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June, 2008:

Building collapse at Rice

Tragic.

Storm winds toppled walls at a Rice University dormitory construction site Thursday afternoon, killing one construction worker and sending six others to hospitals, authorities said.

The collapse occurred about 4 p.m., as rain and high winds whipped through the McMurtry College construction site at Sunset and Rice boulevards, southeast of downtown, said B.J. Almond, the school’s spokesman.

The fallen second-story walls pinned down five men working atop a platform, including the one who was killed, said Houston Fire Department Assistant Chief Omero Longoria.

“Three other men were injured trying to dig their friends out of the rubble,” Longoria added.

Houston firefighters were called at 4:06 p.m. to help rescue those trapped.

Four men were immediately taken to Memorial Hermann and Ben Taub hospitals with “multiple trauma-related injuries,” Longoria said. None of the injuries are expected to be life-threatening, Longoria said late Thursday.

”Four masonry walls collapsed,” said Asst. Chief Rick Flanagan of the Houston Fire Department. “The integrity of the walls gave way. … We’ve got crews working to shore up the area so that we may conduct an investigation.”

My sincere condolences to the family and friends of the worker who was killed in the collapse.

Tamalalia 2.0

The new Catastrophic Theater show opens tonight, and it will have some familiar elements for longtime fans of the local scene.

The Catastrophic Theatre presents the world premiere of THE TAMARIE COOPER SHOW written, directed and choreographed by Tamarie Cooper. June 19 – July 19 at Stages Repertory Theatre

Perhaps no other person in Houston theatre history has shared more – or more intimate or embarassing – details of her life on stage than Tamarie Cooper. And Houston audiences love her for it.

With her spectacularly popular Tamalalia series, Tamarie has spoken, sung and danced about her high hopes, her irrational fears, her wacked out dreams, her love life, her sex life, her unfortunate dating history, her unfortunate drug history, her love of bacon and her ass.

But a lot’s changed since the last time you saw Tamarie – she’s not the cocktail queen of regrettable hookups anymore. She got married, she bought a house and now she’s contemplating motherhood. The Tamarie Cooper Show finds the 37-year-old Tamarie embarking on a brand new adventure as she tries, in her inimitable fashion, to negotiate her new-found domestic bliss.

[…]

The Tamarie Cooper Show opens Thursday, June 19, at Stages Repertory Theatre (3201 Allen Parkway) and runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through July 19. Tickets are $20 Thursdays, $25 Fridays and Saturdays. For ticket information, call the Stages box office at 713-527-0123 or visit www.stagestheatre.com.

The Press has more. Enjoy!

Council passes the budget

In addition to the Metro vote, Council passed the budget yesterday.

In his fiscal 2009 plan, Mayor Bill White asked the council to approve a $105 million increase in spending for police, fire and emergency medical services. Included is money to fund seven cadet classes in an effort to expand the Houston Police Department to 5,194 classified officers by next summer, according to the spending plan.

Council members passed amendments requiring additional anti-crime spending during the eight-hour debate. Police will get $1,225,000 more for overtime and $708,000 for hiring incentives, increases initiated by Councilwoman Melissa Noriega. At least $180,000 will be added to the budget for anti-gang initiatives.

The council also voted to add $270,000 for after-school programs and $50,000 to provide matching grants for neighborhood improvements.

“There’s a record increase to public safety and a significant increase on initiatives on quality of life in our neighborhoods,” White said, “and we did it unanimously.”

The meeting, which ended at 9:20 p.m., allowed council members to draw attention to favored causes, even if they could not get the mayor to commit funding.

Instead, members tabled dozens of budget amendments in exchange for promises from White to study their pet projects. Among the ideas to be studied: expansion of curbside recycling, fines for those who falsify building permit applications, and culvert replacement in front of flood-prone homes owned by seniors and the disabled.

Just hours after council voted on an agreement with the Metropolitan Transit Authority for the light-rail system, Councilwoman Melissa Noriega offered an amendment to fund streetscape improvements around future rail stations.

“You must have some of these kinds of things to connect (the light rail) to a neighborhood,” Noriega said. “Certainly, beautification is part of it, but functionality is really part of my primary concern. What we don’t want is a box with people in it moving through a neighborhood.”

Although no money was added to the 2009 budget, White said he would push for $6 million to be added to the capital improvement plan in the next two years.

I like that idea and I hope it gets picked up in the next CIP. Metro should be well into building lines by then, so the timing should be good. I’d like to see some concepts for what this should entail in the meantime, but I approve of the concept.

More on the Council Metro vote

Some more details in today’s paper on yesterday’s City Council vote in favor of the Metro consent agreement.

Current plans call for the University line to run on Wheeler from Main to Ennis, where it would turn north alongside Texas Southern University. Metro said access to TSU was one reason for favoring Wheeler.

Councilwoman Jolanda Jones and several residents with homes on Wheeler, a major thoroughfare of the old Third Ward area, told council Tuesday that rail would change the street’s character and restrict vehicle traffic.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, asked Metro to rethink the route, saying Wheeler “has great history and is part of the fabric of the community.”

Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said council members would arrange a meeting, possibly Monday, among Metro, city officials and residents and businesses along Wheeler to hear their concerns and consider possible alternative routes.

Wilson and Jackson Lee would not say what alternative should be considered, but Metro’s federally required environmental analysis compared the Wheeler route to others on Alabama and Elgin.

Another segment of Wheeler farther east — running from Scott to Martin Luther King, and along the south edge of the University of Houston — is part of the planned Southeast line. Metro is not planning to review it, Wilson said.

There was some negative feedback about the Wheeler alignment when it was announced, though it was less vocal and much less contentious than the anti-Richmond faction. I doubt Metro is going to change its mind about the route and risk further delays in getting federal funding, so I’m not sure what an acceptable outcome to all parties looks like.

Metro still faces a long road. Federal funding is not guaranteed, a lawsuit challenges the plans for rail on Richmond Avenue, and Metro has yet to agree to terms with a contractor to build and operate the system.

I don’t think any of those things are showstoppers, but this is just one of many small steps. I hope they are able to break ground next month, but the finish line is far from visible yet.

Obama and Latino voters

A new national poll of Latino voters has some good news for Sen. Barack Obama.

The survey found that 60 percent of Latinos planned to vote for Obama, compared to 23 percent for [Sen. John] McCain, while 16 percent were undecided. Latino Decisions, a joint effort between Pacific Market Research and University of Washington political scientists Matt Barreto and Gary Segura, conducted the poll by telephone June 1-12.

Workers reached 800 Latino voters in 21 states. Among Democrats, the survey found that during primary contests, 57 percent had supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton versus 35 percent who supported Obama.

[…]

Obama does well among Latinos across many states. In California, he leads 66 percent to 20 percent; in New York, 65 percent to 20 percent; in Texas, 61 percent to 22 percent.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about this, though as Kos says, it’s nice to see that bit of conventional wisdom about Obama having problems with Latino voters get the refutation it deserves. What interests me here in particular is the Texas result, since it stands in contrast to the Baselice poll from May. Now, the sub-sample here is likely to be in the 150-200 range, which means it would have a margin of error of seven or eight percent, but that makes it about the same as the number of Latino voters Baselice sampled (PDF). Here were the results he got then:

Obama 48, McCain 36, other/undecided 16
Clinton 57, McCain 30, other/undecided 13

This would represent a pretty significant shift towards Obama, presumably partly due to the post-primary unity effect. If you updated the Obama/McCain numbers to reflect this poll’s result, it would change the outcome from a 51.9-36.4 lead for McCain to 49.8-38.5, which is still significant but not nearly as intimidating; it’s also much closer to Poblano‘s projection of a 9.7-point win for McCain. Given that that projection is based in part on the May Baselice poll, the Democratic “bonanza” number of 45% looks better, too. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what numbers Baselice (and Rasmussen, who had a similar result from May) come up with for June.

San Antonio airport expansion

Seems like a curious time to be expanding an airport, but if they need it, that’s good for them.

Work is beginning on a $134 million passenger terminal at the San Antonio International Airport.

The eight-gate Terminal B will replace the aging Terminal 2 at the airport and make way for another terminal to house five to 11 more passenger gates.

During the groundbreaking on the project on Tuesday, city officials said that the additional gates, which would bring the airport’s total to 35, will be needed eventually.

[…]

In 2007, the San Antonio airport topped 8 million passengers and through March of this year had 4.8 percent more traffic than a year ago.

Terminal B is set to open in two years. Also, work is wrapping up this month on a 2,800-space parking garage.

For comparison purposes, IAH in Houston has 124 gates, and served 43 million passengers last year. And that doesn’t count Hobby Airport.

I haven’t flown into or out of San Antonio in 20 years, but it was actually a pretty pleasant experience, since it’s so easy to navigate; it’s also close to downtown – maybe a 10 minute drive from the Trinity campus – so it’s very well-suited for those types who like to arrive as late as possible before boarding. I hope that aspect of it won’t change too much.

Where will those new commuter rail lines go?

Tory has an analysis of the proposed commuter rail lines that raises some good questions, including one that has come up before and undoubtedly will again:

Some of the connections will require all new track through residential and commercial areas (249 to 290, The Heights, 45S to Pearland). Always contentious. Just ask Metro…

As I understand it – and like Tory, I’m waiting for Christof to weigh in on this – there are a couple of options to get that train from 290 once it passes 610 into downtown. One of those options involves the existing line that runs alongside Center Street, then (I believe) turns up Old Katy Road. That would neatly bypass most neighborhoods, and should cause a minimum amount of fuss. There are other possibilities, and there will need to be a lot of engagement with all the stakeholders to ensure that what gets built is the best solution, but I do believe this can be done without too much contentiousness. At least, for that one line. The others, I couldn’t say.

Plutoids!

The celestial body formerly known as a planet Pluto gets an upgrade.

Pluto is finally getting its day in the sun, after being stripped of planetary status by astronomers two years ago.

From now on all similar distant bodies in the solar system will be called “plutoids.” That’s the decision by the International Astronomical Union, which met last week in Oslo, Norway, and announced the decision Wednesday.

[…]

The same group raised a cosmic fuss when it demoted the once-ninth planet to “dwarf” status in 2006. The new policy allows Pluto to be the standard for a whole new category of dwarf planets.

Pluto is one of only two plutoids, the other being Eris. Both are objects that circle the sun and are too small to be considered planets, but big enough to have a level of gravity that keeps them in a near spherical shape. Plutoids also must be farther from the sun than Neptune.

It was the 2003 discovery of Eris — a body bigger and farther from the sun than Pluto — that eventually led to Pluto’s demotion. But the astronomers expect more plutoids to be discovered in the future.

[…]

It was not enough to satisfy leading Pluto-as-a-planet advocate Alan Stern, a former NASA space sciences chief and principal investigator on a mission to Pluto. Stern said a rival group could be formed to the IAU, which he said was too secretive in its decision-making.

“It’s just some people in a smoke-filled room who dreamed it up,” Stern said. “Plutoids or hemorrhoids, whatever they call it. This is irrelevant.”

Another Pluto supporter was at least partially pleased.

“It’s going in the right direction,” laughed Ralph McNutt, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “I’d still rather have it just be known as a planet.”

“I grew up with nine planets, I’m sorry,” McNutt said.

SciGuy has more. I guess this is okay, but I’m with McNutt. Life was simpler when we had nine planets. And if we must call Pluto something else, I still like my idea better.

Noriega and Skelly

Want to lend a painless hand to Rick Noriega‘s fundraising efforts? Go vote in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s Choose a Challenger contest.

PAC for a Change is kicking off our 2008 “Choose a Challenger” contest — an opportunity for you and our entire online community to decide which Democratic Senate Challenger our PAC will support next. The winner of our online contest will be featured in a fundraising email to our PAC for a Change community, potentially adding tens of thousands of dollars to his or her campaign war chest this fall — going a long way towards helping us build a stronger progressive Senate majority in 2009 and beyond.

Voting is open till Wednesday the 25th, and all you need to provide is an email address. So please go vote for Rick Noriega. Thanks very much.

As for Michael Skelly, he’s caught the attention of the DCCC, which has him as one of their Emerging Races for the Red to Blue program. That doesn’t mean any money directly, but it does mean that the DCCC will be pointing people to Skelly as someone to support, and it means there’s a much better chance that they’ll follow up with financial and other resources later on. Skelly is the only Texan represented on this list – it’d be nice to see Larry Joe Doherty on there in the future, given the encouraging poll numbers we’ve been getting – so this is a nice coup for him.

Council approves Metro consent plan

As predicted, City Council passed the Metro consent agreement by a wide margin.

The 13-2 vote, with Council members Jolanda Jones and Mike Sullivan opposed, paves the way for Metro to break ground next month, probably on the East End line. Metro says it can complete all five by 2012.

Council’s approval also came after two amendments requested by Councilwoman Pam Holm and Metro’s statement that it would reconsider plans to build parts of the Southeast and University lines on Wheeler Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the Third Ward.

Jones said she had concerns about the Wheeler route and about Metro’s credibility and allegedly favorable treatment of wealthy neighborhoods over less affluent ones. She cited Metro’s decision to take the western University Line segment across the Southwest Freeway to avoid opposition from wealthy Afton Oaks, while choosing a route on Wheeler, in part because it would cost less than alternatives.

Sullivan was not immediately available for comment, but his district includes the Clear Lake area and Kingwood — neither of which would be reached by the five planned light rail routes.

Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said a meeting among Metro and city officials and stakeholders along the Wheeler routes will be held, possibly Monday, to hear residents’ concerns and discuss possible alternatives.

Wilson said obtaining federal funding approval for any resulting route changes may be possible with only a few weeks’ delay, but that was not certain.

I thought all of that was settled, but if there needs to be some more discussion, then by all means let’s have it. I’d hope this would not run the risk of further delays; it would be preferable if there were some kind of assurance or accommodation Metro could make to residents that would avoid any need for rerouting. At least we have this piece in place, and can continue to move forward.

Speaking of moving forward, the most recent Metro email newsletter, from last week, gave an update on the Scarborough lawsuit that wasn’t reported at the time:

Update on legal action against METRO

Earlier this week the plaintiff in Daphne Scarbrough vs. METRO amended her petition to drop all but one of her claims against the transit agency.

The initial lawsuit, filed approximately a year ago, claims that METRO violated the 2003 referendum in a number of ways, including issues related to:

  • General Mobility payments to City of Houston
  • Financing of the light-rail expansion
  • Bus service expansion
  • Technology of the guideway rapid transit (GRT)
  • Construction of a portion of the light-rail alignment on Richmond Ave.

Now, the only claim remaining is the one related to light rail construction on Richmond Ave.

METRO continues to vigorously defend itself from this claim and deny that such a violation took place.

Here’s hoping we can move forward on this front as well.

Commissioners Court presses forward with scaled-down jail plan

Commissioners Court’s “try, try again” plan for building a new jail is moving forward.

Harris County Commissioners Court may ask voters this fall to approve a bond proposal for a $144 million jail — after the electorate rejected plans for a $245 million, 2,500-bed jail last November.

County administrators suggested Tuesday that the county not issue bonds to pay for the proposed $144 million downtown jail. But Commissioner Steve Radack urged the court to consider seeking voter approval for bonds, saying he was concerned that money that otherwise would go for roads and bridges would be used to pay for the jail.

The court asked the county budget and management office to report back in two months on whether the county could float a bond for the new jail.

“I’m not going to support a new jail unless you put a jail bond proposition before voters in November,” Radack said.

I appreciate Commissioner Radack’s concern. And I won’t vote for any such bond until there is solid evidence that everyone in county government understands why we’re in this particular situation, and vows to do something about it. In which case, of course, I seriously doubt we’ll need to be building more jail space. But if it turns out that we do, that once we stop routinely locking up people who don’t need to be locked up because we think we’re being “tuff on crime” by doing so, then I’ll reconsider. I don’t see that happening here.

Other building projects discussed at the county’s annual capital improvements meeting include a new Family Law Center.

The court voted to take the first steps toward obtaining a design of the $70 million courthouse on Franklin and San Jacinto, across the street from the current family law building. The project would require an additional $16 million for furniture and cables and $2.2 million to raze buildings now standing on the site of the future courthouse, officials said.

Commissioner Jerry Eversole said the court should wait until the budget and planning office reports back on whether the courthouse should be built on Franklin where the old county jail stands.

Voters approved bonds to pay for the family law center in November.

“The voters were clearly telling us to move forward,” Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said.

They also pretty clearly said “No!” when it came to building more jail cells. I hope that message gets received and understood as well, but so far it’s not looking like it.

Interview with State Rep. Juan Garcia

Concluding my series of interviews from the convention in Austin is a short chat I had with State Rep. Juan Garcia. I hadn’t made a prior arrangement with Rep. Garcia for this, and was fortunate to run into him in the byzantine labyrinth that was the outer hallway of the Austin Convention Center, and he was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his time. It’s a bit noisy, and I’m a bit clumsy asking the first question since I wasn’t expecting this, but I hope you’ll overlook that and enjoy the conversation anyway. Rep. Garcia won a tough race in a pretty red district (PDF), at least at the top of the ticket (Bill Moody got 46.3%), and is probably the Republicans’ #1 target this cycle. As in 2006, when Garcia knocked off the ethically-challenged Gene Seaman, the GOP has another questionable character running, but he’ll be a well-funded one, and Garcia has his work cut out for him. My interview is here, as always in MP3 format. I’m hoping to get a few more interviews with folks I met in Austin who’ll be travelling to Houston, and I expect to get a few more while I’m there for Netroots Nation, and after that it’ll be local candidates all the way.

PREVIOUSLY:

State Rep. Dan Barrett, HD97.
Wendy Davis, SD10.
Robert Miklos, HD101.
Chris Turner, HD96.
Joe Moody, HD78.
Ernie Casbeer, HD59.

UPDATE: There’s a questionable poll that shows Rep. Garcia trailing his Republican challenger. See my comment on that post for why I have some issues with that result.

The state of the Noriega campaign

Texas Monthly writer John Spong spent some time with the Rick Noriega campaign around the primary, and writes a report that I’ve heard described as “tough love”, a term Houtopia also uses. It’s a pretty accurate description. It’s also a tough article to quote from, since it covers a vast amount of ground, and some of the issues highlighted I know for a fact have since been addressed. So let me start by saying that I largely agree with Greg’s take, that I’m cautiously optimistic about the Q2 fundraising numbers (the support of Senators Webb and Tester have been helpful and appreciated), and that when all was said and done with that article, I still came away feeling hopeful. There’d have been no point in writing it, as Spong admits up front, if none of it mattered. Read it for yourself and see what you think.

The transit network effect

Matt Yglesias, in speaking about the relative merits of intercity train travel, makes the following observation:

Transportation is always a network phenomenon — part of what makes taking the train from DC to New York appealing is that when you arrive car-less in New York, that’s fine. Indeed, driving from DC to New York would becomes an expensive/annoying proposition when you consider the difficulty/expense of parking in New York and a car’s limited utility in terms of getting around. Even if you live in the suburbs, it makes sense to take Metro to union station and take the train up to NYC rather than driving. But if you took the train from Tucson to Phoenix you’d probably wind up needing to rent a car anyway, so why not just drive?

So in terms of what can be done, it’s more a question of a thousand cuts than a single broad stroke. Every time any city anywhere does anything to make itself less auto-dependent, it’s a step in the right direction. And then it’s just a question of deciding that this is important to us. Building new high-speed rail lines is expensive. But it’s not as if building new airport terminals or new freeways is cheap, either.

Now that commuter rail between Houston and Galveston is officially on the table, I think it’s worth keeping this idea, which has been raised here before, in mind. I figure by the time that gets built there will be a more robust network here in Houston. There will certainly still be room for more, and the point is that whatever else gets built won’t just be for folks who live here now.

A different model for delivering WiFi

13th Floor contemplates the death of Philadelphia’s municipal WiFi service and wonders if there might be a better way to deliver the same thing.

Sipping my coffee and tapping out e-mails at Powell’s Books, I couldn’t help thinking about a proposal made last month by Esme Vos, the Wi-Fi evangelist who founded the MuniWireless blog. A few weeks back, she looked into a cup of cappuccino at a San Francisco coffee shop and saw a way that city could have gone about creating wide-reaching Wi-Fi network for its citizens:

“San Francisco could have required cafes to install Wi-Fi networks and also required them to offer Wi-Fi service free of charge to the public. Then, companies such as FON, could have offered these free (or cheap) FON access points. ISPs would have competed for their business or even done very interesting bundled deals that would have resulted in cafes getting cheap broadband service. Users could rate and rank the cafes based on the quality of their broadband service like they rate them today on the quality of their cakes, coffees, muffins, bagels, etc.

“If San Francisco had done this two years ago, there would be Wi-Fi in nearly every part of the city without going through the RFP process, the lengthy period of setting up access points, without a provider having to spend millions of dollars on equipment and installation.”

My most creative ideas are generally coffee-fueled too. In this case, however, Vos’s Wi-Fi mandate probably would not sell well in most U.S. towns and cities. Plus it would not bridge the “caffeine divide” — the gap between those neighborhoods that have a Starbucks on every corner and those that do not.

But the concept of tapping the desire for fast and affordable Internet access among small businesses, including plenty of mom-and-pop shops, as a way help spread broadband access in communities that need it is certainly worthy of a few stirs. And Vos might really be on to something with the idea of offering a tax credit, rather than a mandate, as an incentive for those businesses to share their connectivity — as first suggested by Vos’s friend and fellow blogger Andy Abramson of VoIP Watch.

An “enterprise zone” for wireless broadband? Hmmm… I’ll order another cup and ponder that some more.

It’s an interesting idea, one that deserves some consideration as cities like Houston plan their next moves in this space. It wouldn’t cost anything up front for the city, and it could reach places that weren’t originally on the priority list a lot faster than a city-directed rollout would have. Seems like a reasonably low-risk thing to study and maybe pilot. What do you think? Thanks to William Pate for the tip.

On a side note, it looks like the presumed-dead Philly WiFi experiment may not be dead after all.

A group of local investors will rescue the city’s trailblazing wireless network from what seemed like imminent shutdown, with a new for-profit company that will replace Earthlink Inc. as the system’s operator, according to multiple sources close to the deal.

Although the details of the deal were unclear yesterday, the new company is said to be considering an advertising-based business model that would provide free Internet access to all, or at least in those places where the spotty network is available. Earthlink charged $20 a month for the service.

[…]

Though it remains to be seen if the new company can turn a profit, its business model is not at all like Earthlink’s. In addition to advertising income, the company is likely to pursue paying institutional subscribers such as hospitals and universities. Those institutions could extend their own secure internal networks into the city over the wireless system, for a price.

I don’t know how well this reboot will work, but good luck to them for trying. Link via Dwight on Twitter.

Houston Votes! kickoff fundraiser

After you put the TexBlog PAC fundraiser on your calendar, put this one on next:

Houston Votes!
Benefitting voter registration in Houston
July 1, 2008
The Continental Club
3700 Main Street
6-8 p.m.
$20
Catering: Ragin’ Cajun
Entertainment: Zydeco Joseph and the H-Town Players

Host Committee: Collin Cox, Cris Feldman, Jim George, Kenny Friedman, Seth Kretzer, Todd Litton, Rita Lucido, Keir Murray, Pete Schenkkan, Alfred Stanley, Keith Wade, Emillee Whitehurst, Marlen Whitley

Campus Alliance for Progess
Equality Texas
NARAL Pro-Choice Texas
People for the American Way Fnd.
Sierra Club
Texans Together Education Fund
Texas Freedom Network

RSVP: joy @ TexansTogether.org

I’d advise taking the train to get there if at all possible – the Continental Club is a great venue, but parking can be a pain. And be sure to stop at Tacos a Go Go next door for an after-fundraiser snack before you head home.

Council to vote on K-Mart settlement payments

And we’re one step closer to officially putting all the lawsuits that stemmed from the K-Mart Kiddie Roundup into the books for good.

[Houston City Council] on Wednesday will consider whether to settle one lawsuit brought by 59 people who were arrested that night. The full settlement amount is $474,117. According to the settlement, each plaintiff will get $4,000, except for one who will get $5,000. Their four lawyers will split $237,117.

The other lawsuit had 43 plaintiffs. The proposed settlement is for $257,500. Each plaintiff will get $2,500 or $3,500. Their attorney, Paul Rosen, will get $125,000.

Eight other lawsuits stemming from the Kmart raid already have been settled. Four others were dismissed. The total cost to the city for all the settlements is $840,117. Senior Assistant City Attorney Robert Cambrice estimated that an additional $60,000 was spent on outside lawyers who helped defend HPD and worked to expunge the arrest records of those caught up in the sweep.

“We came in at less than $1 million,” Cambrice said. “Some people said how many tens of millions this would cost the city. I would say justice was served, and the public purse was appropriately protected.”

Randall Kallinen was one of the attorneys in the suit that may be settled for $474,117.

“The Kmart raid represented one of the most egregious mass civil rights violations in Houston history,” Kallinen said Monday. “I believe it is a reasonable settlement under the circumstances, and all the clients will get some payment for the suffering they went through.”

Well, it is less money than the Ibarra lawsuit, I’ll say that much for it. The original agreement was reached in April, and if this subsequent story is still accurate, then there’s still some action pending for Judge Nancy Atlas, which should be completed in another month. And then, that’s all she wrote. Miya has more.

Interview with Ernie Casbeer

Next up on the interview list is Ernie Casbeer, who came out of nowhere to get 44.5% of the vote in a district (PDF) where no other Democrat topped 40% – Bill Moody scored 39.7% in HD59, with most other Dems running seven or more points worse than they did statewide. Casbeer is a veteran teacher, with 39 years’ experience, and a self-described “conservative Democrat”. We had a good conversation, which you can listen to here. As always, feedback is appreciated.

PREVIOUSLY:

State Rep. Dan Barrett, HD97.
Wendy Davis, SD10.
Robert Miklos, HD101.
Chris Turner, HD96.
Joe Moody, HD78.

Good poll news in CD10

CD10 candidate Larry Joe Doherty has released a poll memo (PDF) with some good and interesting news.

This district may have been gerrymandered to be a safe Republican seat, but it certainly does not look like one any longer. In the initial trial heat, [incumbent Rep. Mike] McCaul gets 43% of the vote to Doherty’s 34% a scant nine percentage point lead that shows McCaul starting out well short of the 50% mark – and as the incumbent, he should be starting this race at or above the winning percentage. In addition, in a generic trial heat that just asks voter preference on voting for a Democrat or Republican for Congress, the generic Democrat gets 41% of the vote, and the Republican garners 45%, only a 4-point difference.

That’s in line with an earlier IVR poll that showed McCaul with a 6 point lead. We knew from the 2006 result that this district was trending purple, so none of this should be a big surprise. And if you presume, not too unreasonably, that the Democratic part of the district, in Travis County, is more enthusiastic about voting than the Republican part in Harris County, it becomes easy to see how the gap can narrow further.

McCaul has failed to capitalize on the biggest advantages of incumbency: despite serving two terms in Congress, nearly half of all likely voters do not even recognize his name (47% don’t recognize), the most basic measure of a politician’s strength. His job rating is utterly anemic at 28% positive, 29% negative, and 42% unsure – and this is when McCaul is identified as their current Congressman.

This district encompasses some fast-growing areas in Harris and Travis Counties, so by its very nature there are a lot of people in CD10 who have never voted for Mike McCaul. It’s amusing to think that this so-carefully-drawn district, which was thought to be so red in 2004 that no Democrat bothered to file for the primary, has changed so much from the original Tom DeLay vision of it.

Voters are moving to the center and more receptive to Democratic solutions to the nation’s problems at the same time that McCaul has aligned himself solidly with a failed President. Bush’s job rating is 70% negative here (in Texas) and 69% of C.D. 10 voters think the country is seriously off on the wrong track. Furthermore, the data shows that many of the tired, traditional attacks on a Democratic candidate will work no better in this district than they did in Mississippi or Louisiana. In addition, the economy and high food and gas prices, tough issues for incumbents, are increasingly the top concerns for voters.

We may not have much information about Bush’s statewide approval rating, but if he’s doing that poorly in CD10, you have to figure he’s not doing too much better overall. Perhaps someone should notify Tina Benkiser of this fact.

BOR has more. Larry Joe is also a Blue America candidate, and you can learn more about him at his Firedoglake chat or my interview with him from the primary.

Coming attractions on the business tax

From last week, the Chron’s Alan Bernstein notes a problem the Republicans will be have to deal with for November and beyond:

[Thursday], across Discovery Green from the downtown convention, two Democratic state House members and Democratic candidates for the state House used a news conference to bash the state margins tax on businesses — the tax pushed by Gov. Perry and adopted by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Rep. Scott Hochberg, for instance, said the tax was supposed to a fair levy, but that in the end, “if you didn’t have a lobbyist in the room, you didn’t get your deal.” He said the tax burden falls too heavily on small businesses. And many Republicans agree with him.

Dave Mann of the Texas Observer homes in on that:

The party platform, finalized yesterday, calls for repeal of what one delegate termed “Perry’s unconstitutional business tax.” Many believe the business tax is a de facto income tax and thus violates the Texas Constitution. “Gov. Perry and the Legislature broke their promise on taxes,” said another delegate. “It’s the largest tax increase in the history of the state.”

Eye on Williamson provides some context:

If we can for a second hearken back to the special session(s) of 2006, it may help a little. Texas’ GOP controlled government had to do something, no matter how bad the “fix” was, or schools wouldn’t open on time. Because of a judge’s ruling that a new funding mechanism had to be in place by June 1st of 2006, they were boxed. The margins tax was the best the fractured GOP legislature and a besieged governor – with three challengers nipping at his heals – could come up with. If schools didn’t open on time that could have fatally damaged Perry’s reelection and they may have had even deeper losses in the legislature. That many in the Texas GOP are now trying to run away from their plan, and put it in Perry’s lap, is not surprising. Responsibility and accountability is not in the GOP’s DNA after all. This was a short-term political solution, not a permanent long-term fix to the school finance problem, and they knew that back then. Shortly after it was passed the Lt. Gov. was already talking about “tweaking” it.

“We’re going to look at tweaking, re-examining the tax,” said Dewhurst, who holds out hope that instituting technical corrections in the tax package could solve imbalances without having to adjust tax rates. Unfortunately, long-running controversies involving school finance and tax reform in the state have shown that painless solutions are few and far between.

Put in proper context it’s now easy to see how this is going to be Exhibit A against Perry by all his GOP cohorts that will try to unseat him in 2010 – Dewhurst, Hutchison, Patrick. This GOP-invented tax has become anathema to the GOP base. This new tax is hitting businesses, in particular small businesses, especially hard and the Republicans are responsible for it. Heading into the 2008 general election that’s really bad timing and it’s tarnishing the GOP brand even further.

There were then, and still are now, other ways to fix this problem, permanently. But that would take leadership, which is lacking in Texas right now. At this point and time if we want to lower property taxes, permanently, and do away with the worthless tax swap of 2006, then we have two options. Jack up the state sales tax, which would increase the already large tax burden on the poor and middle class, or institute a modest progressive state income tax, which would reduce the tax burden on the poor and middle class, and increase tax fairness across the board.

I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure to repeal the business tax and raise the sales tax to cover the lost revenue, rather fixing the problem with the business tax, which is that it hits smaller businesses much harder than big ones. While the opportunities to bash Governor Perry and the Republicans for this tax will be plentiful, Democrats are going to need to exercise some care in how they do it, lest they wind up making the case for a sales tax hike for Perry and Speaker Craddick, who has wanted to swap property taxes for sales taxes all along. Watch how the issue gets framed – see the extended entry for the full statement from Rep. Hochberg and his colleagues for a good example – and get ready for a fight in 2009.

Finally, it should be noted that yesterday was, at long last, the first day that the new business tax needed to be paid. Sherrie Matula put out a press release that made some sobering observations:

Small business owners in House District 129 have come to me, expressing their concern about this new business tax because of the increased tax burden they are facing. The owners of a Seabrook company that provides products for offshore drilling is seeing an increase in their business tax from $350 in 2007 to $3500 in 2008. An anchor company in Nassau Bay is facing an increase from $1800 to $38,000. A school architecture firm is seeing their business tax bill rise nearly $115,000 this year. A space industry firm is facing an increase of over $30,000.

Yeah, that sounds like a problem to me. Today’s Chron has more:

The tax is bad news for thousands of business owners, said Will Newton, executive director of the Texas office of the National Federation of Independent Business.

A survey by the group, he said, found that 84 percent of small-business owners saw their tax bills increase by more than 100 percent under the new levy. Many of the respondents didn’t have to pay the old franchise tax, which the new tax replaced.

The new tax is 0.5 percent or 1 percent — depending on the type of business — of a company’s gross receipts for 2007 minus certain deductions.

All sole proprietorships are exempt.

An estimated 900,000 partnerships and other businesses are subject to it, but businesses with gross receipts of less than $300,000 or a tax liability of less than $1,000 don’t have to pay. According to some projections, only about one-third of the affected businesses actually had to pay the tax.

“Today, on the day this tax is being collected from hundreds of thousands of business owners, our state officials still don’t know how much this tax will bring in, which sectors of the Texas economy will be hit the hardest, how many jobs will be lost or how many businesses will be forced to close,” Newton said.

His organization wants Gov. Rick Perry, who lobbied for the new tax in the face of a Texas Supreme Court order for school finance changes, to call a special legislative session to revise it.

Spokeswoman Allison Castle said Perry wants to wait for the regular legislative session to convene in January before considering any changes.

“If this tax brings in more revenue than anticipated, then it may be tweaked,” she said.

You can tweak all you want, but that’s not going to fix the underlying problem. Have fun with that.

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Texas blog roundup for the week of June 16

I’m still basking in the glow of seeing my Yankees win a pair of games with my dad, so I don’t have a snappy intro to this week’s Texas Progressive Alliance blog roundup handy. So pretend I had something amusing to say and click on to read the highlights.

(more…)

Save the date: TexBlog PAC fundraiser

This is a heads up to mark Thursday, June 26 on your calendar for the next TexBlog PAC fundraiser in Houston.

Please join host Mustafa Tameez

and sponsors:
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and many more…as we come together to take back the Texas House
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Why we evacuate

If there’s another call to evacuate the Houston area because of a hurricane threat, this will be part of the reason why.

Imagine a Category 3 hurricane striking the western end of Bolivar Peninsula. The storm surge would raise water levels by 6 feet in Galveston Bay and along Galveston Island, according to computer models.

Now, imagine the same storm striking a mere 20 miles down the coast, just past the Galveston seawall. The surge would push as much as 17 feet of water into Galveston Bay and 13 feet along much of Galveston Island, clipping it from behind even if the seawall buttressed the initial waves.

The two landfall scenarios just 20 miles apart would mean the difference between excellent surfing conditions in Galveston and monstrous, fatal waves of water.

[…]

For the most part, evacuations are intended to move people away from the storm surge. The question is whether the science of surge modeling can aid evacuation managers anytime soon.

The storm surge forecasting tool, known as the Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes model, is accurate to within 20 percent if given perfect information about a storm’s landfall time and location. But such information is rarely perfect.

Although the National Hurricane Center’s tracking forecasts are now about three times better than they were in 1970, predictions made 24 hours before landfall still have an average error of about 60 miles.

Three days out — roughly the minimum time needed to call a mass evacuation in the greater Houston area — the error is about 150 miles.

“Can we ever be accurate to within 10 miles?” asked the hurricane center’s chief, Bill Read. “Probably not within my lifetime.”

Put another way, mass evacuations are here to stay — at least for decades.

Just something to keep in mind. On the plus side, the early indicators point towards a relatively quiet hurricane season, though as one commenter noted, there were only four named storms in 1983, it’s just that one of them was Alicia. So let’s not get too cocky just yet.

Come to Houston, if you can

There’s a great job waiting for you here in Houston, if you can afford the move.

As houses linger on the market and prices continue to fall in many U.S. cities, some recruiters in Houston are wringing their hands.

[Carole] Hackett understands better than most because she moved last year from particularly hard-hit Cleveland. It took about six months to sell her house there.

“My intuition is that the housing market crisis in the United States is greatly affecting labor mobility,” said Barton Smith, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston. “But we may not get a handle on that until the 2010 Census comes out.”

One reason Smith suspects something is afoot is that word is getting out that Houston is a job creation machine, yet some openings are going begging.

“In this stage of the countercyclical economy, you would expect mass migration to Houston,” said Smith. But the city hasn’t been flooded by out-of-state license plates, and one explanation is negative equity — people owe more on a house back home than it’s worth so they’re stuck unless they’re willing to eat a big loss.

I don’t know what you can do about that, beyond hoping the economy and the housing market get better soon. I can’t say I’ve noticed any political pressure from unexpected sources on this, but I’m sure it’ll build if it’s not already. Any good anecdotes out there to add to this?

Interview with Joe Moody

Next up in my convention interview series is Joe Moody, running for the now-open HD78 seat in El Paso, which was held by Rep. Pat Haggerty until he was knocked out in a nasty GOP primary fight against Dee Margo, who was backed by a chunk of the Texas GOP establishment, including Governor Perry. Moody is the son of District Judge Bill Moody, whose campaign for State Supreme Court he managed in 2006. Judge Moody was the top Democratic votegetter that year, and won over 59% of the vote in HD78, so if his name means anything, it ought to be a boost for Joe Moody. The interview is here, as always in MP3 format.

PREVIOUSLY:

State Rep. Dan Barrett, HD97.
Wendy Davis, SD10.
Robert Miklos, HD101.
Chris Turner, HD96

The immigration problem

There’s so much heat and noise about immigration these days, it’s good to see articles like this that break it down into something basic and understandable.

[A]lthough the immigration system is complex, the basic problem is simple: There are many more immigrants wanting to enter than the number of visas available each year under a quota and preference system implemented by Congress.

Currently, the law gives preference to four categories of immigrants who are related to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, as well as to immigrants needed for employment.

However, except for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, there is an annual limit for each category, as well as a quota for each country.

So those from countries that have historically sent large numbers of immigrants — Mexico, India, China and the Philippines, for instance — face lengthy waits for visas to become available for relatives.

“If your brother sponsors you, it’s 20 years,” said veteran Houston immigration lawyer Gordon Quan. “If an employer sponsors you and you have a bachelor’s degree, it’s three years. And for people from India, it’s seven years.”

The 4 million backlog includes an estimated 1.5 million relatives of Asian immigrants, said Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center.

The long waits to reunite families prevent many immigrants from assimilating, she said.

“That’s not healthy for the family, for the community,” Narasaki said. “It means it takes longer for a family to put money down for a house, because they’re sending money home to a spouse.”

Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, said untangling family immigration will require that Congress alter the existing system.

“So as long as you have a system that defines broadly what the family relationship can be that makes you eligible to immigrate, but at same time has very few (visa) numbers available, that’s a recipe for backlogs,” said Meissner, now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Those who favor limiting immigration, however, say the family preferences are too broad.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said family-related immigration should be limited to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.

“The problem … is that we over-promise and underdeliver,” Krikorian said. “We have this smorgasbord of different categories, and they all have numerical caps leading to huge waiting lists.

“Either you triple or quadruple legal immigration, or narrow the categories of who gets to come in.”

You say that as though it were something bad. I see it as a simple supply-and-demand issue. Every year, some number of people want to emigrate here; right now, we allow far fewer than that to legally do so. We can face reality and triple or quadruple legal immigration, or we can keep our heads firmly planted in the dirt and continue to wail and gnash our teeth about the number of illegal immigrants we attract. Seems pretty straightforward to me, but then I don’t see an increase in legal immigration as something to fear. That, unfortunately, will be a much dicier problem to solve.

Republican Rap Sheet

Via Texas Politics, the Harris County Coordinated Campaign Lone Star Project has launched a new website called Texas Republican Rap Sheet, which lists the transgressions of various local Republican officeholders, plus the recently resigned former DA Chuck Rosenthal. It’s pretty amusing, and an encouraging sign that the Harris County Democratic Party will be fighting to win on more fronts than we’re used to seeing them engage on. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the coordinated campaign that’s underway this year, at least on our side of the aisle. This is only the beginning, that much I know.

I’d just note that this effort is lacking a page for Harris County Attorney Mike Stafford, who’s been in the news more than usual lately, and not in the good way. I figure that will get corrected eventually. Better would be sooner, given this week’s Houston Press cover story about Democratic candidate Vince Ryan and his ongoing litigation against his former employer, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, the “behemoth delinquent-tax collector that services the City of Houston, the Houston Independent School District, Harris County and hundreds of other public entities throughout the country”. Neither party came off looking particularly good in this piece; neither did Stafford, but he was only mentioned in passing. This doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of this post, but I thought this was odd:

But Dale Linebarger and former firm attorney Bill King say that private firms are able to collect more, and more efficiently. They say this benefits those who pay their taxes on time — which is about 95 percent of the people. The vast majority of delinquent property owners, according to Linebarger and King, are slumlords and absentee owners. The law firm itself isn’t shoving grandma out into the street, forcing her to survive by her walker and wits.

Structurally, say Linebarger and King, the cost of government collection comes out of an entity’s general fund — which ultimately means that it’s taxpayer-funded. But private collection, they say, is solely deadbeat-subsidized. The delinquent taxpayer has to pay attorneys’ fees along with the past due amount.

“The cost is being allocated to the person that caused the problem,” King says, “instead of being spread out among all the taxpayers. Which seems to me to be a fundamentally equitable situation.”

That’s the same Bill King who is apparently running for Mayor in 2009. I found it curious that the story didn’t mention that fact, as the Houston Politics blog did when they noted the suit’s filing. I don’t really have a point to make here, I just thought that was strange.

Anyway. As I said before, the County Attorney race is a little higher profile than it normally is this year. Even I didn’t expect it to get this much attention. Once again, this is not a normal election year.

UPDATE: I had the wrong party responsible for the Republican Rap Sheet site. It’s fixed now.

Is Facebook a reunion killer?

I’m currently serving on a committee for my 20-year college reunion, which is an event I’ve been looking forward to for some time now. So when I see articles like this one in which the author speculates that Facebook will make such things obsolete, I have to wonder if I’ll be wasting my time.

Social networking has largely been a force for good, reconnecting grade-school classmates, creating a whole new approach to dating and enabling employers to check up on new hires. But it might just kill the college reunion.

Historically, reunions have used voyeurism as a lure. Who lives where, who got hitched, who got fat–you had to show up to find out. But now the answers are all online. “Facebook has turned the idea of college reunions from an expensive necessity to just expensive,” says Kevin Pang, who skipped his five-year reunion at the University of Southern California last week.

Matt Yglesias and Dana Goldstein both wonder about this. I think this comment sums up the argument against better than anything I could think of:

You can’t get nostalgic and drunk with people you haven’t seen in 10 years on Facebook. Nor can you hook up with the girl you had a thing for but never did anything about in high school. Face to face contact is still important for some things.

Can’t beat that logic. For me, one reason I’m so looking forward to my 20-year reunion is to see my friends’ kids, and to show off my own. Most – not all, but most – of my college chums were still in the pre-children phase the last time we all got together, in 1998. This year I figure there’ll be a swarm of offspring along for the festivities, and I can’t wait to see what the next generation looks like. There’s just no substitute for the real thing.

And I must confess, this article isn’t really aimed at old fogeys like me anyway:

So far, college administrators report no such decline. But they have reason to be nervous. Anyone attending a five-year reunion in 2008 was part of the last class for which Facebook was not an integral part of campus life; it began catching on in mid-2003. The class of 2004–next summer’s reunion crop–will be the first real test.

Damn kids. Seriously, I kept in touch with a lot of college friends the old-fashioned way – that would be by email; I may be old, but I’m not that old – and even for those I’d heard from all the time, it was still better to see them in person, and remember why we were friends in the first place. I think even for the Facebook generation, that urge won’t go away.

Claytie

Part of me is just plain amused to read about the Clayton Williams kerfuffle, in which his infamous “rape is like the weather” joke from the 1990 gubernatorial campaign has caused some embarassment for John McCain, who cancelled a scheduled fundraiser at Williams’ ranch in response. Part of me is sympathetic to Evan Smith’s suggestion that “the statute of limitations on stupidity” might have run out by now, given Williams’ contrition over his remarks. And part of me is just boggled by this:

Williams, 76, has made and lost fortunes in energy, ranching and other businesses over the past half-century, but is perhaps best known for his 1990 Republican race for governor. The Midland oilman’s controversial campaign comments are widely known in Texas, but McCain aides told reporters they were surprised when they learned of them.

“These were obviously incredibly offensive remarks that the campaign was unaware of at the time this event was scheduled,” said spokesman Brian Rogers. “It’s positive that he did apologize at the time, but the comments are nonetheless offensive.”

Was there really nobody on McCain’s team who knew of this event and who knew about Williams and the blowback his name would cause? I realize that this is all part Kabuki dance, and that in general we’d all be better off if the outrage meter could get dialed back a notch or two when dealing with politicians’ supporters, but come on. Anybody who knew anything about Texas political history could have seen this coming a mile away. Putting it another way, the Bush campaign never would have let this happen. Josh Marshall is right about the relative strengths of the McCain and Obama campaigns, based on the toughness of the paths they took to become the nominees. I was as ready as anyone to see the Clinton/Obama fight come to an end. But I can’t deny that it’s made Obama stronger. All things considered, I’d rather be where Obama is than McCain. This is just an example of why.

Huffman in SD17

We have another contender for the SD17 special election.

Republican Joan Huffman, a former felony court judge in Harris County, announced her candidacy in the Nov. 4 election to fill the vacant District 17 state Senate seat once held by Kyle Janek, who resigned.

Huffman joins Houston lawyer Grant Harpold and Houston businessman Austen Furse as declared candidates in the race.

Democrat Chris Bell, the former congressman who lost the 2006 race for governor, is among those who say they are considering running for the legislative seat.

The underlying dynamic of the race is unlikely to change by this. The Rs have three essentially unknown candidates, though Huffman at least can say she has run for and been elected to public office before; the Dems have a candidate with high name ID and decent poll numbers who right now would be a favorite to lead the pack and maybe win outright. It’s not hard to imagine Bell finishing somewhere in the 40s or a smidge over 50%, with Furse, Harpold, and Huffman all getting in the 15-20% range. The entry of a better-known Republican, or Bell deciding against, would obviously change this equation, but that’s how it looks right now.

Update on Vo’s apartments

State Rep. Hubert Vo, who made front-page news earlier this year when it was reported that some apartment complexes he owns were in violation of city electrical and structural standards, has now been certified by the city as being fully compliant on all points.

The inspectors say Vo cooperated in “good faith” with their demands to replace rotting wood, missing balcony railings and exposed wires.

His properties now meet code requirements, said Susan McMillian, an executive staff analyst with the Department of Public Works and Engineering.

Vo, D-Houston, said Friday that he had done more than required, and he pledged to continue working with residents and managers to improve conditions.

“I want people to know that I kept my promise,” he said. “I told the city that I would take care of their concerns, and I worked as quickly as possible to make all the needed repairs.”

The municipal citations at the Courtyard Apartments on Villa de Matel, which alleged eight structural and electrical problems, were issued 10 days after a warning from the city to make repairs.

City officials only had to issue warnings at the other Vo property, the Northpoint Apartments on Lyerly, to get compliance.

Conditions at the Courtyard Apartments came to light when neighbors complained to District I City Councilman James Rodriguez, who called code enforcement officials for an inspection.

Rodriguez said he learned about the ownership after the city’s initial inspection. He added that Vo later asked him to lunch to discuss the issue, and that he was impressed by Vo’s sincerety.

“He gave me his word that he would fix up the property,” the councilman said.

I’m very glad to hear that. As I said before, this is more like the Rep. Hubert Vo that I have come to know over the past four years. I felt confident he’d fix his problems, and I’m glad to see that he did so quickly and thoroughly.

Some background is here, and a statement from Rep. Vo is here. It might have been nice to give the follow up as much prominence in the paper as the original – it’s on page 3 of the Metro section, with a small teaser on the Metro front page – but that’s the way it is. The Chron also did a lot of subsequent reporting on similar problems at other Houston apartment complexes. May those landlords act as quickly and as conscientiously as Rep. Vo did.

MLB looking at instant replay

Wow. This surprises me.

Instant replay might be coming to Major League Baseball in an instant.

Moving faster than expected and coming after a rash of blown calls, baseball wants to put replay into effect by August for home run disputes in hopes of fine-tuning the system by the playoffs.

MLB and the umpires’ union need to reach agreement before replay can be tried, and the sides have started talking. It was thought replay would get its first look in the Arizona Fall League and then the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

[…]

Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations, is pushing for replay by Aug. 1; Rob Manfred, MLB’s executive vice president of labor relations, suggested Aug. 15.

“It’s all still premature,” MLB spokesman Rich Levin said Friday. “A final decision has not been made.”

As you know, I favor this idea, and I also never thought it might happen this quickly. Good on baseball for being so decisive.

“I don’t think it’s needed at all, to be honest,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Friday. “How many times do you see players make errors? Baseball has talked about speeding up the game. It’s all you hear. All of a sudden, they want instant replay? You’re going to have slower games and more restless people in the stands.”

Oh, please. First of all, if we’re only talking about home run calls, then very few games will be affected. And second, given the amount of times that managers like Lou Piniella spend arguing these calls when they occur, it’s not at all clear that checking a replay would slow things down any more. Admittedly, seeing Piniella blow a gasket is more entertaining; perhaps each stadium can keep a highlight reel of such antics to play on their scoreboards whenever a call is under review.

Anyway. I applaud the Lords of Baseball for giving this serious consideration. May they be as forward-thinking when the technology to accurately and consistently call balls and strikes arrives on the scene.

Demand for mass transit growing

I alluded to this in the post on the new commuter rail plans here, but this MSNBC article makes it clear that demand for transit is booming across the country as gas prices rise.

Mass transit ridership is at its highest point in 50 years, according to research by the American Public Transportation Association. For many riders, it just got too expensive to drive.

“I do it to save gas whenever I can,” said Cody Nunez, a student at Pasco High School in Kennewick, Wash. “I don’t want to be paying $50 every week.”

[…]

The story is the same everywhere: In Seattle, commuter rail ridership recorded the biggest jump in the nation during the first quarter, with 28 percent more riders than during the same time last year. Ridership in Harrisburg, Pa., rose 17 percent. In Oakland, Calif., it rose 15.8 percent.

Nationwide, Americans took 2.6 billion bus, subway, commuter rail and light rail trips in the first three months of the year, 85 million more than in the same period in 2007, the American Public Transportation Association said. But it’s not clear that the nation’s transit systems are able to handle the load.

While many major cities cities have invested heavily in mass transit over the past 15 years, many more have not. Now that people are demanding service, there isn’t the infrastructure to provide it.

“We’re seeing it in a lot of other metropolitan areas where there just [aren’t] viable transit options — places like Indianapolis, Orlando or Raleigh,” said Robert Puentes, a transportation and urban planning scholar with the Brookings Institution, a public policy association in Washington. “They haven’t put the money into it. They haven’t put the resources into it.”

Even those big cities with robust systems are struggling, Puentes said.

“There are major challenges in most of the older, established transit systems, places like New York or Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston — places that are really starting to show their age,” he said.

Houston is in the position of expanding its transit system, thanks to the commuter rail proposals and the Metro Solutions plan. It’s a shame more of these pieces aren’t already in place, but at least they’re on their way, and hopefully more will come as Metro moves to the next phase beyond the 2012 plan.

Mass transit is supposed to get cars off the road, and it’s working: For the first time since 1980, the number of miles driven fell last year, from 3.014 trillion to 3.003 trillion, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The drop continued by another 2.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, the FHA said.

Meanwhile, 61 percent of drivers said in a poll by Quinnipiac University last month that they had cut back significantly on how much they drove because of high gas prices.

In the San Francisco Bay area, one of the most congested regions in the country, traffic has decreased while ridership on Bay Area Rapid Transit, ferries and buses has risen, said Bijan Sartipi, a district director for California Transportation Department.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to stop thinking in terms of transit as a way to ease traffic congestion, and to start thinking of it as a genuine alternative to driving and a car-based lifestyle. People flocked to the far-flung suburbs and put up with long commutes and the need to drive everywhere for everything in part because it made economic sense: Even with the cost of all that driving factored in, the cheaper housing cost made it worthwhile. But with $4-per-gallon gas, that equation gets upended. The monthly cost of an automobile, even one that’s paid off, can be several hundred dollars; it’s certainly a lot more now than it was as little as a year ago. How much more mortgage could you afford if you had one less vehicle to gas, insure, and maintain? I’m guessing that the more-expensive real estate closer in would start to look a lot better to people if it meant they could downsize their garages.

Now of course, that isn’t going to be a truly viable option for most people right now, because Houston’s transit infrastructure is still lacking. But it will be more robust in five years’ time, and it can be even more so in another five years. The transition may be painful, but doing the same old thing and hoping gas prices come down isn’t going to help. The problem isn’t going away.

There are plenty of challenges for the meantime:

[I]ncreased ridership means higher costs for transit systems. That’s because it takes more fuel to move more passengers, and transit systems aren’t getting a break at the pump.

Wichita Transit in Kansas, which has seen a 22 percent increase in ridership, has raised its weekly fuel purchase to 8,000 gallons. One recent delivery cost 30 cents a gallon more than it had the week before, officials said.

That caused the bus service to ask the city council for $210,000 from a reserve fund, money it said was needed to keep buses on the street until July.

“The fuel prices have gone up so dramatically and drastically that even the dramatic increase in ridership is not making up as far as our fuel debt is concerned and our ability to purchase fuel,” said Michael Vinson, the system’s acting director.

Metro is in good shape for diesel fuel prices this fiscal year, but after that it gets ugly.

It all adds up to a conundrum for government officials — high fuel prices send passengers to mass transit but drive down tax revenue and strain fuel budgets.

“With gas at this level, rail and public transit has got to be a bigger and bigger part of our future,” Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine said.

Answers aren’t expected any time soon, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. He added:

“We need a dramatically different energy policy for our country, and that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Well, Step One would be to redirect some federal highway funds to transit projects. The need is there and the trend is clear. And given that there are clear differences in policy ideas on this issue between the Presidential candidates, there’s at least a good chance we’ll see a change of direction soon (thanks to MOMocrats for the link). Ryan Avent has more.

A night at the ballpark

Here’s where I was last night, along with my dad, thanks to my friend Danil and a last-minute invitation of extra tickets:

Some thoughts from the game, in no particular order:

– Good decision #1: We parked a fair distance from the stadium, near Milam and Rusk, and walked. This enabled me to rationalize the beer I bought, it totally avoided traffic, and it was free to boot. What more could you want?

– The pedicabs were out in force. These have apparently been around since the Super Bowl, but I can’t say I’d noticed them till this year. Lots of people took advantage, though we chose to hoof it.

– Rudy Giuliani was in town for the state GOP convention, and he threw out the first pitch. In a show of bipartisan unity, my dad and I reached across the aisle and booed him lustily.

– My camera has a pretty good zoom lens. Here’s Derek Jeter leading off the game:

And here, pulled back a bit, is the first pitch:

There were a lot of flashbulbs popping when Jeter and Alex Rodriguez took their first turns at bat.

– There were quite a few fans wearing Yankee colors, but the Astros crowd was loud and proud.

– Good decision #2: Buying the 24-ounce Shiner beers, instead of the regular 12-ounce size. At the price ($9.50) for twice the beer, it’s actually a pretty good deal. The beer vendors are going to rake in the tips this weekend, with all three games sold out.

– Who knew Shiner made 24-ounce bottles? I must not shop in the right stores.

– The Astros not only have recycling receptacles everywhere for cans and bottles, they also ran a PSA video pointing this out to fans, and explaining that every time you stick a bottle or can into one of them, you can win free tickets to upcoming games. The beer vendors were also recycling their glass bottles. Now that’s how you do it!

– In the top of the 9th, the home plate ump called Jose Valverde for a balk; he apparently fast-pitched Jason Giambi with Hidecki Matsui on first. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pitcher called for a balk for not coming to a complete stop in the stretch before delivering before.

– Two people in our row actually left the game during the bottom of the ninth. What kind of baseball fan does that in a one-run game with the tying run on base? After Wiggington was nailed stealing second, some others joined them, and that I understood a bit more. But still. It was a one run game in the bottom of the ninth! Where’s the fire?

– Best of all, we get to see tonight’s game as well. Woo hoo!