no other alternative. It’s the same argument I make about urban core restaurants providing bike parking to help keep spaces available for the customers who have to drive to get there. That’s going to require a much bigger commitment to and investment in public transportation, and so far there isn’t much evidence that’s going to happen. If they really thought about it, the people who have to navigate these traffic disasters every day ought to be the biggest supporter of expanded mass transit precisely because it will help get the people who would have options other than driving off the road. Someday I hope that argument sinks in.

The hogs keep winning

Same old story.

More than two decades into Texas’ ever escalating war against feral hogs, the wild swine continue gaining ground while Texas and the state’s native wildlife, plants and ecosystems lose it.

Despite taking millions of casualties – an estimated 750,000-plus feral hogs have been killed each of the past few years in Texas – the non-native pigs have continued their economically and environmentally destructive march across the state, with an estimated 2.6 million of them spread across at least 240 of Texas’ 254 counties.

“It’s just getting worse and worse; no matter what we’ve tried, the hogs just overwhelm us,” said Stuart Marcus, manger of the 25,000-acre Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. “They certainly are having a negative impact on native wildlife and habitat – directly and indirectly.”

Texas holds, by some estimates, as many as 10 times the number of feral hogs it did barely three decades ago.

[…]

A research project by Rice and Texas A&M universities conducted in the Big Thicket of southeast Texas used fenced and unfenced plots of land to gauge impacts of feral hogs. The plots used by hogs saw plant diversity reduced, fewer forbs, fewer large-seed (mast producing) trees, loss of leaf-litter ground cover resulting in a reduction in the abundance of invertebrates and small vertebrates, and changes in soil chemistry that changed plant communities.

The research also indicated plots disturbed by feral hogs grew twice as many Chinese tallow trees as the hog-free areas. Tallow trees are one of the most problematic non-native, invasive plants threatening Texas, as the tallows grow in dense monocultures, shade out native trees and grasses, are of almost no value to wildlife, and are almost impossible to control.

Stuart Marcus witnesses this on the Trinity River refuge.

“I call feral hogs ‘walking tallow trees,’ ” he said. “They are just as bad as tallow trees, and wherever they root up the ground, tallow trees seem to sprout by the hundreds.”

Feral hogs’ rooting behavior causes severe damage to environmentally sensitive and hugely important areas along waterways, particularly in central, south and western Texas where such waterways are limited.

“They definitely impact plant communities and really do serious damage to riparian areas, especially the western half of the state,” Frels said.

[…]

For the past three years, research at the Kerr wildlife area has focused on sodium nitrite, a toxicant that has been used to great effect against feral hogs in Australia.

Sodium nitrite kills by disrupting blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain. Pigs are highly susceptible to sodium nitrite because, unlike humans and other mammals, they lack the ability to produce an enzyme that reverses the effects. A feral hog ingesting a lethal dose of sodium nitrite quickly becomes lethargic, then unconscious. Death occurs within 90 minutes.

Research indicates the poisoned pigs pose little or no threat to scavengers or predators.

Developing bait/sodium nitrite mixtures that feral hogs will eat and that deliver a lethal dose of the substance and a “delivery system” – a feeder – that feral hogs can access but can’t be used by deer, raccoons and other non-target wildlife are the focus of research at the Kerr.

“It’s showing some promise,” Frels said of sodium nitrite’s potential as another tool to use against feral hogs. “But there’s still a long way to go before it could become an option.”

If it does, it could help turn the tide in the battle against feral hogs. In Australia, use of sodium nitrite has reduced feral hog populations in large areas by as much as 89 percent.

That would be a game-changer, and we could sure use it. I just hope the hogs don’t develop an immunity to it, at least not for a long time. Good luck getting it developed.

It’s still OK to be gay at Texas A&M

It was touch and go for awhile there. Here’s the Dallas Voice from Friday:

Texas A&M Student Body President John L. Claybrook has vetoed an anti-gay bill passed by the Student Senate on Wednesday that would have allowed students to opt out of funding the campus GLBT Resource Center with their activity fees if they have religious objections. The GLBT Aggies group just posted the above image of Claybrook’s veto on Facebook.

The Eagle of Bryan-College Station reported this morning:

News this week that some student senators had targeted the center thrust the traditionally conservative university into the national spotlight, and Claybrook said it was time to “stop the bleeding.”

“The damage must stop today,” Claybrook wrote in a letter announcing his intention to veto. “Texas A&M students represent our core value of respect exceptionally and I’m very proud of the family at this university. Now, more than ever, is the time to show great resolve and come together, treating each other like the family that we are.”

The Student Senate would need a two-thirds majority to override Claybrook’s veto. The bill passed by a smaller margin, 35-28. Even if the veto is overridden and the bill becomes policy, it almost certainly would be struck down in court, The Eagle reports:

Ken Upton, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, said even if the bill were signed and adopted as university policy, it wouldn’t last long.

“The most likely result is that a court would step in and stop it before it even happened,” Upton said.

He said there was clear legal precedent on the issue as laid out in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, where students sued their university because they opposed multicultural, environmental and GLBT groups.

“This issue is pretty well settled,” Upton said.

If somehow the measure did work its way through the courts, he said, top university officials could be held liable.

“… The people with decision making authority who allowed it to happen could be held liable full money damages,” Upton said. “But it would probably be struck down so quickly that money damages wouldn’t be an issue.”

Claybrook’s veto marks the second victory in as many days over measures targeting campus LGBT resource centers in Texas. On Thursday night, under immense pressure from the LGBT community, state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, withdrew a budget amendment that would have prohibited universities from using state funds “to support, promote, or encourage any behavior that would lead to high risk behavior for AIDS, HIV, Hepatitis B, or any sexually transmitted disease.”

Here’s a copy of Claybrook’s letter, via Texas Politics, and here’s a detailed story from the Dallas Voice that gives a lot of the background on this. The story was national news on Friday, and though the matter is settled for now I have a suspicion the underlying issue won’t go away. The temptation to meddle in this fashion is very strong for some people, and people like Bill Zedler and Drew Springer never really go away. BOR has more.

Time for another report on how much traffic sucks

We love this sort of thing, don’t we?

Houston commuters continue to endure some of the worst traffic delays in the country, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Commission. Area drivers wasted more than two days a year, on average, in traffic congestion, costing them each $1,090 in lost time and fuel.

And it’s unlikely to get any better, researchers and public officials say.

“I think as rapidly as this area is growing, (the challenge) is just trying to stay where we are,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the traffic congestion.

Planned toll projects on Texas 290 and eventually Interstate 45 will help ease traffic, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes did in 2008, Emmett said.

With all due respect to Judge Emmett, these projects will help ease some traffic, for some people, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes have done. It will make traffic worse for some others. Anyone who has driven inside the loop on I-10 in recent years knows what I’m talking about. Traffic coming in on 290 is still going to dump onto 610 and I-10, and they’re not getting any more capacity. Traffic coming in on I-45 is still going to enter downtown streets and get stuck on the Pierce Elevated, and I’m sorry but no crazy downtown roundabout scheme is going to solve that.

Based on the mobility report, in 1982 drivers spent about 22 hours each year stuck in congestion, a figure that has increased almost every year since. Traffic congestion peaked in 2008 at 55 hours, the same year two carpool/toll lanes along I-10 opened between downtown and Katy. The lanes took five years to complete and cost $2.8 billion.

But some of the best ways to reduce congestion are less costly. As Houston drivers have acclimated to rush-hour traffic jams, they’ve become more adept at saving themselves time.

“People are adjusting when they leave,” [report co-author Tim]Lomax said, noting resources that provide real-time traffic information. As smartphones and computers become more common, and workdays come with greater flexibility for some people to work from home, commuters can adjust to less-stressful drive times.

Emphasis on the “some” in that statement. Those of us who have to drop off kids at school in the morning, for instance, don’t have a whole lot of flexibility.

Public transit can provide some relief, but with jobs in Houston divided among a dozen or so job areas, it’s hard for public transit to carry everyone where they need to go efficiently, Lomax said.

Public transportation doesn’t need to carry everyone everywhere, it just needs to be a viable alternative for enough people at least some of the time. The current light rail expansion will help some, and if we ever build the University Line and the Uptown Line (or a reasonable facsimile of it), that will help more. Better bus service will help, as will more park and ride service. Longer term, the best thing that can happen is a shift away from living a long distance from your job to living closer to it, close enough to make other options like walking, biking, and car sharing viable options. If we’re really lucky, that Chapter 42 update could help with that.

Anyway. A copy of the report with a few tidbits highlighted is here, or visit the TTI webpage for more.

Why not a university?

Tory Gattis has an interesting suggestion for that 136 acre tract of land east of downtown.

This parcel of land could be the last opportunity for Houston to add a major college campus to the city.  We should consider something similar to what NYC just did with Roosevelt Island, where after a long evaluation process they awarded it to Cornell for a technology campus.  That is likely to eventually be a huge economic development boon for New York.  Of course the City of Houston doesn’t own the land, but it could be a facilitator (along with the GHP) to open discussions with the landowner and various universities to explore interest.

There are a lot of potential options.

He lays out a number of possibilities, which I encourage you to examine. I have no idea how feasible any of this is, but it’s worth thinking about. Tory’s right that there may not be another opportunity for a university campus to be built inside the city limits. Such a development would also be a good fit for a streetcar extension when and if one gets built. I still lean towards something mixed use, but I could be persuaded otherwise. What do you think?

A dollar a tree

Replacing the trees lost in the Bastrop fires last summer is going to cost some money, but there’s now a foundation working on raising that money.

Flanked by containers bristling with pine tree seedlings, state and local officials on Tuesday announced a campaign to pay for an ambitious five-year plan to restore the Lost Pines after last year’s fires.

The Arbor Day Foundation has agreed to lead the fundraising effort and needs to raise about $4 million — or one dollar for every pine tree to be planted over the next five years.

The foundation said it has already received more than $600,000 in commitments from companies such as FedEx, Mary Kay and Nokia.

[…]

Nearly a year ago, the Labor Day fires burned more than 32,000 acres in Bastrop County and destroyed more than 1,700 homes and other structures, making it the most destructive fire in Texas history.

A hastily formed group of county, state and federal officials, dubbed the Lost Pines Recovery Team, immediately began working on a plan to restore the burned forest, but they hadn’t made much of a dent in raising the $17 million they had determined was needed for tree planting, erosion control, reseeding native grasses and clearing dead brush and other fuels.

The public-private partnership announced Tuesday puts the Arbor Day Foundation in charge of raising money, while the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas A&M Forest Service will handle planning, volunteers, tree selection and planting. Texas A&M University has pledged to send students to help plant this winter, Chancellor John Sharp said.

Go here to learn more about the Arbor Day Foundation, and go here to make a donation or volunteer your time to this effort. I wish them the best of luck with this project. The Arbor Day Foundation blog has more.

It was more than drought that killed the trees

So say the experts.

Don’t blame the drought for killing an estimated 506 million trees in Texas. At least, don’t blame it exclusively.

The drought is only part of the story of why trees are dying, according to a new report by the AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University.

In most cases, the report says, the trees that died in 2011 were already stressed from pre-existing factors such as overcrowding, growing on the wrong site, age, soil compaction, trenching or inappropriate use of herbicides.

“If not for these factors, a large proportion of the trees that died might have recovered from the drought,” according to the report by Dr. Eric Taylor, a forestry specialist with the extension service.

The 2011 drought “severely weakened mature trees, making them susceptible to opportunistic pathogens like hypoxylon canker and insects like pine bark engraver beetles,” Taylor said in the report.

The report helps explain to the public what experts see, said Jim Houser, a forest health coordinator with the Texas Forest Service.

“That’s true, we tend to simplistically (blame) the drought,” Houser said. “In actuality, it’s a variety of problems that tend to combine together to kill trees. Certainly, the drought is the main problem.”

You can read the report here. The point they’re making is that if the overall health of our trees had been better to begin with, we’d have lost fewer of them during the drought. The trees that did survive are likely to be weaker than before, so their health will need to be safeguarded as well.

Houser said Central Texans can still save their trees if they water.

“It’s very easy to say, ‘It doesn’t matter if my grass dies; I can replant,’ ” Houser said. Trees are another matter.

“They shouldn’t abandon their trees,” he said.

A good way to water your tree is to take one of those big plastic paint buckets, poke a hole or two near the bottom, put it next to your tree, and fill it with water from your garden hose. The bucket holds enough water for a good drink, and the holes allow the water to be released slowly enough to really soak in. That’s what we (and by “we” I mean “Tiffany”) did for our trees last year, anyway. Hope this helps.

Jose Luis Zelaya

Jose Luis Zelaya is running for student body president at Texas A&M. He’s also an “illegal immigrant”. Here’s his story.

Zelaya first started working in the streets in Honduras at age 7, washing car windows and begging on buses. His mother left for the U.S. when he was 13, unable to take the beatings from his father, he said. At 14, he set out to find his mother and his little sister in the U.S. The journey took 45 days and ended in a one-room apartment in Houston his mother shared with several other families.

“People told me I couldn’t graduate from high school, that I couldn’t go to college,” he said.

Zelaya earned a bachelor’s degree from A&M in December and led the invocation at the graduation ceremony. He aspires to teach, but can’t because of his immigration status. He enrolled in January as a graduate student at A&M seeking a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, specializing in English as a Second Language.

He ultimately did not win the election, but that’s not important. I’m just curious here. What exactly is the public policy rationale for kicking a guy like that out of the country, instead of helping him become a citizen and reaping the benefits of his talent and work ethic? I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have made my way from Honduras to the US by myself at the age of 14. Yeah, sure, he cut ahead of some people in line. I say that’s more a problem for us to fix than for him to be punished for, but whatever. Fine him some appropriate amount, make him do some community service (I’m going to step out on a limb here and guess that he’s already doing that), have him write 100 times “I will not cross international borders without having all my papers in order”, etc etc etc. But seriously, isn’t Jose Luis Zelaya the kind of person we want in this country?

From the “More things you need to be slightly paranoid about” department

Nothing like a new domain suffix to remind you of the potential for creative malfeasance.

The University of Kansas is buying up website names such as www.KUgirls.xxx and www.KUnurses.xxx. But not because it’s planning a Hot Babes of Kansas site or an X-rated gallery of the Nude Girls of the Land of Aaahs.

Instead, the university and countless other schools and businesses are rushing to prevent their good names from falling into the hands of the pornography industry. Over the past two months, they have snapped up tens of thousands of “.xxx” website names that could be exploited by the adult entertainment business.

“Down the road there’s no way we can predict what some unscrupulous entrepreneur might come up with,” said Paul Vander Tuig, trademark licensing director at the Lawrence, Kan., school.

The university spent nearly $3,000 in all. It plans to sit on the .xxx names and do nothing with them.

The brand-new .xxx suffix is an adults-only variation on .com. The .xxx name went on sale to the public for the first time this week, promoted as a way to enable porn sites to distinguish themselves and a means of making it easier for Internet filters to screen out things parents don’t want their children to see.

The Bryan-College Station Eagle notes that UT and A&M have also been taking this precaution. I guarantee you, it’s just a matter of time before this becomes an unwanted news story for a politician. Hijacking a rival’s domain name is a sport of longstanding, and even today campaigns that should have had more on the ball get caught flatfooted – go click on rickperry.com for an example of what I mean. It won’t just be politicians who get snared by this, but when one does it will result in some embarrassing news cycles. If you’re a domain owner, now is a good time to see if your “.xxx” counterpart is still available or if it’s already too late.

You may now be wondering if I have done this for myself. I have checked and verified that as of this moment, offthekuff.xxx is unclaimed. Turns out that the cost of this particular insurance policy – the protection money, if you will – is $100 a year. That’s a tad bit more than I want to spend, so I’m taking my chances until the registry fee becomes a bit less extortionate. I think I can afford that risk as a non-candidate, but those of you who aren’t ought to look into it.

From the “And I wish for a pony, too” department

Hey, you know that annual UT-A&M game that’s not going to be played again any time in the near future? Let’s bring it to Reliant Stadium!

Why not have Texas and Texas A&M meet at Reliant Stadium every Thanksgiving? It would be a bigger draw than the bowl game played here each December. While many of the fans would be local alumni from both schools, a good number would travel to Houston for the big game. Depending on how the ticket draw is managed by the schools, one plausible scenario could have the schools’ top athletic donors, along with the students of both universities, receiving top priority for tickets, similar to how the Texas-Oklahoma game operates. This almost certainly would mean a huge chunk of the fans would come from outside the Houston area.

Think of the added revenue for hotels, restaurants and retailers around the week of the game. And the national television coverage wouldn’t hurt, either. The eyes of Texas, indeed America, would be ours for three-plus hours. While New York City has the nation’s attention every year with its famous Thanksgiving parade, there’s no reason Houston couldn’t capitalize on the football passions of Longhorns and Aggies. We could revitalize a tradition, and have an annual national television audience all to ourselves.

I view this as an almost-bowl game for our city, with each school’s band taking part in the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and perhaps even the Uptown holiday celebration. (Are you paying attention, area merchants?) The upside is huge, and has many potential local tie-ins.

Yes, I agree that if UT ever decides that it wants to play A&M in football again that it would be a boon for the city of Houston if you could convince them to play it here. Why they would want to give up a home game every other year, and what benefit they would derive from that arrangement, is apparently left as an exercise for the reader. But hey, wishes are free, so knock yourself out. I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t mark any dates on my calendar just yet.

Shunning A&M

It’s not just the UT-A&M football game that’s on the endangered list.

The SEC-bound Aggies have said they’d love to keep playing UT as a non-conference foe, but Longhorns athletic director DeLoss Dodds has said the school’s football schedule is full at least through 2018. That isn’t the case for all sports, but so far A&M has come up dry in scheduling future contests of any sort with UT.

“There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much interest from the other side,” A&M athletic director Bill Byrne said Monday.

[…]

Byrne has instructed his coaches to contact their UT counterparts about scheduling future non-conference games – with no luck to date.

“I reached out about four weeks ago to Texas and emailed and said we’d love to keep the series going,” A&M soccer coach G. Guerrieri said. “I haven’t heard back.”

A&M baseball coach Rob Childress said he and UT counterpart Augie Garrido have yet to discuss whether to continue playing as non-conference foes.

I’d speculated about this before, and I can’t say I’m surprised to see UT give A&M a cold shoulder. There’s no real incentive for them to do otherwise. The question now is whether any other Texas-based school will follow the Longhorns’ lead. At least one so far seems to be doing so.

As for the Aggies perhaps playing another soon-to-be former Big 12 mate in Baylor, Bears athletic director Ian McCaw said via email Monday, “At this time, our future non-conference football schedules are filled through 2020. With regard to scheduling Texas A&M in other sports, it will be considered on a sport-by-sport basis.”

Anyone know what the status of future games between A&M and Texas Tech is? How about TCU, SMU, and UH? Rice has played A&M fairly regularly in baseball lately, and occasionally in basketball, but has not played them in football since the demise of the SWC. I don’t expect any changes there. Looks to me like the Aggies will be racking up the frequent flyer miles in the coming years.

RIP, UT-A&M

Tradition, schmadition.

This Thanksgiving one of college football’s oldest and most storied rivalries will be put on indefinite hold when Texas and Texas A&M meet for the last time as Big 12 foes.

The Aggies wanted to continue the series when they left for the Southeastern Conference in July, but the Longhorns told the Aggies that their non-conference schedule is full through 2018.

[…]

Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin, who led the charge for the Aggies to move to the SEC, has been vocal about his desire to continue playing Texas throughout the conference realignment process.

“We’re able to accommodate them anytime they want to make that happen,” he said of the rivalry. “It’s their choice, obviously, if they don’t want to do that, and I have to respect that choice, but it will be a loss to both of us and the state of Texas.”

Loftin pointed out that most states have key instate rivalry games that take place each season despite conference boundaries.

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds emailed Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne late last week to tell him the Longhorns couldn’t fit A&M into their schedule through 2018.

“What we have right now is a full schedule, but if any future options are available, the decision will not be made by just one person,” Dodds said in a statement.

Loftin hopes they can renew the rivalry when Texas has room on its schedule.

“It’s open at any time,” Loftin said. “There’s no doubt in our minds to accommodate this kind of game at any time now or in the future.”

My sense, as someone who is neither a Longhorn nor and Aggie and who doesn’t really care one way or the other about this is that A&M is more interested in continuing this rivalry than UT is. From A&M’s perspective, their income will increase in the SEC, but so will their travel costs. Being able to play a few non-conference games in any sport in Texas will ease that a bit. I’ve mentioned before that if UT wanted to be a bit vindictive towards the Aggies, they’d refuse to play them at all, and would encourage other Texas schools to do the same. (Kim Mulkey, for one, does not need to be convinced of this.) The Horns can always offer games against themselves, with perhaps some exposure on the Longhorn Network (to the six homes that receive it, anyway) as incentive. I’m just spinning a scenario here, so don’t take any of this too seriously, but I will be interested to see what A&M’s nonconference schedule in men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, and volleyball look like next year and in 2013.