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June 25th, 2022:

Roe v Wade

You don’t need me to tell you what happened yesterday, or what is likely to come. Abortion is still technically legal for another 29 days in Texas, when the trigger law kicks in, but many clinics have already stopped providing abortions because they don’t want to get tangled up in another legal fight that they fear they’ll lose. Local district attorneys will have to handle things from there, though as I said before, if there’s even a hint that local prosecutors and/or police departments are dragging their heels, the enforcement power will be shifted to the state (or to the rabid prosecutors in other counties) so fast it will make you dizzy.

That’s only as long as the Republicans have the power to do that, of course. Governor Beto O’Rourke would be able to veto bills that tried to make that happen, while Attorney General Rochelle Garza would not act as the backup prosecutor if it came to that. We at least have the power to make those things happen. You’re mad now, as you should be. This is where to channel that. It’s our best hope.

Cornyn-Murphy gun bill gets final passage

What great timing, huh?

Exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in a Uvalde elementary school, the most significant new gun laws in decades were headed to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday after the U.S. House cleared a bipartisan package of reforms requiring greater scrutiny of young buyers, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and more.

The gun laws, authored by a group of senators including John Cornyn of Texas, easily passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 234-193 vote, just hours after 15 Senate Republicans joined every Democrat in approving the bill in the Senate late Thursday night. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

“When I met with families from Uvalde, they asked me how it was possible for the man who murdered their loved ones to get a dangerous weapon so easily,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement. “Today, Congress has voted to pass historic gun safety reforms that will save lives and keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people who present a clear danger to their communities. We need to make more progress on gun safety, but today’s vote is an important step forward.”

It is the first tightening of federal gun laws since 1994. It bolsters background checks on buyers under 21 years old and restricts access to firearms for dating partners convicted of domestic abuse. The bill creates stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and “straw” purchasing, in which someone buys a firearm for someone prohibited from owning one.

The legislation also provides funding for mental health programs, school security and for states to enact red flag laws or other intervention methods meant to stop shootings before they happen.

Just 14 Republicans voted for the bill in the House, where GOP leaders had urged members to oppose the legislation. Only one Texan was among them: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde. The rest opposed the legislation.

See here for the background. It would be nice to feel good about this, even as watered down as this bill is, but with SCOTUS on a rampage, it’s hard to feel good about anything. The fact that this got initial passage in the Senate on the same day that SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal was the kind of irony none of us needed. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a federal lawsuit is filed to invalidate even this modest effort, and who would take a bet on those plaintiffs losing? But here we are anyway. If we can ever find our way to fixing the courts, we can improve on this and do a lot more besides. One step at a time. The Trib has more.

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.