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April 12th, 2013:

Friday random ten: The city never sleeps, part 1

The musical geography continues as we move from states to cities. If only I had at least ten songs about city-states…

1. Abilene – Yes
2. Albuquerque – Weird Al Yankovic
3. All The Way To Memphis – Mott the Hoople
4. Allentown – Billy Joel
5. Amsterdam – Asylum Street Spankers
6. Anahuac – Austin Lounge Lizards
7. Anchorage – Michelle Shocked
8. Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen
9. Baltimore – Eddie From Ohio
10. Bangkok/One Night In Bangkok – Murray Head

“Bangkok/One Night In Bangkok” is from the “Chess” soundtrack, but it was also a hit in its own right for Murray Head. Note that nearly all of the song titles above are simply the name of the town. That turns out to be an aberration – going forward, most of the titles contain the name of a city but aren’t just the name. I don’t know what it is about A-name cities, but there you have it.

Senate to tap that Rainy Day Fund

It is just sitting there, not doing any good if it’s unused.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, laid out an ambitious plan to spend $6 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund on Thursday morning while also setting the stage for a serious debate in the remaining weeks of the session on whether to tap the fund for public education.

Williams’ proposal, called Senate Joint Resolution 1, would ask Texas voters to approve spending $3.5 billion on transportation projects and $2.5 billion on water projects. The comptroller’s office has projected the fund, fed largely by taxes on the state’s oil and gas production, will grow to $11.8 billion by the end of the next biennium.

The Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted the resolution out of the committee to be considered by the full Senate.

Williams said he was willing to consider amendments to the resolution that would put money toward public education. Since last year, Democrats in both the House and Senate have suggested tapping the fund to help restore some of the cuts made to schools in 2011. Most Republicans in the Legislature have dismissed the proposal as a nonstarter, explaining that the fund should not be used for recurring expenses such as school spending.

“I’m willing to consider a thoughtful amendment that would address some of our public education concerns,” Williams said. He also didn’t rule out considering amendments related to spending from the fund on health-related state expenses.

[…]

Williams’ proposal as drafted would create two new state funds: the State Water Implementation Fund of Texas, also known as SWIFT, and the State Infrastructure Fund. The former would be used to fund projects in the statewide water plan, which lists $53 billion in water-supply projects including reservoirs, wells, pipelines and desalination facilities.

The Senate Finance Committee was unanimously supportive of the part of the plan spending money on water projects. State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, described it as “visionary.”

The portion of the plan going to transportation was less well-received, as some senators worried the plan wouldn’t do enough to address a projected funding shortfall at the Texas Department of Transportation and would increase public debt. Under Williams’ proposal, TxDOT would largely make use of the State Infrastructure Fund to help local communities move forward with road, port and freight rail projects by either loaning out money for the projects or helping public entities borrow money for the projects at lower interest rates.

Williams, a former Senate Transportation Committee chairman, made it clear that he did not believe his plan was enough to address the state’s transportation issues. TxDOT has said it needs $4 billion in new revenue each year just to keep traffic levels around the state from getting worse.

“I don’t believe this is the silver bullet that’s going to solve our transportation problems, but I believe it’s part of a solution that must include robust new funding for road construction,” Williams said.

The House has already passed a bill to use Rainy Day funds for SWIFT. I feel about the same way as described above – it’s a decent idea for water projects, less so for transportation projects, since it will mostly push the cost of those projects to local government, which will mean a lot more toll roads, not all of which will be successful. As for the debate about using some funds to make school districts whole (or at least whole-r), all I can say is that I wish everyone had been this enthusiastic about the Rainy Day Fund two years ago when we really needed it. Of course, at the time the Lege was likely counting on the Rainy Day Fund to cover the planned shortfalls they built in for Medicaid and the delayed payments to school districts. Turns out they didn’t need to be so tight, and they can thank Rick Perry and his lines in the sand for enabling them to avoid public discussions of why they weren’t planning to use the RDF to help schools. The Texas AFT is unimpressed.

The debate about using Rainy Day funds for schools when SJR1 hits the floor promises to be a lively one.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he wants to add $2.4 billion to the package to fully restore $5.4 billion in education cuts made two years ago.

“I think there’s information that I’d like to share with all the members of the committee and take a look at what really happened,” Williams responded, “because when we consider on an all-funds basis, there weren’t $5.4 billion in cuts.

“There were cuts and I wish that we hadn’t had to make any of those cuts,” he added. “But I think it was more on the order of $800 million when we look at the total impact on school districts.” Williams added that, as a result of a proposed state budget, school districts are now “up by about $4.5 billion from where they were.”

Williams’ assessment brought a fiery reaction from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who has made restoration of education cuts one of her top priorities.

“It’s absurd,” she said following the committee meeting. “I’ts the same fuzzy math that the Republican leadership used we we finished the (2011) session claiming to have added money in public education when school districts all over Texas were laying teachers off and enlarging classroom sizes.

Davis said that cuts to education have totaled $8.3 billion since 2009.

Nothing like a dispute about the basic facts to keep things fresh. I’ll be greatly disappointed if at least some of the livestream video doesn’t get put on YouTube afterwards.

One more thing:

Williams’ resolution explicitly states that none of the State Infrastructure Fund’s spending can go toward passenger rail projects, which Williams described as “a black hole for money.”

“One passenger rail project would burn up the money in this fund,” Williams said. “I just don’t think it’s a wise use of state resources.”

I think that’s needlessly restrictive, but whatever. If the folks pushing that high speed rail network do a good job of it, I suspect there will be state money available to them if they ask nicely.

Houston considers a “Safe Passing” ordinance

Glad to hear it.

Though it boasts a growing biking culture, Houston is the only major city in Texas without a safe-passing law requiring motorists to share the road with cyclists and others. City leaders now want to change that.

City attorneys proposed an ordinance to the City Council’s public safety committee Wednesday that officials said should come up for a vote soon. Bike advocates cheered the proposal, but said they hope it will be amended to more closely mirror a model ordinance, drafted by Austin-based nonprofit BikeTexas, that is working its way through the Legislature.

Fourteen other Texas cities, most using BikeTexas’ proposal, have approved safe-passing laws since Gov. Rick Perry’s 2009 veto of a bill that would have required drivers to keep a minimum distance from cyclists. Nationwide, 39 states have adopted safe passing laws.

Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, said making safe-passing laws as uniform as possible will improve efforts to educate drivers about the need to share the road. The model ordinance, he added, has been picked over by scores of lawmakers and has solid compromises built in.

“This is important so that they pass the state law,” Stallings said of Houston’s efforts. “It’s an educational tool and very valuable, as an ordinance, to begin that process of education, but it’s going to be more effective once it’s more universal.”

Houston’s proposal would require drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space when passing and 6 feet when trailing, and would require them to change lanes to give cyclists more room, where possible. Violators could be fined up to $500.

The ordinance also would protect pedestrians, runners, stranded motorists, construction workers, tow truck operators, riders on horseback and other “vulnerable” road users.

This subject came up in February, and at that time there was no apparent interest in a Houston ordinance. I supported this in 2009 when a bill that Rick Perry ultimately vetoed was passed by the Legislature, and I support it now. There are some issues that need to be worked out before the Houston ordinance comes up for a vote in Council, so if you have any feedback I recommend you contact the office of CM Ed Gonzalez, who is the Chair of the Public Safety committee, which is working on this. A lot of bicyclist are killed or injured every year in preventable accidents. Laws like this can help reduce that number.

Is this the end of hockey in Houston again?

Looks like it.

As the Houston Chronicle first reported in January, it appears the Houston Aeros’ 19-year run in Houston is all but over.

An announcement could be coming in the next couple of weeks, basically after the Aeros’ season, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported Tuesday.

The Aeros, affliated with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, are expected to move to Des Moines, Iowa.

The reason for the move was that the team has been unable to extend its lease at Toyota Center.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority has looked into alternative venues – primarily Reliant Arena – for the minor league hockey franchise but has found none suitable.

I confess, I don’t follow the Aeros very closely – it’s been at least ten years since I’ve been to a game. I didn’t even realize they were now affiliated with an NHL team. What I do know is that if they can’t renew their lease at the Toyota Center, they may as well move. Tiffany and I were for awhile season ticket holders for the Houston Comets, and they played one year at Reliant Arena, their last year before folding. It was a truly awful venue – dingy, lots of poor sight lines, lousy or non-existent amenities, and no option to park for free on the street. Maybe it’s better now, and maybe the replacement facility that has been talked about as part of an Astrodome plan would be better – it could hardly be worse – but that would be of little help to the Aeros. So yeah, Toyota Center or bust. Good luck with that. Hair Balls, which also wrote about this last week, has more.

Get ready to hear more about Texas high speed rail

I for one can’t wait.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway has spent the last few years privately — very privately — looking at how to connect Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston with a bullet train moving upwards of 200 miles per hour. But soon, they say, those private plans will become quite public when they issue a notice of intent. That in turn will trigger an environmental impact statement evaluating the would-be, could-be rail alignment and the proposed stops between here and down there.

“It’s almost like jumping out of the frying pan into another frying pan when the public process starts,” says Travis Kelly, the director at Texas Central High-Speed Railway tasked with handling the marketing.

Kelly says the private operator — a consortium that also includes Central Japan Railway Company — hopes to reveal its preferred and alternative alignments this summer. At least, he says, “That’s when we expect to be ready.” But it’s also up to the Federal Railroad Administration, which will oversee the project — even though it’s not funding it. There also needs to be a determination of “which state agencies will play a role” in the line, he says, referring, of course, to at least the Texas Department of Transportation, which also hopes to see high-speed rail travel between Houston and the DFW.

Kelly says Texas Central High-Speed Railway got on board with DFW-Houston long before TxDOT applied for its federal grant. He says the group studied 97 city pairs throughout the U.S. Some, he acknowledges, would generate higher ridership than the Texas route. And some, he says, would have been cheaper to build.

“But we saw a significant need for high-speed rail in the state,” he says. “You have two large metropolitan areas on either end of a flat undeveloped piece of the state and no legacy carrier, and we saw a good opportunity to fulfill a need and make a profit. I wouldn’t say we’re doing it because TxDOT can’t … but Dallas-Houston was right in that sweet spot where we thought we could build it cheap enough and pay off construction costs over time. We talk frequently about our model not being one-size-fits-all. We think this approach is custom-made for Texas.”

[…]

And, finally, The Big Question: Is Southwest Airlines standing in the way of the bullet train as it did in 1991, when the Texas TGV Consortium tried to tie together Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio only to run into the Love Field carrier’s giant fist clenching a fat wallet?

“We’ve briefed them,” Kelly says. “We haven’t tried to hide from them. But we have been observing the changes in the aviation market in the state over the last 15 years, and the distance between Dallas and Houston is such that a lot of business travelers have decided not to fool with security and just drive. More people drive than used to. We don’t feel like it’s as much a head-to-head with the airline. The state is growing in such a way that there’s plenty of market for both us and Southwest. To date they’ve been neutral on the project, as far as their last statement, which is an upgrade form where they were 20 years ago.”

See here for the last update I had on this particular rail project, which is not the only one being studied in Texas. I think the last paragraph above is the key to understanding why this sort of thing seems to finally be getting some traction. Air travel is increasingly expensive and a hassle; by the time you factor in getting to the terminal and going through security, the total time for a short hope such as Houston to Dallas is comparable to driving. Or at least, it would be comparable under conditions of no traffic or construction, and what are the odds of that? Put it all together, and taking a train to and from more-convenient central city locations starts to look pretty appealing. Cheaper than flying, faster than driving, less stressful than either – what’s not to like? Despite all that it’s still a bit hard to believe that it’s actually happening, since we’ve been hearing about high speed rail in Texas since about five minutes after the ink on the first draft of the state constitution was dry, but here we are. We’ll be able to see for ourselves what this might look like very soon.