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June 18th, 2008:

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.