Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Houston

Metro approves initial takeover of B-Cycle

I’m optimistic about this.

The Metro board approved a six-to-nine month transition period where operations now overseen by the nonprofit Houston Bike Share will move into the transit agency. Officials said rolling the bike borrowing system into the transit made sense both to address linking people with available transit and shift bike sharing to more areas of the city.

“It is just impossible for the bus service and light rail on its own to operate and provide total coverage,” said Kristina Ronneberg, policy and advocacy director for BikeHouston, which encourages improved cycling access in the city.

Ronneberg called merging transit and cycling planning a “natural fit” to leverage not only increased bike lane building in Houston, but also add bike sharing in neighborhoods where people are interested in avoiding car trips.

“These two services need to be coordinated and seamless,” she said.

In a letter of support, Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis agreed, noting the investment bike sharing made in areas around Texas Southern University, Houston Community College and University of Houston.

“Houston BCycle offers a unique opportunity for Metro to expand access to public transit service in both urban and suburban areas with access to safe bicycle infrastructure,” Ellis wrote.

Though the board only approved a temporary transition, and $500,000 to allow bike sharing to continue to operate about half of the BCycle system, the intent is for Metro to keep operations going past 2023, CEO Tom Lambert said.

See here for the background. I don’t know what specific plans Metro has in mind, but as noted before integrating B-Cycle more into the transit system, with the goal of making various stops and stations easily accessible to more people, is and should be the priority. I look forward to seeing a report in nine months or so to see how it’s going and hope that it is viable for the long term. Here’s a letter from the B-Cycle board chair explaining their actions, and Houston Public Media has more.

Project Unloaded

I approve of this.

Jordan Phan spoke into the camera in a Tik Tok post with background music and several hash tags.

“I’ve spent the summer researching whether guns make us more or less safe, and the unfortunate truth is that guns make us all less safe,” the college sophomore said, listing several facts about women’s safety and domestic violence. “Guns are rarely used to protect, but often used to kill.”

The post was part of a wider campaign for a group called Project Unloaded. Instead of pushing for policy change or working with at-risk youth in neighborhoods, the organization aims to save lives and tackle gun violence by changing America’s gun culture — starting with young people on social media.

“I felt there was a missing piece in the larger movement to prevent gun violence, ” said Nina Vinik, the organization’s founder and executive director.

Most people think guns make them safer, she said, but research indicates the opposite is true.

“That myth is really at the core of America’s gun culture,” said Vinik, a Chicago lawyer. “We’re out to change the cultural narrative, to bust that myth and create a new narrative that guns make us less safe.”

The group launched a social media campaign called SNUG – Safer Not Using Guns – roughly a year ago in Houston and Milwaukee. It has since expanded into ten more cities, according to the organization, and the message has reached more than a million people on Tik Tok and Snapchat.

The campaign is meant for young people because their opinions and views are still changing. It includes partnerships with young Tik Tok influencers and Instagram posts loaded with statistics about the risks associated with firearms.

For example: Firearm-related injuries are the leading cause of death for American children and adolescents; suicide rates are four times higher for young people with guns at home; families in gun-owning homes are more than twice as likely to die by homicide.

[…]

Nearly a third of young people have had personal experience with gun violence, according to a report released in September by Project Unloaded. Black and Hispanic youth are more impacted than their peers.

The report found, too, that teens and young adults ranked gun violence as a bigger issue than abortion access or climate change. Half of the respondents in the survey said they think about school shootings every week.

The survey also discovered that young people changed their minds about gun ownership after reviewing facts about firearm risk.

“Gun violence is having a devastating impact on this generation of young people, and Gen Z is at the forefront of culture change,” Vinik said. “We’re talking directly to teens and really empowering this generation to be the ones to kind of propel that cultural change.”

While gun-related policies stall in the legislature, Hoyt said he hopes to help drive a cultural change by equipping people with information.

“We want to make sure we’re providing people all the facts we have, but we also don’t want to tell them exactly what to do,” he said. “Each person on their own has to decide.”

You can learn more about Project Unloaded here, and I presume on TikTok; as an Old Person, I don’t use that particular app, but I’m sure their target audience does. Founder Vinik talks a bit later about finding ways to make change that doesn’t rely on elected officials. Changing, or at least affecting, the culture is a great way to do that, but at some point the legislative and judicial processes need to be addressed as well. Putting out an effective message that can later help drive electoral behavior is a great way to start. I wish them all the best.

Chron story on HCC redistricting

This focuses on one district, which seems to be the main and possibly only point of contention in the process. I’d like to know more than what was in this story.

Reagan Flowers

Houston Community College trustee Reagan Flowers had to receive special permission to hold a forum last week at Emancipation Park because it’s not in her district, but she and many other Third Ward community members think it should be.

Ten years after HCC last redistricted and divided Third Ward between two tracts, Flowers is trying to put the historic, majority-Black neighborhood squarely back into District 4. She faces an uphill battle, as other trustees would see changes to their own districts if Third Ward is pieced back together.

HCC’s District 4 currently represents the Medical Center, Museum District, Sunnyside and Third Ward’s south part. The northernmost part was absorbed into its eastern neighbor, District 3, in the last redistricting, Flowers said.

“It’s caused this divide where we can’t speak with one voice when it comes to Houston Community College,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily support the culture, the history of Third Ward.”

District 3, which encompasses parts of east and southeast Houston, counted the lowest population among HCC districts in 2010 and 2020. Districts have to be redrawn when the population of the most populous district — now District 4, in west Houston — exceeds the population of the least populous district by more than 10 percent, based on the most recent major Census updates.

HCC’s first proposal for redistricting, based on the 2020 U.S. Census, mostly left District 4 alone. Still, community members hoping to regain the northern part of Third Ward face resistance because a change would cause them to shed another part of their district — and District 3 is already looking for more space to expand in order to balance the district populations.

[…]

Third Ward residents have long lamented a pattern of division in their neighborhood. The Museum District, Midtown and what is now East Downtown were formerly considered Third Ward.

HCC appears to be the only governing body that splits Third Ward — and in doing so excludes some of their most well-known spots, including Jack Yates High School, Emancipation Park, Cuney Homes and Project Row Houses.

While HISD, City Hall and Houston Super Neighborhoods currently keep Third Ward intact, some worry HCC’s current and proposed maps could set a precedent for others to follow their lead.

“It’s dangerous ground,” said Flowers, whose term expires at the end of the year. “What’s happening with HCC and District 3 is very disrespectful to the Black community and the Third Ward, and it doesn’t have to be.”

See here and here for the background. I wish the story had included comments from other Trustees as well, especially District 3 Trustee Adriana Tamez, since moving the Third Ward back into District 4 would have a big effect on her. If you look at all of the maps that have been proposed (downloadable PDF), any significant changes to Districts 3 and 4 would also affect District 9, and so it would have been nice for the story to have a comment from its Trustee, Pretta VanDible Stallworth, as well.

I had the chance to talk to Trustee Flowers about this. She told me that Plan 2C, which you can find on page 31 of that PDF, accomplishes what she is advocating, but she does not currently have the support to get it passed. Map 1, which is in that presentation and also viewable here, is the one that is set to pass. But there’s still time, and if this is something you care about, you can contact your Trustee and let them know it. The public hearing on the redistricting proposal will be February 15, as noted before.

As I said about HISD redistricting, I don’t think anyone is trying to screw the Third Ward here. The fact is that Harris County’s population is shifting westward you can see the demographic data in that PDF download – and District 3 is in need of more population. Moving the Third Ward out of 3 increases that need, and that has to come from somewhere, which affects more people. Redistricting is always nuanced and multi-dimensional, and in the end it’s zero-sum. All you can do is make your case and do your best to minimize the negative effects on everyone involved.

A new proposal for adding sidewalks

I’d like to hear more about this.

Some homeowners and developers soon may be able to opt out of requirements to build sidewalks and instead pay a fee into a new fund the city would use to build sidewalks across Houston.

City Council on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a proposal to create a “sidewalk-in-lieu fee” to give developers another way to comply with the sidewalk ordinance.

Under current regulations, property owners and developers are required to build a sidewalk in front of a property unless the project meets certain exemptions. This approach, however, has led to disconnected segments, known as “sidewalks to nowhere,” that do not contribute to a network needed by pedestrians, according to David Fields, chief transportation planner at the Houston Planning and Development Department.

With the new measure, applicants can choose to pay a fee of $12 per square foot if the required sidewalk construction is unsuitable or unfeasible. The fees would go into a new fund, which is expected to generate $1.7 million a year for the city to build sidewalks in a cohesive manner. That would be in addition to the existing sidewalk program’s $3.3 million annual budget.

The plan also would divide Houston into 17 service areas; 70 percent of the sidewalk fees collected in each area would be spent within its boundaries and 30 percent would be used citywide. The idea, Fields said, is to balance the need for sidewalk projects throughout Houston.

“The objective is a citywide pedestrian network to help the city grow sustainably and responsibly,” Fields said. “The in-lieu fee is one additional option for how we get there.”

The basic idea makes sense, and from reading the rest of the article it sounds like there’s a consensus for this. CM Robert Gallegos notes that it doesn’t address the need to fix existing sidewalks, though he still appears to favor the idea. Lack of sidewalks, and lack of good sidewalks, is a longstanding problem in this city, one that greatly limits non-car options for people, especially people with mobility challenges. Any tangible step we can take towards making that situation better is one I’d like to see happen.

Spring Branch ISD to discuss a book ban today

I don’t post stuff like this often – it’s not really my remit, and timeliness usually works against me – but this one really annoyed me, so here it is. Via Facebook:

PLEASE CONSIDER SPEAKING ON TUESDAY @ 1PM! (If you cannot make Tuesday, consider speaking to the topic at tonight’s board meeting instead)

This is the first book complaint that has been elevated to a level-3 for consideration under our new school board. This book complaint was reviewed by a committee of 7 (1 middle school librarian, 1 middle school teacher, 1 high school librarian, 1 high school teacher, 1 secondary campus administrator, 1 parent that has both a middle & high school students, and 1 district admin. The committee voted unanimously that the age recommendation and content were appropriate and recommended retaining the book at SBISD libraries in both middle and high school.

Level 2 Review: Denise Thompson Bell appealed the decision made by the reconsideration committee so the book was escalated for review by upper administration. Dr. Kristin Craft reviewed the comments and work of the review committee and upheld the decision that the content and age recommendation were appropriate and retained the book in SBISD libraries.

Denise Thompson Bell has since appealed the decision again, escalating this to a level 3 complaint to be heard by the board for final decision. There will be a public comment period and I ask that if you can participate at all, that would be incredibly helpful!

We know that the right to have access to books that are meaningful to a student support literacy efforts and have shown increased rates of reading. Being able to read books on different subject matters refines a student’s critical thinking skills. Parents have always had the right to restrict the reading of their own children, but this personal parenting choice should not be imposed upon the general public.

In most cases, school board meetings should be restricted to those who live in district. In this case, however, it would be beneficial for the board to hear why and how this book is important literature that should remain available to our students, regardless of the district residency of the speaker. If you or anyone you know have been affected by the more subtle aspects of racism that are described in the book, either as the target of racism, or as an individual who has actively worked to educate themselves on anti-racism, then there is benefit to you speaking up. The board needs to know that limiting books on racism and other helpful topics will cause students to feel alienated from their own school district, which will have a deleterious effect on their education and mental well being.

Speakers will need to arrive at 12:30 in order to fill out paperwork and have it submitted PRIOR TO 1pm. Public comment opportunity will be at the beginning of the meeting. Then, the board will sit with their attorney and hear the grievance as presented by Denise Thompson Bell and deliberate. After deliberation, and hopefully consideration of public comment, the decision will be made to either retain the book in SBISD libraries as has been recommended by the specialists that review books and the specialists in our district, place the book on their newly enacted restricted shelf, or ban the book from district libraries altogether.

Spread the word, far and wide! We need speakers to stand up. This will not stop at one book on racism. A book complaint for a book that has a wedding with two brides has already been escalated to level 2, and likely will be appealed again (as John Perez requested). This affects all people, whether or not they have experienced any form of bigotry or not.

I have included information regarding the board meeting in the pics attached, as well as supporting documentation of the complaint and appeal process. Documents acquired via public information request. Hope to see you then!

That’s from a closed Facebook group, so I’m omitting the link since many of you would not be able to see it anyway. The book is called The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person. Here are the pictures mentioned, which include some information about the meeting:

Here’s the public notice and agenda for this meeting; general info about SBISD meetings is here. I said this annoyed me because SBISD normally holds meetings at 6 PM, a time when many working people can attend. This one is for 1 PM, in the middle of many people’s work days, and it was called on Friday afternoon for this Tuesday, so there was very little time for anyone to even hear about it. You probably can’t be there, if you even see this in time, but if you do and you can, you can show up and push back. Good luck to those who do.

January 2023 campaign finance reports: City of Houston

It’s late January, so you know what that means: It’s campaign finance report time again. The reports of the greatest interest will be for the city of Houston, but I’ll be checking in on HISD, HCC, and Harris County as well. The July 2022 reports are here, the January 2022 reports are here, and the July 2021 reports are here.


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Hollins      547,027    469,141        0   1,062,754
Edwards      567,005    195,257        0   1,044,338
Whitmire   1,148,015    249,142        0  10,100,086
Kaplan       465,180    177,578  200,000   1,164,527

Peck          10,750     13,940        0      20,729
Jackson        2,500     14,965        0      14,971
Kamin         52,080     12,255        0     238,337
 Scarbrough        0          0        0      14,810   
E-Shabazz     
L Dixon            0        254      100         254
Thomas        43,996     11,310        0      89,042
Huffman        5,850      3,624        0      35,012
Castillo      37,448      1,037   10,000      41,935
G Lindner      4,503          0        0       4,503
Martinez      78,605      6,130        0      52,187
Pollard       17,350     15,412   40,000     718,379
 Sanchez      30,140      4,201   20,000      25,938
C-Tatum       14,250     13,687        0     155,691

Hellyar       65,854      6,772        0      44,710
Coryat         5,626      4,063        0       1,562
Bess               0          0        0           0
Carter        85,926      9,456    4,000      78,768
Cooper        23,977     17,631        0       9,189
Plummer        4,125     10,309        0      24,741
 Morales      12,900        417    5,534      18,016
Alcorn       155,301     28,187        0     306,273

Martin         8,250     12,493        0     161,851
Kubosh        22,900      3,612  196,000      54,289

Wolfthal      43,812     16,683        0      24,953
Flickinger         0      1,933   50,000           0

Turner       228,862    186,942        0     842,484

Cisneros         250      7,215        0      31,128
Gallegos      21,787     13,500        0     133,471

Knox          16,175     20,914        0      14,231
Robinson      44,894     27,296        0     271,624

Brown              0      5,404   75,000      29,316

Laster             0      3,254        0     147,138

I have collected all of the reports for the people listed above, and you can find them in this Google Drive folder. I decided not to link to all of them individually just because it was more work than I felt like doing. Omitting that means I don’t have a complete listing, with full names and the office they are seeking, of all the candidates. I’ll be sure to at least mention everyone of interest later in the post.

I’ve grouped everyone in the table above as follows: First are the Mayoral candidates, then the candidates for district Council offices, listed in alphabetical order by office – Amy Peck is District A, Tarsha Jackson is District B, and so on. The open offices are Districts E, H, and I. There are so far two challengers to incumbent Council members, and I have indented their names to indicate them – Daphne Scarbrough (yeah, the same person who was a leading opponent of light rail on Richmond Avenue, here to scourge us again) is running against CM Abbie Kamin in C, and Ivan Sanchez, who was a Democratic candidate for CD07 in 2018, is running against CM Ed Pollard in District J. Martina Lemond Dixon is running in E, Mario Castillo and Janette Garza Lindner (2021 candidate for HISD district I) are running in H (my district), and Joaquin Martinez is running in I. The one person that did not have a report filed as of Friday was District D incumbent Carolyn Evans-Shabazz.

The next group is for the At Large seats, of which #s 1, 2, and 3 are open. Nick Hellyar, who ran for At Large #4 in 2019, is running for #2, as are Marina Coryat and Danielle Bess (former candidate for HD147 in 2022), and Twila Carter and Dannell Cooper are running for #3. No one has yet filed a finance report saying they plan to run for At Large #1. You can be sure that will change, and that all of these fields will be much larger by the time the filing deadline rolls around. Indeed, they may already be larger, as there are two candidates who didn’t specify an office in their reports; I’ll get to them in a minute. As above, a candidate opposing an incumbent is indented. Yes, that’s our old buddy Roy Morales running against CM Letitia Plummer in At Large #4.

Next we have the two term-limited Council members who are now running for City Controller, and following them are two candidates who did not specify an office on their report, Leah Wolfthal and Fred Flickinger. I met Leah Wolfthal at the January CEC meeting for HCDP precinct chairs, and I thought she told me she is running in At Large #2. Her website just says “for At Large City Council”, so better not to make any assumptions. I’ve put her in this group for that reason.

Everyone after that is not running for anything, from Mayor Turner to the four CMs to Controller Chris Brown. Former CM Mike Laster, who termed out in 2019, still has a decent amount of cash on hand. I assume the four people in this grouping who remain with over $100K on hand have some plan, perhaps vague and unformed but still existent, to do something with it. What that may be is not known to me, and possibly to them, at this time.

The Chron picks a few highlights from the Mayoral portion of the reports. The one thing I will add to that is that I must have missed Lee Kaplan’s July 2022 report, because I was surprised by his cash on hand total. Kaplan raised about $850K in the last period, which combined with a small amount of spending gives him the cash on hand total he has now. I have included Kaplan’s July 2022 finance report in that Google Drive folder as well.

There are candidates now who have not yet filed a finance report, and there are people who will be candidates that have not yet formally announced their candidacies. The July finance reports will tell us a much more complete story, though even then there will be room for more, as the filing deadline is not until August. This is what we know now. If you have anything to add, by all means please do so.

“I bless the drains down in Africa”

Whoever came up with the Adopt A Drain program is a damn genius.

When it comes to naming storm drains, it seems Houstonians have a hard time keeping their minds out of the gutter.

In 2018, the city of Houston launched the Adopt-A-Drain program as a flood-mitigation effort in partnership with Keep Houston Beautiful. The premise was simple: Houston residents adopt a local storm drain through the Adopt-A-Drain website, give the drain a nickname, and commit to cleaning debris such as leaves and trash from the drain four times a year.

But without any clear oversight, what started as a fun, drain-related pun-off in naming the drains has morphed into a grab-bag of explicit jokes and politically-charged messages on a government website.

About 1,900 of the 80,000 storm drains in the Houston area have been adopted as of January, and about 1,750 of those adopted drains have been given nicknames by users. Though the majority of users chose harmless names for their drains – many of the names include puns – in our review of the program’s website, the Houston Chronicle found about 50 drains with explicit references in their names and 50 that had politically-charged messages in their names.

You can read on, and you can visit the Adopt-A-Drain website to see an active map. The guy who named a drain after his CashApp handle and the sex toy shop that adopted 200 drains to help promote their business are cited as some of the more cautionary examples, but the Chron didn’t print any of what they claimed to be the more salacious names, so we’ll just have to use our imaginations. The pun list at the end was funny – the one in the headline is my favorite – but I have to say, if no one took the opportunity to name a storm sewer after Ted Cruz, then what are we even doing here? Feel free to correct that oversight if you are so inclined.

Will Metro take over B-Cycle?

I like the idea and hope Metro can really run with it.

The Houston area’s biggest bus operator is considering getting in the bike business, infusing up to $500,000 into the city’s network of docked two-wheelers.

Under the proposal, scheduled for a vote by the Metropolitan Transit Authority board next week, Metro would take over bike sharing in the area and integrate it into its own plans for encouraging bus and train riders to access stops.

“Anything that is engaged in moving people, we need to be part of that,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said Wednesday.

The proposed partnership is welcomed by Houston Bike Share, the nonprofit created in 2012 to develop the bike sharing system in Houston, using BCycle’s kiosk-based bikes.

“Metro recognizes the value of bike share as a safe, affordable and logical element in the city’s mobility plan,” said Maya Ford, chairwoman of the nonprofit, in a statement. “They’re exploring ways to help us sustain an operating network by providing us with more transit-oriented and business resources.”

What remains unclear, as officials sort out how to absorb bike sharing into the transit agency, is what the system will look like under Metro. Half of the local BCycle stations closed in November as part of a “temporary cost-saving measure,” and Lambert said the next few months will be used to transition the system into Metro and evaluate what provides the best options for travelers.

“There might be some locations we do not bring back,” Lambert said.

[…]

Starting in 2012 with only three stations and fewer than 20 bikes, the BCycle system ballooned in the past decade to 153 stations spread around neighborhoods within Loop 610 and nearly 1,000 bikes, some with electric motors. Houston, Harris County and others poured money into the system to add stations and support operations. 

That growth has meant explosive use of the bikes, but also has posed a challenge for the nonprofit to maintain the costly and growing system. George Fotinos, Metro’s chief financial officer, said the current system, when fully operational, costs about $80,000 a month, with only a fraction of that coming from the rental costs or annual memberships.

To trim costs, 75 of the 153 kiosks were turned off in November, largely reducing the system to its core around downtown, Midtown and Montrose.

[…]

Transit taking more oversight of bike sharing in cities is not uncommon. Austin’s Capitol Metro operates bike sharing around transit stops, while systems in Los Angeles and New York also fall under the authority of transit or municipal transportation departments. In each of those cities, however, multiple bike sharing or scooter sharing systems exist, unlike Houston, which only has BCycle.

Whatever form the system takes will include some shift in its focus. The existing system is used mostly recreationally, bike sharing officials have said, with locations such as Herman Park and Buffalo Bayou Park along Sabine Street as the most heavily-used stations. Those in areas outside downtown and away from popular local biking trails are some of the least-used.

Metro officials, meanwhile, said their aim is for a bike sharing system that helps people make local trips or connect them to buses and trains.

“Metro’s role is a lot broader,” Metro Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “Our job is to provide mobility and this is a form of getting us that.”

Known as “first-mile/last-mile,” the distance someone has to travel to a bus stop or train station can be some of the most vexing challenges for transit agencies, leading some to partner or absorb bike sharing systems so people can easily find bikes, drop them off nearby transit stops and then hop a train or bus.

I hadn’t heard about the cutback in B-Cycle kiosks; I assume this is another bit of fallout from the pandemic, though the story doesn’t say. I made my heaviest use of B-Cycle when I worked downtown, where it was great for trips that are a bit too long to walk and too much hassle to get the car out of the garage. Now that I work from home and an office park off I-10, I just had no need for it.

I have been an advocate for better integration of our bicycle infrastructure in general and B-Cycle in particular with Metro for a long time. I hadn’t considered this possibility before, but it makes all kinds of sense. I agree that the focus of B-Cycle would need to shift a bit from being primarily for recreational use to more transit-oriented use. That doesn’t mean that recreational use should go away, just that kiosk access to bus and rail stops would be more of a priority. The good news is that there’s a lot more bike-friendly passage around town now, so that should help. Assuming the Metro board votes for this, which I think it will, they will have six to nine months to figure out how to best make this work. I’m confident they can, and I’m sure they will be able to get plenty of input from the local bike community. I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

COVID rates tick down again in Houston

Always a good headline to read.

COVID-19 data from the Texas Medical Center this week suggests the current wave may be subsiding, though experts urge caution as a new, highly infectious variant continues to circulate.

The average number of daily hospitalizations in the medical center had been rising steadily for a month, but dropped last week by about 20 percent, from 182 to 146. Regional COVID hospitalizations also have dropped from a five-month high of 1,002 on Jan. 5 to 836 on Monday, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council.

Most significantly, the viral load in the city’s wastewater — the most reliable indicator of future virus spread — dropped by about 34 percent last week, according to data published Tuesday.

“I would be very surprised if we saw this (trend) reverse at this point,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

Even with a hopeful outlook, researchers cautiously are eyeing the progress of XBB.1.5, which public health officials say is the most transmissible form of COVID yet. It quickly has become the dominant strain nationwide. The variant accounts for 80 percent of cases in the Northeast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though it has yet to beat out other infectious strains in Houston and much of the South.

Here’s that wastewater dashboard again. We’re still at a very high level compared to the July 2020 baseline, but at least we’re going in the right direction now. Hospitalization rate is the bigger concern, but again as long as we’re now trending downward, the overall picture is improving. There’s an argument to be made that we shouldn’t obsessively track each new alphabet-soup variant, at least not while they’re all about the same level of lethality. The fact that successive versions are more transmissible than their predecessors are just how viruses work. I’m not sophisticated enough to make a judgment about that, but I have limited my worry to the prospect of a deadlier strain.

There are still other things to worry about:

The United States has faced a triple threat of respiratory viruses over the past few months, with COVID-19, the flu and RSV driving infections and hospitalizations in the Houston area and elsewhere.

Each of the three are capable of causing mild to severe illness by themselves. But it’s also possible to contract more than one virus at a time — and a new study suggests a coinfection may lead to more severe illness in young children.

The term “flurona” became popular on social media last year as a surge in COVID-19 and the re-emergence of the flu caused a wave of infections. However, doctors were seeing patients — particularly young children — with coinfections before the pandemic, said Dr. Amy Arrington, medical director of the Special Isolation Unit at Texas Children’s Hospital.

“It’s not uncommon that we see younger kids getting co-infected,” she said. “I think a lot of parents today in Houston can say they feel like their child’s been sick for the past few months straight.”

Younger children might be more susceptible to coinfections because they haven’t been exposed to a respiratory virus before, Arrington said. They may be getting infected at daycare, or from an older sibling who picked up the virus at school.

Coinfections are uncommon, but doctors might be seeing them more frequently this fall and winter for a few reasons, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases at UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann Hospital.

The collision of COVID-19, the flu and RSV, as well as other respiratory viruses like rhinovirus and enterovirus, has created more opportunity for infection, he said.

“Tripledemic” was the word I heard. Fortunately, RSV and flu rates have been dropping as well. You can still get a flu shot, and for sure you can and should get your bivalent booster. Hell, I’m ready for whatever the next generation COVID booster is now. I’ll be among the first in line when that becomes available. You are your only real defense here, so do what you need to do.

A new Adickes statue is on the way

Been too long since there was some Giant Presidential Head news.

Where to start with all the David Adickes sculptures dotting Houston landscape? Perhaps his 44 gigantic heads paying homage to our U.S. presidents (still no Trump)? His giant cello downtown, a local landmark? His oft-photographed/Instagram fave We Love Houston sign? His 36-foot Beatles statues at 8th Wonder Brewery? Or the apropos Mount Rush Hour located at a notorious Houston bottleneck?

Indeed, the 95-year-old (yes, really) creator of iconic, white artworks (take his 67-foot, cement-and-steel statue of Sam Houston, which serves as a welcome off I-45 to his hometown of Huntsville) has become Houston’s resident artist of giant works. Apropos, his latest pays tribute to a worldwide giant.

Adickes will soon install a giant, 5-ton bust of the late President John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 35th president, on JFK Boulevard. Aside from a fitting nod and locale for the global figure who spent his final full day of life in Houston, the statue will also serve as a “welcome mat” to those visiting Houston and nearby George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the artist notes.

The JFK bust, which is hollow on the inside, is composed of two pieces; the head and shoulders are separate and will be welded together and then covered in plaster, according to Carlos Silva, chairman of the East Aldine Management District and its East Aldine Arts Coalition.

Heralding the famed speech given in1962 at Rice University, the statue memorializes the great declaration JFK made to a crowd of 30,000 at Rice Stadium — and to the world — marking his goals for the U.S. space program’s mission to land a man on the moon:

We choose to go to the moon, in this decade, and do other things — not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Silva hopes to see the statue lit at night as a beacon for all who drive by and fly over. An opening ceremony is in the works, upon completion of the statue.

There will soon be a ceremony to celebrate the official installation of the statue, which Silva said he hopes to see lighted at night for people who drive by.

As you know, I’m a longtime fan of Adickes’ work. I just had a trip to IAH but the new statue wasn’t in place yet. I can’t wait to see it. The Chron has more.

The Chron drops a big Hotze story

Despite the headline, I didn’t find a whole lot of new details of interest here. Most of the new stuff consists of the various unhinged things that Hotze has been saying about elections and how everyone is covering up massive fraud and are out to get him. I don’t need a big story to know that he’s a paranoid power-hungry sociopath, but maybe some other people did; this assumes that most people will read what he claims and correctly conclude that he’s a liar and a grifter, which is at best an iffy proposition. Be that as it may, there are a couple of points of interest here.

More than two years after Steven Hotze bankrolled a private voter fraud investigation that led to an armed confrontation with an innocent repairman, the Houston doctor was back in court earlier this month reiterating claims that Harris County Democrats are engaged in a massive election conspiracy.

Hotze, a Republican megadonor and fierce supporter of the debunked theory that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election, faces felony charges related to the episode and separately is being sued by the repairman. His lawyers this month accused the Democrat-led District Attorney’s office of retaliating against him for exposing the election-rigging, even though no substantive evidence of such a scheme has ever emerged.

The criminal case against Hotze, who runs a lucrative health clinic in Katy and a vitamin retail business, isn’t likely to go to trial anytime soon in the county’s overburdened court system; Hotze faces charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, as does Mark Aguirre, the investigator Hotze hired.

But a Houston Chronicle examination of documents in the civil proceeding reveals new details about the bizarre October 2020 attack – one that became a nationally known example of how an election fraud theory could put an unsuspecting civilian in danger.

The documents include extensive comments from that civilian, a Mexican immigrant named David Lopez who has worked fixing air conditioning systems in Houston for more than five years. He said he continues to fear for his life ever since Aguirre allegedly crashed his SUV into his box truck and pointed a gun at him, all under the false pretense that Lopez’s truck contained hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots.

“I am afraid because the people who did this to me are very powerful. I have no power,” Lopez said. “I do not know why they attacked me. These people did not find what they were looking for so I am afraid they will attack me again. I don’t know what they are looking for.”

The documents also show that Hotze and his attorneys continue to insist that Lopez could have been a main perpetrator of voter fraud and that he received payments from Harris County Democratic officials. “We’ve got the goods,” Hotze said in a 2022 deposition. “It’s so complicated I can’t – I can’t comment on it right now, but we do.”

[…]

Ever since news of the attack on Lopez became public in December 2020, the details of its origins have been murky. In a news conference around the same time, Hotze claimed that he had paid 20 to 30 investigators a “proprietary” amount of money to look into claims of voter fraud in Harris County and that he knew nothing of their specific activities. He said he paid them through the Liberty Center for God and Country – but for years his lawyers refused to disclose the group’s financials.

Now, the documents made available as part of the civil lawsuit against Hotze, including a tax return for the Liberty Center and a deposition that forced him to answer questions under oath, offer more clues.

According to the Liberty Center’s 2020 tax documents, the nonprofit collected more than $800,000 that year and spent it on “lawsuits to defend the constitutionally protected right of individuals to attend religious worship services, to protect the right of all businesses to stay open, and to ensure that elections in Texas were and are conducted in accordance with the Texas Election Code.”

The first two activities likely refer to Hotze’s lawsuits against mask mandates and other COVID-19 pandemic public health measures. The document also specifies that $379,000 went to “legal services,” while $342,000 went to “investigation services.”

In the deposition, Hotze said he decided to start funding investigations into voter fraud when Aguirre, a former Houston police officer, approached him in 2020. He said he only paid Aguirre, but knew of two other investigators who participated in the probe – Charles Marler, a former FBI agent, and Mark Stephens, also a former Houston cop.

Aguirre received more than $250,000 from the Liberty Center for his efforts, court records show. But Hotze said he never sought much information about how Aguirre used the money. “He would contact me periodically and say, we have got people looking around, seeing what’s going on,” Hotze said in the deposition. “You know, it was somewhat nebulous.”

All Hotze knew, he said, was that Aguirre had apparently discovered that undocumented Hispanic children were filling out hundreds of thousands of phony ballots in locations across the county to swing the 2020 election results in favor of the Democrats.

“From what he told me, it appeared that he was on a hot trail,” Hotze said of Aguirre, who had been fired from the Houston Police Department in 2003 before he became a private investigator.

Aguirre and the other investigators approached the Houston police and local prosecutors with their findings, but law enforcement agencies were skeptical. The investigators took the lack of interest as a sign that authorities were in on the scheme.

“Election fraud is seemingly the only crime whose very existence is denied because of the difficulty and refusal to investigate the allegations,” Stephens wrote in a document obtained by the Chronicle. “In Harris County, it may well be that political expediency is valued far greater than public pressure to prosecute election fraud.”

That 84-page report alleged that a witness overheard a Democratic political staffer bragging about the ability to “harvest 700,000 illegal ballots” in 2019. Another witness later told the private investigators that she’d been approached at a grocery store and offered $50 gift cards to fill out the ballots, the report said.

It’s still unclear how the investigators decided that Lopez could have been involved. His name does not come up in Stephens’ report, which is dated October 16, 2020 – just days before the confrontation between Aguirre and Lopez. Hotze also said in the deposition and in previous public statements that he’d never heard of Lopez or Aguirre’s plans to target him.

See here and here for some background. I truly don’t know how anyone can read these claims and not conclude that this guy is a raving loon, but we live in strange times. He ranges from wildly implausible to literally impossible, with a generous helping of racism and paranoia for extra flavor. Further down in the story you see how utterly indifferent he is to the effect the attack had on David Lopez. All I can say from that is that if Steven Hotze is an example of what a dominant strain of Christianity is today, it’s no wonder so many people are calling themselves “unaffiliated” these days.

The main bummer in all this is that Hotze’s criminal trial is not likely to happen anytime soon, a consequence of the backlog in the criminal courts. There’s an irony there, since the same DA that Hotze claims is out to get him is given a lot of the blame for that backlog. And of course one of Hotze’s assertions in the civil case against him is that it should wait until the criminal case is resolved, so that delay serves him well. That said, the judge in the civil case doesn’t seem too inclined to cut him any slack, so maybe we’ll see some action in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, always remember that Steven Hotze is one of the worst people in Houston, and he’s been that way for decades. If, and hopefully when, he finally pays a price for that, it will have been a very long time coming.

Why are people mad about R’Bonney Gabriel?

I don’t know why this story fascinates me so much, but it does. Please indulge me just a little longer.

R’Bonney Gabirel

Just days after Houston native R’Bonney Gabriel was crowned the 71st Miss Universe at the first Filipina American winner, the Miss Universe Organization has issued statement calling social-media rigging claims “absurd,” according to Today.com.

On Saturday, Gabriel became the first Miss USA to win Miss Universe in 10 years. She beat out first runner-up Amanda Dudmel from Venezuela and second runner-up Andreína Martínez from the Dominican Republic in the contest in New Orleans.

Social media followers complained during the broadcast that the competition was manipulated in Gabriel’s favor. They called it a “fraud” and used the hashtag #rigged in Twitter replies. Multiple competitors complained about alleged rigging, too.

In an interview with E! online in October after similar rigging claims by competitors, Gabriel said, “I would never enter any pageant or any competition that I know I would win. I have a lot of integrity.”

See here and here for the background. The Today.com story contains the more relevant info:

The Miss Universe Organization called accusations that it rigged this year’s pageant in favor of the winner “absurd” after crowning its first Filipina American champion over the weekend.

The organization issued a statement on Jan. 16 denying the allegations, two days after Houston native R’Bonney Gabriel was crowned the 71st Miss Universe.

“The false rigging allegations are absurd and distract from the incredible milestones our organization and the delegates experienced this weekend,” the Miss Universe Organization said. “Instead of focusing on unfounded statements, we will continue to shine a light on global women’s empowerment, inclusiveness, diversity, and transformational leadership.”

The controversy came in the wake of multiple competitors alleging similar rigging during Gabriel’s win in the Miss USA pageant in October.

[…]

The Miss Universe Organization suspended the head of the Miss USA pageant and opened an investigation in October after more than a dozen contestants alleged the contest was prearranged in Gabriel’s favor.

One contestant told NBC News that Gabriel “was allowed to do different walking patterns on stage, when we were all told to strictly follow the walking pattern that we were given to by the choreographer.”

I mean, I know basically nothing about beauty pageants, so I have no idea if those allegations represent legitimate concerns or are basically Mealer-esque whining from people who were beaten fair and square. It doesn’t sound like there are new concerns about the Miss Universe pageant, just a re-airing of the Miss USA complaints. I don’t suppose I can stop myself from keeping an eye on this, so if and when there are further developments, I’ll post an update.

Hydrogen hub Houston?

It could happen.

Houston-area leaders seeking to make the city one of the nation’s designated hydrogen hubs have received a push from the U.S. Energy Department.

The department’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations received 79 “concept papers” from groups seeking to host one of the six to 10 hubs and 33, including Houston’s, have been officially encouraged to follow through with complete applications.

Full applications are due in April, and if Houston is selected, it would receive some of the $7 billion set aside by the Biden administration to spur hydrogen development. The hubs would be in places with abundant natural gas reserves and would test ways to produce and use hydrogen.

Already, Houston sets itself apart from other applicants with its existing hydrogen production and infrastructure. The region produces about a third of all hydrogen made in the United States, with about 3.5 million metric tons annually, and is home to more than half the country’s dedicated hydrogen pipelines.

Most of that gas is used in the Houston area’s refining and petrochemical industries, but a coalition of private and public groups — including the University of Texas at Austin, French gas supplier Air Liquide, California oil major Chevron, the nonprofit Center for Houston’s Future and GTI Energy, a research and development company based in the Chicago area — are hoping a federal designation and funding will help expand the industry.

They’ve come together under the moniker HyVelocity Hub, and its leaders hope that by expanding the hydrogen industry in Houston and across Texas, the region could rake in a larger share of capital associated with the transition to lower-carbon energy sources.

There’s more about the competition here and about HyVelocity Hub here. Hydrogen is a promising alternative fuel for buses and trucks, which can be too big and heavy to reliably use electric-powered batteries. That’s not its primary use now – indeed, the generation of hydrogen is quite carbon-intensive, though that can be mitigated in some ways – but the goal is to make it a low/no-carbon energy source, and there’s a lot of research going on for that. If some of that can be done in Houston, so much the better.

So how much money does Whitmire have available for his mayoral campaign?

It’s already a lot, and it could be a whole lot more.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire is kicking off his mayoral campaign with a $10 million war chest, most of it drawn from the money he has amassed over decades in the Legislature.

The campaign balance dwarfs the resources of his opponents, but it could renew debate about how much of that money the city’s campaign finance laws allow him to use.

Whitmire’s first mayoral campaign finance report, filed Tuesday, shows $1.1 million in new donations between his formal campaign launch in November and the end of the year. The report’s staggering number, though, is the amount of cash he reports having on hand: about $10.1 million.

The sum makes him the overwhelming financial heavyweight in the race — no other candidate had more than $1 million on hand as of last summer. Other candidates, including former county clerk Chris Hollins, former city councilmember Amanda Edwards, and attorney Lee Kaplan, are expected to share more current numbers Tuesday, as well.

It is not yet clear how much of that money Whitmire will seek to spend. Sue Davis, a consultant for Whitmire, said the report shows the full balance of his campaign account, filed with both the state and the city. The campaign started earmarking money raised for the mayor’s race at the end of last year — the $1.1 million — which “has more than enough to start this year,” Davis said.

The move, though, may test the enforcement of an ordinance that was intended to limit how much money raised for non-city accounts can be used for city campaigns. The council members who introduced and passed the law in 2005 said it was meant to cap that amount at $10,000. It was intended to treat non-city accounts like any other political entity that seeks to support a city campaign: subject to a $10,000 cap on donations.

Former councilmember Gordon Quan, who spearheaded the ordinance, confirmed the intent behind the law in an email to the Chronicle last week. The law says candidates can use money raised for a non-city public office “in an amount not to exceed the maximum contribution that the candidate may accept from a single donor,” which is $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for political groups.

In practice, though, the city has not enforced the ordinance that stringently. A decade later, in 2015, then-City Attorney Dave Feldman told candidates they could use the amount of money under the cap from each individual donor, rather than from the account as a whole.

That allowed then-State Rep. Sylvester Turner to use $900,000 from his legislative account to start his mayoral bid, which ultimately proved successful.

City Attorney Arturo Michel, who returned to City Hall in December 2020, was serving his first stint as the city’s top lawyer in 2005, when Council first passed the law. The legal department, under his leadership at the time, helped craft the ordinance.

Michel, though, suggested Tuesday that Feldman’s interpretation was sound in its reading of the law’s actual language.

Feldman’s “determination reflected the language used in the code when adopted and as exists now,” Michel said. That language is less supportive of the more stringent interpretation, he added.

“Texas law is clear that statements made by members of a legislative governing body are not evidence of collective intent of the body and do not override the language used in the law,” Michel said.

The law has not been thoroughly tested in court, and it is possible another candidate could seek a ruling limiting what Whitmire can spend from his Senate funds. No candidate publicly has suggested they will do so.

See here for the July finance reports; Whitmire had not yet filed a city report. There are as of Tuesday night a number of January reports available on the city’s campaign finance webpage – you know I’m looking for them – but none of the Mayoral candidates had them up there yet.

The story references a lawsuit filed by Chris Bell, who was a Mayoral candidate in 2015, to challenge the cash on hand total that Turner claimed. There was a separate federal lawsuit filed to challenge the city’s blackout period for fundraising – in those days, you couldn’t fundraise outside of an election year – and after the plaintiff won an injunction the city basically agreed with his position to strengthen their case against Bell, who eventually dropped his suit.

I think the city should enforce its laws, though I can’t say with complete confidence that they’d win in court if there is a challenge over this limitation. I don’t know if someone will file a complaint to stop Whitmire from using his entire treasury, but if I were advising Whitmire I’d suggest he go through the last five or ten years’ worth of reports, claim the money that would clearly be under the limit, and then dare anyone to sue him. He’d still end up with a ton of cash and a plausible claim to already be in compliance. We’ll see what happens.

HCC redistricting update

I got this email from HCC Trustee Reagan Flowers, which has prompted me to remind you that HCC redistricting is also happening, and per the Redistricting Info page, there are community events going on right now to help you understand what is being proposed and how you can give feedback. These events are also being livestreamed, and you can submit comments or propose your own map here. Trustee Flowers prefers the current map option 2, which she says will keep the Third Ward in the same district.

I previously mentioned the HCC redistricting process here, in an earlier post about HISD redistricting. The next regular public Trustee meeting on February 15 will be the public hearing on redistricting, and the deadline to submit comments and proposed maps is February 28. The final map will be voted on at the April 19 meeting. Make your voice heard!

Precinct analysis: Inside and out of the city

Most years we don’t get the data to differentiate between votes cast by residents of Houston and votes cast by Harris County non-Houston residents. There needs to be a citywide referendum of the ballot in order to get at this data. Fortunately, we had that this year, so we can take a look at how the races of interest shaped up. The usual caveat applies here, which is that this data is not exact. There are multiple precincts that are partially in Houston and partially not in Houston. Many of them have a tiny number of Houston-specific votes in them, with a much larger contingent of non-Houston votes. Counting these as Houston precincts means you wind up with a lot more total votes in Houston than were cast in the referenda elections, and gives you a distorted picture of the candidate percentages. I filter out precincts with ten or fewer votes cast in the Houston proposition elections, which is arbitrary and still yields more total votes than in the prop races themselves, but it’s close enough for these purposes. So with all that preamble, here’s the data:


Candidates    Houston   Not Hou    Hou%    Not%
===============================================
Beto          317,736   277,917  63.43%  46.22%
Abbott        175,533   314,728  35.04%  52.34%

Collier       312,803   273,337  62.81%  45.64%
Patrick       171,319   312,803  34.40%  51.84%

Garza         312,022   272,513  62.83%  45.61%
Paxton        170,642   309,499  34.36%  51.80%

Dudding       294,958   255,993  59.69%  43.03%
Hegar         185,671   324,329  37.58%  54.52%

Kleberg       296,878   257,563  60.34%  43.45%
Buckingham    184,006   323,967  37.41%  54.65%

Hays          308,304   269,169  62.61%  45.36%
Miller        184,139   324,228  37.39%  54.64%

Warford       290,364   251,323  59.02%  42.41%
Christian     181,355   319,465  36.86%  53.91%

To be clear about what this data shows, Beto won the city of Houston by a margin of 317,736 to 175,533, or 63.43% to 35.04%, while Greg Abbott carried the non-Houston parts of the county 314,728 to 277,917. This is about 493K ballots cast for those two candidates, which doesn’t count third party and write-in candidates or undervotes; I didn’t tally them all up but we’d be at around 510K total ballots defined as being “Houston”. In actuality, there were 486K total ballots cast, including undervotes, in the city prop races. Like I said, this is plenty good enough for these purposes.

As noted, I don’t have a whole lot of data for this from previous elections, but what I do have can be found in these posts:

2008
2012
2018

There were city propositions in 2010, for red light cameras and ReNew Houston, but I didn’t do the same city-versus-not-city comparisons that year, almost certainly because 2010 was such a miserable year and I just didn’t want to spend any more time thinking about it than I had to.

Looking back at those earlier years, Beto fell short of the top performers in Houston, which in 2008 and 2012 was Adrian Garcia and which in 2018 was himself, but he did better in non-Houston Harris County. That’s consistent with what I’ve said before about how Democrats have overall grown their vote in the former strong Republican areas, while falling short on turnout – this year, at least – in the strong Democratic areas. Note how even the lowest scorers this year exceeded Obama’s performance in non-Houston by three or four points in 2008 and four or five points in 2012, while doing about as well in Houston. As I’ve said, Harris County is more Democratic now. This is another way of illustrating that.

Here’s the same breakdown for the countywide races:


Candidates    Houston   Not Hou    Hou%    Not%
===============================================
Hidalgo       294,968   257,935  59.79%  43.39%
Mealer        198,286   336,434  40.19%  56.59%

Burgess       290,267   255,860  60.14%  43.81%
Daniel        192,368   328,119  39.86%  56.19%

Hudspeth      293,030   256,624  60.84%  44.00%
Stanart       188,573   326,633  39.16%  56.00%

Wyatt         293,352   256,862  60.86%  44.00%
Scott         188,623   326,849  39.14%  56.00%

No third party candidates here, just a write-in who got a handful of votes for County Judge, so the percentages mostly add up to 100. More or less the same story here, with the distinction between Houston and not-Houston being smaller than in prior years. There won’t be any citywide propositions in 2024, not if we have them this coming November, but I’ll try to use the precinct data I have here to analyze that election. In what should be a stronger Democratic year, I’ll be very interested to see how things change. As always, let me know if you have any questions.

I-45 construction never stops

It just keeps moving on.

Though attention remains on rebuilding Interstate 45 through northern parts of Houston, state highway officials also are planning for the next round of road work.

The Texas Department of Transportation has scheduled two public meetings, starting Tuesday in Conroe, related to I-45 from Beltway 8 to Loop 336 in Conroe. The meetings, part of a preliminary process called planning and environmental linkages, are a chance for residents to see possible plans for rebuilding the freeway and get a first look at what TxDOT is considering as it moves toward project designs.

Though preliminary — for comparison, the paused I-45 project in Houston reached this stage in 2005 — the meetings narrow the options for widening the freeway and considering viable transit options along the corridor, based on resident input.

The presentations planned Tuesday in Conroe and Thursday in Spring also will be online, TxDOT officials said.

Officials said the aim of the upcoming meetings, the third round of public sessions, is “to explore transportation alternatives to address the growing safety, mobility, and connectivity needs along the corridor due to the projected population and employment growth in the greater Houston region.”

None of the possible changes are planned or designed at this time, though TxDOT’s record funding means some high-priority projects are accelerating, even as costs for some projects increase.

Good luck, y’all. I would assume that this will be more warmly received by area residents than the current project has been, but I could be wrong and even if I’m not that doesn’t mean it will be super popular. If TxDOT is more willing to listen and make changes to their original design, you can thank us later.

So what’s the deal with that I-45 deal?

Still to be determined.

Houston, Harris County and the Texas Department of Transportation have an agreed path forward for rebuilding Interstate 45, and a lot of steps to get there.

Details big and small remain works in progress and a federal pause looms as the last big hurdle, for now, as officials move ahead after last month’s agreements.

“We are doing everything we can to move this project forward,” James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT in Houston, told a North Houston Association luncheon on Wednesday.

The group, focused on economic development north of the city, is a vocal supporter of the widening project because of its potential to improve access to downtown and revitalize sagging areas along the I-45 freeway corridor.

To get some of those benefits, officials first have to iron out technical issue that not only affect the $10 billion rebuild of I-45 and the downtown freeway system, but numerous other mobility projects that cross it. Among them:

  • How TxDOT will rebuild Interstate 69 beneath Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail in Midtown while keeping the trains moving as much as possible.
  • Addressing changes sought by the Harris County Flood Control District that improve drainage for neighborhoods north and south of the Loop 610 interchange with I-45.
  • Design specifics of the future I-45 interchange with Interstate 10 that accommodate Metro’s planned Inner Katy bus rapid transit line along I-10 and proposed managed lanes access to downtown streets.
  • Adding sidewalks and bike amenities to areas where TxDOT has committed to trying to reduce the number of properties it will take.
  • Determining how a proposed downtown connection for the Hardy Toll Road will enter the area near Buffalo Bayou and cross a remade I-10.
  • Reconsidering how the project will incorporate Metro’s plans for bus rapid transit into its overall design.

“I think the next steps are sitting down in a room and working out all the details,” Metro board Chairman Sanjay Ramabhadran said of the work ahead.

Those details are not the only obstacles to construction, which officials will consider moving from 2024 to 2027 later this month in the region’s four-year transportation plan. TxDOT still must acquire some property, Koch said, and the pending Federal Highway Administration review that the local agreements do not affect must be resolved.

[…]

Hailed by elected officials as a breakthrough that salvaged a desperately-needed freeway rebuild, the deals surprised critics of the initial design. They noted many of the details give TxDOT room to renege while others fall short of the changes some neighborhood advocates had sought.

In a statement, Air Alliance Houston said the agreements “will do very little to protect Houston communities from the harms posed by this project,” specifically related to air pollution caused by the larger freeway in many neighborhoods around the central business district.

“It would be difficult to overstate our disappointment in the contents of these two (agreements), the closed-door manner in which they were created and signed, the lack of sufficient time for the public to read and respond to them, and the tone with which they were presented,” the group said.

Officials have defended the deals as the best way to change the project but still maintain the benefits that will come with it, including faster and safer commutes and the creation of two-way managed lanes that can improve transit in the I-45 corridor.

See here for the background. I believe that’s the first I’ve heard of the construction timeline being pushed back to 2027, which is a modest benefit no matter what else happens. We still need to know what all these details are, and I definitely agree that there is room for TxDOT to weasel out on a lot of promises. But I have always believed that one way or another this was going to happen, so any improvements or modifications to the original plan have to be considered with that in mind. Metro is probably as eager as anyone to get this going, as their MetroNext plans depend on various items in the I-45 rebuild. I hope that as long as things are still being worked out there’s still room to get assurances and confirmations about the things that Metro has agreed to.

R’Bonney Gabriel wins Miss Universe

I know, I know, not my usual beat, but it’s a followup on a previous post, so here we are.

R’Bonney Gabirel

R’Bonney Gabriel, the first Filipina Texan to win Miss Texas USA and Miss USA, has a new title: Miss Universe.

The 28-year-old from Friendswood was crowned the 71st Miss Universe in New Orleans Saturday night, beating out runner-up Miss Venezuela, Amanda Dudamel, according to the Associated Press.

Gabriel is an eco-friendly fashion designer, model and sewing instructor who crafted several of her own outfits for competition at the Miss USA competition in October, where she placed first against runner-up Morgan Romano of North Carolina. After graduating from the University of North Texas with a degree in fashion design, she founded and currently owns her own sustainable clothing line, R’Bonney Nola, according to her Miss Universe bio.

As an homage to her hometown, she donned an space-themed costume during the competition, complete with an American flag, glittering stars and a large moon balanced above her head.

In the final stage of the competition, Gabriel was asked what she would do to show Miss Universe is “an empowering and progressive organization,” the Associated Press reported. She responded by speaking about her work to use recycled materials in fashion and teach sewing to survivors of human trafficking the domestic violence, according to the AP.

Before we review the history here, you need to see that space-themed costume:

Incredible. Anyway, the reason I note Ms. Gabriel’s triumph is because her victory as Miss USA was marked with controversy, as well as the revelation that she is a critic of Texas’ forced-birth laws, which has caused some tut-tutting in her hometown of Friendswood. For what it’s worth, in the news stories of her Miss Universe win that I’ve scanned, neither of these items were mentioned. Be that as it may, congratulations to Miss Universe R’Bonney Gabriel. Best of luck, and may you at least occasionally remind people that Houston and Friendswood are two different places.

No more library fines in Houston

Good news for some of you, I’m sure.

Houston Public Library patrons no longer will have to pay overdue fees and will have a month-long amnesty period to get past fines canceled.

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved the library’s proposal to eliminate overdue fees — currently 20 cents per day for adult and young adult books and 10 cents per day for children’s materials — for all patrons at its more than 40 locations. The goal is to encourage more residents, especially younger and low-income Houstonians, to utilize the system, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

“A fine-free library system evens the playing field and incentivizes Houstonians to become lifelong users of our Houston Public Library,” Turner said in a statement. “When you analyze the numbers, you see that young people account for more than 27 percent of users with fines, preventing them from accessing free resources and tools for learning. Simply put, this is the right thing to do.”

The library has issued 1.4 million library cards to consumers, according to a 2020 library foundation report. The branches have 3.6 million materials, which includes laptop computers and tablets.

Research on public libraries consistently shows late fines do not make people return books on time and actually can deter those who owe fines from using the facility again, according to Houston Public Library spokesperson Julie Mintzer.

The change will cost the library system approximately $60,000 per year in revenue generated by late fines, Minztzer said. The library has a $44 million annual budget. Going forward, book borrowers still will be responsible for the cost of damaged or lost books.

At the request of CM Amy Peck, Council will get briefed on the effect of the change at the end of the year so they can consider revisions to the ordinance if needed. All this seems reasonable to me. Fines for overdue books topped out at $10, so their cost was unlikely to be a deterrent to anyone. Be all that as it may, I just wanted the excuse to embed one of my favorite Bloom County strips:

You’re welcome.

The Lege does its housekeeping

In the Senate, they drew their lots to see who would have to run again in 2024.

Sen. John Whitmire

It was the luck of the draw for Texas senators on Wednesday as they drew lots to decide which half of them would get two-year terms and which would get four-year terms.

The practice is outlined in Article 3, Section 3, of the Texas Constitution, which calls for “Senators elected after each apportionment [redistricting]” to be divided into two classes: one that will serve a four-year term and the other to serve a two-year term. That keeps Senate district elections staggered every two years. After that, senators serve four-year terms for the rest of the decade.

On Wednesday, each of the chamber’s 31 lawmakers walked to the front of the chamber and drew lots by picking an envelope that held a pill-shaped capsule. Inside the capsules were numbers: Even numbers meant two-year terms, and odd were for four-year terms.

“I’m sure each and every one of you are happy with what you drew, right?” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick joked.

Sixteen senators had Lady Fortune on their side and drew four-year terms, and fifteen unlucky souls will have to run for reelection in two years.

[…]

All eyes were on Sen. John Whitmire, a longtime Democrat who has announced plans to leave the chamber to run for Houston mayor after the session, and Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat who is second in seniority to Whitmire.

Whitmire drew a two-year term, and Zaffirni drew a four-year term.

Three freshmen senators drew two-year terms, including Democrat Morgan LaMantia of South Padre Island, who was in the tightest race in the Senate last year. The two other freshmen, Republicans Kevin Sparks of Midland and Mayes Middleton of Galveston, both drew four-year terms.

After the 2012 election, the main question was whether then-Sen. Wendy Davis, who won a tough race in a district carried by Mitt Romney, would have to run again in 2014. She drew a short straw, and I think that contributed to her decision to run for Governor. Of course, we were in a time and of a political makeup in which Dems were getting creamed in non-Presidential years. That changed quite dramatically in 2018, when Dems won back Davis’ old seat and picked up another Senate seat as well. Sen. LaMantia had a tough race in 2022, and at this time I have no idea if it’s better for her to run in 2024 or not. We’ll just have to see.

As for Whitmire, what this means is that if he’s elected Mayor this year, things will be messy in SD15 the next year. There would be both a primary and a special election to replace and succeed him, much as there was in HD147 this past year. You could have the primary winner, who would get to serve a four-year term after winning in November of 2024, and the special election winner, who would serve out the remainder of 2024, be two different people. One person could face five elections total in 2024, if the primary and the special both go to runoffs; this would happen for someone who wins the primary in a runoff and makes it to the runoff (win or lose) in the special. Did I mention that the primary runoff and the special election would take both place in May, but on different dates, again as it was in HD147? Speaking as a resident of SD15, I’m already exhausted by this possibility, which may not even happen. May God have mercy on our souls.

Anyway. The Houston-area Senators who will be on the ballot in 2024 are Carol Alvarado (SD06), Paul Bettencourt (SD07), John Whitmire (SD15), and Joan Huffman (SD17). The ones who get to wait until 2026 are Brandon Creighton (SD04), Mayes Middleton (SD11), Borris Miles (SD13), and Lois Kolkhorst (SD18).

Meanwhile, over in the House

Texas House leadership on Wednesday shut down a long-building push to ban Democratic committee chairs, deploying procedural legislative maneuvers to defeat multiple proposals on the issue.

The chamber also approved new punishments for members who break quorum, like most House Democrats did two years ago in protest of GOP-backed voting restrictions. Those members left for Washington, D.C., for weeks to stop the House from being able to do business in an effort to prevent passage of the bill. Under the new rules, quorum-breakers can now be subject to daily fines and even expulsion from the chamber.

The chamber passed the overall rules package by a vote of 123-19, with Democrats making up most of the opposition.

Going into the rules debate, most attention was on the subject of committee chairs, who have the power to advance legislation or block it from being taken up by the full House. For months, a small but vocal minority of House Republicans have been calling for the end of the chamber’s longtime tradition of having committee chairs from both parties. But Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and his allies moved successfully Wednesday to prevent the matter from even getting to a vote on the floor.

They did it by passing a “housekeeping resolution” earlier in the day that included a new section codifying a constitutional ban on using House resources for political purposes. That resolution passed overwhelmingly with little debate or fanfare. Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, then cited the new provision to call points of order — procedural challenges — on two amendments proposed by Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, to restrict Democratic committee chairs. Phelan ruled in favor of Geren both times.

“The amendment would require the speaker to use public resources, including staff time and government facilities, on behalf of one political instrumentality,” Phelan said the first time. “This obviously would require the speaker to violate the Housekeeping Resolution.”

It was a relatively anticlimactic end to the fight over Democratic committee chairs, which were a major issue in House primaries earlier this year, a rallying cry for conservative activists and a recurring theme in speeches as the legislative session kicked off Tuesday. After the House reelected Phelan by a nearly unanimous vote, he cautioned freshmen to “please do not confuse this body with the one in Washington, D.C.”

“After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texas to be like D.C,” Phelan said.

Committee appointments are expected to be made in the next couple of weeks. Phelan has said he will appoint roughly the same proportion of Democratic chairs as last session, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll be appointed to lead any powerful or coveted committees.

The amendment about sanctions for quorum-busting drew more No votes, almost entirely from Dems. Honestly, I have no problem with what was passed. It’s perfectly appropriate for the chamber to have sanctions for that kind of action, and it’s not that different, at least to my mind, than what was passed after the 2003 walkout. New rules get adopted each session, this can always be revisited in the future. TPR has more.

More on the Winter Street Studios fire

The Chron profiles two artists that were affected by the recent fire at the Winter Street Studios.

At Winter Street Studios, red caution tape draped an X pattern over an entrance to the building, a workspace for Houston area artists. The door is gone and black stains from a fire around the outer entrance are a stark contrast on the exterior of the large white structure.

Further into the building, chunks of the pillars are blown off, revealing brick and concrete. In one hallway, clean white squares where paintings used to hang stand out against the charcoal of the wall. In the area where Montgomery County based artists Toria Hill and Rebekah Molander have their studios, hallways that were once white and adorned with vibrant artwork are now soot stained.

The scene is a heartbreaking one for them both, especially since a person who was tied to the arts community was deemed responsible for the fire. It is testing Molander’s sense of security.

“It’s a safe place. What would be safer than an artists’ community?” the 38-year-old Woodlands artist said. “Who targets a group of artists and who destroys art? Of all things, art and music bring people together. Now that feeling of safety has been damaged.”

Molander had 18 pieces on display at the gallery in Sawyer Yards when authorities said it was set on fire on Dec. 20. The arsonist targeted the first-floor worksite of Bohemian Photography, then died by suicide days later, according to the Houston Fire Marshal’s Office. Bohemian owner Jack Potts and the man who set the fire were friends and reportedly had a disagreement over $1,000 in equipment.

[…]

The fire destroyed hundreds of pieces of art at the gallery, where about 110 artists rent space among the 77 studios to create and store their work. Some of the artwork may be salvageable, Hill and Molander said. All the artists are sharing notes on how to recover their work.

Hill will soon turn to an art restoration group, hoping her work can be salvaged. She suspects, however, that nothing is resellable. She had what is called “show insurance” that covers six pieces. But that only covers the supplies, like paint and brushes.

“They all smell like they’ve been sitting in someone’s chimney,” Hill said. “We’re learning it’s hard to get the smell of smoke out of your canvas without ruining the work.”

She’ll be focusing on creating more work before big shows like the Bayou City Art Festival in March and The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival in April.

Molander, part of an artist collective called The Seekers who work out of the Taft McWhorter Art Gallery, couldn’t get in the building until the week following Christmas. She and her husband donned masks because the smoke smell was so thick. They took the 18 pieces that were on display, wrapping them with commercial grade plastic.

Once home, they’ve been airing the pieces out in intervals.

“One issue is that some soot, especially from the back of the canvas, could seep in and further damage the paintings in the next six months,” Molander said.

She also purchased a tool called a soot eraser — a dry chemical sponge — to clean the canvas.

“When you swipe down, the sponge comes out black. It’s incredible the way it works,” Molander said. “Right now everyone is trying to be as positive as they can. This isn’t anything I’ve ever dealt with but it’s giving me a lot of hope.”

The Houston Arts Alliance has activated its emergency relief fund, first created in 2020 to support artists during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help those whose studios were damaged. Donors can contribute to the fund at the alliance’s website https://ready.haatx.com/.

See here for the background, and please do consider making a donation to the support fund. I went looking for more stories to see what news there has been in the intervening weeks, and I found this from about ten days after the fire. There’s a lot of background about the studio and its history and purpose, but what really caught my eye was towards the end, about its immediate future.

The arson victim was a behemoth of a building: the 75,000 square-foot space at 2101 Winter Street, a historic brick-and-concrete structure dating from 1928, originally built by E.A. Hudson for the Houston Transfer Company. The rambling two-story fortress later become Harris Moving & Storage, before being turned into studios for rent for professional artists by developer Jon Deal in 2005. Deal took a chance on rehabbing the rambling elephant of a building, betting artist-generated income could be financially successful.

The developer also had to convince the permitting department, which granted the building the first permit ever under the groundbreaking Artist Studio Ordinance in the City of Houston.

Flash forward 17 years, and Winter Street had become the bedrock of what would morph into one of the largest communities of working artists in the country. The thriving Sawyer Yards complex, that has also birthed under Deal and other partners, a plethora of pendant properties for artists, other creatives, stores and restaurants, led by Spring Street Studios, Silver Street Studios (home to the international biennial of photography FotoFest) and The Silos at Sawyer Yards. Winter Street Studios has also been the headquarters, thanks to generous owners, of countless fundraisers, mostly notably the art auction benefiting affordable housing and artists, the iconic Art on the Avenue presented by Avenue CDC.

[…]

What Deal once did to rehab the raw, cavernous space of Winter Street — later replicating that model throughout Sawyer Yards — makes many confident that he can and will do it again.

We reached out to Deal the Friday before Christmas. Within hours he emailed back details to PaperCity of his new plans that provide uplifting news to not only the Winter Street Studios artists, but also members of the Houston art family at large.

“Definitely arson,” Deal tells PaperCity of the cause of the devastating fire. “I reviewed some of the video with the arson investigators and it was a targeted theft and firebombing of a specific studio. With our building and campus cameras we were able to follow the thief/arsonist’s steps from the time he entered campus to the entry into Winter Street Studios then directly to the studio door without hesitation at any turn.

“Clearly he had been in the studio before (photographer Jack Potts’ studio). On the video you can see him leaving the studio at a rapid pace and then seconds later the explosion.”

“The eastern 1/3 of the building, Section C, looks like a war zone on the first level,” Deal details of the damage. “The remainder of the building (Sections A & B) suffered severe smoke damage, which left a thick soot. The second level of Section C shows signs of structural damage due to the heat of the fire.”

Now that a plan is in place. Deal has a timeline in mind.

“Our plan is to have Sections A & B (2/3 of the building) cleaned and ready for the artists to move back in in February,” he tells PaperCity. “Section C will require some structural repairs and complete rebuild of about one half the studios in that section of the building. We are estimating that it will be six months before we are able to get those studios ready for the artists to move back in.”

As to who will rebuild Winter Street, Deal dispatched his own crews immediately.

“The fire occurred at 5:20 am Tuesday, December 20,” Deal details.” We had crews on site at 7 am on Wednesday, December 21, and have already made it possible for artists to enter their studios in Sections A & B. Many already have. We made the decision to remediate in-house (Dealco) as we felt like we were able to mobilize quicker with more manpower and equipment than the remediation company could.”

Another silver lining is the nearby presence of warehouses under the Sawyer Yards umbrella.

“Silver Street opened up warehouse space that had recently been vacated and is allowing the Winter Street artists to store their artwork there until we can get them back in the building,” Deal shares. “We are prepared to open two of our warehouses a little further away if needed.”

And wall space will be provided, Deal notes.

“Alexander Squire, Sawyer Yards creative director, will be coordinating with management and other building artists to help the Winter Street artists to display what artwork they have left during the second Saturday event in January and in February if necessary,” Deal tells PaperCity.

You can click over to see some pictures. I’m very glad to hear there’s a plan in place to rehab and recover, and I look forward to the grand re-opening. The Leader News has more.

Is trap-neuter-return illegal?

A question that could affect a lot of cities, including Houston.

Trap, neuter, return programs are popular across Texas as a way to control feral cat populations. But one local official is now posing a thorny question: Are they legal?

Brazoria County District Attorney Tom Selleck has asked the attorney general’s office to determine whether the initiatives run afoul of animal cruelty laws that criminalize abandonment.

Selleck insists he is not trying to put an end to the programs, but instead wants clarification as several cities in his area consider their use.

“We’re certainly not saying it’s a bad program, quite the contrary, I think it has some excellent benefits,” he said. “I just don’t want somebody getting arrested over it. I’d like to know what my parameters are as a prosecutor.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton has yet to issue the opinion that could have sweeping implications for animal control efforts in Dallas and other cities. In addition to managing stray cat populations, the programs are also credited with cutting back on nuisance mating behaviors like fighting, yowling and marking.

Generally the programs work like this: Stray cats are trapped, then sterilized and vaccinated by a veterinarian before being returned to where they were found. Animals that have been through the process are often marked with a clipped ear.

In his November letter, Selleck questioned whether the programs may conflict with a state law that makes it a crime to abandon “unreasonably an animal in the person’s custody.”

“Returning the animal into the wild, without making reasonable arrangements for another individual to take custody of said animal, operates as a form of abandonment, by letter of the law,” he wrote. “If the abandonment is made unreasonably, such as leaving the stray in an open and unsafe environment, then that may support a conviction.”

Danielle Bays, a senior analyst for cat protection and policy at the Humane Society of the United States, pushed back on that notion.

“It’s not as if these cats are being left to fend for themselves,” Bays said. The stray cats are returned to the same place they were trapped, she said, often where they’re being fed or cared for by people.

“I don’t know of anywhere where people have actually been charged with abandoning cats when they return them to where they were found,” she said. “If you’re taking those cats and releasing them somewhere else, if you were just dumping them somewhere, that’s not the same thing.”

I get where DA Selleck is coming from – certainly as an officer of the court he wants to make sure he’s in compliance with the law – but I dunno, if the issue has never come up before and so many cities have been doing this without any problems, maybe it’s not an issue? Houston is one of those cities, so we have some skin in this game. Selleck says that he hopes the AG’s office will return an opinion in time for the Lege to take action if needed, a sentiment with which I agree. That said, if there really is a concern, there’s no reason not to ask a legislator right now to craft and carry a bill that would clarify the law and remove the potential conflict. Why take the chance on the opinion landing after the bill filing date, or the Lege not having the time to move it after the opinion drops? If it’s an issue, take action now. That’s my opinion.

HISD asked to hold off on redistricting

There are still concerns about the proposed map.

Community members and advocates are asking the Houston ISD board to redraw its redistricting plans to keep communities in southwest Houston together so that the votes of Latinos and immigrants are not diluted.

The Gulfton, Mid-West, Westwood, Braeburn and Sharpstown neighborhoods are split among three different districts in the proposals being made to rebalance the district’s nine trustee districts to account for 2020 census figures.

“We believe southwest Houston is compact enough to keep it in one district,” said Juan Cardoza-Oquendo, director of public policy for Houston in Action. “It’s not big enough where these immigrant communities would have power in multiple districts.”

[…]

Maria Benzon, a parent who works at Sugar Grove Academy, a middle school in Sharpstown, urged the board to not vote until these concerns are addressed.

“I’m here today to ask that you delay any votes on the district plan, and consider a more equitable version than (the proposed plans),” Benzon said. “I know these areas. Historically, these communities have had voting power diluted by three districts — 5, 6 and 7, and they have not been represented by people with similar backgrounds and experiences.”

This is the first time advocates have asked the board to delay. In December, the sent a letter to the board to hold off on voting claiming informational meetings were not well publicized and were at inconvenient times.

“As you can see by the majority of speakers, there is still some concern about redistricting,” Trustee Patricia Allen, who represents District IV said. “I think we need to take time to listen to the community in case we need to adjust.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the HISD redistricting page, which includes the two proposed maps. I don’t know enough about the area to comment on the feedback, but I favor HISD taking the time to iron out as many points of conflict that they can. The realistic deadline for getting this done, to allow time for the elections office to update all of its files and give potential candidates the opportunity to consider their options before the late August filing deadline, is in February. I’m hopeful we can get it done.

A walk through four districts, part 2: Now with pictures

In yesterday’s post I described my weird idea to take a stroll into four Congressional districts, something I decided I could do after taking a close look at the new map in Houston. On Wednesday, a bit more than a year after I first conceived of this silly idea, I finally did it. Here’s a little photo essay of my journey.

I started out as noted at the Leonel Castillo Community Center, on Quitman at South, just east of I-45.

CD29_LeonelCastilloCenter

This was in CD29, but I wasn’t going to be there for long. I intentionally started at a point near the boundary with CD18 – this walk was going to be long enough, I didn’t need to make it any longer. As I walked over the Quitman bridge, at some point I passed from CD29 into CD18. Where exactly that line is I have no idea – I have joked before about the crazy way that CD35 is drawn between Austin and San Antonio, and that you can cross into other Congressional districts by changing lanes on I-35 – but it’s there somewhere. We’ll discuss this a bit more later, as it’s a bit more relevant when there are houses and businesses there along the border. Here it’s just traffic.

CD29_OverI45

West of I-45 on Quitman and I am unquestionably in CD18. The White Oak hike and bike trail beckoned me to the south.

CD18_QuitmanNorth

As I passed Houston Avenue and Quitman became White Oak, I had a choice to make. As you saw on my Google map, my walking path was along White Oak. But the sidewalk isn’t consistent, there’s a lot of cars whooshing past, and the hike and bike trail will get me where I want to go as well. What would you choose?

CD18_PathNotTaken

The choice was easy for me, though I should note that the path to the left that led down to the trail wasn’t paved all the way and I had to step carefully to avoid getting all muddy. But it was worth it.

CD18_BikePathAndHeron

I didn’t even notice that heron as I was taking the picture. I only saw him later as I was putting this all together. Going this way gave me another excuse to walk across the new trail extension. The view of downtown from where the extension meets the MKT trail, especially on a gorgeous morning like Wednesday was, just can’t be beat.

CD18_MKTTrail

Don’t ever let anyone trash Houston’s aesthetics. The MKT trail put me back on White Oak the street, and soon enough I reached Heights Boulevard, which is where CD18 ends and CD07 begins. But unlike the CD29/CD18 boundary along I-45, the exact location of that invisible line matters. As in, my belief was that the east side of Heights was still in CD18 while the west side was in CD07. I know these things have to exist somewhere but that will always be weird to me.

CD07_YaleStreet

Yale Street, to my immediate right and visible as I crossed over the bayou again just south of I-10, is fully inside CD07. I started on the CD18 side of Heights but crossed to the CD07 side a bit before I reached I-10. When I reached Washington Avenue, I was at the southern border of CD18 and was going to be fully in CD07 for most of the rest of the trip.

CD07_HeightsWashington

I have to say, the sidewalks along this stretch of Washington Avenue were atrocious, especially after having been on the hike and bike trails as well as on Heights. Broken and occasionally missing, with utility poles right in the middle of a much narrower space – I could have only done this as a fully able-bodied person. I may do a separate post on that, but go see it for yourself if you can. One corollary to this is that I could have both shortened my walk and dodged fewer obstacles if I had taken a slightly different path. West of Shepherd, CD38 was only a few blocks to the south. I could have turned down Sandman, for example, and been in CD38 just before Shepherd and Durham merge together at Feagan.

CD07_SandmanShortcutToCD38

But I stayed the course, and soon enough I had reached the traffic circle at Westcott.

CD38_WashingtonTrafficCircle

That was the view from the west side of the circle, on what I believe was Arnot, though I didn’t see a street sign. It’s in CD38, whatever it was. Again, the boundary was likely somewhere in the middle of the road, in this case Westcott. Maybe if state law required that the state pay to create and install signs at every district border, we’d get slightly less goofy districts. Be that as it may, this is the end.

I’ll have a brief wrapup and a suggestion for further pedestrian research if you’re interested. Let me know what you thought of this little tour.

The road construction chaos that we know of for 2023

Forewarned, forearmed, etc.

A new year will mean major developments for some of the biggest highway projects in the region, but drivers should not expect them to be finished until 2024.

The largest projects by the Texas Department of Transportation in the Houston region – the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69 near Uptown, widening Interstate 10 west of Katy and enlarging Interstate 45 to Galveston – all will not be done until 2023.

Here is a look at some expected changes drivers may notice:

The story goes into the gory details of these three projects, which will go on for the rest of the year, but basically this is what you need to know. Avoid the Loop around the Galleria, I-10 west of Katy, and I-45 south of 610. If you can actually do all of those three, congratulations. If not, may the Lord have mercy on your soul.

A walk through four districts, part 1

As you know, I draft stuff before I publish it. Sometimes, things I draft that aren’t particularly time-sensitive can get lost in the shuffle when there’s a lot of news of interest. Those things may get taken from the pile during slower times, like the holidays. Sometimes I start something then don’t finish it. Once in awhile, a newer story comes along that directly relates to such a post and I go back to it. Sometimes, I finally get around to finishing what I started.

This is one of those times. After the Lege finally finished off redistricting in late 2021, I was taking a close look at the Congressional map – specifically, I had zoomed in on Houston near where I lived, and I realized that I could probably take a walk that would have me passing through four different districts. This Chron story was the inspiration for that.

The Texas Legislature on Monday put the finishing touches on a redistricting proposal that has major implications for millions of people who live in and around Houston. Here is a summary of how Harris County’s nine Congressional districts are changing for 2022.

You can go back and read the story, I’m not that interested in the details at this point. What I was interested in was seeing how easy it is to pass from one district to another, which all of us are likely doing any day we get out of the house, without realizing it. Let me start by showing the area I had zoomed in on:

From there, I used Google maps to sketch out a route for my walk:

According to Google maps, I’d get from the beginning in CD29 to the end in CD38 in one hour and 34 minutes, which would be a bit more than four miles. I walk about seven miles a day on average, and thus the idea took shape.

The thing about doing something like this, though, is that you can’t do it alone. I knew I could walk from point A to point B easily enough, but I had to get to point A and then get home from point B. Doing that all by myself would mean a heck of a lot more walking, and a lot more time. My plan was to get my elder daughter to drop me off at point A, basically at the Leonel Castillo Community Center, and then pick me up later near the traffic circle on Washington at Westcott. We would have done this over Christmas break last year. But for one reason or another it didn’t happen, and once school and work started up there was never a good time for it. So the idea, and the post that I began that included that Chron link and those pictures, got put on the shelf.

And then this Christmas rolled around, and I saw the old entry in my drafts, and I said hey, what about this year? Elder daughter was game, the weather was great for walking, and the plan came together. Wednesday, January 4 was a gloriously sunny day with morning temperatures in the 60s. I reviewed my route, coordinated the dropoff and pickup, told my ever-patient wife about the shenanigans I was about to get up to, and set out. I took some pictures along the way. I will tell you all about it and show you the pics of interest tomorrow.

New year, new omicron variant

Stay safe out there.

A new omicron COVID-19 variant is spreading fast across the United States and beginning to make inroads in Houston, where the positivity rate continues to rise.

The new strain, XBB.1.5, was first detected on the east coast in late October and gained traction in December. Over the last four weeks, it has quickly edged out the previously dominant strains to make up 40 percent of cases nationally. It appears to be more transmissible than its predecessors, based on early lab results, with properties that help it evade vaccine immunity, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, chief of infectious diseases with UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann Hospital.

Ostrosky and other experts say the new strain is likely contributing to the rise in cases throughout Houston, where the percentage of positive tests jumped from 8.1 percent to 11.1 percent last week, according to the most recent data from the Texas Medical Center. The average number of weekly COVID hospitalizations also saw a sharp uptick last week, from 529 to 663, including intensive care unit admissions.

The numbers are still a far cry from the original omicron wave one year ago, but infectious disease experts worry how waning immune protection will factor into the surge.

“We are at a moment in the pandemic where a lot of people got sick over the summer and immunity is going down from natural infection,” Ostrosky said. “Vaccine rates are not great and boosting rates are abysmal in this country … It does appear we’re converging into this immunity cliff.”

Only 15 percent of Americans over 5 years old have received the updated booster shot, first authorized for adults in August. About 30 percent of the country’s population has yet to complete the primary series, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the updated booster shot may not prevent infections from the newest variant, public health experts still say it’s the best way to prevent severe disease from COVID.

Same song, next verse. The good news for now, as Your Local Epidemiologist notes, is that this latest version of omicron, like all of its predecessors, isn’t any more virulent or deadly than before. Thus, hospitalization rates remain fairly stable, though they are currently going up. Flu and RSV infections are also declining, which helps. None of this matters if you or a loved one are getting sick. Get that bivalent booster and take the usual precautions. We will get through this.

The bats survived another freeze

A bit of good news.

On the fourth day of Christmas, Houston got 600 bats back.

As the sun set on Waugh Bridge over Buffalo Bayou Wednesday, the Houston Humane Society released hundreds of Mexican free-tailed bats that had been in the group’s care after last week’s freeze.

The bats were struck down — literally — by the sub-freezing temperatures that gripped Houston, according to the humane society. The hypothermic bats were recovered from under the bridge by volunteers. They’ve spent recent days warming up at the humane society’s TWRC Wildlife Center, and even in the attic of humane society wildlife director Mary Warwick.

After a couple of days of being fed and waiting for the city to thaw, it came time for the humane society to release the bats back into the wild. The society advertised the release on social media, and hundreds of people showed up at Waugh Bridge to watch the animals fly free.

Warwick stood with a kennel full of bats on top of a scissors lift, letting the animals go by the handful. The small brown bats flitted underneath the bridge, before joining the thousands of other bats still roosting in the underside of the roadway.

Warwick said the release was the first of its kind for the humane society. Usually the animals are released more quietly, as would be done later in the night, when a separate group of bats was planned to be released in Pearland.

“I think it was a whopping success,” Warwick said. “I’m really happy with how it turned out and glad we were able to save as many as we could.”

About 1,500 bats were planned to be released on Wednesday. Only about 100 died after being picked up during the freeze, Warwick said.

Nearly 1,000 bats were also rescued from underneath a bridge in Pearland.

If recent history is an indicator, it’s only a matter of time before some of the bats are struck down by a storm or cold again.

The pre-Christmas freeze wasn’t the first time the Waugh Bridge bats had been brought to the shelter because of Texas weather. Hundreds of bats were recovered and rehabilitated after the 2021 freeze. The bridge was inundated by floodwaters during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, leading people to scoop up bats and bring them home to dry out. The humane society is in the midst of a fundraiser to build a new headquarters, which officials hope will include a room dedicated to bat recovery.

Warwick asked people to support that effort, and thanked everyone who went out of their way to help during the recent crisis.

As noted in the story, the 2021 freeze was really hard on the bats, and that’s after their numbers were devastated by Harvey in 2017. At least we learned from the 2021 experience and were able to be more proactive this time. That’s great work on the part of the Houston Humane Society, which deserves a bunch of kudos for their efforts. You can see pictures and learn more about this recent bat rescue here, and if you want to donate to their efforts for the future, here’s the link for that.

The first two candidates for City Controller

Two term-limited Council members are the first to toss their hats into the ring.

CM Dave Martin

Houston City Council members Dave Martin and Michael Kubosh on Tuesday confirmed their plans to run for city controller in November.

As the city’s independently elected financial officer, the controller certifies the availability of funds for the budget and all spending. It also processes payments, manages the city’s $4.5 billion investment portfolio, audits city departments, conducts the sale of municipal bonds and produces an annual report of the city’s finances.

Having served the maximum two terms, current Controller Chris Brown will step down at the end of this year.

District E Councilmember and Mayor Pro Tem Martin and at-Large Councilmember Kubosh previously had indicated their interest in the city controller position. They have not been able to announce their campaigns until now due to Texas’s resign-to-run law, which bars city council members from running for another office more than a year and 30 days before their term ends.

CM Michael Kubosh

Martin, who has been on council since 2012, cited his decades of experience in finance and accounting in the private and public sectors. Having worked for “Big Four” accounting firms earlier in his career and currently leading the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee at City Council, he said he is equipped to help Houston optimize its finances.

“I know more about city finance and general accounting and finance than any candidate that’s going to pop up in this race,” Martin said. “I’ll put my credentials up against anyone’s.”

Kubosh, who has served as the at-large position No. 3 council member since 2014, touted his experience running in city-wide elections. Calling himself an outsider and a political activist, he highlighted his successful effort to advocate for the removal of red-light cameras in Houston prior to his time in office. He said he would not shy away from confrontations if elected.

“I have a cross-section of voters throughout the city. (Martin) hasn’t run citywide. He’s only run in District E,” Kubosh said. “And I am very aggressive. I’ll speak up for the people.”

I’ve heard talk about CM Martin as a Controller candidate for some time now. CM Kubosh had been mentioned as a possible Mayoral candidate in the past but that had died down. For what it’s worth, as of the July finance reports, Martin had $151K on hand to $60K for Kubosh. The January reports will be out soon and we’ll see what they look like. There’s plenty of time to raise more money, though the Controller’s race usually doesn’t attract the big bucks.

I say these are the first two candidates for Controller because there’s just no way that they’re the only two. Given the demographics and politics of Houston, it would be mind-boggling in the extreme for there not to be at least one candidate of color in the race. In 2015 the field included MJ Khan, Jew Don Boney, Carroll Robinson, and Dwight Jefferson. Khan also ran in 2009; he and Pam Holm lost to Ronald Green. Just a stray, idle thought, but maybe this would be a good opportunity for a Latino candidate. Anyway, this is the time of the cycle where we start seeing a bunch of candidate announcements. I’m sure there will be plenty more soon enough.

Katy ISD challenged over at large districts

This was from before Christmas but I didn’t have a chance to write about it until now.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sent a letter Tuesday to Katy ISD accusing the district of disenfranchising Black and Latino voters by adhering to an at-large voting system in violation of federal civil rights law.

The letter, addressed to Katy ISD board of trustees President Greg Schulte, says the at-large system — in which board members are elected to represent the entire district, by voters across the entire district — “dilutes the votes of Katy ISD’s voters of color and may violate the Voting Rights Act because it prevents Black and Latinx voters from electing their preferred candidates to the Board of Trustees and from participating in the electoral process on an equal footing.”

The Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or LDF, filed the letter after being approached by a group of Katy ISD parents concerned with the lack of diversity on the district’s seven-member board. Currently, the letter says, all seven trustees “reside in a concentrated area of the district south of Interstate 10 and do not reflect the geographic or racial and ethnic diversity of the district,” where Black and Latino children make up nearly half of the student body, according to the Texas Tribune.

The letter was first reported by NBC News.

Cameron Campbell, a former Democratic candidate for state legislature and a Katy ISD parent, said debates over book bans and other “microagressions” and “dog whistles” led the parents group to think critically about the makeup of the school board and who it serves.

“We can all agree on keeping our kids safe, learning and prospering, but if there’s not equal representation, it is absolutely impossible for our school boards to serve our kids adequately,” Campbell said. “I’m a proud Katy ISD parent and the teachers do a fantastic job, but the school board is broken and it’s an embarrassment.”

You can see a copy of the letter and a proposed district map at that NBC News tweet. The district had no comment in the story and I didn’t see any followup news since this ran in the Chron, but there are some more details given by the Katy Times.

According to its website, Katy ISD has an enrollment of 92,914 students as of Dec. 26. Here is a breakdown of students by ethnicity:

Asian: 15,542, or 16.7%.
Black: 13,204, or 14.2%.
Hispanic, 33,766, or 36.3%.
Native American: 208, or 0.2%.
Pacific Islander: 108, or 0.1%.
Two or more races: 3,963, or 4.3%.
White: 26,123, or 28.1%.

Much of the growth is taking place in the north and northwest areas of the district. The district’s northernmost high school, Paetow, 23111 Stockdick School Road, opened in 2017. It has a student population breakdown that is 49% Hispanic, 23% Asian, 17% White, 6% Black, and 3% two or more races, according to the district.

[NAACP assistant counsel Antonio Ingram II] provided an example figure that illustrated how a single-district representation map might look. Under this plan, Ingram wrote that four of the districts would be majority-minority districts.

Ingram wrote that the example was one of several versions of a seven-single-member school board map that can be drawn with multiple majority-Black and Latinx districts in northern Katy.

While most school districts in Texas have at-large representation exclusively, not all of them do. Richardson ISD, near Dallas, recently adopted single-member districts. According to its website, five of the seven trustees on the Richardson ISD board are elected from single-member districts. The other two trustees are elected at-large.

The single-member district issue has been raised in at least one previous Katy ISD trustee campaign. Local attorney Scott Martin called for single-member districts in an unsuccessful 2018 trustee campaign.

Not immediately clear now is whether the NAACP is approaching only Katy ISD for such changes, or whether it is approaching other school districts in a similar fashion.

But other options are available to trustees, Ingram wrote. Among these are:

Cumulative voting in at-large elections.
Requirements for more diverse representation on the board, such as a requirement that all board members reside in different school attendance zones. According to the map Ingram provided, all seven trustees live south of Interstate 10.
Moving the election date to November, when other significant races are on the ballot, therefore increasing voter turnout.

“Whatever method or methods the Katy ISD Board of Trustees chooses to ensure a more fair and equitable electoral process for choosing its members, we urge the board to act with all deliberate speed, as failure to act could expose the Katy ISD to liability under the VRA (Voting Rights Act),” Ingram wrote.

This caught my eye for a number of reasons, including of course because of the LULAC lawsuit over Houston City Council at large districts. There’s no indication at this time that the NAACP LDF might file a lawsuit, but that is certainly a possible outcome if there’s no movement from Katy ISD. A similar lawsuit was filed against Spring Branch ISD in 2021. There hasn’t been much news about that since then – the law firm representing Spring Branch ISD withdrew from the case a few months after the suit was filed, and there’s a Fairly comprehensive update on the SBISD website, the short version of which is that there was not one but two changes in who the presiding judge was and as a result there hasn’t been a hearing yet – one for October was cancelled – and nothing has been set yet. Federal lawsuits move at their own pace, y’all.

Anyway. I’ll keep an eye on this. I don’t have a lot of optimism about any use of the Voting Rights Act these days, but you never know. Katy ISD will have its next election this May, and the filing deadline is January 18.

Mayor Turner’s final year

The big local political story, besides whatever violence the Legislature commits to Houston and/or Harris County, will be the 2023 Mayor’s race. The incumbent still has a full year to go, though, and he has his plans for what he wants to do with his remaining time in office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to focus his final year in office on moving existing projects across the finish line, with an emphasis on housing, crime, parks and community facilities.

Turner said he wants to accomplish his administration’s goal of helping to build 10,000 new housing units in his second term, while also continuing the city’s progress since 2012 in reducing homelessness. His “One Safe Houston” plan to address violent crime has several elements that are funded through the rest of his tenure, including expanded crisis response teams. And there are renovations underway in 22 community parks that he wants to see through before his term ends in January 2024.

“It’s about finishing up many of the priorities and projects that are currently on the books,” said Turner, who revealed recently that he worked this summer while battling a cancer diagnosis. He now is cancer-free.

Next year, though, could force confrontations with structural issues at City Hall that Turner is satisfied to leave to his successor, such as a potential adjustment to the city’s revenue cap, and the resolution of a yearslong contract stalemate with firefighters that has spanned nearly his full tenure, and which now rests with the Supreme Court.

[…]

Turner has said a garbage fee — Houston is the only city in Texas without one — is necessary to sustain Solid Waste operations, though he is not likely to take that on in his final year. He likewise has argued an adjustment to the revenue cap is necessary. The most recent discussion of the cap came in October, after it forced the city’s eighth rate cut in nine years. At-Large Council Member Michael Kubosh wondered aloud how the city could afford its growing police and fire budgets with those restraints. Turner said he would present an adjustment to the cap if council desired it.

Turner said that adjustment proposal still is in the works but acknowledged he is not “100 percent on it.”

“Some of the these things need to be left for the next mayor,” he said, and the ruling in the firefighters dispute could affect his calculus, as well. “A modification of the revenue cap may not be adequate to address it. In that case, I won’t present it. I’ll leave it up to the next mayor to address how he or she, and the people in this city, should deal with it.”

Turner argues he has done his part tackling intractable problems facing the city. The 2017 pension reforms he ushered in have slashed the city’s daunting debt in that arena from a $8 billion liability to about $1.5 billion. The issue that once dominated city government and politics now is mostly an afterthought. The city’s liability for retirement benefits likewise was expected to grow to $9 billion over 30 years, but cuts Turner implemented are expected to reduce that at least in half.

“I can’t fix everything, but we’ve fixed a whole lot,” Turner said.

Turner and other elected leaders in the city long have said the cap strains the city’s finances and hinders its ability to provide adequate resources to residents. It has cost the city about $1.5 billion in revenue since it first hit the cap in 2015. In that time, it has saved the owner of the median Houston home about $946, or about $105 per year.

I’m not sure I have any hope left about raising the revenue cap. If there actually is some action on it, the most likely scenario is what we have done before, which is to carve out a limited exception for public safety spending. That’s more likely to pass a public vote, and less likely to get cracked down on by the Legislature. It’s at best a band-aid, if it even happens, but you know nothing significant will ever happen until we have a different state government, and we know that ain’t happening for at least another four years.

As for the firefighters, there are two issues that need to be resolved by the courts before anything gets left as a mess for the next Mayor, and those are the pay parity lawsuit and the HFD collective bargaining lawsuit, both of which just had hearings before SCOTx. I have no prediction for either – we may or may not get rulings on them before the November election, but if we do there will be a big new issue for the candidates to talk about. Modifying the revenue cap in some form would leave the next Mayor a bit of leeway in how they try to resolve whatever they need to resolve with these issues. I don’t need more reasons to support modifying the stupid revenue cap, but other people do, so there you have it.

As for the long-discussed trash fee, I support the idea as long as the funds are used to really improve solid waste collection in the city. There’s plenty of innovation out there, but just making sure everything gets picked up in a timely fashion, which is a labor and equipment issue at its core, is the first priority. I think this has a better chance of passing this year than in the future just because some number of people who won’t be facing re-election can vote for it, but we’ll see. Just have a productive last year in office, that’s all I ask.

The ribbon is finally cut on the White Oak bike trail extension

I’d been waiting for this.

Hike and bike trail connectivity has just gotten better in the Houston Heights area now that work on a new connector is complete. The City of Houston held a ribbon cutting [last] Tuesday to celebrate the new MKT Spur Connector that connects the MKT and White Oak Bayou Greenway Trails.

The $1.2 million project is a 850 ft. long and 10 ft. wide trail that allows residents to travel from the MKT Hike and Bike Trail to Stude Park, connecting to what used to be a dead end under Studemont Street.

“The MKT Spur Connector fills a major gap for the city’s bike network,” said Houston Public Works Director of Transportation and Drainage Operations Veronica Davis. “This connection proves a safer and more equitable transportation network for all users.”

The connector was completed a few months ago and the city has since added additional safety railings and retaining walls and stormwater drainage to help prevent flooding along the trails.

District C city council member Abbie Kamin said the project creates safer transit for residents who use both trails.

“We are now connecting two of, in district C, our most popular trails where residents can be more comfortable walking, running, biking, and not being forced onto busy streets,” she said.

See here for my last post on the construction of this connector. In looking at those pictures, it occurred to me that I missed documenting all of the safety add-ons mentioned in the story. I couldn’t let that go, could I? Of course not.

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrails

You can see the two types of guardrail added at the three locations, including where the trail passes over the bayou culvert. That one was obviously needed. I’m not certain why the others were added where they were and not in different locations, but that’s all right. They do look good, and if someone decide that’s where they need to be, then so be it.

A side view:

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrailsFullView

I’ve now used the extension a couple of times myself, as both a pedestrian and a bicyclist. It’s great – I had no idea how much it was needed until it was there, as part of the overall network. The MKT Trail, which is on the far end of these pictures, allows for easy bike access to the shopping center where the Target is. I’d much rather bike there most days than drive, but prior to the existence of this extension it was either a much long ride or a ride that involved Watson Street over I-10 and onto Sawyer, which is just too much car traffic to feel safe. It’s now a shorter ride to get there via the trail, and that makes biking there much more convenient and attractive. What’s not to like? CultureMap has more.

You are now free to busk in Houston

Houston’s anti-busking law has been struck down in federal court.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

An obscure, decades-old ordinance that restricted where buskers — musicians who performs in public places — can play for tips in Houston has been deemed unconstitutional and struck down by a federal judge.

The decision this week by U.S. District Judge Alfred H. Bennett strikes down the burdensome permitting process that confined musicians vying for cash gratuity to the Theater District. While performers could play elsewhere, soliciting tips while doing so made them liable to a fine.

Now, anyone can play any instrument, anywhere and without a permit as long as noise restrictions are not violated, Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer Joshua Polk said.

Houston accordionist Anthony Barilla, who in January 2020 lodged the lawsuit, tested the ordinance prior to suing the city and found the eight-block zone void of pedestrians. Fewer people means fewer tips, he argued.

“It wasn’t financially worth it,” said Barilla, a member of the accordion band Houston’s A-S-S and a composer whose work has been heard on the radio program “This American Life.”

Barilla believes stretches of Westheimer in Montrose or along Main Street are better suited for sidewalk performances than the downtown Theater District. He recouped the cost of his $50 permit when he tested the busking waters. When his permit expired, he did not renew it. The application process required musicians to obtain written permission from “the abutting property owners” where they wish to play. Barilla was rejected thrice.

[…]

The judge’s ruling took exception to the busking ordinance as a First Amendment violation. Arturo Michel, who represented the city against the federal litigation, said the court, however, found no issue in how the ordinance regulated pedestrian traffic and safety.

The city has no plan to appeal the ruling and Mayor Sylvester Turner would rather have the ordinance amended as needed, city officials said.

See here and here for the background. I agree with this ruling and am glad that the city will not appeal. I said they should have settled the lawsuit and amended the ordinance as needed at the beginning, but for whatever the reason they went and defended the law. Kudos to Anthony Barilla for taking up this fight.