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February 11th, 2013:

And maybe we won’t need as much road capacity as we think, either

Felix Salmon writes about the possible implications of driverless cars.

While I’ve generally been a fan of just about any alternative to the automobile, now I’m not so sure: I think that smart car technology is improving impressively, to the point at which it could be the most promising solution, especially in developed parts of the world like California.

One reason is simply fiscal. Projects like the self-driving car, and the Sartre platooning project in Europe, move the costs of new technology onto companies (Google) and individuals (people buying smart cars). As such, while the total amount of money spent might well be enormous, the money doesn’t need to be spent up-front by any state or national government. That stands in stark contrast, of course, to rail projects, which cost billions of dollars up front; if they ever do pay for themselves, they do so only very slowly.

It makes perfect sense for dense urban areas to invest in subway systems, of course — as China is doing; India should follow suit. A pedestrian-friendly city with a great bike-path network and a fast subway system is basically any urbanist’s dream, both energy-efficient and reasonably low-tech. But between cities and suburbs, or between cities, you need other ways of getting around. And here there are real choices to be made, between rail and roads. Or rather, given that roads are necessary, do you build roads and railways, or can you solve all your problems with roads alone?


If and when self-driving cars really start taking off, it’s easy to see where the road leads. Firstly, they probably won’t be operated on the owner-occupier model that we use for cars today, where we have to leave our cars parked for 97% of their lives just so that we know they’re going to be available for us when we need them. Given driverless cars’ ability to come pick you up whenever you need one, it makes much more sense to just join a network of such things, giving you the same ability to drive your car when you’re at home, or in a far-flung city, or whenever you might normally take a taxi. And the consequence of that is much less need for parking (right now there are more than three parking spots for every car), and therefore the freeing up of lots of space currently given over to parking spots.

What’s more, the capacity of all that freed-up space will be much greater than the capacity of our current roads. Put enough platoons and self-driving cars onto the road, and it’s entirely conceivable that the number of vehicle-miles driven per hour, on any given stretch of road, could double from its current level, even without any increase in the speed limit. Then, take account of the fact that vehicle mileage will continue to improve. The result is that with existing dumb roads, we could wind up moving more people more miles for less total energy expenditure in cars — even when most of those cars continue to have just one person in them — than by forcing those people to cluster together and take huge, heavy trains instead.

This vision creates a dilemma, when we start facing choices about building rail lines or new suburbs. We’re not in a self-driving-car utopia yet, and the transportation problems we have are both real and solvable using rail. So do we use the tools we have, or do we wait and hope that future technology will solve our problems in a more efficient way?

Via Kevin Drum, who is particularly bullish about this. The implication here is that maybe, just maybe, we don’t really need all that extra road capacity that TxDOT says we need but can’t pay for and for which we’re currently groping around for funding sources. Sure, this is all pie in the sky, but driverless cars do exist, and they’re surely going to be a disruptive force. Predicting the future, especially that far out, is hard, you know? Just something to keep in mind, that’s all.

Feds get involved in Dewhurst campaign embezzlement case

The plot thickens.

Maybe this is why he was so sad

The campaign manager for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, already facing a state investigation over allegations of theft from Dewhurst’s political account, has been accused of also taking at least $1 million from the Republican’s U.S. Senate campaign last year. Federal officials have opened an investigation of their own.

Kenneth “Buddy” Barfield, a longtime political adviser to the lieutenant governor, stole at least $1 million from Dewhurst’s failed Senate campaign for his own use, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission by lawyers for Dewhurst.

The Dewhurst campaign’s internal investigation “found that Mr. Barfield knowingly supplied false information to the Dewhurst campaign, which then caused the Dewhurst campaign to report a number of inaccurate transactions” in disclosure reports required under federal law, the lawyers wrote.


The new disclosure widens the potential criminal liability for Barfield, who is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. And it deepens the political fallout for Dewhurst, who has said he knew nothing of the financial irregularities until a campaign accountant notified him in early December.

The Dewhurst campaign sent the federal agency extensive amended campaign finance reports that removed from the original reports a long list of transactions “which did not actually occur.”

The letter also indicates that because of Barfield’s machinations, Dewhurst’s U.S. Senate campaign account owes money to his state political account — an apparent violation of federal campaign finance laws — for consulting services.


Dewhurst campaign officials said Barfield concealed his theft from the state account by falsifying bank deposit slips, vendor invoices and finance reports to make it appear that campaign accounts had far more cash on hand than they actually did. In the meantime, he and his side businesses, such as Alexander Group Consulting, were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for services — many of which were never delivered.

Barfield associates have said he was involved in high-dollar property deals and other business ventures across the country that might have led to his alleged actions with the campaign accounts.

Federal reports filed by Dewhurst’s Senate campaign showed similar practices by Barfield in handling funds for that account. They included numerous companies — such as campaign and media consultants — who were not paid for their services.

Dewhurst campaign officials also said they were sending refund checks to contributors who made maximum $2,500 donations for the general election campaign last year. Dewhurst was defeated in the GOP primary runoff by Ted Cruz and didn’t make it to the general election.

In all, about $780,000 in refunds will be sent out by the end of the week. Dewhurst apparently had to personally supply some of the money used to issue the refunds.

See here for some background. What a big, ugly mess this is. Barfield apparently had some business dealings that went south, which seem to have left him in a cash crunch. Given that, it’s not too surprising that he might have taken advantage of the large supply of campaign money that had been entrusted to his care. The DMN story indicates that Barfield had financial issues going back to at least 2009, which makes one wonder if Dewhurst was unaware of what was going on with his campaign manager, or if he knew but trusted him anyway. Either way, it sure bit him in the hindquarters. The Statesman has more.

That drought we’re having? It’s still bad

So says our state climatologist in testimony before the Lege.

John Nielsen-Gammon

John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said that during the past two years Texas received only 68 percent of its typical rainfall, making it the third driest period on record. If the extreme conditions extend through the summer, only the 1950s drought would be drier, he said.

“There is still a good chance that this could be the drought of record for parts of the state,” Nielsen-Gammon told lawmakers.

The most recent federal data shows 90 percent of Texas experiencing abnormally dry conditions, with 22 percent in extreme or exceptional drought. Meanwhile, the amount of water stored in reservoirs statewide is at its lowest point for this time of year since 1990, state officials said.

Against that backdrop, lawmakers are considering a one-time transfer from the state’s unencumbered rainy day fund into a new account to help pay for reservoirs, pipelines and other water-supply projects. The Texas Water Development Board has identified $53 billion in needed infrastructure to avoid grave shortages over the next half-century.

Seems like every time I write about the drought we get a good soaking, so consider this my contribution to drought relief. As Forrest Wilder noted, Nielsen-Gammon even managed to talk about the correlation between climate change and drought without anyone’s head exploding, so you know, progress. Let’s see if that makes it easier to take action.

How much protection from liability do they need?

State Impact asks a good question.

The electricity industry is among the biggest of the big spenders on lobbying the Texas legislature. So when bills are introduced giving the industry extraordinary protection from law suits, you can bet somebody’s going to cry foul.

“It’s a very unusual bill,” says Andrew Wheat at Texans for Public Justice, a corporate watchdog group in Austin.

Wheat’s talking about HB 404, introduced by a Republican representative from Houston, Sarah Davis. The bill is almost identical to HB 258 introduced by fellow Republican from Houston, Jim Murphy.

Both lawmakers say their bills are to allow the construction of hike and bike trails in Harris County on utility-owned rights-of-way, those big ribbons of green that cut across cities. Though primarily for the tall transmission line towers, the rights-of-way would make perfect places to build trails. (Houston voters recently approved $166 million in bonds to fund new trails.)

The owner of such rights-of-way in the Houston area is CenterPoint Energy. It has refused to allow the trails. Why? In an email to StateImpact, a CenterPoint media liaison said it would permit trails “if — and only if — the Texas Legislature provides additional liability protection to CenterPoint from people entering its rights of way.”

What has resulted, though, are bills that would give what lawyers say is almost blanket immunity to CenterPoint Energy should someone get hurt on company property while using it for recreation, even if CenterPoint was “grossly negligent.”

At the request of StateImpact, Richard Alderman, the associate dean of the University of Texas Law Center, took a look at the proposed legislation.

“It’s extremely broad and offers almost unlimited protection from liability beyond what any other entity doing the exact same thing under the exact same circumstances would have,” said Alderman.

He questioned why a new law was even necessary since Texas already has a “recreational use statute” which he says provides substantial protection for property owners when their land is used by others for things like hunting, hiking or biking.

“Frankly, under the recreational liability statute, I doubt there are very many law suits based on somebody who has a hike and bike trail,” said Alderman.

This came up in the 2011 session, but the bill filed by Rep. Davis didn’t go anywhere. I’d certainly like to see these trails built, but I don’t see why CenterPoint needs any special protection. As the story notes, trails like what would be built here already exist on utility-owned rights of way elsewhere. If CenterPoint already has a significant level of protection from liability, and if Oncor in Dallas didn’t need a law written for them to let its right of way be used for this purpose, then why are we even having this discussion? Perhaps what we really need is a little pressure on CenterPoint to drop the unreasonable demands, not to accommodate them. Via Swamplot.