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2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey

Lots of optimism in here.

Dr. Stephen Klineberg’s final survey of the Houston area leaves him with hope. Yes, residents are concerned about the economy and crime, and their mental health has not improved even as the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to wane, but it’s not all doom and gloom, according to the 2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey released Tuesday.

Shifting attitudes toward public education, diversity and Houston’s place in America’s growth, in particular, give Klineberg reason for optimism — and if there’s anyone here who can claim to be an expert on Houston’s population, it’s the man who has annually written the most comprehensive report on the city’s residents since the survey’s inception in 1981.

“It’s hard to be pessimistic over the long haul in Houston because there’s just so many things happening in Houston. Whatever you’re passionate about or whatever you care about, there’s wonderful things happening in the city, and a population that really cares about Houston and wants it to succeed,” Klineberg said.

Still, there’s no denying that Houstonians have real concerns about the state of the city. Twenty-eight percent of the survey’s 1,958 randomly selected respondents said that the economy was their biggest concern, and crime closely followed with 25 percent.

The pandemic also left lasting scars on residents’ mental health. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that their stress and anxiety have increased, and 57 percent reported feeling increasingly lonely and isolated since the pandemic started over two years ago.

[…]

Nearly two-thirds of Houston-area residents said they support a person’s right to an abortion for any reason, and more than 90 percent said they support it if the person’s health is endangered by the pregnancy.

Klineberg was glad to see, for the first time since the survey began, that a majority of non-Hispanic white people, 51 percent, agree that people of color don’t have the same opportunities as them — a 15 percent rise since 2020. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic people now agree with that statement, and 17 percent of Black people.

“For the first time over the years of the surveys, majorities in all three of Houston’s largest ethnic communities now agree in acknowledging the racial inequities in access to economic opportunity in American society today,” the report states.

The survey later adds that “area residents of all ethnicities have been giving increasingly positive evaluations to relations among the ethnic communities, and they are more likely than ever before to say that they have close personal friends across the ethnic divides.”

That’s especially important in Houston, says Klineberg, because U.S. census projections show that the rest of the country will mirror Harris County’s racially diverse demographic in the coming decades, according to the report.

“Houston is called upon to be a model for the rest of the nation, to take the lead in building something that has never existed before in human history—a truly successful, inclusive, equitable, and united multiethnic society, comprising virtually all the peoples, all the ethnicities, all the religions of the world, gathered here, in this one remarkable place,” the report states.

Among its most notable finds, for Klineberg, was a big jump in the percentage of people who support “significantly more money” for public schools, up to 67 percent from 55 percent in 2020. In 1995, that number was just 41 percent.

The steady rise in support for education funding signals to Klineberg that Houstonians may be moving away from the industrial mindset during the oil and gas boom of the 1960s and 1970s — when loose regulations, free enterprise and low taxes helped wealthy businessmen flourish, but left many others behind.

“Area residents, who have traditionally been opposed to government intervention of almost any sort, appear to be rethinking their basic assumptions about the nature and causes of poverty in America,” the report states.

See here for what I had on the 2020 Survey. I must have missed the 2021 Survey but I’ve blogged about several others in the past: 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2019. The Kinder HAS page is here, and I recommend you peruse it when you get a minute. As the story notes, Dr. Stephen Klineberg is retiring from Rice after doing this survey work for 40 years, which has been a huge boon for all of us. There’s a nice retrospective of his work here. Enjoy!

GLO prepares to screw Houston again on Harvey recovery funds

Gird yourselves.

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

[…]

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

See here for the previous update. The key thing to understand here is that this is not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it’s not the result of a good faith difference of opinion, and it’s not something that can be corrected by reasoned persuasion. It’s a deliberate choice, one that has now been made multiple times. Unfortunately, this time around they had a little help.

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

I don’t understand what HUD is doing either. At this point, it may be best to bring on the civil rights lawsuit. And vote in a Land Commissioner that won’t do this sort of thing again.

The injury totals from AstroWorld

A lot of people were seriously hurt at that event.

More than 700 people were seriously injured during November’s Astroworld Festival tragedy, according to new court documents filed in Harris County this week.

Plaintiffs attorneys Jason Atkin, Richard Mithoff and Sean Roberts notified 11th Judicial District Judge Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins that they’d conducted a survey of people affected by the lethal Astroworld tragedy, which claimed the lives of 10 concertgoers late last year, including a 9-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

According to the attorneys’ survey, some 732 people filed claims tied to injuries requiring significant medical treatment. An additional 1,649 claims were tied to injuries that required less extensive treatment, and they were also reviewing 2,540 claims for injuries where the severity was not fully ascertained.

The filing provides the latest and most complete picture, so far, of the toll of the Astroworld Festival, a local music festival which drew tens of thousands of visitors to Houston from across the region and the rest of the country.

[…]

The defendants in the lawsuit, Live Nation Worldwide, Scoremore Mgmt, ASM Global, Travis Scott, and others, generally deny the allegations, court records show.

One of the companies, Contemporary Services Corporation, has come under additional criticism, after a man successfully jumped onstage during a comedy show in Los Angeles last week and attacked Dave Chappelle.

Scott — who pleaded guilty to reckless conduct after urging fans to rush the stage during a 2015 show in Chicago and to a charge of disorderly conduct for similar behavior during a 2017 show in Arkansas — has consistently denied wrongdoing and asked to be removed from the lawsuits.

See here for the most recent update. The deaths of the ten concertgoers have been the headline of this story, but the sheer number of people that were badly injured would be grounds enough for the litigation that has followed. We can and should have investigations and task forces to look into what happened and why, but the discovery process is going to tell us a whole lot about this tragedy that we otherwise would not have known.

It’s city of Houston budget time again

That federal COVID relief money continues to be very nice.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Once again relying on federal money, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed $5.7 billion budget for next year would pay for raises for all city employees, offer tax relief to seniors and disabled residents, and sock away the largest reserves in years for savings, according to an outline Turner shared Tuesday at City Hall.

The city often faces nine-figure budget deficits, forcing it to sell off land and defer costs to close gaps. For the third consecutive year, though, the city will rely on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money to avoid a budget hole and free up other revenue for the mayor’s priorities.

The city is set to receive more than $300 million this year from the most recent stimulus package approved by Congress, and Turner has proposed using $160 million in the budget. The city has received more than $1 billion in such assistance over the last three years.

City Council is expected to propose amendments and vote to adopt the spending plan next month. The budget will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.

With about $311 million in reserves, Turner is establishing the healthiest fund balance the city has seen in decades, which he called necessary given the uncertainty of rising inflation, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The city budgeted $205 million in reserves last year, the first time it exceeded $200 million in reserves since 2009. The city’s financial policy calls for an unassigned reserve worth 7.5 percent of the general fund; this year’s amount is nearly double that, 13.5 percent.

That money also will help the next mayor and council confront budgets when the federal assistance runs dry and the city must fend for itself, Turner said. The relief funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

“I think what we all recognize is that some of the major cost-drivers will be driving this budget for the next several years… I don’t want to put future mayors and council members in a worse position,” Turner said. “As the city weans itself eventually off the (federal) funds, you’re going to be back with the fund balance.”

You can see a list of things in the proposed budget herer. HPD, HFD, Solid Waste, and Parks and Rec all get increases. We’ll see how spicy the amendments process is.

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

Chron editorial board wins another Pulitzer

Congratulations!

The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board on Monday won a 2022 Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for a series on voter suppression in Texas.

The prize, which is the nation’s most prestigious for journalists, was awarded to writers Lisa Falkenberg, Michael Lindenberger, Joe Holley and Luis Carrasco. Mostly published in a series called, “The Big Lie,” their winning work examined and debunked GOP-driven falsehoods about voter fraud that have persisted for decades.

“Our editorial team is committed to journalism excellence each and every day,” Houston Chronicle Publisher Nancy Meyer said following the announcement. “The award-winning work surrounding voter fraud and reform continues to prove the positive impact our reporting has for improving the lives of Houstonians and the people of Texas.”

Jurors who decided the award wrote that the Chronicle won for a “campaign that, with original reporting, revealed voter suppression tactics, rejected the myth of widespread voter fraud and argued for sensible voting reforms.”

This is the Chronicle’s — and Falkenberg’s — second Pulitzer. She won the newspaper’s first prize in 2015 for commentary.

The series in question is indeed excellent, and you should read it if you haven’t. I wish we lived in a world where that kind of writing could have a positive effect on the public discourse, but then if we did live in that world there would have been no need for those editorials. I really hate this timeline.

Now, Chron editorial board, please, I implore you, use that prize-winning space to give us some endorsements in the primary runoffs for the judicial races you ignored in March. You can do it, I know you can. Thanks.

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

Oh yeah, Hotze knew all about the Aguirre attack

Who could have ever guessed that a lifelong lying lair was lying to us?

Two days before a private investigator looking into a voter fraud conspiracy theory smashed into an air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on him, far-right activist Steven Hotze called then-U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick and told him about the plans to have “a wreck,” court documents show.

Hotze, who funded the investigation and now faces felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, asked Patrick whether he could send federal marshals to help his private investigator. The investigator, former Houston Police Department captain Mark Aguirre, faces the same charges.

Hotze’s attorneys long have claimed Hotze was unaware of the encounter between Aguirre and the repairman until he saw it on the news after the episode. The transcript suggests otherwise.

“We’ve surveilled them for the last two nights and still my, my, Mark Aguirre, he said he wants to capture them when they bring (the ballots) out and leave tonight to deliver them but he needs a federal marshal with him,” Hotze says in the Oct. 17 call, according to a transcript submitted in Hotze’s criminal case by the Harris County district attorney’s office.

Hotze added later in the call: “In fact, (Aguirre) told me last night, hell, I’m gonna have, the guy’s gonna have a wreck tomorrow. I’m going to run into him and I’m gonna make a citizen’s arrest.”

Two days later, Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into the back of the air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on the man around 5:30 a.m.. He expected to find thousands of ballots in the man’s truck, but there only were repair tools.

In addition to the criminal case, the repairman has sued Hotze in a civil case.

The transcript says Patrick recorded the call. It is unclear what Patrick did with the information or the recording after talking with Hotze.

[…]

According to the transcript, Patrick rejected Hotze’s request, telling him that as U.S. attorney he did not have marshals that report to him or investigative staff. Even if he did, Patrick said, he would need probable cause and approval from the Department of Justice to assist.

“I can’t just send marshals. That’s not, the marshals don’t work for me,” Patrick said. “I don’t have any, there are no federal agents that work for me. I don’t have officers, I don’t have investigators, like a DA’s office. I don’t have any peace officers or federal agents that work for me.”

Both Hotze and Aguirre have denied wrongdoing.

A former Harris County prosecutor called the recording “extremely significant,” because the district attorney’s office will have to use the “law of parties” principle — which can hold people criminally responsible for the actions of someone else — in their case against Hotze.

“Having a conversation ahead of time, whether recorded or with a reputable individual such as Ryan Patrick, that there was a plan to have an accident — that certainly shows he was involved in this conspiracy,” said Nathan Hennigan, a former prosecutor who worked at the district attorney’s office from 2008 to 2017.

“It’s basically what you would need to prosecute this case,” he said.

[…]

Previous court documents said Aguirre had called the attorney general’s office days before the alleged assault and asked it to conduct a traffic stop of the repairman.

In the new transcript, Hotze tells Patrick the attorney general’s office “is just AWOL” and he cannot try enlisting the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, “obviously because they’re Democrats.” Hotze suggests he may try to find a constable who would assist Aguirre.

Hotze also said Aguirre planned to have an official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement there, in hopes of threatening to deport the man to coerce a confession. Hotze said the people “running the ring are all illegals.”

About six minutes into the call, Patrick tells Hotze he has received the information but he has to go. Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, then was serving as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

There’s a ton of backstory here, but this is a good place to start. I have some sympathy for Ryan Patrick, who I can picture with a pained expression on his face as he’s trying to disconnect from this raving lunatic on his phone. In retrospect, maybe he could have tried to warn someone about what Hotze was up to, but it’s not clear to me who he could have tipped off, and what could have been done about it by whoever he informed. The fact that he declined to get involved in the seditious insanity is sufficient, with a lot of bonus points for recording the call. He did not disgrace himself or his office, and honestly that’s all I really want from most Republicans these days.

Anyway, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill, who has as strained a relationship with truth and reality as Hotze does, claims in the story that this recording will actually bolster Hotze’s defense and prove that he’s innocent, and yeah, no. Given how this has gone so far, and the depraved character of the main players, it won’t shock me if more evidence along these lines surfaces. I’m sure the attorneys for David Lopez, the AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked who is suing Hotze for hopefully every last penny he has, are busy taking notes right about now. In the meantime and in conclusion, lock him up. The streets are not safe as long as Steven Hotze is free to walk them.

May 7 election results

Very briefly…

The two constitutional amendments passed overwhelmingly. I began writing this post at around 8 PM when all we had were early voting results, but statewide in early voting both propositions were over 85%. They were at 86% and 83% in Harris County.

Jolanda Jones had the early voting edge in HD147, leading by about eleven points. That was a gap of about 300 votes out of 2800 cast, so it’s possible it could get closer, but even without seeing the election day returns, I’d say Jones is the winner.

In the HCC special election, Charlene Ward Johnson (40%) and Kathy Lynch Gunter (36%) were the clear leaders and should be the candidates in the runoff. Maybe the Chron will pay attention to this race and (heaven help us) make an endorsement for it. No, I’m never going to stop being salty about that.

I’ll see what happens in the other races in a later post. Maybe we’ll finally learn something about how many mail ballots were rejected, too.

UPDATE: John Coby reports on the CCISD results.

The White Oak Bike Trail extension starts to come into focus

When last we visited the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, we were puzzling over what the deal was with whatever they were doing next to the trail itself. I couldn’t tell where it was going or why it was there. A couple of weeks later, from the same view that I normally get looking at it from Studewood to the east, I could see that it was coming along but still couldn’t decipher what it was for.

BikeTrailExtensionWalkingPath

Fortunately, I finally had the time to try to find some alternate perspectives. Starting from the new little parking lot for the Bayou Greenways Park on Studewood just north of I-10, I crossed the bridge over Studewood into the little park, which extends north of the trail just before the MKT Bridge, and walked the park trail along its north end, which gave me a side view of the trail extension instead of just the front-on view I’d been getting. And lo, it all made sense.

BikeTrailExtensionSplitFullPicture

You may need to click on the photo to see it on Flickr so you can zoom in. What you see on the left (the west end) is a connection from whatever that parallel thing is to the bike trail. Here’s a zoomed-in view of it that I took:

BikeTrailExtensionSplit

What that says to me is that the parallel structure is likely an alternate path for walkers, with stairs on the east end leading to a flatter surface, instead of the deeper slope that the bike trail has. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. I can sort of see the stairs taking shape at the other end, though it’s still early for that. I suppose there’s a design document somewhere that can confirm or contradict my hypothesis, but if this isn’t what is happening then I’m really at a loss. I expect this will become more obvious over the next few weeks.

So far all of the construction activity is on the west side of that little culvert from the bayou, which creates a bifurcation in the planned path. While I was using this perspective, I got a picture of the gap between the two halves, so you can see what will need to be bridged:

BikeTrailExtensionChasm

I have no idea what the plan is for that. And given what we’ve just seen here, I may not be able to make sense of it when I do see it, at least at first. I’ll let you know when that happens.

(Still no sign of construction on the MKT Bridge itself. I have no idea what’s going on with that, either. The previously reported estimate for that to be fixed was “late summer”, so we still have almost five months. But they sure are taking their time about it.)

Houston updates its noise ordinance

This was probably inevitable, though it sure took a long time.

Houston bars, nightclubs and restaurants must obtain new permits to play amplified music within 120 days under a revised ordinance aimed at cracking down on disruptive late-night noise without sacrificing the city’s vibrant nightlife.

City Council approved amendments to the noise ordinance in a 15-1 vote Wednesday, two years after council members first began considering ways to address disputes between homeowners and neighboring businesses. Complaints against bars and clubs nearly doubled in the first three months of 2022.

The revamped noise ordinance sets stricter limits on nighttime noise and requires businesses abutting homes to obtain permits to play amplified music. It also creates a new administrative hearing process for bars and nightclubs that violate noise limits, giving business owners the chance to craft a mitigation plan within 10 days of the violation or risk losing their commercial sound permits for up to a year.

The permit will cost business owners $1,200.

Permitted businesses can play amplified music up to 75 decibels, which is about as loud as landscaping equipment, until 10 p.m. on weeknights or 11 p.m. on weekends. After those cutoffs, music would have to stay below 58 decibels until 2 a.m., as measured from the property of any resident who calls the Houston Police Department to complain.

At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who shepherded the rule changes to the vote, said the amendments target repeat violators that “flaunt the rules” and are “destroying quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

“These changes aim to strengthen current rules and bring more businesses into compliance,” Alcorn said Wednesday.

[…]

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, council members did not discuss the city’s shifting demographics or the apparent connection between gentrification and increased noise complaints. Under the ordinance, enforcement largely will rely on nonemergency calls for service or 311 complaints, a feature experts said may lead to inequitable treatment among neighborhoods.

The changes moved ahead over objections from At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh, the sole dissenting vote. Kubosh said he worried it will have little impact while overburdening police officers with enforcement.

“Where is the actual solution here?” Kubosh said after the vote. “Why would we tie up police with noise when they are busy responding to murders, aggravated assaults and people stealing catalytic converters?”

Not mentioned in this story and forgotten about by me until I went looking in my archives is that Council had passed an update to the noise ordinance back in 2011 that was aimed at big vibrating bass sounds, as well as making the language of the ordinance more specific. It did not have an auspicious debut, though perhaps by now it has been more successful in its application. Noise complaints in various gentrifying parts of the city, especially but not exclusively the Washington Avenue corridor, have been a thing for a long time. I’ve expressed some skepticism in the past towards the complainers on the grounds that the noisy bars and music venues were there first, but after all this time I think this approach makes sense. Maybe we can at least get some consistency, so that everyone knows and understands the rules from the beginning.

As for CM Kubosh’s complaint regarding enforcement, he has a point but the same thing could be said about literally any other law. I would not make noise enforcement a top priority for HPD, but I can think of some things above which it should be elevated. CultureMap has more.

Ashby Highrise 2.0

It’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

Did you miss me?

Since a judge sided with developers of the so-called Ashby high-rise in 2016, the grassy lot at the center of one of the most closely watched land-use battles in Houston’s history has sat untouched, surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Now, the owners of the property are resurrecting efforts to build a high-rise residential tower at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby Street near Rice University. They have brought in a new development team and a scaled-down version of the original plans they hope will win over neighbors who fiercely opposed the earlier iteration.

Hunt Companies of El Paso is partnering with Dallas-based StreetLights Residential to build a 20-story luxury apartment community called The Langley. They plan to break ground in November and complete construction by 2025. The tower is one story lower with 94 fewer units than a 2016 version of the project. The new proposal also features a smaller parking garage at three levels instead of five.

Fewer units mean fewer residents, which the developers hope will ease concerns over traffic on the two-lane streets surrounding the site — a key point of contention for the prior proposal.

[…]

When Buckhead Investment first announced a project in 2007, it quickly drew the ire of residents who argued a high-rise was out of character for the neighborhood. They worried about traffic congestion and plummeting property values.

The opposition sparked a yearlong battle to squash the project through protests and lawsuits in what became a symbol for fighting Houston’s lax zoning. Ultimately a judge sided with Buckhead in clearing the way for the developers to build.

But the legal win for developers came near the bottom of the 2014-to-2016 oil bust, which made it difficult to attract investors to Houston, and the property instead sat undeveloped.

Hunt Companies, however, didn’t shelve the project. The owners kept their original permits up-to-date with routine inspections and permit renewals every few months, said a spokeswoman for Houston Public Works Department. In a statement, the department said the city’s legal team would review an earlier agreement with the project owners to determine how the new proposal might be affected.

The developers have scheduled meetings with the city to determine next steps in the approval process, Meek said.

The prior project was “another developer, from another time. We’re the right developer for this and we’re excited to see The Langley come forth,” Meek said.

See here for all my previous blogging in this epic saga. The photo I’m using in this post, which I’ve used many times before, is of a sign that parodied the iconic and ubiquitous “Stop Ashby Highrise” signs from the height of that controversy. I took that picture in 2007, to give you some idea of the time span. As far as I can tell, the old stopashbyhighrise.org domain is kaput; there’s still a Facebook group whose last post was in 2013, and a #StopAshbyHighrise hashtag, which gave me a chuckle when I clicked on it:

Well, Big Tex Storage is mostly built now, so maybe that’s a positive omen for The Langley, which will always be on the Ashby site as far as I’m concerned. Will the neighborhood residents rise up against it? Will I be forced to undertake another decade-long blogging quest to document it? Tune in and find out. CultureMap has more.

What is going on with the Houston Dash?

Nothing good.

The Dash have suspended coach and general manager James Clarkson, who is being investigated by the NWSL and its players association.

The suspension came “in light of initial findings received this week,” the Dash said.

The team opens its regular season Sunday and will name an interim coach during the investigation.

“As an organization, our highest priority is creating and maintaining a safe and respectful work environment for our players and staff, which we believe is critical to our success on the pitch,” the team said in its statement. “The Club has made counseling services available to all members of the organization interested.”

The investigation is part of a recent initiative by the women’s soccer league to review current and historic complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.

Last year, several NWSL managers were fired for verbal abuse, including former OL Reign manager Farid Benstiti and former Washington Spirit manager Richie Burke. Former North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley was fired for allegedly engaging in the sexual coercion of players during his time as manager of the Portland Thorns.

When it was revealed that the various NWSL stakeholders were aware of the circumstances under which Riley was fired by the Thorns in 2015, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.

The league and the union agreed that league personnel would voluntarily take part in the union’s investigation of sexual misconduct, and that there be total transparency by the league in terms of other ongoing investigations.

Clarkson has been head coach since 2018, and with the team since it was founded, along with the NWSL, in 2014. The new NWSL Commissioner says this is a good sign that the new process is working.

New National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Jessica Berman said Wednesday that while it’s disappointing another league coach has been accused of misconduct, programs that were implemented in the wake of last season’s league scandals have helped make sure players’ concerns are addressed.

[…]

“This is the manifestation of the process that the league and the players’ association put in place which provided a pathway for individuals to bring forward issues and for those issues to be investigated and managed appropriately,” Berman said. “And so while we never like to have situations like this happen, the fact that the process worked the way it was intended to, and that all of the appropriate parties worked together on the interim solution and the next steps was really important and constructive overall for the progress that the league is making on this issue.”

Berman, who began her job April 20, said she could not address the specifics of the investigation because it is ongoing.

Clarkson is the longest-tenured coach in the NWSL. He was the only head coach still with his team who was coach at the start of last NWSL season. All the others have either voluntarily left the league for new opportunities, gone to other teams within the league, resigned or were dismissed because of alleged misconduct.

I guess you could call it a good sign, but it sure is a bad look overall. Though to be fair, it’s not just the NWSL.

The University of Florida announced it fired women’s soccer coach Tony Amato after just one season with the program. The move comes after players complained about how Amato treated them and a large number chose to transfer from the program.

“We have worked diligently with Tony since last fall when I first became aware of challenges with relationship building and communication,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said in a statement. “As the issues continued to be brought to my attention, it became apparent that sufficient progress was not being made and Tony was not a fit for the University of Florida.”

Florida hired Amato away from Arizona last year, after the coach spent eight years with the Wildcats. In total, Amato has been a head coach in each of the last 19 seasons for four different schools.

The Gators went 4-12-4 in their first year under Amato. However, according to Payton Titus of WUFT, players had complained that Amato “pressured them about eating habits and their bodies” last year. Amato was reportedly strict over what the players ate, to the point that some players said they had developed eating disorders as a result.

There’s a range of behaviors here, and we don’t know what James Clarkson is alleged to have done. There may not be anything in common between his actions and those of Tony Amato, but I think we can agree that Amato’s behavior falls into the bucket of things that can be called abusive, and that’s the larger issue with the NWSL. As I said, it’s a bad look, wherever it’s happening. I hope that league really has taken a substantive step towards fixing it.

Rich guys back from space

What goes up, must come down.

The first all-private crew to visit the International Space Station landed in the Atlantic Ocean on Monday, completing the first mission a Houston company organized as a precursor to building its own space station.

Axiom Space brought home its four-person crew at 12:06 p.m. CDT. Larry Connor, 72, Mark Pathy, 52, Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Michael López-Alegría, 63, spent 17 days in space, including 15 days living and working alongside NASA astronauts on the International Space Station.

Their mission was originally planned for 10 days, with eight days on the space station, but bad weather at the landing site off the coast of Florida helped extend the trip — giving the crew their millions of dollars’ worth with a few extra days in microgravity.

This mission, Ax-1, is the first of many missions planned by Houston-based Axiom Space. The company is sending paying customers to the International Space Station to generate revenues and learn how to operate in microgravity. It plans to launch the first segment of its commercially owned and operated space station in late 2024.

“It’s like the first chapter of many chapters,” said Axiom Space co-founder Kam Ghaffarian. “A beginning of many beginnings. We will have private astronauts going to space as part of democratizing low-Earth orbit and creating this new ecosystem.”

[…]

The men wanted to set a good example of what everyday citizens can do in space. They tried not to be a nuisance — their presence expanded the station’s crew to 11 people — and they contributed to a database examining how commercial astronauts (who may or may not be as fit as NASA astronauts) react to microgravity.

Houston’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health, a NASA-funded organization at the Baylor College of Medicine, is collecting this data. Connor is now the oldest person to participate in the database. And last year, the organization gathered information from a childhood cancer survivor who went into space on the Inspiration4 mission.

“The diversity here is key,” said Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, chief medical officer for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. “They really provide the data that we need to know so we can safely send any human into space.”

Before and after their mission, the crew had their eyes examined and provided physiological data, including heart rate variability and blood oxygen saturation. They also used tablets to participate in cognitive tests and sensory motor tests. The latter could help researchers understand who might get motion sick and how that might be prevented.

“This one is absolutely critical,” Urquieta said. “If you get space motion sickness, you’re going to be feeling bad for pretty much half of your mission.”

See here for the background. As someone who occasionally suffers from motion sickness, I applaud them for adding to the research, from which I hope to benefit some day. As I said before, better them than me.

Sunnyside Solar Farm

This is excellent.

Residents of Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston where the city once ran its largest garbage incinerator, will soon realize a decades-long mission to rehabilitate the former landfill site.

City officials and residents gathered there on Friday to announce that state environmental regulators had approved plans to build Sunnyside Solar Farm, soon to be the nation’s largest urban solar farm, on the site.

The critical state permit will help the project secure financing and partner with energy companies to sell electricity generated by an array of 150,000 solar panels — enough to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Construction will begin early next year with plans to start operating by July 2023, city officials said.

City leaders and members of Congress touted the attention the renewable energy project would bring to Houston. The city would be an “epicenter of change” for solar power in urban areas, said Rep. Al Green, who touted a $750,000 federal grant for job training that would benefit the solar farm.

For community members like Renard Roy, however, the project represents a lifetime of tenacious effort by residents to overcome a legacy of discriminatory burdens followed by neglect.

If I’d heard of this before I’d forgotten about it. This Houstonia story from last year has a pretty good overview of what has happened in recent years with this project. You should read the rest of the Chron story I’m quoting from for the deeper history, which is as sad and disturbing as you might think. For this to be the end result of all that is remarkable and worth celebrating. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

In Houston, the trucks drive you

Yet another driverless truck story.

Autonomous freight trucking company Embark will make Houston the hub for its new Texas operations and launch an autonomous trucking route along Interstate 10 to San Antonio.

The San Francisco-based company this month said it will begin hiring “aggressively” in Houston at the start of 2022 as the company begins to expand across the southern U.S., said Stephen Houghton, chief operations and fleet officer at Embark.

“Texas is the center of America’s trucking industry, and it’s the perfect home for Embark’s expanded operations. We’re excited by the talent and entrepreneurial spirit that Houston has to offer,” he said.

[…]

In previous interviews, officials with both Waymo Via Trucking and Aurora said Texas was an obvious choice to test their technology thanks to the favorable regulations, relatively mild weather, major population centers and vast stretches of monotonous highways.

Officials with Embark said Houston will prove to be at the nexus of the industry’s development and growth because it sits at the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways that human drivers can’t complete in a day because of regulations limiting the number of hours they can drive. While it usually takes a human driver about 22 hours to complete, autonomous trucks could do it in about 12 hours, Embark officials said.

The region is also home to research institutions that have been studying autonomous vehicles for years, with Embark officials citing Texas A&M University’s work in the field. A cornerstone of its Texas operations will be an extensive partnership with Texas A&M University, Houghton said. Embark will use the university’s Engineering Experiment Station test track to pilot its technologies, and company engineers will work with the university’s mechanical engineering faculty and Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems, or CANVASS, to prepare for a driverless trucking test program in 2023.

See here for some broad background on the subject of driverless trucks in Texas. I fixated on that bit about Houston being at “the center of a 600-mile stretch of highways” for awhile, and eventually concluded that they meant the stretch of I-10 from San Antonio to (more or less) Biloxi, MS, as Google tells me it’s just over 600 miles, and Houston is close to the center of it. I can tell you that I have driven that far on I-10 by myself in the past, but I was much younger and a whole lot dumber back then.

I don’t believe I had heard of the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems before – there’s nothing in my archives about them. Sounds cool, I’ll keep an eye on it. And also on that 2023 date, since it seems like other autonomous vehicle promises that have been made in the past have been a bit overly optimistic. We’ll see about this one.

(Note: This is one that has sat in my drafts for awhile, and I decided to publish rather than let it go to waste. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed this exclusive look behind the curtain of my editorial process.)

The “That’s right, you’re not from Texas” legal gambit

Tony Buzbee, y’all.

The legal trouble that Deshaun Watson is facing in Houston already is threatening to get in the way of his new job in Cleveland.

Lawyers for the 22 women who are suing Watson last week filed a notice of their intention to take his pretrial deposition testimony on five different days in early May at the Houston office of Watson’s attorney, Rusty Hardin. But Hardin is fighting it, noting that the NFL quarterback recently changed jobs after being traded by the Houston Texans to the Cleveland Browns.

“Mr. Watson recently moved out of state and currently lives in Ohio,” said a document submitted by Hardin’s firm in court Friday. “He also has a full-time job that requires his presence in Ohio Monday through Friday. As a result, Mr. Watson is not available for depositions in Texas on the dates unilaterally noticed by Plaintiffs. Counsel for Mr. Watson offered multiple dates for Mr. Watson’s deposition that were rejected by Plaintiffs’ counsel.”

Hardin has filed a motion to quash those depositions, leading to a court hearing set for next week in Houston, where Judge Rabeea Collier could decide the matter.

If the implication of this is unclear, Pro Football Talk explains it for you.

First, Watson’s presence is “required” only for the offseason program. Second, it should be fairly easy to schedule the depositions for the window of six weeks or so between the end of the offseason program and the start of training camp.

Third, Buzbee knows well what he’s doing. He’s trying to exert even more settlement pressure on Watson by making the process as big of a pain in the butt as possible. And, yes, it would be much better for Watson if he simply settled the cases. But Buzbee knows this, which will serve only to make the price of settlement higher.

In other words, come to the table for a settlement agreement, or I’m going to keep trying to drag you back to Houston as often as possible for depositions and whatnot, which will be annoying to you and your new team and really wouldn’t you rather just settle already? We’ll see if it works.

Are we about to get more COVID in Houston?

We could be.

New data from the Texas Medical Center shows COVID-19 cases have leveled off over the past week, but some trends suggest the Greater Houston area could be on the verge of seeing higher virus spread.

TMC hospitals reported an average of 351 new cases per day during the week of April 18, the same number it reported during the previous seven-day period. The number of new cases does not include anyone who used an at-home test and did not report a positive result.

Those numbers represent a significant decline from last month, when the hospitals were reporting an average of 2,592 new cases per day.

However, the effective reproduction rate – or the average number of people who will be infected by someone with COVID – increased to 1.0 last week, up from 0.82 one week earlier. The rate essentially measures how well collective behaviors like wearing masks and social distancing are slowing the spread of the virus, with any rate higher than 1.0 meaning that spread is increasing.

The amount of virus being detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants has also increased to the highest rate since Feb. 7, according to data from the Houston Health Department. Twenty-one of the city’s 39 wastewater treatment plants saw an increase in viral load in samples that were collected and analyzed April 18. By comparison, 16 plants saw in increase in samples collected and analyzed one week earlier.

The TMC’s weekly update also shows new hospitalizations have increased to an average of 59 admissions per day during the week of April 18, up from 42 the week before. TMC hospitals admitted an average of 89 new patients per day last month.

The data isn’t strongly conclusive, but it’s also early in what could be a trend, and as we know with this virus once you really start to see an uptick, it’s already too late. On the other hand, lots of people have COVID antibodies now, and that plus the number of vaxxed people who haven’t had COVID is probably enough to mitigate any crazy spread, or at least to make it less harmful, at this time. But of course there are still plenty of high-risk people out there, and lots of kids haven’t been vaxxed, and no one wants to get even a mild case of COVID. So, you know, stay cautious. You can still wear a mask even if you don’t have to, and you can get that second booster if you’re eligible. It’s never a bad idea to minimize your exposure to this thing. Stace has more.

Now you really need to avoid the 59/610 interchange

Welcome to hell.

Starting this weekend, Texas’ worst bottleneck is going to be an even bigger pain for drivers as the rebuild of the Interstate 69 and Loop 610 interchange turns a corner and takes out a key connector ramp.

Crews will close the ramp from southbound I-69 to southbound Loop 610 at 9 p.m. Friday, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The ramp will not open for two years.

Yes, two years. The new ramp will be among the last pieces of the new interchange to open, shortly before work wraps up in late 2024, based on the latest estimates.

“The work is just to the point we have to do it,” said Danny Perez, TxDOT spokesman for the interchange project, which started in 2017. “The upcoming work is going to have an effect, but it is also going to allow us to move toward completion.”

During the ramp closing, TxDOT encourages drivers seeking southbound Loop 610 to continue south on I-69, exit at Fountain View, U-turn and take northbound I-69 to access the southbound Loop.

See here for an earlier warning. Look at it this way: If TxDOT finally gets the go-ahead to start tearing up I-45, then no one will be on 59 between downtown and the Loop because no one will be able to get onto it at either end. Traffic problems solved! CultureMap and the Press have more.

The next street safety project my neighborhood will be fighting about

My wife came back from this month’s civic association meeting and handed me a flyer for this, along with more or less the exact words I’ve used in the title of this post.

North Main Street runs north from I-10 bordering Downtown Houston to Crosstimbers St. in Independence Heights. It is a 5-mile stretch, including 1.2 miles with center-running light rail operated by METRO. North Main becomes a four-lane undivided street fronted by many local and small-scale businesses at Boundary Street, where the light rail deviates onto Fulton Street. The four-lane section between Boundary Street and Airline Drive is being improved for safety.

There are notable crash problems on North Main between Boundary St. and Airline Dr.

  • More recently, between 2017-2021, there have been 224 total crashes, including eight crashes where someone was seriously injured.
  • A half-mile segment between Holy Cross Cemetery and Melwood St is on the Vision Zero High Injury Network(External link) because there were two serious injury crashes and one fatal crash between 2014-2018. This segment includes the IH 45 intersection, which may be contributing to the higher number of severe crashes.

With substantial support from Council Member Cisneros, the City of Houston has been undergoing an analysis and redesign of North Main:

  1. As of March 2022, the project is at 95% design between Boundary Street and Cottage Street.
  2. At the same time, METRO has been redesigning one of their frequent bus routes, the 56, which runs along Airline Drive. In addition to improved bus service, the redesign includes high-comfort bike lanes from North Main St to W Cavalcade St. Airline Drive intersects with North Main.
  3. To connect the proposed bike lanes on Airline to the proposed bike lanes on North Main, the City is pursuing an extension of North Main to fill the 0.5-mile gap between Cottage St. and Airline Dr.

To get more information about existing conditions, please review the Overview document.

The Overview document and the presentation from a May 2021 meeting shows the work so far and the proposed solution, which if you’ve been following along you know will include a “lane diet”, better sidewalks with pedestrian refuge islands, and bike lanes. There’s a heat map of five years’ worth of car crashes along this stretch of road, and I am totally unsurprised that the left turn from North Main onto Pecore, which happens quickly after the I-45 intersection and right past the entrance to the McDonald’s on the corner, is the hottest spot on that map. I fully expect there will be whining about this, but as with the 11th Street project, this makes a lot of sense. I look forward to seeing future updates.

The New Orleans perspective on the Ike Dike

Of interest.

Kelly Burks-Copes braces herself against the wind and marches past the ruins of Fort San Jacinto, a strategic spot on a sandy, wave-battered point where Spain, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States have all taken turns building coastal defenses to protect Galveston Bay.

Now it’s Burks-Copes’ turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager is leading an ambitious effort to build the “Ike Dike,” a $30 billion storm protection project that’s been in the works since its namesake hurricane roared through the bay almost 14 years ago. The project will dwarf the one built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and perhaps even the immense coastal barriers in the Netherlands that inspired both Gulf Coast projects.

“If it’s not the largest surge barrier in the world, it’s certainly the world’s longest,” Burks-Copes said, pointing at the 2.5-mile-wide channel between the old fort site on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

By comparison, the Lake Borgne surge barrier between New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, once considered the world’s largest, is 1.8 miles long. Had the New Orleans system been built today, it’d cost about 70% as much as the Houston system.

“It’ll be like a 10-story building all the way across,” Burks-Copes said of the Galveston Bay surge barrier. “It’s something that you can barely imagine. But what do they say in Texas? ‘Go big or go home.’”

The project aims to harden 70 miles of coastline with artificial dunes, sea walls and vast steel gates, making the bay a veritable fortress that could be sealed when hurricanes threaten.

It’s ambitious and expensive, but it still may be woefully inadequate — just like New Orleans’ system.

Neither project is likely to hold up against the worst hurricanes. The New Orleans collection of levees and floodwalls is designed to withstand storm surges with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year storm. The Ike Dike may not even meet that level of protection, the Corps admits.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood that 100-year storms and floods could occur every few years, with monster 500-year storms popping up every 50 to 100 years. The Houston area has seen no fewer than three such events, including Hurricane Harvey, between 2015 and 2018.

“Look, (the Ike Dike) needs to be built,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University in Houston. “But it needs to be built for the bigger storms to come. It will be way outdated once it’s constructed.”

See here and here for the most recent updates. I know we’re in for a long haul here, but I hadn’t thought of it before in the terms Blackburn expresses, that we’re going to have to keep going, and maybe even start over at the drawing board, when this thing is built. That’s more than a little daunting, and maybe a bit discouraging, but we can’t let up. Even an outdated Ike Dike is going to be better than no Ike Dike, and it will serve as the starting point for Ike Dike II: The Next Generation. What other choice do we have? Read the rest, there’s a lot more.

What is going on at CrimeStoppers?

Whatever it is, I’m not sure how to stop it.

“Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.” That message, along with the promise of a reward, has appeared for decades at the end of news reports about shootings, stabbings or criminal mayhem in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

But recently, Crime Stoppers of Houston has been blasting out a different, more political message: Activist judges are letting “dangerous criminals” out of jail to threaten the safety of law-abiding residents. On television, Twitter and videos, the traditionally nonpartisan nonprofit organization has been condemning more than a dozen elected judges — all Democrats, four of whom lost primaries last month — while praising the crime policies of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican.

“What we’re seeing is an assault against the community” by the judges, Rania Mankarious, the organization’s chief executive, said this year on a national Fox News broadcast.

The group’s aggressive posture on the issue followed shifts in Houston’s approach to prosecuting low-level crimes and setting bail. The changes helped prompt a political backlash fed in part by the Crime Stoppers campaign and a rising murder rate.

But an investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project found that the stance embraced by Crime Stoppers also intersects with the organization’s financial interests.

  • Financial documents and government records, along with dozens of interviews, show that the organization, with an annual budget of about $2.4 million, has in recent years become reliant on state grants backed by Mr. Abbott. Those grants included $4 million in 2017 that was never publicized by Mr. Abbott or Crime Stoppers, which had previously trumpeted smaller donations from other government entities. In the past five years, the Texas government under Mr. Abbott has given the group more than $6 million, state records show.

  • The organization received $500,000 last year from the local district attorney — money allocated from a pool of funds seized in asset forfeiture. The district attorney, a conservative Democrat, used to run Crime Stoppers, is generally in sync with the group on bail issues and has not been publicly criticized by it.

  • Many of the Democratic judges Crime Stoppers is slamming have cut into the organization’s revenue by curbing a common practice requiring many people sentenced to probation to pay a $50 fee that goes to Crime Stoppers. The nonprofit’s revenue from those fees has fallen by half since Democrats swept the county’s judicial races in 2018.

  • The drop in court revenue and the growing reliance on funding from elected officials came as Crime Stoppers went into debt and ran growing annual deficits.

The evolution of Crime Stoppers of Houston underscores the potential conflicts of interest that can arise when charities become dependent on financial support from politicians.

And it illustrates how nonprofit organizations technically barred from participating in political campaigns can nonetheless exert outsize influence, especially when they wade into a potent issue like violent crime.

And there’s this.

Exchanging money for anonymous tips is still Crime Stoppers’ calling card. Yet as the organization approaches its 50th birthday, for many chapters the heavily promoted rewards have become almost a financial afterthought, with far heftier sums being spent on education, celebrating police, purchasing equipment or supporting their own administrative scaffolding.

Midland Crime Stoppers in 2020 reported $145,000 in expenses, including a director’s salary and $60,000 for advertising, office, banquet and travel costs, for $6,000 in paid rewards. Charity Navigator, a national evaluator of nonprofits, recently gave the North Texas Crime Commission, which includes the Dallas-area Crime Stoppers, a “zero” score for spending more on administrative costs than programs.

Sustained by a steady flow of court fees from criminal defendants ordered to pay local Crime Stoppers as punishment, some chapters have quietly amassed bulging bank accounts. Williamson County Crime Stoppers has long collected more than it paid for tips, said Chairman Sam Jordan. Documents show it distributed about $17,000 in rewards over the past two years while receiving nearly $100,000 in court fees. Its bank account is approaching $700,000, records show.

By the end of 2020 the Dallas chapter, which has seen its reward payments plummet in recent years, had a nest-egg of cash and investments approaching $5 million, records show.

[…]

Crime Stoppers nonetheless continues to boast eye-catching accomplishments. The live tally on the national website stands at more than 800,000 crimes solved and $4 billion-worth of property and drugs recovered thanks to tips.

[Loyola University Chicago Professor Arthur] Lurigio acknowledged it was nearly impossible to fact-check such numbers. It is difficult to know which crimes would have been solved without a paid tip. Shrouded by anonymity – legally protected in Texas – Crime Stoppers stats derive exclusively from police, who have an incentive to report high arrest rates.

Several organization officials also acknowledged that while solving violent crimes garner attention and advance public safety, offenses commonly solved by Crime Stopper tipsters are much more mundane. Mike Pappas, who heads up the North Texas program, said most tips referenced probation violations or drug possession. Midland’s school program pays $20 rewards for information on kids smoking vape pens, Valenzuela said.

“It doesn’t do anything to add to public safety,” said Scott Henson, a long-time Texas criminal justice reform advocate. “It’s a PR ploy that promotes a culture of law enforcement fetishism.”

Lurigio concluded that even a highly successful chapter well-supported by the community was unlikely to have a meaningful impact on local crime rates. “While numerous crimes are solved through Crime Stoppers,” he wrote, “these successes amount to only a small fraction of the total volume of serious crimes committed in a given community each year.”

And this.

Under the leadership of Mankarious, the organization shifted even more aggressively toward crime prevention, rather than focusing exclusively on helping police solve crimes. While the organization says it has helped solve 35,767 cases since 1980, the organization’s annual reports show a sizeable drop in cases in recent years. In 2020 Crime Stoppers issued payments to 248 tipsters totaling $310,800. That same year, the organization paid Mankarious — who supervises just over a dozen employees — about $280,000.

That’s about $8,000 less than that of Houston Police Chief Troy Finner’s (who supervises more than 5,000 officers) salary.

That’s also a lot of cash not being spent on those rewards. There’s a lot more to all of these stories, so go read them in full. I don’t know who decided that this was the week to write about Crime Stoppers, but I approve. I also don’t know what can be done about this bloated and now-partisan organization, but showing it for what it is seems like a decent start. I’m open to suggestion beyond that.

Please don’t feed the ducks

Quack.

The City of Houston is asking residents who visit Hermann Park to stop feeding the ducks.

They said the population of domestic ducks has exploded and park workers think it’s because the ducks won’t leave because there’s too much food.

Families in Houston have enjoyed feeding the ducks at Hermann Park for decades. But now, the city says it needs to end.

“For many years people have been bringing bread to the park and feeding the ducks and families like to come and do that,” City of Houston natural resources manager Kelli Andracek said. “But it really has created some problems and the ducks are prolific breeders and the population has gotten a little bit out of control there.”

Not all of them are a problem, but…

“There’s really this one species that has this massive population at the park,” Andracek said.

That would be the muscovy.

They’re the ugly ducklings you see at the park … the ones with the warty-looking faces. The biggest of the bunch were bred for their meat and they’re not supposed to be here.

And they leave a mess.

“There’s duck feces all over the ground because there’s so many of them,” Andracek said.

Basically, the duck population is booming at Hermann Park, which as noted also means that the duck poop is piling up. Muscovy ducks, as we have observed before, are a non-native species that can cause problems in addition to excessive amounts of poop, which is what led to the city of Pearland authorizing more intense methods of dealing with them. (Absolute respect to the Chron headline writer who referred to that situation as a quackmire. Chef’s kiss, y’all.) The city of Houston is hoping that if people stop feeding these ducks, they’ll go away on their own.

Needless to say, some people ain’t having it.

[J]udging by social media responses to KHOU’s news report, it’s going to take a lot more than posted warnings to dissuade some people from the practice.

“All the fkn crime in the city and you’re worried about some ducks being fed!!! Smh,” commented one user on KHOU’s YouTube video of the duck report.

“Just let people take them home,” wrote another. “Free ducks!”

“I will feed the ducks any damn time I want,” wrote user Dave Smiling Coyote.

“These people just wanna ruin the fun!” commented Jerin Browder. “[I’m] going to keep feeding the ducks.”

Naturally, there’s been a conspiracy theory propagated on Nextdoor that has helped inflame the passions of the dedicated duck-feeders, because Nextdoor is the worst. I for one endorse the idea of these folks taking the ducks home with them, though. By all means, take that matter into your own hands.

Our still-smoggy skies

We’re being called on the carpet for them.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday sought to list the Houston and Dallas metro areas as “severe” violators of 2008 federal ozone pollution standards, kicking off a process that will likely impose stricter pollution controls in both regions to reduce local smog.

Ground-level ozone pollution, known as smog, harms human health by constricting lung muscles, making it harder to breathe and exacerbating lung diseases such as asthma. More than 79 million Americans live in areas that do not meet national air quality health standards for smog, according to the EPA.

“Smog pollution is a serious threat to public health,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a Wednesday statement on the proposed rule. “With these proposed determinations, we are fulfilling our duty under the Clean Air Act.”

Ozone pollution results from car and truck emissions, industrial emissions from facilities such as refineries and electric generation plants, as well as from natural sources (trees, for example, emit organic compounds that react with other emissions to form ozone).

The 2008 rule requires metro regions to stay below 75 parts per billion of ozone in the air; the EPA looks at the fourth worst ozone pollution days between 2018 and 2020 to determine the limit was violated. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, a 10-county region, exceeded the threshold at 76 parts per billion, while the eight-county Houston region exceeded it at 79 parts per billion.

Three other metro regions — Denver, Chicago and New York — also failed to meet the standard and would be listed as “severe” violators under the EPA’s proposal.

“It is a big deal,” said Victor Flatt, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston who has studied the Clean Air Act. “Once you change those designations, it requires the state to do more in that locality to reduce pollution.”

In addition, the EPA is seeking to designate the San Antonio region as a “moderate” violator of the more recent 2015 ozone standard of 70 parts per billion, with a measurement of 72 parts per billion.

The new designations in the Dallas and Houston regions would trigger more aggressive pollution control requirements on businesses by requiring the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to revise its plans to control smog in those regions. The changes could include stricter air pollution permits and requiring businesses to install better pollution control technology, as well as requiring a greater reduction in pollution before an area can approve new additional pollution sources.

A TCEQ spokesperson declined to comment on the EPA’s proposal on Wednesday.

Flatt said he wouldn’t be surprised if Texas sues the EPA to protest the new designations, although winning would be difficult since the EPA’s authority to enforce the ozone requirements is well settled, he said.

“But the attorney general of the state of Texas is running for reelection,” Flatt said. “He plays to a base by opposing EPA or the Biden administration.”

I think there’s a 100% chance that the state files suit over this, and given the debasement of the federal judiciary in recent years I’d be surprised if Kan Paxton can’t find a judge that will give him what he wants. After that, who knows what might happen. In the meantime, maybe we can hope for a bit of voluntary compliance, and maybe we can put some local pressure on the larger offenders. Don’t take anything for granted about this. The San Antonio Report has more.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

Hotze gets bail

I don’t know about you, but I’d feel much safer if this guy had been locked up.

Far-right activist Steven Hotze on Thursday made his first court appearance since being indicted on criminal charges after funding a private investigation into voter fraud that ended with the investigator pointing a gun at an innocent air conditioning repairman.

State District Judge Maritza Antu set a combined bail at $18,500 on the two charges of aggravated assault and unlawful restraint, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill said after the court hearing.

Hotze, 71, declined to comment after the hearing. Woodfill said Hotze could not comment due to pending litigation.

Woodfill also said the bail was lower than what prosecutors with the Harris County District Attorney’s office sought, which he called a “victory” for his client.

Prosecutors sought bail of $30,000 on the assault charge and $5,000 on the restraint charge, the agency said. Woodfill sought $10,000 on the assault charge on $3,000 on the restraint charge.

See here for the background. By a weird coincidence, Hotze drew the one Republican judge on the bench in Harris County – Judge Antu was appointed by Greg Abbott to the newly-created 482nd Criminal District Court. One less thing for him to whine about being SO UNFAIR to him, I guess. Disgraced former HPD cop and Hotze hired goon Mark Aguirre was levied the bail amounts that prosecutors had requested for Hotze. I’m sure I will blog obsessively about this, so thank you in advance for your indulgence.

Hotze indicted for his bogus “voter fraud investigation”

Lock him up.

Steven Hotze, the far-right agitator who funded a private investigation into voter fraud that ended with a private investigator pointing a gun at an innocent air conditioning repairman, has been indicted for his role in the episode.

A Harris County grand jury has indicted Hotze for charges of unlawful restraint and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, according to his attorney, Gary Polland.

The former police officer whom Hotze hired, Mark Aguirre, was indicted on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon late last year. Terry Yates, who represents Aguirre, said he has been re-indicted on the same charges as Hotze.

[…]

Through a group called Liberty Center for God and Country, Hotze funded a private investigation into a conspiracy theory that Democrats had collected hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots, prosecutors have alleged. The group paid Aguirre, a disgraced former Houston police captain, $266,400 to investigate the claims.

Before 6 a.m. on Oct. 19, 2020, Aguirre allegedly slammed his black SUV into the back of the repairman’s truck and drew a pistol. He ordered the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back, prosecutors have said.

Aguirre thought the repairman had hundreds of thousands of ballots in his truck. Instead, there were only air conditioning parts and tools, prosecutors said. Aguirre later told police he had followed the repairman for four days.

The vast majority of the money from Hotze’s group, $211,400, arrived to Aguirre one day after the alleged assault, previous grand jury subpoenas showed.

Even after Aguirre’s indictment, the organization has sought donations for more investigations. Hotze hosted a “Freedom Gala” fundraiser April 2 in Houston with Attorney General Ken Paxton and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive who has pushed former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

Invites for the event said any money raised would be used to investigate voter fraud in Harris County and Texas, recruit poll watchers, and pay for the legal defense “and offensive efforts” to stop voter fraud.

See here, here, and here for some background. The AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked has filed a lawsuit against Hotze that I hope will end up wiping him out. But even that isn’t enough, and I’m so ready to see Hotze as a criminal defendant. And hopefully, one day, as a convicted felon. The Trib has more.

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

Houston bars, nightclubs and convenience stores must install security cameras outside of their buildings within 90 days in a citywide surveillance effort Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes will diminish violent crime in high-risk areas.

City Council approved the measure in a 15-1 vote Wednesday after a lengthy discussion on the merits of cameras as a deterrent to robberies, shootings and other criminal activity officials say is concentrated at the nighttime businesses. The ordinance also applies to game rooms and sexually oriented businesses.

The camera requirement is a minor component of the mayor’s One Safe Houston agenda, which will funnel more than $44 million in federal relief funds to mental health and crisis intervention services over the next three years. It passed over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the plan to fine businesses for failing to turn footage over to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours.

The ordinance, which also requires convenience stores to install enhanced lighting at their entrances, overcame skepticism from council members who worried it would penalize business owners and overburden police. Businesses could face a $500 citation if they fail to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

[…]

Police Chief Troy Finner thanked the council for passing the camera requirement Wednesday, calling it “a force multiplier” that will help his department solve more crimes.

Finner said his department is crafting protocols to guide its collection of businesses’ video footage following a crime. Police will be required to obtain a warrant in the event a business does not volunteer footage, officials said.

We’ve been talking about security cameras as a crime-fighting tool in Houston for at least 15 years. As of the year 2014, HPD had nearly 1,000 camera feeds available to it, mostly around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District. It’s no unreasonable to think that these have had some effect on crime and crime-solving. Bars, nightclubs, and convenience stores are higher-crime areas in general, so they’re a logical place to want to have security cameras. I’m more or less okay with the concept, though I share the ACLU’s concerns about privacy and transparency; given the track record with police body camera video, who wouldn’t be concerned?

My hesitation here is more prosaic. As noted, we’ve had a ton of these cameras around town for a decade or more. We therefore have a huge amount of data relating to their use and their efficacy. Can HPD provide some evidence to back up the claims that more cameras and/or strategically-placed cameras do in fact have a salutary effect on crime? Like I said, I’m inclined to believe it, but it sure would be nice to have some empirical backing of that belief. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So please, show us the evidence, HPD. And a year or so after these new cameras have been installed, show us the evidence for their effect, too.

Mask mandate lifted for planes and trains

And other forms of mass transportation.

The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately. Read full story

Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus. Read full story

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or testmandates for employers.

Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order’s enforcement.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.

“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

The ruling came down on Monday, issued by one of the lesser Trump judges, which is honestly saying something. For us in Houston, this also means that masking at IAH and Hobby airports and on Metro buses and trains is no longer required. It continues to be “encouraged”, which means that some vaccinated people and immunocompromised people who can’t avoid being in that situation will wear them. We’ll be flying a couple of times this summer, including the trip to take daughter #1 to college, and we’ll have our KN-95s on because honestly, why wouldn’t we? It is what it is at this point. Protect yourself and hope for the best.

We don’t have enough garbage truck drivers

We don’t pay them enough, it would seem.

For the last few months, Juan Sorto and his neighbors have looked toward the curb on Thursdays and asked themselves the same uneasy question: Did the garbage trucks come?

Last week, they had. The week before, they had not, according to Sorto. What is supposed to be a routine, weekly service has turned into a more haphazard enterprise in Sorto’s corner of northeast Houston, near Tidwell and Mesa. Sorto said his subdivision’s black bins often have been skipped entirely this year. His neighbors have started storing garbage in their recycling carts, with some spilling out into drainage ditches.

“There’s been times where we’ve gone more than a week without it getting picked up,” said Sorto, a former chair of the city’s Super Neighborhood Alliance. The Solid Waste Management Department said it checked its records and confirmed trucks had been through the neighborhood, but it would monitor the neighborhood more carefully in the future.

The reason for the uneven service, city officials say, is Solid Waste does not have enough drivers.

The department’s workforce has reached its lowest point in decades, and the department rarely is able to assign drivers to all of its routes. It often has to pull employees off recycling, yard waste and heavy trash routes to pick up garbage bins, which must be collected weekly, per state law.

The maneuvering leads to extensive and almost chronic backlogs in recycling and bulk collections, and it burns out drivers, who have been required to work six-day schedules since 2018. Drivers often tally 60 hours a week on Houston’s streets. The department is running nearly double its overtime budget for the year, and it has incurred overruns every year since 2014, often doubling or tripling the budgeted amount. It spent $6.3 million on overtime last year, $7.5 million the year before.

[…]

Solid Waste has struggled for years with collection delays, a scarcity of trucks and other fleet issuesmounting 311 complaints and frustration among residents and their elected leaders. Its workforce, though, is at its lowest point in years.

The department fell below 400 workers last September for the first time in at least two decades. As of December, the department had about 394 employees, down from 439 at the beginning of Turner’s first term, according to the city’s monthly financial reports. It had been treading water for years, with roughly the same number of workers in 2012. Meanwhile, the department has added more than 13,000 residential customers and picked up another 200,000 annual tons of waste in the last decade, budget documents show.

Facing a dwindling staff and a nationwide shortage of commercial drivers, the city last June announced $3,000 signing bonuses for up to 100 new drivers, who make an average base salary of $41,550. It did not stop the attrition; in fact, the department has lost more drivers than it has gained since then.

[Solid Waste Director Mark] Wilfalk called the dropping personnel numbers “scary.”

Private employers, he and the mayor said, simply are able to pay more than the city. Walmart recently announced commercial drivers can make up to $110,000 in their first year with the company.

Solid Waste’s personnel issues come down to basic math. The department has 181 routes that must be picked up each day. Yard waste collection routes require at least two people each, as do heavy trash routes. That means the department needs a minimum of 234 people a day.

Even though the department has 245 drivers and collection workers, some of those work at dump sites or spend their day delivering truck parts. Add in the 10 or so workers who are out sick or on vacation each day, and Solid Waste starts struggling to find enough drivers to cover its routes.

And because trash collection is the top priority, daily staff shortages usually mean recycling and bulk pickup routes get delayed.

See here for some background. That $41K starting salary is probably not going to cut it in this market, and is likely a threat of further departures given the crazy hours these guys are now having to work to keep up, though perhaps the overtime helps a bit. However you look at it, this is a problem that’s going to need some money to solve, and as such our old friend the trash pickup fee is being brought out again. Last seen in 2019 as a (dumb) proposal to pay for the firefighter pay parity measure that is currently blocked, the idea of charging something for solid waste pickup (as many Texas cities do) instead of paying for it all out of general revenue has been around since at least 2007 but has never gotten enough support in any form to be adopted. Will the current situation change that and allow for a fee to be implemented? Maybe, but betting on the status quo is usually the odds-on call. If it does come up again, this is the reason why.

Here’s your public meeting schedule for Houston City Council redistricting

Attend one and be In The Know.

Houston residents will have a chance to preview potential changes to Houston’s 11 City Council districts at a series of public town hall meetings in April and May.

[…]

The town hall meetings will start at 6 p.m. Residents can find redistricting information, sign up for meetings, ask questions and submit comments at letstalkhouston.org/redistricting.

The meetings are set for:

Tuesday, April 19 : District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Kingwood Park Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Dr., Kingwood

Monday, April 25: District H, Councilmember Karla Cisneros, Moody Park Community Center, 3725 Fulton St.

Tuesday, April 26: District A, Councilmember Amy Peck, Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Rd.

Monday, May 2: District J, Councilmember Edward Pollard, Sharpstown Park Community Center, 6855 Harbor Town Dr.

Tuesday, May 3: District C, Councilmember Abbie Kamin, Congregation Emanu El, 1500 Sunset Blvd.

Wednesday, May 4: : District K, Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, Fountain Life Center 14083 S. Main St.

Tuesday, May 10: District I, Councilmember Robert Gallegos, HCC Southeast Campus, 6815 Rustic St.

Thursday, May 12: District G, Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman, Grace Presbyterian Church, 10221 Ella Lee Lane.

Monday, May 16: District D, Councilmember Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, HCC South Campus, 1990 Airport Blvd.

Tuesday, May 17: District F, Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, Alief ISD Center of Talent Development, 14411 Westheimer

Wednesday, May 18: District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Johnson Space Center Special Event Room, 2101 E. NASA Pkwy.

Thursday, May 19: District B, Councilmember Tarsha Jackson, Acres Home Multi-Service Center, Senior Service Room, 6719 W. Montgomery Rd.

See here and here for some background. Most likely these will end up being minor changes, unless there’s further effort to get rid of the At Large positions. That said, there’s always some support for or opposition to joining or splitting particular neighborhoods – there was an effort to put all of the Heights into a single Council district back in 2011, for example – and that might be a thing that you have opinions about. Attend one or more of these meetings and find out for yourself.

Houston Comets 2.0?

I’d be happy to see the WNBA come back to Houston.

From 1997 to 2000, legendary players Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson, and Sheryl Swoops led the Houston Comets to the first four national WNBA titles. The team was a dynasty: To this day, it’s the only franchise to win four consecutive championships.

But when the league tips off on May 6 this year, it will mark more than a decade since Houstonians have rooted for a hometown team.

The Comets dissolved in 2008 due to financial problems. Since then, many fans have wondered when conditions might be right for the WNBA to expand again, and what it would take to bring a team back to the Bayou City.

As the league reaches an all-time high in popularity, fans and experts say now is the time.

“If you love women’s basketball, and you love the history of women’s basketball, like I do, like so many others do,” said Howard Megdal, founder and editor at The Next: A Women’s Basketball Newsroom, “it almost feels like a crime that there isn’t a WNBA team in Houston.”

The Comets folded during a decade of WNBA contraction – the league went from 16 teams in 2000 down to the current 12.

But it’s a much different story today: The league, affectionately known as the W among fans, saw decade-high viewership last season, and reported record social media engagement and merchandise sales. Ahead of the 26th season in May, the W raised the most capital in its history at $75 million dollars.

“The idea that there would be a significant expansion in the WNBA within two to four years,” said Megdal, “that seems like a perfectly reasonable time frame, as far as I can tell.”

The league has not publicly committed to expansion, but Megdal said its sounded more open to the idea since the capital raise. He’s watching to see what cities emerge as viable markets at a time when investment in women’s sports is going up exponentially.

But if the city does hope to see a WNBA team, Megdal said it needs stable ownership willing to make an investment – including a place to play.

That latter point is critical. Last season during the playoffs, the Phoenix Mercury were not able to play on the team’s home court due to a scheduling conflict with its shared arena, a move widely criticized among fans. The only W team currently in Texas shares its stadium: the Dallas Wings play on the University of Texas at Arlington campus.

In Houston, fans say they want a place to house the legacy of the Comets, plus a hometown team to root for.

We were season ticket holders for the Comets for eight years, starting in the venue formerly known as The Summit, then to Toyota Center, and then the last year at the godawful Reliant Arena, which was easily the worst place I’ve ever had to watch sporting events in. By that time, the Rockets had sold their interest in the Comets to a local furniture store owner (no, not Mattress Mack), and it was clear the team had little cash flow. I doubt that would be an issue now, and I’d expect a new WNBA franchise would be able to play at Toyota Center. The Comets always had a passionate fan base at its core, though the total audience shrank over time as the team got farther away from its glory days. I think a new team would start out with no trouble drawing fans, and from there it would be up to them. I’d be happy to see the league come back to Houston. I don’t know when it might happen, or even if, but I do hope it’s out there.

New variants being detected

Got to keep an eye on that.

Two new omicron subvariants that health officials say are contributing to a COVID uptick in New York State have been identified in Houston, according to researchers at Houston Methodist.

Genome sequencing efforts within the hospital system have detected 83 cases of BA.2.12 and three cases of BA.2.12.1 — two sub-lineages of the dominant variant BA.2 — since the start of the year.

Local case numbers, however, are sitting at their lowest point in nearly a year, according to the Harris County Public Health COVID dashboard, which reports an average of 20 new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days. That number was as high as 1,256 in mid-January, during the height of the omicron surge.

It’s a different story in New York, which has seen a 70 percent increase in new cases over the two weeks, from a daily average of 3,231 on March 13 to 5,467 on Thursday, according to the New York Times virus tracker.

[…]

Houston wastewater surveillance data show an increasing viral load at a growing number of the city’s treatment plants as of April 4, when samples were last collected.

The city’s wastewater dashboard shows 14 out of 39 total wastewater treatment plants experiencing an increase from the week before, compared to eight on March 28.

The wastewater data is here. As of April 4, the virus level was at 38% of where it was on July 6, 2020, which is the date when this collection project started and is used as the baseline. We’ll have to keep an eye on that of course, but we also have to consider infections versus hospitalizations and deaths. It makes sense to wear a mask in most indoor settings – I do, and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future – but it’s not clear yet that we need to do more than that. Other than get vaxxed and boosted, of course, which if you haven’t by now I don’t know what to say to you.

The UH wildlife cameras

I love stories like this.

A duck waddled between the trees of Glenwood Cemetery, not far from where four University of Houston students tied their camera to a trunk.

If the bird came closer to the lens, the device would detect a change of temperature or motion, and snap — start taking photos and providing the undergraduate research team with data. Their work Thursday marked the start of a monthlong survey of wildlife in Houston’s urban landscape, which is part of an ongoing study that has already yielded surprises for dozens of students and faculty at UH.

For instance: Bobcats live in the city limits. So do otters.

“I wasn’t aware of a lot of the animal populations that existed so close to the city,” UH biology senior Kaleb Barnes said at the cemetery, located just over a mile from downtown. “It’s kind of amazing, knowing how they’re able to inhabit the same space as us.”

Creating that awareness is Ann Cheek’s goal. And as leader of the project since it began in spring 2020, she helps students in three of her courses conduct the research and participate in the scientific method from start to finish, via planning, data collection, data analysis and presentations to local ecologists.

“There are lots of wild things living in the city,” said Cheek, an instructional professor of biology at UH. “It’s not just concrete and people.”

The research project, called “Hidden Life of Houston,” is a partnership between the university and the Memorial Park Conservancy. It feeds into a larger study led by the Urban Wildlife Information Network at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Conservation is the focus, with researchers attempting to discover what species live where and whether their appearances follow seasonal trends. Cheek’s teams share that information with Houston environmental groups and give their findings to the Urban Wildlife network, which seeks to determine whether certain species are inherently more common in cities or whether their locations are more isolated.

You can see more about the project here and their photos here. I hope they find a way to set up some cameras in some bayous as well, because I know there will be some spectacular finds there. Whatever the case, this is super cool and I hope they make a ton of discoveries.