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March 26th, 2011:

Saturday video break: Ease on down the road

We took the girls to see a children’s-theater production of “The Wizard of Oz” last weekend, and that made me think of this:

Alas, I couldn’t find a clip of this from the movie, but if you just want to hear the original, uninterrupted song, go here. Thinking about that also got me to thinking about the late, great Nipsey Russell, about whom you can hear a tribute from NPR here. I’d say someone needs to revive “The Wiz”, but honestly I don’t know how you can top the talent from the original.

No more free tows

Change is coming to SafeClear – it will now cost $50 for a tow on a highway inside the city, instead of it being provided for free.

Passing the cost of towing to motorists is expected to save the city about $3.3 million a year, one of numerous steps the city is considering to close a $130 million budget gap for the year that begins July 1.

“We can no longer afford to pay for this program,” said Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who chairs council’s transportation committee and helped work out the new arrangement with city-contracted towing companies.

The SafeClear program’s operations will not change much beyond the pay-at-the-curb proposal. When a car breaks down in the emergency lane, a city-dispatched truck arrives within six minutes and tows it from the freeway, with or without the driver’s consent. Currently, the city pays the towing company $50 per vehicle cleared from the freeway.

Jeanette Rash, of the SafeClear Management Group, a consortium of towing companies that patrol the freeways and respond to city dispatchers’ calls, said she is trying to arrange direct billing to insurance companies so motorists do not have to pay tow truck drivers up front and later seek reimbursement under their policies.

Considering that ending the program altogether had been on the table, that’s not so bad. There are still issues to be worked out, such as how to deal with uninsured and indigent motorists, and of course Council will weigh in, which is sure to mean some non-trivial amount of disagreement. But one way or another, SafeClear is going to be different.

Smaller cuts from the Senate

Trail Blazers:

The Senate Finance Committee on Thursday adopted a school funding plan for the next two years that would cut basic funding for school districts by nearly 6 percent – or $2 billion a year – to handle a massive state revenue shortfall. The committee voted 13-2 to approve the recommendations of a special subcommittee on education funding that was chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who also serves on the finance committee. The two no votes were cast by Democrats on the panel.

The proposal is less than half the 15 percent reduction in education funding contained in a preliminary Senate budget plan and is well under a House proposal that would trim an estimated $3.9 billion a year – or $7.8 billion over the next two years – from school district budgets. Senators are still looking for potential revenue sources to make up the estimated $5.3 billion that would be needed to fund their budget for public education. Tapping the state’s rainy day fund also has been mentioned as a possibility.

This is considerably better than the House version, not that that’s a high bar to clear. It’s also slightly better than the optimistic scenario that HISD optimistic scenario, a fact that was noted by trustees.

[HISD Chief Financial Officer Melinda] Garrett said the senate finance bill is looking at a 7-8 percent cut in funds which for HISD would amount to a cut of $105 million to $119 million – a lot but still less than the $160 million HISD had projected. In addition to that, HISD projects added costs of $11 million in the next year.

That’s the good news. The bad news, of course, is that the Senate hasn’t figured out yet how to pay for any of this yet. It’s also far from certain that the House would go along with whatever they come up with. Sen. Shapiro’s plan still includes nearly $800 million for new textbooks and discretionary grants, which means she’s still prioritizing the new STAAR tests. I’d rather see every penny go to keeping teachers and support personnel. And the fact that we’re talking about “only” a $4 billion cut to public ed in positive terms gives you some idea of how debased this session has been. But you take your itty bitty teeny tiny signs of progress where you can. Postcards has more.

Meanwhile, another Senate committee did more of the same.

Deliberation about what to cut — and whom to save — ended with a vote to restore $4.5 billion to state health agencies at a Senate Health and Human Services sub-committee hearing this morning. The issue now goes to the full Senate Finance Committee, which will debate whether to add the funds back into the Senate appropriations bill.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says this morning’s vote “represents our best effort to address our top needs first,” and will restore 505 full-time positions and funding for programs like Early Childhood Intervention and foster care. It will also, she says, significantly reduce cuts to reimbursement rates for physicians, hospitals and nursing homes.

But some senators argue that funding should be restored for more services. “Certainly the $4.5 billion restoration is a positive step, but we all know that we need more,” says State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who voted against moving the measure to the full Finance Committee. “How can I vote for something that I know is going to create pain [and] cut basic services for thousands of Texans, when I know there’s still an option of … the Rainy Day Fund that’s across the street in the bank?”

As with the Finance bill, this has the same obstacles of needing to identify where the revenue is coming from and convincing the House to go along. Again, I’m glad to see even inadequate baby steps in the right direction, but there’s so much more that is needed. The Trib has more.

I-10 service road update

From Ultimate Heights:

Two of six planned detention ponds are under construction near Interstate 10 east of Patterson Street, along with new feeder roads between Shepherd and Taylor.

Work on the project began in October, with the first two detention ponds scheduled for completion near the end of this year, two Texas Department of Transportation representatives said March 8.

Alan Wang, supervising design engineer, and Elie J. Alkhoury, assistant director of the transportation department’s consultant contract administration, spoke at a meeting of the Greater Houston Heights Community Emergency Response Team.

The meeting took place at Holy Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church, 211 Byrne St.

Building the feeder roads is expected to take another three years, the two said.

The project is designed to prevent catastrophic flooding on Interstate 10 near White Oak Bayou, which happened during Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001, they said.

“I-10 acted as a detention pond in Allison,” Wang said. “We’re trying to make sure this won’t happen again.”

Four more detention ponds will be built between Studemont and Taylor on the north side of the freeway, within the I-10 right-of-way that varies between about 200 feet and 500 feet, Wang said.

The retention ponds have been on the agenda for awhile – I have a note about a public meeting to discuss them from 2006. You can also find some schematics for the service roads here, from 2008. With the way this is snarling traffic in my neck of the woods, the bit about construction lasting till 2014 is enough to give me a migraine. Odds are good that the Heights Wal-Mart will be built before the service roads are done, which makes the Ainbinder traffic study even less useful. Anyway, just wanted to pass this along.

District H redistricting town hall meeting

From the inbox:

City of Houston Redistricting 2011 Town Hall Meeting (District H)

Mayor Annise D. Parker
District H Council Member Edward Gonzalez
City of Houston Attorney Dave Feldman

Monday, March 28, 2011
6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Jefferson Davis High School
1101 Quitman Street
Houston, Texas 77009

Parking located behind school (along Tackaberry Street off Quitman Street or Morris Street off Fulton Street)

The City of Houston Charter requires that Houston City Council expand to eleven single-member districts at such point that census data demonstrates that the city’s population exceeds 2.1 million residents. With council’s confirmation that the city has surpassed this threshold, the City has embarked on the process of creating Districts J and K.

The City is interested in hearing from you and your neighborhood regarding your suggestions for the configuration of the new council districts. There will NOT be a map of new districts available at the redistricting meetings. This phase of the process is designed to hear from the public BEFORE the City of Houston draws a proposed map.

You are invited to attend this town hall meeting and tell us what you think. Go to for more information.

If you have questions or concerns, contact [email protected] or call 713.837.7826.

Here’s a map to the location. Be there if you can.