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December 6th, 2007:

The Hardy Toll Road extension

This is a long time in coming.

The Houston City Council on Wednesday paved the way for a long-awaited project to extend the Hardy Toll Road the final four miles to downtown from the North Loop.

Without discussion, the panel approved an agreement with Harris County, which will build and pay for the road, allowing it to close certain public streets just north of downtown and west of U.S. 59 to build the extension.

Construction of the $200 million project is scheduled to begin in August 2009 and be completed by the end of 2011. An estimated 32,000 vehicles are expected to use the extension daily.

“It will help us tie our central business district closer to our largest airport and significantly reduce the trip time for people coming in from the airport,” Mayor Bill White said.

The project also will spur economic development in the north part of downtown where traffic exits the road, he said.

County officials said they were able to minimize the number of homes and businesses that had to be razed or moved by configuring the toll road to follow a Union Pacific track and its adjoining land for much of the way into downtown.

But the county could not move forward with the project until the city agreed to close as many as five streets that Union Pacific’s new track will cross.

[…]

The Hardy extension is one of the projects that The Woodlands agreed to help fund as part of a regional participation agreement with Houston. In October, city officials agreed to release the master-planned community from its future boundaries for annexation in exchange for money to fund projects, including regional park and transportation improvements — that benefit both communities.

The community has until November to make an initial payment of $16 million, of which $5 million is dedicated to the Hardy Toll Road.

Officials have envisioned extending the Hardy Toll Road to downtown since it opened.

Vehicles headed downtown will be able to exit onto U.S. 59 east of downtown, and then take the Hamilton exit into downtown, said Mike Perez, who is heading the project for the toll road authority.

Another exit will be built eventually, going along the Elysian Viaduct — which is to be rebuilt — and connecting to La Branch or another street.

Here’s a map of the extension. I’m a little curious as to why it’s connecting to 59 south of I-10, but not to I-10 itself. You’d think the ideal would be to do both. I suppose there’s a logistical reason why not – can anyone comment on that?

Regardless, this makes all kinds of sense, and ought to help relieve some of the pressure on I-45 north of downtown as well. One thing I’m also curious about is the lack of any mention of feedback from the Near Northside neighborhood, which has had issues about proposals to widen the Elysian Viaduct – see here, here, and here (scroll down to Elysian Viaduct Update) for background. There were public meetings held on this back in 2004 and 2005, but for the life of me I couldn’t find any newer information than that. I therefore have no idea if the residents’ concerns had already been adequately addressed, or if they gave up after being steamrolled by the process. Anybody out there know what the deal is with that?

More on HOPE and the HEC

You may recall the kerfuffle between the City of Houston and HOPE over the latter’s radio ads concerning high school students answering 911 calls. The city had initially denied the claims made by HOPE and tried to quash the ads. LM Sixel picks up the story from there.

After months of negotiations over vacation time, grievance procedures and other matters, several sticking points remain unresolved. For instance, the city wants to reserve more than half of the money for merit increases — like most private sector workers get — while the union wants a much higher proportion distributed in across-the-board raises.

Some of the problems facing the city stem from not paying its employees enough money, said Jere Talley, a member of the negotiating team for HOPE. Low wages create turnover that puts additional pressure on remaining workers, she said.

“I want to stress the point that it’s truly about quality public service and what’s on the table now won’t remedy that,” said Talley, a city employee.

The union is hoping to gain traction through radio ads that claim high school student interns are answering 911 emergency calls.

City spokesman Frank Michel said high school students are not permitted to field emergency calls and he criticized the HOPE radio ads that featured a retired supervisor claiming that he supervised the students as they answered the phones. However Michel concedes that after the supervisor retired this summer, another supervisor improperly allowed four high school students to answer emergency calls, a practice since stopped.

“The ads just aren’t true and I can only guess they’re desperate and they’re misleading people in an effort to put public pressure on the mayor and City Council to come to some agreement,” said Michel. The mayor is working on his own radio ad to answer some of the union’s criticisms.

So it turns out that the union was right about the use of high school kids, and the city got caught with its pants down. Isiah Carey hits on this as well.

It was Monday when David Cutler (pictured above), the director of HEC, maintained high school students never answered 911 emergency calls as part of a co-op program. This came after HOPE, the city workers union, ran radio ads making the claims. A former 911 center supervisor is heard in the commercial saying he supervised high school students who answered 911 calls. Those life or death type emergency calls. But Cutler in a video taped interview said it never happened. He said the union was misleading the public. Today, we find out Cutler was wrong. There were at least 4 teenagers – high school students – answering 911 emergency calls according to the Mayor’s office. I asked spokesperson Joe Laud how could the head of HEC not know who’s answering 911 calls. Laud didn’t have an answer but told me they only learned of the student’s actions after the tv interview with the Insite. The question I had for Laud is how could the director of HEC not know what was going on at the facility the Mayor entrusted him to oversee? Just a question the Insite would like answered…

Never a good time for a government agency when it gets the “how could you not have known about this?” question. But really, that’s just a gotcha, and it’s not the main point. The key is what Jere Talley said about low wages and high turnover. Speaking as someone who worked for years in the customer service business, you just can’t be training new people all the time. It’s inefficient, it puts a huge stress on your best people since they’re picking up the slack for the newbies as well as answering their questions, and it leads to a high rate of error. That’s a bad thing for a computer help desk, but it’s quite a bit worse for an emergency call center.

One more thing, from the Sixel piece:

The challenge of public sector unions that deliver key services is not to alienate the public, said Mark Sherman, an arbitrator and mediator and associate professor of management at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. It’s an automatic public relations problem if they stop collecting the garbage or responding to citizens’ problems.

Those unions can’t afford to lose popular support, he said.

“If you do, you just play in the hands of the (city),” said Sherman. “Then they can drop the boom on you — and they can use public disenchantment as the reason.”

Seems to me that public disenchantment works both ways. How many city officials do you think have ever been voted out of office for not getting the trash picked up on time? More than a few, I’d venture to guess. The city has the deeper pockets here – speaking of which, the Mayor’s response ad is here (MP3) – and can probably win the PR battle if it needs to. But I don’t see it as necessarily zero sum, and I don’t think it’s a sure thing for the city if it comes down to some kind of service disruption. The buck stops with the people in charge, after all.

FTA says Metro screwed up

Responding to the earlier story about its letter demanding more data from Metro before matching funds can be made available for the North and Southeast lines, the Federal Transit Administration says METRO knew this was coming and shouldn’t act so surprised by it.

Before Metro’s board voted in October to rework its plan for new rapid transit lines, the agency’s president was warned by the Federal Transit Administration that such a change could result in delays and force a return to the drawing board, federal officials said Wednesday.

That message was repeated with far greater detail when Metropolitan Transit Authority President Frank Wilson met with FTA officials in Washington on Nov. 14, FTA Associate Administrator Wes Irvin said.

“There was no blindsiding from this agency to Houston Metro,” Irvin said.

[…]

If Metro can satisfy the FTA’s requests within two months, which Wilson called “the most optimistic” scenario, he said there would be no construction delays. Metro has projected it would complete all five lines by late 2012.

“If we have to take the more draconian read on how much work we’ve got to do … we are probably looking at a year — and that will definitely delay our construction.”

Irvin estimated the paperwork could be completed within six months if Metro moves quickly to provide the necessary data and “if they start working together with us and Frank starts being forthright with information.”

The FTA insists its deputy administrator, Sherry Little, clearly outlined to Wilson during a phone call several days before the board’s October vote that a decision to change its transit plan could force new engineering and environmental studies as well as affect Houston’s selection as one of three cities in a federal pilot program.

“During that conversation, our deputy administrator was very clear that we don’t want to influence this decision one way or the other … but now there will be probably some real impact to our processes,” Irvin said.

[…]

Though Wilson suggested that the agencies’ relationship appeared to be deteriorating, Irvin stressed FTA would work closely with Metro:

“What I want to make very clear … is we are an advocate for this project but we have to do our due diligence and play our processes out to the point we are being fair and consistent around the country.”

Clearly, there was a failure to communicate in here. It’s entirely plausible that METRO could have downplayed what they were told, or that they somehow didn’t think some of this would apply to them. Christof’s comment from before, that some members of the engineering staff were expecting this, now cuts against what Wilson said in yesterday’s article – if the engineers knew what to expect, he should have as well. It would be nice to know what METRO’s response is to this parry, but whatever it is, the bottom line appears to be that construction will start a few months later than we first thought, perhaps pushing the groundbreaking to 2009. To say the least, that’s annoying as hell. I still applaud the decision to go back to all light rail as was originally promised, and I’d have still advocated that had I known in October what the effect of that change would likely be. I’d guess that most people who want these lines built as light rail would feel the same way. But it would have been nice to have had the full story at the time. If what the FTA is saying is correct, then shame on METRO. Its constituents deserve better than that from them.

One other matter:

Metro is receiving little sympathy from Rep. John Culberson, a Houston Republican who has crossed swords with the agency over the possible location of its controversial University light-rail line.

“FTA is simply following the law,” Culberson said. “Common sense tells you that if you apply for a loan to buy a Chevrolet, when the bank approves the loan, you can’t turn around and use the money to buy a Rolls-Royce.”

Culberson, who some observers had suggested was behind the FTA letter, denied asking the federal agency to pull its approval once Metro changed the plan. The lines in question, he noted, are not in his district, but in those of Houston Democrats Sheila Jackson Lee and Gene Green

Good to hear. May he continue to remain uninvolved.

Setting the record straight on stem cells

Last week, the Chron published a characteristic piece of tripe from Charles Krauthammer, in which he claimed that the recent breakthrough by American scientist James A. Thomson and his Japanese colleague Shinya Yamanaka on an embryo-free way to produce genetically matched stem cells vindicated President Bush’s policies that forbid embryonic stem cell research in the US. Now Thomson has joined with Alan I. Leshner, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science, to print a rebuttal to Krauthammer’s foolishness.

Far from vindicating the current U.S. policy of withholding federal funds from many of those working to develop potentially lifesaving embryonic stem cells, recent papers in the journals Science and Cell described a breakthrough achieved despite political restrictions. In fact, work by both the U.S. and Japanese teams that reprogrammed skin cells depended entirely on previous embryonic stem cell research.

At a time when nearly 60 percent of Americans support human embryonic stem cell research, U.S. stem cell policy runs counter to both scientific and public opinion. President Bush’s repeated veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which has twice passed the House and Senate with votes from Republicans and Democrats alike, further ignores the will of the American people.

Efforts to harness the versatility of embryonic stem cells, and alleviate suffering among people with an array of debilitating disorders, began less than 10 years ago. Since then, scientists have continued to pursue embryonic stem cells because of their ability to transform into blood, bone, skin or any other type of cell. The eventual goal is to replace diseased or dysfunctional cells to help people with spinal cord injuries, neurodegenerative disorders, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions.

Since 1998, many strategies for addressing sanctity-of-life concerns have been pursued. While commendable, these efforts remain preliminary, and none so far has suggested a magic bullet. In the same way, the recent tandem advances in the United States and by Shinya Yamanaka’s team in Japan are far from being a Holy Grail, as Charles Krauthammer inaccurately described them. Though potential landmarks, these studies are only a first step on the long road toward eventual therapies.

Krauthammer’s central argument — that the president’s misgivings about embryonic stem cell research inspired innovative alternatives — is fundamentally flawed, too. Yamanaka was of course working in Japan, and scientists around the world are pursuing the full spectrum of options, in many cases faster than researchers in the United States.

One hopes that having published Krauthammer’s fantasies, the Chron will see fit to follow it up with the facts. One would think they owe their readers that much.

“You’re a mean one, Senator Grinch”

The Texas College Democrats have something to say about Sen. John Cornyn:

You know, much as I like Ron Kirk, the campaign he ran back in 2002 was more about how similar he’d be to Cornyn, at least in terms of being able to work with President Bush. You can certainly disagree with that strategy, but times were different then. How much nicer it is now to be able to run a campaign that’s predicated on being a complete contrast to and break from our junior Senator and the Presidential administration he’s so willingly enabled since then.

It’s also much more satisfying to support such a campaign, which is no doubt one reason why, as Karl-Thomas points out, that Rick Noriega has raised over $250,000 online already, from over 2500 supporters. They’re hoping to raise another $35K or so by the end of the year, so if you’ve got a little spare change left after doing your Christmas shopping, please consider helping them out.

CHA files suit over Kenedy wind farms

Well, I can’t say this is a surprise.

The Coastal Habitat Alliance has taken its fight against two wind farms to court.

The alliance, a group of 11 organizations including the King Ranch and Frontera Audubon Society, filed federal and state lawsuits Tuesday hoping to halt the construction of two wind farms in Kenedy County, or at least gain input in the projects. The group says the wind farms will affect environmentally sensitive wetlands and possibly lead to bird kills.

The federal lawsuit alleges that state officials and developers are violating the federal Coastal Zone Management Act by building the farms without an environmental review or permit.

The organization also filed another lawsuit in a Texas court, objecting to the Public Utility Commission of Texas’ recent refusal to grant the alliance “intervenor” status in the projects. The commission has granted permission for the construction of an electric-transmission line that will connect to the wind farms.

“In both (lawsuits), we’re asking to be heard at the Public Utility Commission,” said Elyse Yates, a spokeswoman for the alliance.

Defendants in the federal lawsuit are General Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, wind developers PPM Energy and Babcock & Brown and the Public Utility Commission’s three commissioners.

Texas adopted a coastal management plan, in compliance with federal law, in the 1990s, and that plan called for environmental reviews for any electricity generating plants, the federal lawsuit says. When the state repealed a law requiring all electric plants to have permits, officials didn’t include that change in updates to the coastal management plan, the suit says.

Therefore, electricity generating projects built on the coast without a permit remain in violation of federal law and the state’s own plan, according to the document.

[…]

The Texas General Land Office will respond to the alliance’s petition “in a timely manner,” said office spokesman Jim Suydam in a statement.

Through the state suit, the alliance hopes to gain intervenor status in the project and request that environmental studies be conducted, Yates said.

A spokesman from Babcock & Brown, one of the two companies developing wind farms on Kenedy Ranch, said the lawsuit was “completely without merit.” The farms would not pose harm to coastal wetlands or migrating birds, he said.

“Before we began construction on this project, we voluntarily completed three years of comprehensive wildlife studies,” said spokesman Matt Dallas. The company concluded in these studies that endangered species and migrating birds wouldn’t be harmed, he said.

The Public Utility Commission, another defendant in the lawsuits, denied the alliance “intervenor” status because the group didn’t qualify, said commission spokesman Terry Hadley. Hadley said he couldn’t comment further on the lawsuit because he hadn’t reviewed it yet.

The PUC ruling was made in October, at which time I figured a lawsuit was next. I’ve no idea what the merits of either suit are, but I’ll be interested to see how this shakes out. I would like to see these wind farms built, but if there are issues with the federal law, then that needs to be addressed. I’ve got a copy of the CHA press release here (PDF). More coverage of the suit can be found in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and the Statesman. South Texas Chisme is also following this story.

Please present your BlackBerry to the boarding agent as your row is called

This is cool.

A unique new check-in procedure using cell phones or personal digital assistants as boarding passes is being unveiled by Continental Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration at George Bush Intercontinental Airport today.

The three-month pilot program involves technology using encrypted bar codes on mobile device screens, something not being used anywhere else in the world, TSA official Melvin Carraway said.

“We have been in favor of this for a long time and had fairly consistent dialogue with TSA on our desire to do this,” said Mark Bergsrud, a senior vice president for Houston-based Continental. “We were ready technically and we are pretty nimble with our ability to develop software and test it.”

Carraway said the TSA, which has had a problem with people trying to use fraudulent paper boarding passes in the past, is confident the technology can’t be cracked.

The program will allow passengers to receive boarding passes electronically, then present bar codes on the screen to be scanned by TSA security officers at the checkpoint, according to Continental.

Ultimately, it could eliminate the need for a paper document besides photo identification. Continental is the first U.S. carrier to test paperless boarding passes.

Initially, the pilot program will be used solely on Continental flights at Intercontinental. If successful, plans call for it to be rolled out to other airlines in about three months, Carraway said.

“Can’t” is a pretty strong word to use when the subject is “cracking technology”. I don’t doubt this is better (and more environmentally-friendly) than paper, but I say never say never. Be that as it may, we’re going to be flying on Continental out of IAH in the near future, so perhaps I’ll get to see this technology firsthand. If I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.