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May 19th, 2016:

Paxton asks the feds if they’re sure about that bathroom thing

Just checking, I’m sure.

Best mugshot ever

Best mugshot ever

Will public schools really lose federal education funding if they refuse to comply with a new Obama administration directive regarding transgender students?

That’s the basic query posed by top lawyers from Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia in a letter sent Tuesday to the U.S. Justice and Education departments seeking clarification on the directive, which advises the nation’s public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that match their gender identity.

The guidance, issued Friday by those agencies, came days after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the resignation of the Fort Worth ISD superintendent for implementing similar rules designed to help educators abide by an updated nondiscrimination policy.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has already threatened legal action over the directive, which does not have the force of law but seeks to clarify how federal agencies may interpret relevant statutes and an entity’s compliance.

In Tuesday’s letter, Paxton and the two other state attorneys general ask whether entities receiving federal funding must “follow this ‘significant guidance’ in order to be in compliance with Title IX” — the federal law governing gender equity in education — “and/or entitled to continued receipt of federal funding?”

“Do circumstances exist in which you would consider a school still in compliance with Title IX despite non-compliance with these guidelines?” the letter asks. “If so, please describe those circumstances and whether you would take steps to recoup or end federal funding.”

Texas receives more than $5 billion per year in federal education funding, which it uses for free-and-reduced lunch and other programs designed to help needy children.

Last week, Patrick said he was willing to forgo that money and urged Texas superintendents to resist pressure from the federal government to follow the directive.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t imagine Paxton will get the answer he wants to hear, so I assume this is just laying groundwork for the threatened litigation. The Chron and Daily Kos have more.

Turner reiterates the need to rethink transportation

New audience, same theme.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s transportation future – and perhaps its economic vitality – relies on more options than new freeway lanes to make room for more cars, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner told business and elected leaders at a lunch event hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.

The mayor, who has talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” since taking office in January, mentioned a laundry list of mobility projects that Houston must embrace, ranging from regional commuter rail to improved pedestrian access.

Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, the mayor acknowledged, but together the options could reform how people travel. Also, he favors a better balance of state and federal transportation funding, which heavily supports highways over public transit in the region.

“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” Turner said, noting that nine out of 10 working residents in the area rely on their own vehicle to get to and from work.

Houston today – and in the future – is a far different place than the one its highways initially served. Rather than a development pattern focused solely on downtown, Houston is an assortment of small, concentrated job and housing centers. Turner said the city’s transportation should reflect that by offering walkable solutions and local streets capable of handling the traffic in places such as the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor.

“We can connect the centers together with regional transit,” Turner said. “We need to focus our limited funding in these areas.”

[…]

As mobility options increase, the mayor said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good and ignite the least political furor.

“I will not force light rail on any community that does not want it. I will not do it,” Turner said. “We must stop trying to force it on places that do not want it and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”

Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already dissecting the mayor’s statement on light rail and its obvious reference to the decadelong discussion of a proposed east-west rail line along Richmond Avenue to the Galleria area.

See here for thoughts expressed by Mayor Turner to the Texas Transportation Commission in February. I wouldn’t read too much into that comment about “forcing” rail into places that don’t want it. For one thing, the opposition to the Universities line has always been loud, but there’s never been any evidence that it’s broad. The evidence we do have suggests there’s plenty of support for that line in the neighborhoods where it would run. In addition, recent remarks by Turner-appointed Metro Chair Carrin Patman suggest the Universities line is still on the agenda. Perhaps there’s a disconnect between the two – in the end, I can’t see Metro putting forth an updated rail referendum that includes the Universities line over Mayor Turner’s objection – but I doubt it. I would just not read too much into that one statement without any corroborating evidence. Houston Tomorrow, which has video and a partial transcript of Mayor Turner’s remarks, has more.

Beyond that, this is good to hear, and even better to hear more than once. The reality is that as with things like water and energy, there is only so much room to add new road capacity, and it starts getting prohibitively expensive, in straight dollar costs as well as in opportunity costs, to add it. It’s far cheaper to conserve the capacity that we already have, which in the case of transportation means getting more people to use fewer cars. I talked about all this at the start of the Mayoral race last year, and I’m heartened to see that Mayor Turner’s priorities have been in line with many of the things I was hoping for. A lot of this talk still needs to be translated into action, but you can’t have the action without the talk first, to make people aware of the issues and get them on board with the solutions. The Mayor has done a good job of that so far, and it’s great to see.

High speed rail opponents pick up another Congressional ally

Welcome aboard, Smokey Joe.

In a filing with the Surface Transportation Board, North Texas Congressman Joe Barton (R) Arlington has come out against a high speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.

Barton, whose district encompasses parts of Tarrant County and the city of Arlington that supports Texas Central Railway’s high speed rail line, claims that Ellis and Navarro counties in his district will be dissected.

Barton, who in the filing dated May 9, 2016 said that while he generally supports private investment in high speed rail projects, voiced that the project would not be economically feasible or necessary. He claims that inexpensive air travel is available between Dallas and Houston and there are few delays on I-45 between the two major regions.

In his letter to the STB Congressman Barton said that county and state roads would be closed off if the rail line is built and that few jobs would be created in construction of the 240 mile rail line.

“Congressman Barton obviously has been getting bad information from his staff on this project because the Texas Central website has a whole different story,” according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. “It’s a shame that a Congressman who champions private investment would be so misinformed.”

You can see Barton’s letter here. Barton is not the first member of Congress to come out against the high speed rail line; Rep. Kevin Brady was already there. And if you’re wondering what the Surface Transportation Board is, there you go.

Barton’s letter came a couple of days after TCR formally asked the STB to get involved.

Developers of Texas’ high-speed train have asked the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to confirm it has oversight of the project, bringing it in line with the nation’s other major passenger and freight railroads.

Texas Central recently filed a formal petition to the STB, asking that the agency affirm its jurisdiction over the project and to weigh in on critical next steps that will include construction and operation of the passenger link between North Texas and Houston, with a midway stop in the Brazos Valley.

Texas Central is required to seek STB certification of the project, thus complying with the federal regulatory process that all newly constructed rail lines must follow. Links here and here to the two STB filings.

This request does not seek to remove protections afforded to landowners under Texas law. It merely clarifies the STB procedures that Texas Central must follow and does not change or override any state landowner protections.

The STB will not issue a final decision until the environmental review is completed but Texas Central asked the board to issue an interim order as soon as practicable.

[…]

The STB requires a project to outline its goals and objectives so that the agency can consider its role. Texas Central’s petition explains that Texas high-speed rail meets the conditions needed to gain STB jurisdiction, similar to other passenger and freight railroads in the country. Among the factors supporting Texas Central:

* It is a transportation infrastructure project of national importance, providing “a safe, reliable, convenient and environmentally friendly travel option.”

* The Texas route – between two major commercial hubs – fills a gap in existing passenger service and significantly adds to the country’s general passenger railway network.

* Its planned passenger stations – in Dallas, Houston and Grimes County – are designed to enhance local and interstate transportation connections.

A draft environmental impact statement from the FRA, which began work on that last year, is expected this summer. There will be more hearings on the proposed routes after that, with construction aimed to begin in late 2017, although Texas Central has suggested the timeline may slip into 2018. Assuming this happens at all, which if the opponents keep piling up powerful allies may be in doubt. I’m still mostly optimistic, but there sure are a lot of obstacles out there, and in the end it may only take one.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 16

The Texas Progressive Alliance would like for everyone to be able to pee in peace as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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