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June 19th, 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.