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April 29th, 2014:

More on the Bush Foundation literacy effort

We had the preview story, now we have the rollout story about the efforts by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation to tackle the problem of illiteracy.

The nascent campaign to improve Houstonians’ reading skills got a $300,000 kick-start Thursday from the federal agency that oversees community service.

The three-year grant will fund 15 workers to assist the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, which is spearheading a local reading improvement effort.

Wendy Spencer, who leads the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C., held up a brown cowboy boot as she announced the grant.

“We are going to stamp out illiteracy and we’re gonna put boots on the ground,” Spencer said.

[…]

The year-old foundation so far has raised about $2 million and has distributed several grants, paying for training for volunteers and books for children.

The foundation has not detailed the cost of its plan or explained how it would be funded, though officials are hoping for some donations from businesses as well as to reallocate money agencies may be spending now on literacy efforts.

Despite numerous city and school district reading programs, roughly one in five Houston adults lacks basic literacy skills, as do tens of thousands of local schoolchildren.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said she expects the campaign will unite and improve efforts to combat illiteracy.

“We have a very robust after-school program. We have a robust summer reading program,” Parker said. “But we can do a lot of great work and still fail.”

Across the country, more than 140 communities, including Houston, have signed onto a national effort called Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a push to ensure students read proficiently by the end of third grade.

See here for the background. My brief thoughts on this are as follows: One, illiteracy and a large number of schoolkids reading below grade level are major problems, and the Bush Foundation is doing the Lord’s work in trying to ameliorate them. Two, I still haven’t seen their report. Three, I’ve asked around but I still don’t know what if any interaction they will have with HISD or other school districts on this. And four, anything that can get Barbara Bush to wear eye-black and shoulder pads has to be good for something. That’s all I’ve got.

The city and the downtown post office

Not sure what all the fuss about this is about.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Developers eager to purchase the high-profile U.S. Postal Service site downtown – envisioned in recent years as a park, outdoor amphitheater or a development with housing and entertainment venues – are competing for the property with the city of Houston, which is considering putting its new justice complex there.

Some private interests have sought to dissuade city officials from seeking the 16-acre property, at Bagby and Franklin just east of Interstate 45, which went on the market last fall.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she learned the city had bid on the site from developers, and has spoken with Brad Freels of Midway Development about his concerns with the city’s involvement. Freels could not be reached for comment.

Stardig said she is sympathetic, noting the redeveloped site could be a “jewel” for the city, not to mention a boon for city coffers.

“Unless there’s a real need, I’m not very supportive of having the city competing with private developers on prime real estate in the city, from a cost factor and for many other reasons,” she said.

[…]

The city’s interest, said some City Council members and city officials, is driven by a desire to start fresh on the post office site rather than rebuilding at the current cops-and-courts complex at 61 Riesner, where construction crews would have to work around existing facilities. Other officials said the site could have uses other than for the justice complex.

Councilman Jerry Davis said he was told the city could recoup the purchase price of the 16-acre post office site by selling the 18-acre tract on Riesner, which is just west of the post office site.

Any developers stirring dissent about the city’s involvement likely are doing so out of self-interest, Davis said.

“We’re certainly not going to pay more than what it’s worth,” he said. “I do have full faith in our development department – even though I don’t like some things they do – as far as getting an estimated value from outside appraisers.”

The Riesner site is home to five aging facilities, including Houston’s central jail and the main municipal courthouse. A study concluded the buildings need $55 million in repairs.

Police headquarters at 1200 Travis also needs work and is too small, officials have said; it would be sold and consolidated into the new complex. The new facility would not house a jail, thanks to voters’ approval last fall of a joint city-county inmate processing center.

I have no problem with the city bidding a fair market price for this property. They have a purpose in mind for it, and they can recoup much if not all of the purchase price by selling off the properties that would be vacated if they bought and renovated this site. Sure, it would be nice to have some kind of mixed-use development there, and if Metro ever does build an Inner Katy light rail line, this location would be just about perfect to tie it into the existing Harrisburg and Southeast lines, but there’s no guarantee of either of these things happening. If the city’s perfectly legitimate interest in this parcel – and let’s be clear, it may never get past the “interest” stage – forces developers to make more competitive bids, then that’s fine by me. If a private investor winds up buying this property, I feel pretty confident they’ll be able to get a nice return on it.

Metro to make real time bus info available

Good news from Metro:

METRO’s partnership with Google is getting real – as in offering real-time bus info.

To sweeten the ‘real’ deal, METRO will also be providing Google with detour alerts as well.

“We are focused on improving the customer experience,” said METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia. “Not only will our customers know when their bus will arrive, but if there’s a detour in place on their route, that information will pop up and they can factor this in their plans, too.”

If for any reason a bus loses connectivity – as the GPS information is transmitted via cellular communications – trips posted will revert to the bus’ scheduled times.

About 77 percent of METRO’s bus fleet is currently equipped with the hardware to provide real-time bus information. The agency is working to bring the remainder of the fleet online.
METRO TRIP app logo

As a reminder – the agency offers other rider tools such as the METRO T.R.I.P. app which helps customers on-the-go plan their trip using scheduled and real-time information, among other features.

“METRO is the first major transit agency, that we’re aware of, to develop its own stand-alone transit app,” said METRO President & CEO Tom Lambert. “We are trying to make it easier for our customers to navigate our system by bringing these types of tools to their fingertips.”

METRO first teamed up with Google in 2008 by sharing its schedules which were loaded into Google Maps for quick, easy trip planning. Of the two trip planners METRO offers on its website, about 50 percent use Google Maps.

The agency’s trip planner will continue to be available to customers but will be phased out in the future.

METRO’s real-time data on Google Maps rolls out Friday, April 25.

Very cool. To me, the most stressful part of taking the bus, which I do at least once a week these days, is not knowing how long it will be before the next bus arrives. I always have the feeling as I approach a bus stop from a direction where I can’t see the traffic coming that there’s a bus just about to arrive and I’m going to miss it. Now at least I’ll be able to either reassure myself that I’ve got plenty of time to get to the stop, or make myself walk faster. Either way it’s a win.

Uber’s “safe rides fee”

From Wonkblog on Friday:

Uber is rolling out a $1 surcharge today on all rides offered through its less expensive car-for-hire service UberX. This isn’t the company’s black town car operation, but the down-market version that enables anyone with a spare back seat to give rides to strangers (with smart phones) for money.

The surcharge has an explicit label: It’s a “safe rides fee.” And it mimics a similar $1 line item that competitor Lyft calls a “trust & safety fee.”

So why are your e-hailing receipts growing more complicated? The economics of peer-to-peer transportation services are, too, as companies like Uber and Lyft increasingly fall under the same expectations that govern the heavily regulated taxi industry.

A large part of what’s going on here is that most personal auto insurance policies don’t cover commercial uses of a car (whether you’re using your car to deliver pizzas or people). That means that if you get in a crash while giving someone a ride in your Camry for pay, your regular insurance company probably won’t cover it. So, then, who will?

[…]

Now, as more cities and states look to regulate peer-to-peer transportation providers, these companies will inevitably need to close the liability and safety gaps created when non-professional drivers use their personal cars to make money. They will need to clarify, as Uber has, that commercial insurance covers drivers even in between trips, on the way from one fare to another and when there’s no passenger in the back seat.

I presume this now applies in Houston as well. Has anyone had a ride on Uber since they went rogue and started charging fares?

Meanwhile, some high profile folks in San Antonio are starting a petition drive to get their Council to approve Uber and Lyft.

The 80/20 Foundation, the private foundation of Rackspace Co-founder and Chairman and interim CEO Graham Weston, has launched a petition on Change.org calling for Mayor Julián Castro’s support of rideshare in San Antonio.

“The City of San Antonio should embrace policies in support of entrepreneurship, ridesharing and welcome these apps to San Antonio to combat drunk driving, reduce road congestion, make a positive impact on the environment and improve public safety and transportation options for our community,” states the petition, 775 people have digitally signed it as of 4:23 p.m. Wednesday.

[…]

San Antonio’s City Council Public Safety Committee is set to meet on May 7 to hear the results of McManus’ and his team’s research and inquiry into how to deal with Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Lyft and Uber.

It’s possible that accommodating ordinances/regulation could be created as the California Public Utilities Commission did in September 2013 – but it’s also possible that they’ll recommend to limit or outlaw rideshare operations.

They have a copy of the lawsuit that was filed previously. Perhaps this persuasion effort will be somewhat more laid back than the one in Houston was. When is this going to be on Council’s agenda again?