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White Oak bike trail extension: I think we’re done now?

When we last looked about a month ago, it was clear that the construction on the White Oak Bike Trail extension was almost done, as there was just a small amount of concrete to be poured to connect the trail to the existing MKT Trail. As of last weekend, when these pictures were taken, it seems that at least the concrete work is now finished.

HeightsTrailExtensionReallyAlmostDone

You can see two things of interest in this picture. One is that the concrete trail is now farther along – more on that in a minute – and two is that there is no longer a dirt trail dug for construction equipment to access the more southern parts of the extension. What you see to the left (south) of the trail is the dirt (and eventual grass that will cover it) being smoothed back into place. This has a much more finished look to it than what we saw a month ago.

That picture was taken from the overpass on Studewood. I moved over to the MKT Trail to get a better look from the other side. Here’s the last bit of concrete that was poured:

HeightsTrailExtenaionMostRecentProgress

And as of the previous weekend, here’s the last bit that was still to be poured, at least as far as the trail itself was concerned:

HeightsTrailExtensionLastBit

The Heights Trail extension connects with the MKT Trail just west of the MKT Bridge, To my left as I took this picture there was a box about eight or ten feet square that had rebar in it and was clearly awaiting some concrete. It was not attached to either trail and it had workers all around it so I didn’t get a picture. Maybe next time. I couldn’t say offhand what that box was for, but once it’s done it may be obvious to me.

In case you’re wondering where all the construction equipment was at that time:

HeightsTrailExtensionConstructionEquipment

As you can see, that dirt path is parallel and right next to the MKT Trail, and it is curving onto Frasier Street, which we have discussed before. The fate of that connection to Frasier Street was still not clear to me at that time, but I’m a little worried:

HeightsTrailExtensionAtFrasier

Initially, and even as of a month ago, that looked like a connection from Frasier Street to the MKT Trail, which I assumed from the beginning would eventually be paved over and become a part of the trail system. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not vital – you can still get there even if you have to cross over grass or mud or whatever, and a block farther west you can access the trail directly from Oxford Street. It’s just that this is a little closer to Studewood, so if you’re coming from that side it’s more convenient. From my perspective as someone who lives on the other side of Studewood, I would just use the Heights trail extension now if I intended to get onto the MKT Trail. All I’m saying is we’re here, we have the equipment, adding just a little more concrete would make it just a little easier for some folks to access the trail, so why not do it? I’ll see what it looks like once it’s clear that the construction is officially over. I hope there will be a ribbon-cutting of some kind to celebrate the completion of this task. If not, I’ll just celebrate it here.

Too many bicyclists die on the roads around here

We should be more upset about this.

More than 100 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads over the past five years, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation.

A Chronicle analysis of TxDOT roadway crash data found that 103 bicyclists have died on Harris County roads since 2017. Aside from a slight dip in 2018, the annual total has risen each year.

The data reviewed by the Chronicle comes from vehicle-related crash reports involving a bicyclist. It includes fatalities that occurred within 30 days due to injuries sustained from a crash.

[…]

Only crashes with running motor vehicles that result in injuries, deaths or personal property damage over $1000 are required to be reported, according to TxDOT guidelines. If none of those things occurred, it’s usually up to the discretion of the responding agency.

According to a Sept. 1 news release from TxDOT, Texas crashes involving bicyclists claimed the lives of 92 people total in 2021. Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths accounted for 20 percent of the 4,490 fatalities on Texas roadways last year, according to TxDOT.

[…]

According to the data, some of the contributing factors to Harris County’s fatal crashes include:

  • Drivers failing to control their speed
  • Drivers disregarding stop signs or lights
  • Drivers failing to drive in a single lane or changing lanes when it’s unsafe
  • Drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Pedestrians failing to yield the right of way to vehicles

TxDOT is currently undergoing it’s “Be Safe. Drive Smart” campaign aimed at reminding Texans to know and follow laws for safe driving, walking and biking. The laws include the Lisa Torry Smith Act, which went into effect in 2021 and requires drivers to stop and yield the right of way to people in crosswalks. Drivers must also required to yield the right of way to pedestrians and bicyclists when turning.

Did you know that we had such a law in Texas now? I admit that I did not. That was SB1055, and here’s some background on it, the short version of which is that it was named for a Fort Bend woman who was killed while in a crosswalk by an apparently inattentive driver. She was walking her 6-year-old son (who was badly injured as well) to school at the time. There are now criminal penalties for this, including felony charges if the driver injures or kills the person in the crosswalk. Good to know, and I’m glad it passed. Now if we could make sure everyone else knows about it.

Anyway. There were 24 bicyclists killed on Harris County roads last year, up from 14 in 2017 and 13 in 2018. There’s a chart with the totals in the story, along with maps showing all crash locations and all fatal crash locations in that time. The number so far for 2022 is 11, which would reverse the trend of increases but would likely still end up higher than 2018 and is still too many. Between initiatives like Vision Zero and the general investment in non-automotive transportation, things are going in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. And maybe we should prioritize reducing the number of people who die this way a bit more.

Is this enough lipstick for the I-45 project?

You decide.

A downtown economic development group hopes proposed “green” and multimodal amenities will make the controversial I-45 expansion plan more palatable for the project’s critics.

The multi-billion-dollar plan by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to widen and reroute the freeway between downtown Houston and Beltway 8 to the north has drawn vocal opposition from impacted residents, regional stakeholders and local elected officials.

The project is largely paused while the Federal Highway Administration investigates civil rights and environmental concerns that have been raised, which also prompted Harris County to sue the state agency last year and ask a federal judge to require TxDOT to give greater consideration to input from the community.

A series of related amenities proposed by Central Houston, an economic development organization representing the interests of the downtown area, is being billed as a way to address some criticism of the project. Central Houston’s $737 million vision – which includes elevated parks, a 5-mile trail around downtown, stormwater detention basins and several bridges that connect downtown to nearby neighborhoods – might also ease some of the concerns being evaluated by the federal government and push the project forward.

The proposed amenities, first reported Tuesday by Axios Houston, have been in the works since 2012, according to Allen Douglas, general counsel and chief operating officer for Central Houston. He said the ideas as well as a cost estimate for executing them were presented earlier this year to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), in response to its ongoing investigation and as testimony for why Central Houston supports the I-45 project.

[…]

Here is a rundown of what Central Houston is proposing, with an estimated overall cost of more than $737 million:

  • EaDo Cap Park: An elevated park above a depression in the freeway east of downtown.
  • Pierce Skypark Corridor: A transformation of the Pierce Elevated on the west and south edges of downtown into an expansive park with multimodal transportation amenities as well as the possibility for residential and commercial development.
  • Green Loop: A 5-mile trail circuit around downtown, touching on multiple neighboring communities, partly where the Pierce Elevated is now located.
  • Garden Bridges: Twenty-four street bridges throughout the downtown segment, with high-comfort passageways for pedestrians and cyclists, that would connect downtown to the Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards.
  • Andrews Street Bridge: Would connect downtown to Freedmen’s Town to the southwest.
  • Midtown Caps & Bridges: Three freeway cap parks and wider bridges over a depressed portion of I-69 south of Midtown.
  • Third Ward Signature Bridges: Scenic bridges connecting downtown to the Third Ward.
  • Northside Street Reconnections: Would reconnect communities north of downtown, with one of the reconnections being on North San Jacinto Street.
  • White Oak Bayou: Expanding the trail network and stormwater detention capacity along White Oak Bayou.
  • Westside: Crossings to the west of downtown, along with green space.

Danny Perez, a spokesperson for TxDOT’s Houston office, confirmed the agency has coordinated with Central Houston and other stakeholders and tailored its project design to mesh with some of the proposed amenities. They could be constructed at the same time as the freeway expansion or after the fact, Perez said.

“TxDOT has consistently maintained the project provides an opportunity for partnerships that could lead to the integration of amenities into the project,” Perez said. “TxDOT has also consistently maintained that such partnerships would require funding provided by third-party stakeholders for certain types of amenities.”

It is unclear how the ideas have been received by the FHWA and whether the federal agency, a wing of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will require TxDOT to implement them. The FHWA, in an emailed statement, said it “continues to make progress in the Title VI investigation of the North Houston Highway Improvement Project and will be prepared to provide specifics once the investigation is completed.”

Douglas said Tuesday that Central Houston had not yet received a response from the FHWA. After initially presenting its ideas in March, Douglas said the FHWA asked for a detailed cost estimate, which Central Houston submitted in April.

“We hope and believe the Federal Highway Administration will make TxDOT do it,” Douglas said. “What we called ‘civic opportunities,’ they called ‘mitigation factors.’ They said, ‘We like what you’re proposing with these mitigation factors. We would like you to tell us what you think it will cost.’ We took that to mean they need to have a picture of what they could ask for, what they could demand.”

The Axios Houston story is here, and the full proposal from Central Houston is here. I haven’t had a chance to fully review that, so I don’t have a good picture of what these proposals would actually mean. I will note that the Stop TxDOT I-45 folks are not in favor of this, so that should tell you something. We could have a world in which we got these improvements and an I-45 project that was acceptable to the people who will be directly affected by it, I’m just saying. By the way, my headline was written before I got all the way to the end of that HPM story and saw that Allen Douglas of Central Houston was quoted saying their proposal was “not lipstick on a pig”. Great minds do think alike.

Houston’s first unionized Starbucks

Well done.

A Starbucks in Houston’s Upper Kirby neighborhood has become the first in the city to form a union, and the 10th in Texas, after an organizing drive that began in July.

The results of store’s union election were announced Thursday by the National Labor Relations Board. Eleven associates at the store, located on Shepherd Drive at Harold Street, voted in favor of the union. Three opposed and one ballot is being contested by Starbucks. The lead organizer, Josh DeLeon, said the contested ballot could be his own; he said he was fired Saturday, the last day of voting.

“I really don’t think the outcome is what (Starbucks) expected. I think they predominantly thought it was just myself, leading the organizing,” said DeLeon, referring to management. “I was not surprised and I don’t think anyone in the store was surprised. If anything, we were a little surprised at the three “no” votes.”

The Houston workers were backed by Starbucks Workers United, a collective of company employees organizing Starbucks stores across the country. Starbucks Workers United has the support of Workers United Upstate, a New York-based affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Employees at a Buffalo, N.Y., Starbucks became the first outpost of the chain to unionize, in December 2021. Since then, some 200 Starbucks stores have followed suit.

[…]

As Starbucks stores across the country continue to announce union drives, the company has taken steps in an effort to counter this trend. Last week, for example, Starbucks announced several new benefits—a savings account program and student loan repayment tools—for employees who are not union members.

Employees, however, worry that those who publicly organizing efforts may face adverse consequences, including termination or the closure of stores. In July, shortly after the union drive went public, DeLeon said that the decision to organize had not been an easy because it could put jobs at risk, including his own.

Congratulations to Josh DeLeon and the workers for this accomplishment. That said, it’s one thing to vote for a union and another thing to get the mother company to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement. For the most part, companies like Starbucks have done everything they can to avoid coming to any deals with the many new unions that have cropped up. I have no idea what will happen with that, but I wish those workers all the best in taking the next step.

Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.

Nuro keeps on expanding in Houston

Someone must be using these services. I’m not, but someone must be.

Houstonians will soon be able to get completely autonomous delivery of their dinners, groceries, and more thanks to a new 10-year partnership.

Uber Technologies, Inc. and Nuro have cut a deal that will provide autonomous, electric vehicles for food deliveries in Houston and Mountain View, California, beginning his fall, according to a news release. A Bay Area expansion will follow, but Houston’s no stranger to Nuro-powered deliveries. California-based Nuro has launched five delivery pilot programs in Houston since 2019 with partners KrogerWalmartCVSDomino’s, and FedEx.

With this new partnership, users will have access to meals, groceries, and other goods available on the Uber Eats platform — as well as the opportunity to support local businesses.

[…]

The company tapped Houston as its first full-scale operational city. Nuro previously told InnovationMap that was because the city offered a wide range of variation in the infrastructure across Houston’s neighborhoods.

“Houston is our first full-scale operations city,” Sola Lawal, product operations manager in Houston, told InnovationMap in January 2020. “All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston.”

As the story notes, Nuro is now licensed to operate these autonomous vehicles in Texas, Arizona, and California. I’ve followed Nuro’s advances in Houston as it’s moved from groceries to pizza to pharmacies and more. I see their mapping cars in my neighborhood all the time. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an actual delivery from one of their vehicles, but as I said someone must be using them. If you’re one of them, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Monkeypox case rate slows

Some good news.

Monkeypox infection rates are slowing in Houston, data shows, with health officials pointing to changing behavior as the key reason for the decline.

The 14-day average of daily new cases dropped by 43 percent, from .23 cases per 100,000 people, to .13, between Aug. 23 and Sept. 2, the last day for which data is available. As of Wednesday, Houston and Harris County had recorded a combined total of 693 cases.

Dr. David Persse, Houston chief medical officer, said he thinks it’s too early to attribute the drop to vaccinations, which became available in Houston in late July. Most people have yet to receive full protection from their second dose, administered about a month after the first dose.

“I believe the change … is largely because of individuals changing behavior and thinking twice about some of the high-risk behaviors,” Persse said during a Thursday Q&A session with reporters.

[…]

More than 5,200 people have received their first dose of the vaccine from the Houston Health Department. Harris County Public Health has administered the first dose to an additional 3,600 people.

Persse and Dr. Erick Brown, Harris County’s local health authority, said there are “plenty” of doses left and encouraged eligible people to schedule appointments by calling Houston’s hotline at 832-393-4220 or Harris County’s hotline at 832-927-0707.

“I’d like to strongly emphasize we are not out of the woods,” Brown said.

Monkeypox was never the public health crisis that COVID was – it’s a lot less contagious, and a lot less deadly – but we also had a vaccine already in place and needed to get it to a much smaller population in order to get the outbreak under control, and we didn’t do as well as we should have. We’re in better shape now, and I have hope we can continue to drive the numbers down. In the meantime, if you’re eligible for this vaccine, please do get it.

We should soon find out what’s been going on in the NWSL

Good.

U.S. Soccer says an investigation into alleged abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League is expected to be completed by early next month.

The investigation, led by former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, was initiated last fall after North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was accused of sexual harassment and coercion by two former players.

Riley was fired and league Commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down in the wake of the players’ claims. U.S. Soccer and the NWSL and its players association announced separate investigations.

U.S. Soccer issued a brief statement on the status of its probe Monday: “Last October, U.S. Soccer retained Sally Q. Yates of King & Spalding LLP to lead an independent investigation into allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer. That investigation is nearing its conclusion. U.S. Soccer will publish the full report by early October, following the completion of the investigation.”

Riley was among five NWSL coaches who were either dismissed or stepped down last season amid claims of inappropriate behavior.

The list of coaches who were fired or stepped down includes the head coach and general manager of the Houston Dash, who was suspended in April after similar allegations were raised about him. The Dash still have an interim coach, so I suppose he could come back, but I’m including him in this group anyway. Paul Riley’s alleged behavior had stretched back a decade, including his time with another team. The league was aware of the issue but took no action; this resulted in the NWSL Commissioner resigning once it all came to light. I don’t know what this report will say, but you may recall Sally Yates as being one of the first people Donald Trump fired for not being slavishly loyal to him and his every wish, so I have faith in her integrity. Whatever this report does say, I hope the NWSL is a much better place for the players now and going forward.

Opera in the Heights will stay at Lambert Hall

Good news.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

The uncertainty is over, Opera in the Heights is staying home.

After months of not knowing what the future for the neighborhood staple might hold, a consortium including a longtime Houston singing club and two donors have purchased the property including Lambert Hall and will let Opera in the Heights remain as a tenant at the historic performing arts venue, according to Eiki Isomura, the opera’s artistic and general director.

“This is a big moment of joy and relief right now,” he said. “We’re very excited.”

Just a few months ago, members of Opera in the Heights had wondered if their days performing in the historic Lambert Hall might be numbered.

Leaders with Heights Christian Church, the church that leased space to Opera in the Heights for the last quarter century, earlier this year decided to sell their 42,600-square foot property on the west side of Heights Boulevard between West 17th and West 18th streets because of dwindling membership and financial resources.

Realtors for the church opened competitive bidding for the property and a consortium comprising Houston Saengerbund and two of Opera in the Heights’ most generous patrons emerged with the winning bid, Isomura said.

The deal for purchasing the property closed last Friday, Isomura said.

See here and here for the background. I’d never heard of the Houston Saengerbund before, but they’ve been around since 1883 and are Houston’s oldest musical society. They sponsor an annual award to support young singers, which is cool. I’m just delighted that this story has a happy ending, both for OITH and Lambert Hall itself. It’s very much not all the time that Houston cultural and architectural landmarks get preserved, but this is one of them and it’s worth celebrating. Kudos all around.

The active shooter hoax at our neighborhood school

This made for a super eventful Tuesday afternoon.

Police and panicked parents scrambled to Heights High School Tuesday afternoon, in frantic response to a false report that a gunman had shot 10 people in a room on the 2,400-student Houston ISD campus.

The school went into lock down around 1 p.m., and police officers found the room locked and immediately breached the door, according to Chief Troy Finner. Two sweeps of the school found nothing, according to the Houston Police Department.

“We have no injuries here,” Finner said at a news briefing as a crowd of parents stood at an intersection near the high school. “Thank god for that.”

Officials intend to determine who made the hoax call and hold that person accountable. Finner said police believe the call may have come from outside the school.

“There was no active shooter here — there was a fight,” said Constable Alan Rosen.

An email notified parents later that Heights High, as well as nearby Hogg Middle and Harvard and Travis Elementary schools, were placed in lockdown.

“As a precautionary measure, we went into lockdown mode,” Heights Principal Wendy Hampton said in an email to parents. “Houston Police Department and HISD Police are onsite and continue to investigate, though no evidence has been found to substantiate the threat. We take all threats seriously as the safety of our students and staff is always our top priority.”

As it happens, I had to go into the office Tuesday afternoon. I was headed out a little after 1 PM, and was on Studewood going towards the I-10 entrance when I saw three HPD cars with lights and sirens going headed the other way at full speed. I didn’t give it much thought until after I had arrived at the office, took a minute to check Twitter, and found out what was happening. I don’t currently have any kids at Heights or the other schools that got locked down, but my kids have friends there and I have friends and neighbors who have kids at all of them. It was pretty stressful, to say the least, and I had the luxury of not having to be frantic about my own kids. My thoughts today remain with those parents and those kids.

Shannon Velasquez burst into tears on Tuesday afternoon as she waited on the sidewalk near Heights High School, where her daughter and hundreds more students were locked down in their classrooms after someone made a false report about a mass shooting.

The mother knew her daughter was fine — she had spoken with the sophomore student on FaceTime as she sped to school from work.

Still, she could not shake a horrible feeling, and her frustration bubbled over as she heard conflicting information from parents and officers about where she should go to reunite with her child.

“As if this isn’t bad enough?” she said. “I just can’t wait to put my arms around my kid.”

Anxiety, panic and confusion erupted on Tuesday afternoon in the residential streets surrounding Heights High School. Personnel from at least eight law enforcement agencies sped to the scene with lights and sirens. Panicked parents rushed from jobs and lunch appointments. Some drivers ditched their cars on the grassy median along Heights Boulevard, and walked or ran several blocks to the school.

Parents gathered information from their children, other parents, news reports and officials — eventually learning that their kids were safe and the massive frenzy actually stemmed from a false alarm.

Still, some parents said they were frustrated by sparse communication from the school, district or law enforcement agencies, although HISD and law enforcement agencies have defended their response.

[…]

Luis Morales, HISD spokesman, said notifications went out to parents 23 minutes after the district became aware of the situation.

“We were able to get that out a quicker than we have before,” Morales said, adding that the district must verify information before sending out notifications.

Chief Troy Finner said during a news briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he sympathized with parents who were frustrated. But safety comes before notifications, he said.

“We have to search the school. That is the most important thing — to stop the threat if there’s a threat,” he said. “We don’t have time to call. Once we make it safe, we start making those calls.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said more than two dozen units from HFD responded to the scene. The first unit arrived two minutes after HFD received the call, he said, and quickly began coordinating a rescue team with police.

“The community expects the first responders to get on scene quickly, to get on scene and coordinate and start taking action as soon as they get on scene,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

I have nothing but sympathy for the parents here. I was scrambling around looking for accurate information too, and the stakes were much lower for me. I have no doubt I’d have been out of my mind and super upset at how long it took to get updates. I also have a lot of sympathy for HISD and HPD, who were understandably reluctant to get out ahead of what they knew. I don’t have a good answer for this.

As relieved as we all are that this turned out to be nothing, we have to talk about the law enforcement response, since that is an obvious item of interest after Uvalde. In addition to HPD, there were deputies from the Precinct 1 Constable and the Sheriff’s office at the scene, and I assume there were some HISD cops as well. We do know that HPD entered Heights HS in search of the alleged shooter, which is good to know, but we don’t know more than that about who was in charge and who was making what decisions. Given what we know about the thoroughly botched response in Uvalde, this should be used as an opportunity for HPD and HISD to review their processes, make sure they have agreements in place, and so on. In the end, thankfully this was just a drill. We damn well better learn from it.

Unifying the opposition to massive urban highway projects

Good idea, ought to have some effect, but changing the overall culture and philosophy about transportation in Texas is a very big lift.

Opponents of some of Texas’ largest transportation projects are unifying their messaging, pushing state highway officials to think differently about metro regions, where road widening can claim hundreds of homes and businesses, and urging them to consider alternatives to automobiles rather than adding more lanes.

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, then the Texas transportation system is insane,” said Robert Storch, an El Paso resident opposed to a plan to widen Interstate 10 in the city.

Led by organizers from Houston with the Stop TxDOT I-45 effort, protesters from most of the state’s biggest cities descended last week on the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin headquarters, where officials approved a 10-year $85 billion plan for state road projects. The aim, organizers said, was to send a Texas-wide message to a statewide agency by focusing on the root issue of freeway design in urban areas.

“People in communities should have the right to decide what mobility means for them,” said Ann Zadeh, executive director of Community Design Fort Worth and a former City Council member and mayoral candidate.

In many Texas metros, Zadeh said, the focus needs to shift from traffic flow to “mending the divisions” those freeways caused, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

That case can be better made if it comes from numerous sources, said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, an opponent of the state’s plans to widen I-10 through the downtown of the West Texas gateway city.

“I think it is important to come together because we are talking about the same agency and the same issues,” Stout said.

Among the projects drawing alarm:

Each of the projects is aimed at addressing growing traffic congestion, enjoys political support from the regional planning officials in the major metro areas, and has years of TxDOT-driven study to justify its design.

But opponents argue that they also are based on doing things largely the way TxDOT always has done them in metro regions that are becoming more urban. They also say those regions’ residents and some leaders are clamoring more for housing closer to jobs, maintained sidewalks and frequent transit instead of ever-expanding freeways.

“What could we do positively in our communities with $10 billion,” I-45 critic Walter Mallet told the Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

I’m a little surprised that this kind of coordination hadn’t happened before, but I’m glad to see it now. Given that TxDOT has already approved that $85 billion in spending, I’m not sure how much can be accomplished at this time, but it’s worth trying. To me, the big prize here would be electing Beto O’Rourke Governor, because that would allow him to start naming new people to the Texas Transportation Commission, and I feel very confident saying that we’re going to keep getting the same old thinking on the TTC for as long as we have the same old people serving as Commissioners. I know I sound like a broken record, but it really is the case that very little will change in this state until we start electing different people to office. I mean, why not try it and see? What do we have to lose?

Our overall vax level is down

Not great!

The coverage rate for routine childhood vaccines – or the percentage of kids getting them – dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic and have yet to recover, according to statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Health care providers said many families skipped doctor’s visits during the pandemic to avoid exposure to the virus. But the drop is also due to a rise in “conscientious exemptions,” or parents and guardians who refuse to get their children vaccinated for religious, moral or philosophical reasons.

While anti-vaccine movements have existed since the smallpox vaccine debuted in the early 1800s, some worry the pushback against the COVID-19 vaccine may have a detrimental effect on the uptake for routine childhood immunizations, too.

“I think that, certainly, [the pandemic] is a good explanation for this,” said Terri Burke, the executive director of the Houston nonprofit The Immunization Partnership. “But there is no question that the vaccine hesitancy, skepticism, misinformation [and] disinformation that circulates around the COVID vaccine has bled over into childhood vaccines.”

A study published in the journal Vaccine found that from 2019 to 2020, immunization rates fell 47 percent among 5-month-olds and 58 percent among 16-month-olds.

Texas did see a slight increase in vaccination rates earlier this year, but they still remain below pre-pandemic levels, said Tasmiah Nuzhath, a Texas A&M School of Public Health doctoral candidate who led the study. That’s a concern because regardless of the reason, a lower percentage of vaccinated children means heightened for outbreaks of a disease like the measles, she said.

“Even a few-percentage dip in vaccination rates will put children at risk of getting sick, and could affect community protections against serious diseases,” Nuzhath said.

[…]

In the Houston area, there are some signs that coverage rates may be slowly recovering from the pandemic. The HOPE Clinic, for example, had a large demand for the shots before students returned to school this fall, Clinical Director Kara Green said.

The Immunization Clinic in Stafford has also seen more children coming in for their vaccines this year, but coverage rates are “still not where [they] should be,” Nursing Director Yvette Cheeks said.

During the 2011-12 school year, coverage rates were at least 97.4 percent for each of the routine vaccines required for kindergarten students, and at least 96.6 percent for each required for seventh grade.  By 2021-22, rates fell to a range of 93.5 percent to 95.9 percent for kindergarten, and 91.9 percent to 98 percent for seventh grade.

Some of the decline can be attributed to children who haven’t gotten their shots yet, but may do so later. Those “delinquency” rates topped 3 percent for the chickenpox, polio and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis) vaccines for kindergarten and around 6 percent for the meningitis and DTaP vaccines for seventh grade.

It’s also due to a rise in conscientious exemptions. Ten years ago, the chickenpox vaccine for kindergarten had the highest rate of conscientious objections at 0.8 percent. By last year, rates hit at least 2.1 percent for each kindergarten vaccine and at least 1 percent for each seventh grade vaccine.

Those percentages may not seem like a lot, but they represent an increase from 28,432 conscientious objections across Texas in 2011-12 to 85,726 last year, according to TDSHS statistics.

Green and Cheeks believe coverage rates could increase through better access to the vaccines. Both the HOPE Clinic and the Immunization Clinic offer vaccines to lower-income and uninsured patients.

However, Green noted that the HOPE Clinic sees families cancel their child’s vaccine appointment due to issues such as a lack of transportation, or not having child care for their other children. Pop-up vaccination clinics at Houston schools or other community sites could help increase uptake, she said.

“I think if we make it easier for families to get these things done, then we really open up a lot of opportunities,” she said.

We need to do everything we can to make sure that all needed vaccines are easily available to all that want them. That’s a bigger problem that can be solved locally, but we have to try. Anyone can claim to be “pro-life”, but unless you’re pro-getting-lifesaving-shots-into-kids-arms, you’re just full of hot air.

The slow but steady march of Houston’s non-car transportation infrastructure

Good story.

When he arrived in Houston two years ago, what David Fields saw belied what he had heard.

The nation’s fourth-largest city has long been known as car-centric and geared toward commuting, with a web of wide freeways that stretch from the heart of town to the far-flung suburbs. Driving, and fighting rush-hour traffic, could be considered part of Houston’s culture.

But Fields, a native New Yorker who also worked in the San Francisco area before taking a job as Houston’s chief transportation planner, saw a city in flux in terms of how its residents get around. Public transit options have expanded in recent years, and so has Houston’s network of sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails.

Fields, who has lived in the Heights and Montrose areas and works downtown, said last week he has yet to drive to his office, instead relying on buses and occasionally his bicycle.

“I think Houston has a reputation because it grew up around the car for many years, but the reality on the ground is not the historic reputation,” he said. “I did not realize how much was going on here until I got to spend some time.”

Although highway expansion continues in the region and driving remains the primary mode of transportation for most Houston-area residents, the city continues to inch away from its reliance on personal cars and trucks while expanding its infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users. The idea, according to Fields, is to make the city safer, to more adequately accommodate more residents and their preferred transportation options and also to combat climate change.

The city recently was awarded a $21 million federal grant for a transformative project on a 3-mile stretch of Telephone Road in the southeast part of town, where vehicle lanes will be reduced while bike lanes, wider sidewalks and improved connections with METRO – the region’s public transit provider – will be added. Similar projects have been completed in recent years on Austin Street in the Midtown area and Kelley Street on the north side, and many more are underway or in the pipeline.

A federal grant also is buoying an infrastructure project along Shepherd and Durham drives in the Heights area that calls for fewer vehicle lanes and an expanded pedestrian realm, and the city is doing much the same on a stretch of West 11th Street. Among the projects in the works at METRO, for which voters approved a $3.5 billion bond in 2019, is a 25-mile University Line that will stretch across the southern and eastern parts of town while connecting three universities.

Many of those projects have come to light under the administration of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was elected in 2015. Fields said the city has added 400 miles of bike lanes under the Houston Bike Plan, adopted by the city council in 2017, and meeting the needs of non-drivers is now part of the planning for every infrastructure initiative.

“The mayor has said over and over again we are in a transportation paradigm shift, which means moving people by all the different modes, making it safer for all the different modes and really rethinking our right-of-way space,” Fields said. “I can’t imagine any project the city is leading that is not looked at through a multimodal lens.”

[…]

Houston also is grappling with long-held perceptions and attitudes about how to get around the city and how its transportation resources should be invested. Fields said residents have expressed reservations about projects that will increase drive times and require prolonged construction – even if the tradeoff is improved safety – while Cutrufo said opponents of expanded cycling infrastructure often point to the city’s low number of bike riders compared to car drivers.

But [Joe] Cutrufo, whose BikeHouston organization has about 12,000 members, said Houston is “overbuilt for car traffic” and doesn’t require the lane capacity that exists on its roads. So there is plenty of space, he said, to accommodate those who prefer alternative modes of transportation.

“Nobody’s taking away your option to drive,” Cutrufo said of lane-reduction projects such as the ones in the Heights and on Telephone Road. “We’re gaining so much more than we’re losing. We’re not just gaining some space on a specific corridor that had to be quote-unquote taken away from drivers. We’re gaining a significant transportation option that we didn’t have before without losing the option to drive.”

It’s a long story, so go read the rest. Among other things, it name-checks the new bike bridges story, with the West 11th Street project implicitly included. Couple points to mention here. One is that the increased density of the greater Heights/Washington/Rice Military/Memorial areas is really only feasible with this kind of increased bike-and-pedestrian infrastructure. Both in terms of street traffic and parking space, you really want to encourage people who can get around these areas via walking or biking to do so, because there just isn’t the literal space for everyone to drive everywhere. This is a subject I’ve talked about before, in the context of increasing parking for bikes. Again, the key thing here is that making it easier for those who can walk or bike to get places really benefits those who have no choice but to drive.

The other thing to note, which gets only a passing mention in this story, is how much Metro has done lately in this space as well, from the big bus route redesign to more bike racks on buses, integrating with B-Cycle, and working to improve sidewalks around bus stops. The redesign of the local bus routes made a huge difference for me when I was working downtown and carpooling with my wife. It was much easier for me to get to and from work when our schedules didn’t overlap, and it was much easier to get to other places as well thanks to the frequent routes. I go downtown less frequently now that I don’t work there, but I rarely drive there when I do need to go. For those of you who rarely if ever take Metro, remember that every time I do, it’s one less car clogging up I-10 or I-45. You’re welcome.

West 11th construction is about to start

Get ready, here it comes.

City staffers are finalizing a plan to add protected bike lanes along 11th Street in the Heights and reduce the number of driving lanes, despite pushback from some residents in the area.

Crews will begin work rehabilitating 11th Street this month, with plans to start construction on the bikeway part of the project in October, said Erin Jones, spokesperson for the city’s public works department.

“The bikeway design is still being finalized to include METRO bus stop improvements/relocations,” she said.

[…]

“When Mayor Turner announced the 11th Street project would move forward after that short pause, he said something that struck me,” said Joe Cutrufo, the director of BikeHouston. “He said that, ‘we’re not building the city for where we are now, but building the city for where we are going.’ And I thought that was really well-phrased.”

Bike lanes will be added on both sides of 11th between North Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street, where there will be one vehicular lane in each direction with a center, left-turn lane along the stretch between Yale and Studewood streets. The plan also calls for bike lanes along Michaux between 11th and Stude Park to the south as well as protected crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at intersections such as 11th and Nicholson Street, where the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail crosses 11th, and Michaux and White Oak Drive.

There now are two vehicle lanes in each direction on 11th between Shepherd and Michaux, and no center turn lanes.

The project will cost about $600,000, with funding coming from capital improvement dollars for bikeways, according to the city.

See here, here, and here for some background. I fully support this and I am excited to see what the finished project looks like. I also recognize that the construction will be inconvenient, and it will directly affect me. Like most people in this neighborhood, I regularly drive all of those named streets. The carpool we have for getting Daughter #2 to and from high school also involves taking on kid home north of Garden Oaks, for which I take Shepherd already under construction) via 11th. It’s going to suck for awhile, no two ways around it. But hey, I’ve survived more highway renovations than I can count. I will survive this, too. And in the end, the neighborhood will be a better place. Let’s do this.

The one big question DPS still hasn’t answered about Uvalde

The Trib gets at something that I’ve mentioned a couple of times.

Ever since the Uvalde elementary school shooting left 19 students and two teachers dead, blame for the delayed response has been thrust on local law enforcement. The school police chief was fired and the city’s acting police chief was suspended.

But the only statewide law enforcement agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, has largely avoided scrutiny even though it had scores of officers on the scene. That’s in part because DPS leaders are controlling which records get released to the public and carefully shaping a narrative that casts local law enforcement as incompetent.

Now, in the wake of a critical legislative report and body camera footage released by local officials, law enforcement experts from across the country are questioning why DPS didn’t take a lead role in the response as it had done before during other mass shootings and public disasters.

The state police agency is tasked with helping all of Texas’ 254 counties respond to emergencies such as mass shootings, but it is particularly important in rural communities where smaller police departments lack the level of training and experience of larger metropolitan law enforcement agencies, experts say. That was the case in Uvalde, where the state agency’s 91 troopers at the scene dwarfed the school district’s five officers, the city police’s 25 emergency responders and the county’s 16 sheriff’s deputies.

The state police agency has been “totally intransparent in pointing out their own failures and inadequacies,” said Charles A. McClelland, who served as Houston police chief for six years before retiring in 2016. “I don’t know how the public, even in the state of Texas, would have confidence in the leadership of DPS after this.”

Instead of taking charge when it became clear that neither the school’s police chief nor the Uvalde Police Department had assumed command, DPS contributed to the 74-minute chaotic response that did not end until a Border Patrol tactical unit that arrived much later entered the classroom and killed the gunman.

“Here’s what DPS should have done as soon as they got there,” said Patrick O’Burke, a law enforcement consultant and former DPS commander who retired in 2008. “They should have contacted [the school police chief] and said: ‘We’re here. We have people.’ They should have just organized everything, said, ‘What are all of our resources?’ And they should have organized the breach.”

[…]

[Despite testimony from DPS director Steve McCraw], DPS has sprung into action time and again when disaster strikes in Texas, which has proved key during mass shootings and public emergencies, local officials across the state said.

More than three decades ago, for example, state troopers helped local law enforcement confront a gunman after arriving within minutes of a shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, about 60 miles north of Austin. The shooter killed himself after a brief exchange of gunfire.

“They knew that people were dying, and so they acted,” said Suzanna Hupp, a former Republican state representative whose parents died during the 1991 Luby’s massacre. She said that didn’t happen in Uvalde, adding that “clearly there was a command breakdown there.”

In a 2013 chemical explosion in West, about 70 miles south of Dallas, state troopers immediately took control of the law enforcement response at the request of the county’s emergency management coordinator. And in the 2018 shooting at Santa Fe High School, about 30 miles south of Houston, state troopers quickly fired at the gunman, according to local law enforcement officials who initially responded. The rapid engagement by school police and DPS was key to the gunman surrendering, district and county officials said.

“DPS had a tremendous role in Santa Fe of stopping the killing because they were among the first to arrive and they actually did what they were supposed to,” said Texas City Independent School District trustee Mike Matranga, the district’s security chief at the time of the shooting. He added that, in Uvalde, DPS supervisors “should have essentially asked [Arredondo] to stand down due to his ineffectiveness and taken over.”

Police experts and lawmakers pointed to clear signs that they believe should have alerted emergency responders that no one was in control. Arredondo, who resigned from his elected City Council seat in July and was fired from the school district on Aug. 24, remained inside the hallway on the phone during the shooting. He said he was trying to find a key to the classroom that the gunman was in. Investigators later determined that the door was likely unlocked. The school police chief did not identify himself as the incident commander and told The Texas Tribune he never issued any orders; his lawyer later said his firing was unjust. In a letter, Arredondo’s attorneys said the police chief “could not have served as the incident commander and did not attempt to take that role” because he was on the front lines.

Separately, no command post was set up outside of the school, which lawmakers noted should have been an indicator to responding officers that no one was in charge.

[…]

The disconnect over who should take charge and when exemplifies a need for detailed planning and frequent training between larger law enforcement agencies and smaller departments, police experts told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Larger agencies with more personnel, equipment and training should have agreements with school districts that clearly state that they will assume command upon arriving at critical incidents that include active shooters, hostage situations and explosive devices, said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief and CBP commissioner until 2017. He and other experts said that even if school police are designated as the lead, the role of every law enforcement agency in the region should be specified.

San Antonio, one of the state’s biggest police departments, has such agreements with local school districts and universities that name the bigger city police agency as the incident commander in the event of a mass shooting. After the Uvalde shooting, San Antonio police Chief William McManus met with school officials in his city and reminded them that his agency would take charge in an active shooter situation.

McManus, whose officers arrived in Uvalde after the gunman was killed, said in an interview that because of the confusion at the scene, he felt the need to emphasize how his department would respond to such an incident in San Antonio.

It is unclear what, if any, involvement DPS or another law enforcement agency had with the Uvalde school district’s mass shooting plan because those governmental bodies declined to release such documents or answer questions. The state police did not have a written memorandum of agreement with the school district outlining its role in such situations, according to DPS records.

Who’s in charge in these situations is a question I’ve raised a few times in writing about this, when the legislative report was released and when the HISD board addressed the question. This is an area where I believe the Lege can and should take action, by requiring school districts (and hell, colleges and universities and community colleges) to have some kind of agreement with either local or state law enforcement agencies and ensuring some minimum standards are met. It’s also a big question for DPS to answer: Why didn’t you take over at Uvalde? Steve McCraw has addressed that already, but I don’t think we should believe him. Certainly, not as long as DPS is being sued over its refusal to release its information to the public about their actions, anything McCraw says should be taken as self-serving first and foremost. And those same questions also go to Greg Abbott, who is McCraw’s boss and patron. Both of them have gotten away with doing nothing for a long time. We need to make sure that time runs out.

Still wondering about the existential future of Texas Central

I really hoped this would be a thing. If it isn’t, it’s a great wasted opportunity.

Ten years ago, a company calling itself Texas Central High-Speed Railway announced plans for a trailblazing bullet train that would whisk passengers between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes. Company leaders exuded confidence that the trains would be running up to 205 miles per hour by 2020.

The potential for an American high-speed rail line captured the imagination of Texans and national train enthusiasts alike. At one point during an event celebrating the unbuilt high-speed rail line, then-Vice President Joe Biden told a Dallas crowd, “You’re going to lead this country into an entirely new era of transportation.”

But a decade on, there are still no new tracks between Dallas and Houston.

Through multiple business entities who often use some version of the Texas Central moniker, developers of the project spent years raising hundreds of millions of dollars for construction, fighting conservative lawmakers’ attempts to dampen their plans and buying land needed to lay the tracks. Perhaps the biggest battle, though, came from legal challenges to the company’s claims that state law allows it to forcibly purchase property when owners aren’t willing to voluntarily sell.

In June, the Texas Supreme Court settled the matter and handed the company what could be a watershed victory, ruling that Texas Central can use eminent domain for its high-profile project. By the time the court ruled, though, Texas Central’s board had reportedly disbanded and its CEO and president had resigned. The project’s original timeline had already gone off the rails (at one point the construction was slated to begin in 2017). And land acquisition seems to have all but stopped in the last two years, according to land records reviewed by The Texas Tribune.

A spokesperson for the company, who is employed by a consulting firm that handles Texas Central’s media requests, says the project is still in the works.

But the company and Becker have declined to answer specific questions about the leadership exodus, apparent slump in land acquisition, funding prospects and status of permits Texas Central would need to move forward. A federal transportation agency says it hasn’t had contact with the company in two years. The portion of Texas Central’s website that once listed executive leaders is now blank — as is the list of current job openings.

Texas Central’s relative silence on the recent developments has left supporters of the project, who would like to see two of the state’s largest economic engines more easily connected, in limbo. Opponents, who have long railed against the idea of a private company using eminent domain to seize Texans’ land, are cautiously hoping Texas Central won’t rebound.

Even if the company resurges, there remain major obstacles ahead to acquire land and finance an increasingly expensive project described as “shovel ready” as recently as 2020. The stakes of the high-speed rail project extend beyond the company and Texas. The 240 miles of relatively flat land between Dallas and Houston has long been heralded as the ideal location for what Texas Central and its supporters say could be the first leg of a national high-speed rail system that transforms the country.

There are few infrastructure projects in the country that can compare in size to the Texas rail line. A California high-speed rail project between Los Angeles and San Francisco also faces significant political, financial and legal hurdles. But Michael Bennon, the program manager at Stanford University’s ​​Global Infrastructure Policy Research Initiative, hangs a lot of hope on the Texas project given the relatively short distance, estimated frequency of travel and the landscape between the two cities.

“If you can’t do high-speed rail in that corridor, it’s hard to imagine it working anywhere else,” Bennon said.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. This is not the first possible elegy to what might have been with TCR. I’m of the belief that nothing is truly dead until you see the body, but I’m not feeling very optimistic right now. The damn shame of it all is that this was a great idea, and it should have worked. Lots of factors combined to make it not work – again, if this is indeed the end, which I still hope it isn’t – and I have no idea what could make something else work in its place. Honestly, at this point I’m not sure I’d live to see whatever that might be, given the ponderously long times these things take, whether or not they ultimately go anywhere. All I can say is that I hope the reports of TCR’s death are exaggerated. But I don’t have much faith that they are.

More on A Tale Of Two Bridges

After I wrote about the effort to get two new bike and pedestrian bridges built in the Heights area, with the intent of making some new connections across the White Oak Bayou and to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail, I realized that I didn’t have a good image in my head of where these proposed sites would be. The map on the A Tale Of Two Bridges page helps, but the conceptual pictures they have on the home page didn’t really put in context for me. (*) So I decided to head out on my own over a recent weekend, on my bike of course, to find the future landing spots and take some pictures.

(Note: you might also find it useful to bring up a Google map of the general area – here’s one centered on the Heights Bird Sanctuary, mentioned below. Later in the post I talk about points of interest farther south, and I found it helpful to see where I was on this map as well.)

The first place I visited was the junction of Allston and 5th streets – you should probably refer to that map as I go along. Basically, 5th street runs for one block west of Yale, then ends at Allston, which also ends there. At this little two-street cul-de-sac, there’s a mini-dog park on 5th and the Assembly at Historic Heights apartments on one side of Allston and more apartments on the other. There’s also a small grassy field that overlooks the bayou, with some people-made walking trails that take you into the nearby Houston Heights Bird Sanctuary. This is what you see from the cul-de-sac:

Ashlandat5th

I walked from there to the steep (and on a wet day, slippery and treacherous) dropoff to the bayou. It was far enough down that I couldn’t really see it, and with the ground as slick as it was I wasn’t going to chance getting any closer. But you could easily see the bike trail from there:

ViewfromAshlandat5th

You can see a bicyclist and a runner catching a breather if you zoom in. A bit to the east is an entrance to the trail from Bonner Street, but unless you live there or continue on to the I-10 service road, you can’t really get anywhere else from there. But you can easily get to the Yale and Heights Blvd ramps from the trail. Or you could continue west towards Patterson. The current alternative to get there is to go back to the Heights Bike Trail, two blocks north on Allston, then take it all the way to Bayou Greenways Park, just over the MKT Bridge by Studewood, and pick up the White Oak trail from there. It’s a long damn way that way.

Speaking of Patterson, here’s the view of about where a Patterson bridge would connect on the north side. There’s no specific feature here, just a stretch of 6th Street between Waverly and North Shepherd. It had started to rain by the time I got here, and I took temporary refuge under a stairway at The Standard apartments. Not the view I would have preferred to show, but you can at least see the new Patterson Park bar from here:

ViewofPattersonfromTheStandard

As I said, the landing point is this stretch of 6th Street, which now features MKT Heights as a destination. From Waverly you can get back to the Heights trail, which will connect back to the White Oak trail west of Durham; you can also get to the northern spur of the Heights trail on Nicholson.

That was the end of that day’s journey – I still had a rain-soaked ride home. By Sunday it was clear enough again, so I headed to the White Oak trail to see the perspective from the other side. I can’t say exactly where on the trail the bridge to 5th and Allston would be, but it’s in this vicinity, where you can see the Assembly apartments:

TrailSideAshland5th

Part of that clearing I mentioned is where that utility pole is just left of the photo’s center. I was to the right from there, peeking out from the smaller trees, when I took the first picture.

The dead end of Patterson Street at the trail is a lot more obvious, and that’s where I took these last two pictures, one facing slightly east towards The Standard, and the other facing slightly west, in the general direction of MKT Heights.

PattersonBridgeEast

PattersonBridgeWest

I think the construction you can see in the west-facing picture on the bottom may be the back end of the East Bend apartments, which front onto North Shepherd. Patterson, on the side where I was, will have an on-street bike trail built soon per that Chron story. It will take you over I-10 to Washington Avenue. From there, you can eventually get to the Buffalo Bayou bike trails between Memorial and Allen Parkway either via Jackson Hill Street a couple of blocks east, or via Feagen to Spotts Park. You do have to cross Waugh to get there, which is dicey, but perhaps that will be addressed at some point as well. It’s still an amazing extension of the existing bike trail network, all thanks to two bridges and a new street trail. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see it all happen. Hope you enjoyed my little photo tour of what is to come.

(*) I did come across a better picture in this Axios Houston story as I started writing this post, but by then I’d already taken my own pics, and this one still wouldn’t have made sense to me without my own visit to the locations.

Woodland Heights Civic Association opposes I-10 elevation proposal

That’s my neighborhood, and this is the email they sent out on Thursday about it.

In recent weeks the WHCA has challenged TxDOT on their plan to elevate I-10 near our neighborhood between Heights Blvd. and I-45. Due to the lack of transparency, engagement, and overall dubiousness around the project, the WHCA cannot support this project. The project, in its current form, seems to be a waste of taxpayer money and jeopardizes the tranquility and worth of our community.

Below is a high-level list of issues:

  • TxDOT has defined the need, designed, and funded this project to start in 2024 without first considering the impact to the surrounding communities and ecosystems or engaging the public.

  • TxDOT should halt this project until Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) completes its evaluation of a plan to build 8 massive tunnels that would divert and store water underground. A study should be done to determine whether the I-10 elevation would be needed if the tunnel system goes forward.

  • This finished project would not withstand a Hurricane Harvey level event and traffic would still need to be re-routed as it is now and would be through the construction period. Any tax-payer funded project that purports to address flooding should be built to take on a 500-year flood.

  • The elevation of I-10 would add significant noise pollution to already very loud highway noise. The increased noise will impact property values along White Oak and surrounding streets.

  • The construction will last a minimum of four years and will be a burden to our community. In that time we will have limited access in and out of the neighborhood which will cause congestion within the neighborhood. That could lead to homeowners leaving, depressed home values, and homes sitting on the market longer.

  • TxDOT should consult local organizations to define parameters of the environmental impacts to be studied for ecosystems along White Oak and Little White Oak bayous and into our neighborhoods which are nesting sites for important birds like the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, the official bird of Houston and formerly endangered Bald Eagles.

  • TxDOT should not take away any greenspace along White Oak Bayou.

  • TxDOT should not disturb the forested area slated to be a detention pond. This provides important sound mitigation, natural habitat and aesthetic beauty.

  • TxDOT should not break the Inner Katy project into smaller projects.

    • We are concerned that TxDOT’s decision to split the Inner Katy Corridor into segmented projects will mean that the full environmental impacts are not captured under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
    • We support other communities like Cottage Grove who are fighting a separate I-10 project threatening their parks and further dividing their neighborhood.
    • Impact analysis should be combined with the current I-45 impact analysis as they will affect the same neighborhoods and bayous

Here’s how you can help stop TxDOT’s I-10 Plan: 

  • Submit a pre-written email to TxDOT and elected officials: click here.

  • Submit your own comment on the TxDOT.gov website and reference project number: CSJ 0271-07-326

See here for the background. Some of these concerns may be more parochial than others, but at the very least the concerns about flooding and maybe playing games with the environmental impact are universal. While the subject of the email was “The WHCA Stands Against TxDOT’s I-10 Plan”, the word “oppose” doesn’t appear in the message body. It is possible that TxDOT could address these concerns. Given the I-45 expansion debate there’s not a huge amount of trust and goodwill, but it could happen. For now, there are a lot of questions that the folks in my neighborhood have.

Your omicron booster will be ready this week

I’ll be getting mine.

Most Texans will be eligible in the coming days for a second round of Covid-19 booster shots after updated vaccines got final federal approval this week.

The new doses, from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are designed to fight off severe infection from the latest versions of the omicron variant, which have proven especially easy to spread. Federal health officials hope the new round of boosters can add a layer of immune protection heading into a potential uptick of infections this fall as people head back indoors.

The new boosters will be available to anyone 18 and older for Moderna’s, and anyone over the age of 12 for Pfizer-BioNTech’s. Older adults have been eligible for several months.

“If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your COVID-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it,” the Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky said Thursday after endorsing an advisory committee’s recommendation to make the shots widely available.

The updated vaccines add spike protein components from the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which helps restore protection that has waned since previous vaccine rounds. The CDC recommends waiting two months after your most recent COVID shot before getting the booster.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services said the doses are expected to ship out in the next few days, so Texans should be able to make appointments next week. Like previous boosters, these will be available at pharmacies, standalone health clinics and through local health departments, the agency said.

Both CVS and Walgreens were allowing patients to schedule the updated boosters as of Friday.

As the story notes, while COVID deaths in Texas are way down – about 100 a month statewide at this time – people are still getting infected. Plenty of people I know have been sidelined for a week or two in recent months. Long COVID and other risks remain as well. I’m still pretty vigilant about masking in indoor spaces, which usually puts me in a distinct minority, but it’s just a numbers game, and sooner or later that catches up to you. I’ll add on another layer of defense for that, thanks very much.

We keep on building homes in the floodplains

It’s how we roll.

When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston region with a deluge of rain, one of the places where the water escaped its bounds was near a Spring Branch floodway known as Brickhouse Gully, satellite data shows. There, it filled a golf course, which federal maps indicated had a high risk of flooding.

Today, that golf course has been turned into a 115-acre master-planned community built on newly created hills above its neighbors. A series of man-made lakes double as detention ponds, meant to prevent heavy rains that previously had pooled onto the golf course from impacting neighbors or those living downstream.

The story of how it was built encapsulates the tensions between those seeking to build more safely in the floodplains and those who believe such practices will not protect against the heavier rains predicted in the future — and who would prefer such land to remain undeveloped to allow stormwaters room to flow.

Four months before Harvey made landfall, the Arizona-based homebuilder Meritage Homes announced it planned to build roughly 800 single-family homes on what had been the Pine Crest golf course. The master-planned community would be named Spring Brook Village.

One out of every seven residential building permits issued in Houston since Harvey were located in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 2009 Flood Insurance Rate Maps. While some were for pre-existing, flood-damaged homes that homeowners had decided to rebuild, many were for new homes that have put an increasing number of people in areas predisposed to flood. One of the highest concentrations of such permits was in Spring Brook Village.

After both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Harvey, standards for building in floodplains were tightened. Homes are now required to be built higher and with more detention. Meritage Homes, which said no one was available for comment, was building to the updated standards. But it also had done something else — started the process of having the floodmap changed.

Since Harvey, a sweeping federal floodmap update called Atlas-14 has been underway. Anticipated to be released this fall, it will look at rainfall data up to and including Hurricane Harvey. An early analysis indicated that the size of Harris County’s floodplains would grow because the expected rainfall in a flood event had been revised upward.

But a number of small, manual changes to floodplain maps have been taking place. Developers can submit applications to the Harris County Flood Control District and FEMA arguing that the flood designation for their communities should be changed, often because of flood mitigation steps taken. Until floodmaps are updated to reflect new rainfall averages, these one-off revisions have had the opposite effect: On paper, the county’s floodplains have been shrinking.

The changes often mean that homeowners in the area will not be required by their lenders to purchase flood insurance — which makes buying a home in the new community more affordable but puts homeowners who opt out of the expense at risk if the area does flood.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s a long story, part of the Chron’s ongoing coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s five-year mark, so go read the rest. And maybe double-check the flood map your home is in.

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Another story about driverless trucks on I-45

The driverless trucks start coming and they don’t stop coming.

Waymo will partner in coming weeks with manufacturer Daimler Truck to put self-driving 18-wheelers on the road, further expanding the technology company’s autonomous testing between Dallas and Houston.

The big rigs will travel between the state’s two largest metro areas on Interstate 45, a corridor that’s become one of the country’s key testing grounds for driverless trucks.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., creates the technology that can be attached to trucks and other vehicles to make them fully autonomous. Its partnership with Daimler
began in 2020.

“We’re very excited to share this really big milestone for this trade partnership with Daimler and Waymo,” said Boris Sofman, director of engineering and head of trucking for Waymo. “We knew from the very beginning it would be very critical for us to partner with the right group of experts.”

The Waymo Driver technology is touted as a way to eventually eliminate the need for a human driver. Trucks equipped with it don’t need to stop for bathroom breaks or to sleep overnight, making them a more efficient way of getting goods from one place to another.

Waymo Via is used for transporting commercial goods, and it combines the driving capabilities of the Waymo Driver with the redundant systems of the Daimler trucks. Daimler’s Freightliner Cascadia has been specifically designed for autonomous trucking, with redundant steering and braking systems, as well as increased battery storage to power the autonomous features.

[…]

The trucks are ready for the road after what Waymo and Daimler described as rigorous testing.

“We will be putting the first batch of these trucks into autonomous testing on public freeways in the upcoming weeks across Dallas and Phoenix, and that is an incredible milestone that both teams have been working a number of years toward,” said Waymo’s Sofman.

Waymo partnered with Uber Freight in June to move goods along the I-45 corridor, building on a February partnership on the same route with C.H. Robinson, a company that moves 20 million shipments annually. Waymo also partners with J.B. Hunt and UPS in Texas.

Waymo has been mentioned before, with that second story mentioning the C.H. Robinson partnership. I don’t think there’s anything really new with this one, it’s more of what we have already seen with the note that Waymo is a significant presence in the market. I wish there were an easy way to identify these autonomous trucks on the road, so we could get a more intuitive feel for how common a presence they are. For now, all we have are the news accounts. The Chron has more.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.

Pension reform law reinstated by appeals court

A win for the city.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state appeals court on Tuesday tossed out a ruling that jeopardized part of Houston’s pension reform plan, reversing a victory the firefighters’ pension board had scored in late 2020.

The Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund had argued that legislation passed in 2017 as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform package prevented the board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions” — projections of future pension costs and benefits — by itself, which it said violated the Texas Constitution.

Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Constitution does not give the board an exclusive right to determine those assumptions, upholding the law.

[…]

The dispute involves Turner’s landmark pension reform legislation passed in 2017. Among other things, the legislation affected how much money the city contributes to the police, fire and municipal pension funds each year. The changes to that part of the law dictated some of the actuarial assumptions that must be used in that calculation, including a 7 percent assumed rate of return on investments. It also set a process for determining the rate when the pension board and the city actuaries offered differing proposals.

The board, though, argued that the Texas Constitution gives it “exclusive authority” to choose actuarial assumptions, and therefore the new law violated the Constitution by giving the city a role in that process. The Constitution says pension systems “shall… select… an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions to be used by the system or program.”

In Tuesday’s ruling, Justice Richard Hightower said that is not the case. The ruling marks the second time the challenged provision has been upheld by appeals courts.

“(T)he word ‘shall’ does not, by itself, mean or imply ‘exclusive authority,’” Hightower wrote. “The commonly understood meaning of ‘shall’ does not imply that the party with a duty to perform — who ‘shall’ perform — does so exclusively or that the duty cannot be regulated.”

See here for the previous update, and here for the opinion. Given that it apparently turns on the definition of “shall”, I did not read it, on the expectation that my eyes might permanently glaze over. The firefighters have vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court. Given that it took almost two years to get an opinion on the previous appeal, you can guess for yourself how long it will likely be before the next update.

People who live in crime-filled houses should not throw stones

Local idiot megachurch pastor Ed Young recently said some typically ignorant and politically-charged things, which has people justifiably upset. Not the first time for him, either. I have better things to do than think about Ed Young, so let me just note one thing from that story:

Young, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, leads one of the country’s biggest churches, touting a membership of 80,000 across several locations as of 2019. His congregants include Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other Texas lawmakers.

Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, you say? Where have I seen that name in the very recent news?

Federal investigators are probing the Southern Baptist Convention over its handling of sexual abuse following the publication of an explosive report that found top officials had for two decades silenced abuse survivors and fought reforms out of fears of lawsuits, leaders of the nation’s second-largest faith group said on Friday.

In a statement, the SBC’s top leadership body, the Executive Committee, confirmed that the Department of Justice is looking into “multiple” Southern Baptist entities.

The statement was signed by all of the leaders of the SBC’s seminaries and main entities. They said they will cooperate fully with the criminal investigation and “continue to grieve and lament past mistakes.”

[…]

The SBC’s handling of abuse has been in the public spotlight since 2019, when the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published the first of an ongoing series, Abuse of Faith, that found hundreds of church leaders and volunteers had been convicted of sex crimes.

They left behind at least 700 victims, nearly all of them children.

The newspapers’ reporting prompted Southern Baptist church members to request a third-party review last year of the SBC’s Executive Committee’s handling of abuse reports dating back to 2000.

Clean up your own fucking house, Ed. You have zero moral authority over anyone.

(I’d also tell you to get your facts straight, but I know you don’t care.)

White Oak bike trail extension: Getting close to done

It’s been a bit more than a month since the last update, and as you can see a lot has gotten done.

WhiteOakTrailExtensionAlmostDone

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnd

As you can see, the trail itself is about 90% done, with only the far west end still needing to have concrete poured. The retaining wall appears to be complete as well. I assume there will be some groundskeeping work done before they declare victory – something needs to be done with all that exposed dirt, and maybe some small trees will be planted. But the heavy construction part is nearly finished.

Here’s a closer look at that western end:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnding

As you can see from the other pictures, all of the big excavation machines are gone. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to come back, but one way or another there will be more concrete poured. You can see a bike rider on the finished part of the trail already. I’ve seen some people walking the trail, and I did so myself a few days ago. Had to trudge through some mud at the end of it, but it was otherwise usable. The question I have at this point is how this trail extension is actually going to connect to the existing Heights Bike Trail. This is how it looks from where you can hop onto the Heights trail from Frasier Street:

MKTTrailFrasierEntrance

MKTTrailHeightsTrailJunction

I’ve shown a version of that first picture before. At the time, the stones connected to the existing trail, and I had assumed that was a planned piece of the project. I still think it is, but I’m not sure what will be done with that extended mud trail that now runs parallel to the bike trail. Obviously, that was used to get equipment on and off of the construction site, and I assume something will be done with it before the work is completed. The sensible thing would be for the White Oak extension to connect to the Heights trail at the closest location, and for that bit of path from Frasier Street to the trail to be filled in with concrete. Hopefully we’ll see the answers to those questions in the next couple of weeks. I will of course let you know.

Yes, let’s build more bike trail bridges

It’s all about connectivity.

Stopping for a water break on the normal blistering-hot Houston day, bicyclist Reagan Smithers, 33, can see the tops of the trees along her street from the White Oak Bayou Trail.

As the grackle flies – this is Houston, so there’s more of them than crows — she’s maybe four blocks from home, and a circuitous 1.1-mile bike ride.

“You get used to it, but it is a pain,” Smithers said.

Cycling advocates, supported by local developers and with some initial encouragement from city and state officials, however, might just have the cure: Two crossings of the bayou that could bridge a small distance that’s always existed between the Heights and Rice Military.

“It really shows what we could have but don’t,” said Emmanuel Nunez, one of the leaders of the push for two bridges at Patterson and Rutland.

The proposal cobbles together an open space the Texas Department of Transportation acquired for stormwater detention north of Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou, current plans for a bridge where Rutland dead ends north of the bayou, and apartment and commercial development on both sides of the bayou at Patterson. Nunez and other supporters of the proposal, called a Tale of Two Bridges, argue that a complete plan to use the detention area for wetland trails and a little parking – combined with the spans – eases access for cyclists and runners and makes natural connections that will be critical as nearby changes to transit and bike lanes occur.

“We want to make sure we have connectivity from every angle,” Nunez said.

TxDOT, with federal money doled out by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, has a $2.4 million plan to build the Rutland bridge, set to start construction in fiscal 2024. Advocates behind the two bridges project are hoping another entity or entities – Houston, Harris County, Houston Parks Board, Metropolitan Transit Authority, area management districts, developers and practically anyone with the money and political muscle – will step in and support a Patterson span at the same time under the same construction contract.

“We want two for the price of one,” said Kevin Strickland, another organizer of the effort and members of CURBS Houston, an advocacy group in the Heights that has supported bicycling amenities in the area.

This makes a lot of sense to me. The image on the ATOTB page shows how much bang for the buck having both bridges would mean. Farther down in the Chron story is a listing of other projects in the area that would further enhance the effect. There’s a lot of apartments and a lot of destinations that would be easily reachable by bike from them in the area. Enabling that connectivity means fewer people resorting to cars for these short trips. That’s a big win for everyone, all for a very reasonable price tag. We should all want this to happen.

The 24th plaintiff

As you know, 23 of the 24 women who had filed lawsuits against Deshaun Watson for sexual harassment and assault have settled those cases. The one who has not settled now tells us why.

>Deshaun Watson and the NFL agreed to an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine Thursday after 24 massage therapists filed civil suits accusing him of sexual assault in sessions with them while he was with the Houston Texans. Twenty-three of those 24 civil suits have been settled with undisclosed agreements, but there’s one case still pending, and the woman behind that suit spoke out Friday in the form of an essay for The Daily Beast.

“I have rejected all settlement offers, in part because they have not included any sincere acknowledgment of remorse and wrongdoings, nor have they included any promises of rehabilitative treatment,” Lauren Baxley wrote. “Watson still refuses to admit that he harassed and committed indecent assault against me. Any settlement offer he has made has been a dismissal of his evil actions, and I know that unless there is an authoritative intervention, he will continue his destructive behavior.”

The Houston Chronicle typically does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment. Baxley has publicly identified herself.

Watson has denied the allegations against him and stuck to that talking point even after agreeing to the 11-game suspension.

“I’ve always been able to stand on my innocence and always said I never assaulted or disrespected anyone. But at the same point, I have to continue to push forward with my life and career,” Watson told reporters at Browns training camp Thursday.

[…]

“I will say again: All non-consensual sexual acts are a violence, particularly when the predator far outweighs his victims in physical stature and influential power,” Baxley wrote for The Daily Beast. “And inherent and unspoken threats are just as damaging to the psyche as explicit threats. I will never cease my attempts to educate on this point.”

Baxley’s essay in the Daily Beast is subscription-only, so this is the best I can do. All I can say here is that I wish her all the success in the world. She deserves her chance to get whatever accountability there is to be had.

Watson’s suspension increased to 11 games

This was the result of an agreement between the NFL and Deshaun Watson as represented by the NFLPA.

Deshaun Watson’s suspension has been increased from six to 11 games, the league announced Thursday.

Watson and NFL reached a settlement where the former Texans quarterback must also pay a $5 million fine. The first game he would be eligible to play for the Cleveland Browns would be against his former team on Dec. 4 at NRG Stadium.

Watson, who was the subject of 24 civil lawsuits from women who alleged he sexually assaulted and harassed them, was initially given a six-game suspension by independent arbitrator Sue Robinson.

Robinson said in her 16-page report that Watson’s three violations met the NFL’s definition for sexual assault during massage therapy sessions with four women. Watson was ordered to only seek club-directed or club-approved massage therapists for the duration of his career along with the suspension. She did not recommend a fine.

But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appealed the ruling, seeking a year-long suspension. The two sides settled on the 11 games and the fine.

In its appeal for harsher discipline, the NFL had pointed to Watson’s lack of remorse, a factor Robinson also cited in her ruling. Watson, who has steadfastly denied the accusations against him, settled this summer 23 of the 24 lawsuits filed against him by women who said he harassed or assaulted them in massage appointments.

See here for some background. Note that this is a settlement agreement and not a ruling on the appeal by the NFL of Watson’s initial 6-game suspension. We’ll never know what that might have been, but given that Watson made his ridiculous non-apology the other day, it was clear that there was room for this kind of negotiation. In the end, both sides get certainty, the NFL avoids a lawsuit filed by the NFLPA over its handling of player discipline versus owner discipline (among many other things), and Watson will get to play this year. That’s a win-win in someone’s accounting; I think most of us aren’t winning anything, but I suppose it could have been worse. I’ll wait to see what the women who were harassed by Watson have to say. Sean Pendergast, The 19th, Slate, and a whole bunch of other outlets have more.

Houston will have a bond on the ballot

First I’d heard of this, but it should be pretty routine.

Houston will ask voters in November to approve a $478 million bond program to buy fire and police vehicles, renovate or replace city facilities and give the city’s animal shelter a new home.

City Council voted 16-1 Wednesday to approve an election for Nov. 8, Houston’s first bond referendum since 2017. District G Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman was the lone no vote.

If approved by voters, the city would sell the bonds to investors and use the proceeds on infrastructure. It would pay back the money, plus interest, with debt service over a longer term. The proposed debt package does not include an increase in property taxes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the strategy in formulating the plan was to be “very pragmatic” and avoid creating a “wish list” of spending items. A massive increase in debt service would put a drag on the city’s operating budget, he said. Houston has paid an average of $340 million over the last four years to pay down past public improvement bonds.

To that end, the package primarily would be used to fund $194 million in already-planned projects in the city’s capital budget that have no current funding source. They are listed in the plan as being paid for by a “future bond election.”

The proposal also would hold $156 million to address the city’s backlog of deferred maintenance and $60 million to help cover higher inflation costs. Also included are $45 million for a new animal care building, $13 million for new parks facilities, and a $10 million earmark for improvements to Agnes Moffitt Park in Timber Oaks. District A Councilmember Amy Peck won council approval on an amendment to tack that project onto the proposal during the vote Wednesday.

[…]

In the broader bond package, more than half — $277 million — would go to public safety, $50 million to parks, $47 million to BARC, $29 million in general government improvements, $26 million for libraries and $6 million for Solid Waste Management.

Among the projects already in the works: $87.5 million for police and fire vehicles and equipment, the $13.7 million replacement of Fire Station 40 on Old Spanish Trail, $9.2 million in other fire station renovations, $8.8 million for the renovation of five health and multi-service centers, and $2.8 million in upgrades to City Hall.

All of that spending will be dependent on voters’ approval in November.

There will also be a Harris County bond referendum on the ballot as well. If past form holds, both will be split into multiple items, each one specific to a purpose. In 2017, two years after the last Harris County bond referendum, all five Houston items passed with 72 to 77 percent of the vote. I will be surprised if there’s any serious opposition to this.

Vote No and take the credit anyway

It’s a tale as old as time.

Not Ted Cruz

Republicans in Texas are proud to stand and announce local grants from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The problem is they all voted against it. All of them.

For the second time in two weeks, Houston scored a big grant from the Department of Transportation, and for the second time in two weeks, Republicans were quick to show up for the ribbon cutting. The back-to-back $21 million announcements, first for the Telephone Road Main Street Redevelopment project and then for 20 new electric buses, were celebrated by local Houston officials, even Republicans who opposed the projects.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, both of whom proudly supported the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act back in 2021, talked about how these funds make needed investment in often overlooked communities. Both programs will serve low to moderate income communities by providing cleaner and more efficient public transportation as well as safer streets.

The announcement also attracted representatives of the “C” team – Cornyn, Cruz, and Crenshaw – who lined up to show support. Staffers from all stood with METRO Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to make Monday’s announcement.

Earlier this year, Texas Republican Representative Ronny Jackson claimed an “instrumental” role in securing funding for a water purification project in his district despite vocal opposition to the infrastructure bill, which is funding the project. Jackson voted against the measure and mocked it as “bloated,” but apparently not too bloated for his pet project.

Newly-elected Congresswoman Mayra Flores of Brownsville also opposed the infrastructure bill, but is now touting the federal largesse pouring into South Texas without revealing that she vehemently opposed the enabling legislation as “wasteful” and smearing Republicans who voted for the bill “the RINO Bunch.”

She joins a long list of Republicans who have recently “voted no and taken the dough,” in refusing to support investments in their communities to please their far-right base, but then being the first in line to take credit.

See here for the background. The “C” team (great name, btw) also voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Sometimes, all you can really do is laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all. But if you’re going to laugh, it’s best to point fingers at the objects of your laughter as well.

The proposed HISD charter partnership policy change

I don’t have a lot of time to dig into this, but there are a couple of things I wanted to touch on.

Parents, education advocates and a group of Houston elected officials including three Houston ISD trustees on Monday blasted a proposal by other school board members that would change the district’s policy surrounding charters, calling the measure dangerous to public schools and imploring it be taken off an agenda days before its first reading.

Revisions to the policy, which was initially issued in April 2018, would grant parents or guardians the authority to approve or turn down a partnership with a charter, or other entities permissible under the state’s education code, that is initiated by the district’s administration.

A detail of the proposed changes that garnered opposition would create a pathway for 60 percent of parents or guardians of an HISD school “to be served by a new or existing school,” according to a draft of the proposal, allowing them to initiate such a partnership.

The board of education is scheduled to have a first reading of the proposal on Thursday morning, which has also drawn criticism as it will occur during working hours. While nearly 60 other policies will have a first reading this week it appeared the charter one was the only to have been presented by trustees; it included a line that called the proposed changes “boardmember-proposed revisions.”

Trustees Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Elizabeth Santos and Myrna Guidry stood with a group of parents and elected officials — including Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and various state representatives — at a Monday afternoon news conference opposing the proposed policy.

“This is not about giving parents voice in our school,” said Ruth Kravetz, co-founder of local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education that organized the event. “Charter operators will promise the sun, the sky and the moon to get parent buy-in.”

Trustee Sue Deigaard, who represents HISD schools from parts of Montrose to southwest Houston, said the proposed changes could help the district with its deficit, and declining enrollment, as the partnerships give schools systems additional funds through a state law. The policy as it is gives the board and administration discretion over the decisions on such partnerships — and not much say to parents, she said.

HISD, the state’s largest school system, has about 195,000 students and is not projected to increase its enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, administrators told trustees during budget workshops. In 2015, for instance, HISD had about 215,000 students.

“We know from the budget conversations in the spring that we are going to have some really tough decisions ahead, possibly close schools,” Deigaard said in an interview. “I wanted to make sure that the superintendent had that tool if he wanted to use that tool.

She added, “Here’s a sort of grounding value that I had in the process, really multiple grounding values: One was — how do we make sure we open up opportunities but make sure that we’re not doing anything that would be harmful. The other grounding principle was when we make these big decisions, such as a school closure or partnership, how do we ensure that we’re doing it with families and not to them.”

[…]

Deigaard said concerns about the policy were valid but in her view the proposal empowered parents to approve or disapprove such a change.

“I think it’s a very real fear for families to think, ‘Oh, my school is going to get partnered off,” Deigaard said. “If that’s not what they want, this policy says they don’t have to have that.”

This all bubbled up after a tweet on Saturday, which made a reference to this change but didn’t have anything specific. I wound up having a conversation with Sue Deigaard, who has always been very generous with her time when I have questions about complicated school stuff. There are a number of things that motivated this, including the possibility of utilizing underused space in existing schools and giving parents who aren’t currently sending their kids to HISD a reason to do so – she mentioned conversations with parents who want a particular type of program or school option that doesn’t currently exist. Countering the enrollment decline, and taking steps to keep HISD as a primary option for parents were a main message I took away from my conversation with her.

At a fundamental level, I trust Sue Deigaard – who, as I have said in previous posts, is someone I’ve known for a long time, going back to when we were both at Rice – and I don’t believe there’s any appetite within HISD to give a bunch of power and money to charter schools. Your mileage may vary on these points. I’m sure there’s plenty of room for discussion and disagreement about this proposal, as would be the case for any big proposal. The story notes that Superintendent House may not end up supporting it, if there isn’t sufficient public support for it. If so, then so be it. This is a first reading – it may not make it to second reading. I want to hear more about it. From there, we’ll see where it goes.

(Today is “move kid #1 into her college dorm day”, so I’m a little pressed for time right now. I’ll try to know more about this next time.)

Metro gets electric bus money

Good.

Metro’s plan to gradually get rid of gasoline-powered buses took a step forward this week, when federal officials awarded the transit agency nearly $21.6 million to replace 20 diesel buses with electric ones, and the equipment needed to keep them charged.

“These essential funds will help our region transition to lower-polluting and more energy-efficient transit vehicles quicker,” Rep. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, said in a statement announcing the award from the Federal Transit Administration. “I look forward to watching the positive impact this brings to Houston Metro and residents.”

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials applied for the money in May, citing the grant as a part of overall efforts to replace its diesel fleet. Federal officials, as part of the transportation bill passed last year, increased funding for zero emission buses from about $182 million to $1.1 billion, allowing transit agencies to compete for the funds with a greater likelihood of winning funding.

[…]

Board members one year ago approved a plan for Metro to purchase only zero-emission vehicles by 2030, giving the agency years to convert its fleet of more than 1,200 buses away from diesel.

So far, Metro has made plans to purchase 50, including the 20 covered by this week’s grant. The agency earlier this year received funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal money in the area, for 20 electric 40-foot buses — those that typically operate local routes — and ten smaller shuttles that often operate MetroLift paratransit routes.

See here for the most recent update. It’s obviously going to take awhile to replace the whole fleet, but you have to start somewhere. Hopefully, there will be more federal funds available in the future to help. Kudos to all for getting this going.

Deshaun Watson “apologizes”

As you may infer, I’m not impressed.

Deshaun Watson’s best play in his preseason debut with the Cleveland Browns came long before he took the field in Jacksonville.

Watson apologized Friday “to all the women I have impacted” after being accused by two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions.

Potentially facing a year-long suspension, Watson publicly expressed remorse and contrition for the first time since he was accused of sexually harassing or assaulting the women during therapy sessions in 2020 and 2021.

He spoke before the team’s exhibition opener, a 24-13 victory against the Jaguars (0-2) in which Watson was roundly booed during three series of work. Fans in one end zone could be heard chanting vulgarities at Watson during his first drive.

[…]

“Look, I want to say that I’m truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation,” Watson said in the pregame interview. “The decisions that I made in my life that put me in this position I would definitely like to have back, but I want to continue to move forward and grow and learn and show that I am a true person of character and I am going to keep pushing forward.”

Watson has denied any wrongdoing, and grand juries in two Texas counties declined to indict him on criminal complaints. He settled 23 of 24 civil lawsuits.

I hope I don’t have to explain why that “apology” is lame and meaningless. I suspect that Watson is beginning to fear that his suspension will be lengthened, and this is his feeble attempt to mitigate. I can’t imagine it would have any effect, and frankly if this is the best he can do then he better hope it doesn’t have a negative effect. But I suppose you never know. ESPN and Yahoo Sports have more.