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February 22nd, 2006:

TxDOT responds to evacuation task force report

In response to the release of the report by the Governor’s task force on hurricane evacuations, TxDOT says it’s already doing a lot of the things it’s been called upon to do.

Janelle Gbur, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Houston district, said construction is under way to remove the bottleneck on I-45 North (the North Freeway) where it narrows from four lanes in each direction to two at FM 1488 near The Woodlands. During the Hurricane Rita evacuation in September, this chokepoint brought traffic to a standstill for miles.

Gbur said the highway is scheduled to become a continuous four-lane road all the way to Conroe in 2008, but she noted that “we’re just moving the jam farther north” unless the number of evacuees can be reduced.

Planners also need to educate people not to hit the road until they really need to, she said.

“A key point here is the public awareness,” added TxDOT spokesman Randall Dillard in Austin.

As we discussed in the previous post, I think this is necessary, but not sufficient. Some number of people are going to respond to their own risk assessments no matter what the official proclamations are. I can’t say that I won’t be among those people, at least as long as I’ve got a small child in the house.

Most of this story is about various chokepoints – on-ramps, highway intersections and junctions, etc – that caused major problems during the Rita evacuation. Improvements and widenings can help in some cases, but as Gbur is honest enough to admit, you can’t fix the I-45 logjam by adding lanes unless you do so for the entire length of the road. That’s just not economically feasible, and would for the most part be a waste of resources.

Dillard said TxDOT and DPS will have a contraflow plan drawn up by the start of hurricane season June 1.

As a starting point, they can use the hastily devised measures set up during Hurricane Rita.

Improvements being considered include remote-controlled gates on freeway entrance and exit ramps, Gbur said.

She said a safety fence being installed on nearly 100 miles of the I-10 median between Houston and San Antonio will need escape hatches where drivers and emergency vehicles can cross over for emergencies.

And here we come back to the issues of expense and manpower. That’s not a criticism – I think these ideas are fine – just an observation that we shouldn’t expect a full solution to be ready by June 1. This is going to take time and a commitment to see it all the way through.

The full report is here, in its 4 MB PDF glory. I’ll try to read it when I can. Feel free to beat me to it and comment on any aspect of it here.

The mysterious budget

The more we learn about what happened with those unauthorized bonuses to staffers in the Mayor Pro Tem’s office, the less we seem to know about how it all happened.

The city office where four employees received unauthorized bonuses saw a 25 percent increase in its budget this fiscal year — an appropriation that city officials haven’t fully detailed.

The glare of publicity about the $130,000 incentive payments to workers in the Office of Mayor Pro Tem has drawn attention to the budget, which was included in a larger pool set aside for the 14 City Council members.

The City Council approved an increase from $260,000 to $326,000 for the pro tem office. And that was only half of the $122,000 increase the office requested.

Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, who as mayor pro tem oversees the office, and top members of Mayor Bill White’s administration, which produced the council budgets, didn’t respond in detail to repeated inquiries about the proposed and actual increases.

“The justification cited was increased costs of services and supplies,” said Frank Michel, White’s spokesman. “We don’t have any written documentation.”

Alvarado, whose district office is separate from that of the pro tem, said the extra money was a “restoration” to levels in previous administrations. The pro tem budget remained $260,000 during the past three years, but was more than $300,000 in the past, she said.

She said the increase this year was requested by her mayor pro tem office manager, Rosita Hernandez, one of four employees who received bonuses city officials say were unauthorized. Hernandez’s $47,500 in 2005 bonuses boosted her total pay to $125,500, among the highest in city government.

“I’m looking for something in writing that justifies the restoration of funds,” Alvarado said. “I wish I had access to those documents.”

According to the story, the Houston Police Office of Inspector General and Houston’s Finance and Administration Director Judy Gray Johnson are the ones with the documents, and they aren’t talking. Which is fine and how it should be in an ongoing investigation. Once they’re done, I imagine the District Attorney’s office will get involved.

The good news, as far as it goes, is that this is not the kind of malfeasance that enhances one group’s political power at the expense of another, so when the facts are out and it’s time for the Council to do something about it, whatever solutions get proposed will most likely run into little organized resistance. In other words, nothing like what happens to reform measures, even ones with a majority of the membership as sponsors, in the Texas Legislature. Along those lines, Stace has some suggestions for how to keep this from happening again.

Getting back to the story, Councilmember Alvarado would do well to make like the HPOIG and AD Johnson for a little while:

Alvarado, who has said she can’t recall specific details about the increase, said Tuesday she was “frustrated” by the lack of information.

She also was concerned about whether media coverage of such questions might unfairly taint her.

“It’s my office. It’s my name,” she said. “I don’t know why this $50,000, or $60,000, is such a big issue.”

With all due respect, your office and your name are your problems right now. What matter is figuring out what happened here, and taking the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again. You may or may not come out of this looking good, and how that comes down may or may not be within your control. Them’s the breaks.

Also not looking so good:

When asked about the budget, city officials referred to a June presentation to the council’s Fiscal Affairs Committee.

The short session included a broad description of the overall City Council budget, with only vague details about the pro tem office. And council members asked few questions.

“I have to tell you, I was stunned that the pro tem office had such a substantial raise this year,” Councilwoman Pam Holm said Tuesday, noting that she didn’t notice it in the hustle of last year’s budget process.

Holm said council members should be accountable for all lines in the budget and suggested a study of whether the pro tem budget is too high.

Did you register your stunned-ness for the record when you voted on last year’s budget, or are you just retroactively stunned now? Because the latter isn’t helping.

In one sense, Alvarado is right: $130K out of a $3.2 billion budget is 0.004%. And so Holm is also right, in that every Council member should be accountable for each line item. Like I said, once we have all the facts, passing the reforms should be easy enough to do.

UPDATE: Alvarado apologizes to her Council colleagues for the mess.

“I would never do anything to jeopardize the integrity of the position or to compromise the essential services the office provides,” she said. “I was shocked to learn of payroll irregularities.”

[…]

“I have been astonished and disappointed to discover how easy it was for someone to forge my initials and steal both taxpayer dollars and my personal reputation at the same time,” she said.

That’s a better response. Now let’s stay focused on fixing the problem.

Elyse Lanier, Port Authority commissioner

Umm, okay.

Elyse Lanier, the city’s former first lady and an unabashed booster of Houston, was appointed today as a commissioner on the Port Authority of Houston.

Lanier replaces Cheryl Thompson-Draper, who resigned last month after being accused of uttering a racial slur while on port business in Shanghai last year. Thompson-Draper has denied making the slur.

Harris County Commissioners Court appointed Lanier on a unanimous vote. But it came after County Judge Robert Eckels made a motion to appoint Leroy Hermes, a local architect and chair of the University of Houston board of Regents. That motion failed.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia sponsored Lanier’s nomination to the seven-member commission.

“She brings a wealth of experience in representing our area,”Garcia said. “When she was first lady of the city for six years, she met people from all over the world.”

Well, if they need a little redecorating, I’d certainly agree that Elyse Lanier is their woman. Houstonist has the background info for you kids who don’t remember Mayorbob and Elyse. Beyond that, I got nothin’.

Point of curiosity: Is it, like, a normal thing for one of Judge Eckels’ motions to fail like that? And did it fail because no one seconded it (which would be really weird) or just because he got outvoted? Maybe I’m making something out of nothing, but that strikes me as odd.

Go local with PLAN

Via Kevin Drum, progressives now have a new resource for helping good bills get through state legislatures. It’s called the Progressive Legislative Action Network, and it was inspired by a conservative outfit called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). You can read the story of its genesis here, or just go check out the site and its blog and see how you can get involved. I like the look of it and hope it gets some traction.

On a related note, Kos recently wrote about focusing more on local races, a thought that was expanded on here and here. Gotta win those legislative races before you can get anything done there, after all.

We’ll always have Shipley’s

As a regular eater of their product, I meant to link to this story about Shipley’s Donuts’ 70th anniversary earlier, but fortunately Lair and Houstonist were on task. Don’t really have much to add to it other than of late I’ve started noticing the familiar red-striped boxes at work again. I guess when all else fails, you return to your roots.

Sosa out, Bonds going

So it looks like Sammy Sosa will be retiring, now that he rejected the Nationals’ lowball contract offer. Sosa’s production fell off a cliff last season, so perhaps this was a propitious time for him to hang ’em up. Unfortunately for him, his public image and relationship with the press has also declined dramatically of late. Jay Jaffe takes a look and rightly concludes that Sammy is getting shafted. Check it out.

Meanwhile, Barry Bonds says this will be his last season.

“I’m not playing baseball anymore after this,” Bonds was quoted by USA Today in a story posted on its Web site Sunday. “The game (isn’t) fun anymore. … I want to play this year out, hopefully win, and once the season is over, go home and be with my family. Maybe then everybody can just forget about me.

“Records aren’t a big thing to me. It’s a great honor to pass Ruth, but it means more to baseball than it does to me.”

Looks like Bonds has changed his tune a bit regarding his place in baseball’s record books versus The Babe’s. Fine by me. I’m not a Barry-hater, but it’ll also be fine by me if he’s still in Hank Aaron’s rearview mirror when he finishes up. Somehow, that would just be right.