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June 28th, 2005:

WiFi happenings

Dwight reports on the city’s downtown WiFi-enabled parking meters. That may sound silly, but there’s a purpose for it – the wireless networking will allow the meters to accept and verify credit cards for payment. My main reason for parking downtown these days is Comets games at the Toyota Center. The options I currently have are paying cash for an overpriced lot, or carrying a pile of coins for the long-term meters. Thankfully, at the last game I attended, my friend Andrea had $1.50 in quarters on her. I’d just as soon whip out the plastic, since I’m much too likely to be without the needed currency.

There’s a potential beneficial side effect to this, too:

If the city decides to open up the parking-meter network, by fall, downtown could be a big WiFi hot spot.

There are still plenty of details to be worked out, including how and whether WiFi users would pay for access.

[Richard Lewis, Houston’s chief technology officer] said using this system to spread public WiFi throughout the city would be tricky, as there aren’t parking meters all over town.

Lewis said the city’s been “going to school on this technology for a year and a half,” and there’s been a benefit to the delay. The costs to create a downtown hot spot have dropped dramatically — from an initial estimate of $1 million to $250,000.

And there’s good news on the municipal WiFi front, as a bipartisan bill to protect the rights of municipalities to offer the service to its citizens has been introduced in the Senate. Save Muni Wireless has the scoop.

Finally, though Governor Perry has said he will not add anything to the special session agenda until such time as a school finance deal is worked out, both chambers are holding hearings on various things telecom.

On Monday, witnesses packed a Senate committee hearing on legislation that would affect residential phone rates and the ability of phone companies to get into the television business.

Senate Bill 21 would lift state controls on residential phone rates in Texas cities larger than 30,000 people, starting in January.

SBC Communications Inc. would have to cut the rates it charges rivals for access to its network, a significant source of revenue. SBC and other dominant phone companies also would have to offer the same prices to everyone in those cities, except for six-month promotional deals.

That prompted the San Antonio-based phone giant to testify against the proposal, an unusual move for the company, which normally criticizes legislation in private.

“If you are deregulated, you have more flexibility than you do today,” SBC lawyer Tim Leahy testified before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. However, “this (proposal) goes in the opposite direction.”

The measure also would authorize the Public Utility Commission of Texas to study the $640 million Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes phone service in rural areas, and to propose changes for the next regular legislative session. SBC and Verizon Communications Inc. get more than half of their subsidies from the fund.

The proposal also would deputize the PUC as the agency in charge of issuing a new statewide franchise for video services. It would require SBC and Verizon to match the level of in-kind services, such as public access channels, which are standard in cable franchise contracts with Texas cities.

For now, the testimony is academic; Gov. Rick Perry called the special session to deal only with school finance. The governor has said he would add other items only if a deal is reached on how the state pays for schools.

In anticipation of that happening, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, introduced SB 21 and is going ahead with hearings.

On Monday, Fraser rejected SBC’s suggestion to diminish the PUC’s role in revamping the Universal Service Fund.

“May I remind you SBC hired 200 lobbyists to try to impact the process,” Fraser said. “If there is not a hammer in place of the USF, they will hire another 200 next session and kill any legislation there will be.”

That USF is quite the cash cow for the telcos.

Fraser’s counterpart, Rep. Phil King, will be doing similar things in the House to try to resurrect his godawful telecom bill from the regular session. Apparently, he hasn’t read the letter he received from his hometown mayor on the subject.

Eminent domain battle in Freeport

One of the things I missed last week while gadding about in Colorado was how the Kelo decision affects plans in Freeport to build a marina on the Old Brazos River.

“This is the last little piece of the puzzle to put the project together,” Freeport Mayor Jim Phillips said of the project designed to inject new life in the Brazoria County city’s depressed downtown area.

Over the years, Freeport’s lack of commercial and retail businesses has meant many of its 13,500 residents travel to neighboring Lake Jackson, which started as a planned community in 1943, to spend money. But the city is hopeful the marina will spawn new economic growth.

“This will be the engine that will drive redevelopment in the city,” City Manager Ron Bottoms said.

Lee Cameron, director of the city’s Economic Development Corp., said the marina is expected to attract $60 million worth of hotels, restaurants and retail establishments to the city’s downtown area and create 150 to 250 jobs. He said three hotels, two of which have “high interest,” have contacted the city about building near the marina.

“It’s all dependent on the marina,” Cameron said. “Without the marina, (the hotels) aren’t interested. With the marina, (the hotels) think it’s a home run.”

Well, maybe. I confess, I’m not really familiar with Freeport. I’ve no idea if building all this stuff will revitalize the area or not. I can’t offhand think of anything touristy in Freeport – well, okay, maybe there’s one thing. I do know that what Loren Steffy says on the subject makes a lot of sense to me.

Therein lies the flawed logic that too often creeps into economic development programs: Success is assumed. Build the marina and the hotels will be a “home run.”

It ignores questions developers don’t ask, but cities should. What if they strike out? What if, even with a marina, no one stays at the hotels? How long will the hotels stay in business if occupancy rates trail their forecasts?

Is a shuttered hotel development preferable to a waterfront of small, if aesthetically unappealing, businesses?

I’m not predicting failure for the Freeport development. But developers by their nature are optimistic. Every project will succeed until it doesn’t.

Local opponents of the Freeport land grab have a couple of websites up which document their grievances. Banjo has a more nuanced take on the subject. My sympathies lie with the opposition, but I admit it’s possible that I might get swept up in the “build it and they will come” optimism if I lived in Freeport.

I also admit that I’m a bit leery of calls to amend the state constitution to limit eminent domain powers.

Rep. Frank Corte Jr., R-San Antonio, said he would seek “to defend the rights of property owners in Texas” by proposing a state constitutional amendment limiting local powers of eminent domain, or condemnation.

[…]

The [Kelo] opinion said states concerned about excessive use of condemnation were free to pass laws restricting it, and Corte said he intended to do just that.

Corte said he would ask Gov. Rick Perry to add the condemnation issue to the agenda of the special legislative session now under way so that the proposed constitutional amendment could appear on the November ballot.

Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said the governor would consider requests to add items to the agenda, but probably not until legislators resolve the school finance issue. She said Perry supports property rights and was concerned about the Supreme Court ruling.

Corte said in a news release that his proposed amendment would “limit a local governmental entity’s power of eminent domain, preventing them from bulldozing residences in favor of private developers.”

If Corte’s amendment is limited to restricting eminent domain for private development, then I’d favor it, but he’s not a legislator whose motives I trust, so I’ll wait and see what he produces before I make any judgment. I do support the concept of eminent domain, so I don’t want to see it pushed back beyond the Kelo boundary.

(Chron story links via blogHOUSTON, Freeport links and impetus for this post via ttyler5.)

Mediation in Midlothian

I’ve posted a couple of updates recently on the situation in Midlothian, where residents are trying to prevent cement maker TXI from circumventing environmental regulations. Yesterday I got an email from Julie, my regular Midlothian correspondent, who sent me a link to this DMN story from June 7, which says that the residents of Midlothian are now in mediation with TXI over this issue. There’s supposed to be a ruling soon, so maybe, just maybe, the folks up there can get some relief. I’ll try to keep an eye out for it.

In the meantime, a subsequent DMN editorial asks why this is a debatable point at all.

Under EPA rules, the company’s only justification – that the controls are too costly – is no justification at all. Because the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area fails to meet federal standards for the deadly pollutant ozone, cost is not a factor the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality can consider when determining how much pollution each industry is allowed to emit.

Things would have been different for TXI if the EPA had opted last year to exclude Ellis County from the D-FW ozone “nonattainment” area. (It didn’t.) Or if TCEQ had granted the company’s request before last June 15, when the area’s new boundaries took effect. But on that day, TXI’s request became invalid.

“If this permit is not issued prior to June 15, 2004, the facility must withdraw its [pending] application and submit an application … subject to … more stringent permit requirements,” an EPA official wrote in May 2004. Nevertheless, TCEQ has allowed TXI to proceed as though the deadline had not passed.

Never underestimate the power of Smokey Joe.

At least elsewhere in Texas, there’s some moderately good news for those of us who prefer to breath real air.

Texas will stop evaluating the public health risk of toxic air pollution using 30-year-old guidelines long criticized for being more lenient than other states’ and based on questionable science, according to a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality proposal.

Instead, the state plans to use more scientifically valid, and in some cases more stringent, federal risk levels to analyze the health and environmental hazards of the air pollution data collected at monitors across Texas.

The TCEQ also will no longer base its guidelines on standards used to protect industrial workers, a practice that has been criticized by some toxicologists and environmental groups as outdated and scientifically inappropriate.

The changes will be the most significant made to Texas Effects Screening Levels — guidelines to assess air pollution’s effects on people, plants and odors — since the levels were first drafted in the 1970s.

“It’s a total departure” from what we’ve been doing, said Michael Honeycutt, manager of the TCEQ’s Toxicology Section, which began the review in October 2003.

This update isn’t perfect – there’s still controversy over risk levels – but it’s way better than what we had before. Kudos to the TCEQ for taking a step in the right direction.

Your liberal media at work

From the story on Kay Bailey Hutchison’s official announcement that she’s running for reelection to the Senate:

No prominent candidates have announced plans to challenge Hutchison.

How nice of the reporter to decide for us who is a “real” candidate and who isn’t. And how nice of the Chronicle, who outsourced this task to the Associated Press, to leave that bit of editorializing in place despite the fact that Hutchison’s announced opponent, who’s been on the campaign trail for a year now, lives right here in Houston. Hey, everyone’s gonna vote for that polite moderate KBH anyway, so what does it matter, right?

We’ll tell you what you can do with your money

It’s bad enough that Congress has held hearings into the vitally important issue of steroids in baseball. Now they want to have a say in who does or does not get to own a piece of a baseball team. Does this really need to be politicized? If nobody cares about owners who make big contributions to Republicans, can we please not care about a potential owner who makes big contributions to the Democrats? Sheesh.