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Matagorda County

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

Regional transportation officials on Friday reaffirmed their support for a planned $7 billion widening of Interstate 45 in Houston, over strong objections from city and Harris County officials that the resolution passed was a toothless enabling of design plans that continue to divide neighbors, elected officials and various interest groups.

“I think we can do better than this and we ought to try,” said Carrin Patman, a member of the Transportation Policy Council and chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the narrowest possible margin, the policy council — which doles out federal transportation money as a part of the Houston-Galveston Area Council — approved a resolution stating that the plan to rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 remains a priority for the region and has local support.

The approval came over objections from all members of the council appointed by Houston and Harris County officials, including those at Metro and Port Houston. It passed solely with support from members representing suburban counties, leading to a 14-11 vote with three absences. Fourteen is the minimum needed for approval.

In addition to voicing support, the resolution calls for parties to continue working to refine the project to address the concerns of critics, but has no binding impact on the Texas Department of Transportation that would keep it from proceeding as planned to add two managed lanes from downtown northward to the freeway as part of a total rebuild of the highway.

All work on the project, the most expensive highway project in the region’s history, however, remains in limbo, following a lawsuit filed March 11 by Harris County and a March 8 order by the Federal Highway Administration to pause the awarding of contracts. Washington, D.C. officials, citing concerns raised about the project’s impacts on minority groups, are examining whether TxDOT adequately complied with federal policy.

Suburban officials, chiding the decision by Harris County to sue, said it was vital the region keep working with TxDOT or risk the project losing state funding, a position supported by some advocates.

“With no project and no money, our region is left to suffer with no solutions,” Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region, told transportation council members. The group is a coalition of engineering firms and business officials who support both transit and highway investment.

Groups critical of the project plans called it a setback, but not unexpected given the sway TxDOT has with suburban officials who favor freeway expansion to travel into the city.

[…]

State highway officials have said they continue to refine plans, and want to address the concerns, but must do so within the confines of their environmental process, said Eliza Paul, head of TxDOT’s Houston office. She said prior to the issuance of a record of decision TxDOT could not make agreements to solve some of the issues without delaying that approval — which TxDOT grants itself under an agreement with federal officials. Since its issuance last month, Paul said discussions have been constricted by the county lawsuit.

Additionally, some of the suggestions focused on not adding any lanes to the freeway are counter to the objectives state officials set for the project a decade ago, Paul said.

See here for the background. I’d argue that the “suburban” adjective here is inaccurate. The H-GAC Board of Directors includes members from rural counties like Waller and Austin and Colorado and Matagorda and Wharton, none of which have any direct stake in I-45. Walker County is on I-45, but it’s more than fifty miles north of the construction zone; the number of people commuting into downtown Houston from Huntsville has to be in the single digits.

I get the need for regional cooperation in transportation planning and in general I approve of it, but it just seems inappropriate to me that these decisions are being made by people who don’t have anywhere near the stake in the outcome. It just doesn’t feel like a good balance of interests. I don’t know what to do about that, and again I don’t advocate for taking a less regional approach since we do all have related issues and concerns, but this is frustrating.

As much as anything, the problem here is that the residents of Houston feel that their concerns have been ignored or minimized by TxDOT, and now they are being ignored or minimized by H-GAC. This is exactly why Harris County filed that lawsuit, because it had no other way to get its point across. The fact that these plans have been in place for literally decades is part of the problem. Public opinion has changed, but TxDOT and the other interests supporting this project have not kept up. And once we start construction there’s no turning back. It’s now or never

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

Of course some voters were removed by that bogus SOS advisory

No one should be surprised by this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Fourteen Texas voters caught up in the secretary of state’s botched review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens had their registrations canceled but have since been reinstated, state officials told a federal judge Friday.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office informed the San Antonio court judge as part of the ongoing litigation over the state’s error-riddled review, through which almost 100,000 individuals were marked as possible noncitizens. Seven counties marked the voting registration of 14 individuals as canceled because the voters had failed to respond to letters that demanded they prove their citizenship.

Counties were canceling voters’ registrations as recently as Wednesday — well after federal District Judge Fred Biery halted the review effort on Feb. 27 and ordered local officials to hold off on removing any voters from the voter rolls without his approval.

The cancellations affected voters in Coke, DeWitt, Matagorda, Montague, Victoria, Willacy and Zavala counties.

In some cases, voters hit the 30-day deadline they were given to provide their local voter registrar with proof that they are U.S. citizens and therefore eligible to vote, according to a review by the secretary of state’s office. Two voters in DeWitt County were canceled on Feb. 4 before the end of that 30-day period because their notices were returned as undeliverable. In Willacy County, officials “mistakenly” removed an individual from the voter rolls on Feb. 20 before the end of that period.

See here for some background. You may say, it’s only fourteen voters and they’ve all been reinstated, so what’s the harm? I say none of this should have happened in the first place, and the fact that it did shows that when all is said and done there will remain a substantial risk of valid registered voters being disenfranchised despite having done nothing wrong. Our state leaders are dedicated to the point of zealotry to their self-appointed mission of ensuring that no illegal votes ever get cast. Should they not be equally concerned about illegal removals from the voter rolls?

I don’t care what Steve McCraw says, the bottom line is this is the Secretary of State’s fault. David Whitley set this ball in motion, and every resulting screwup is on him. All of us deserve a Secretary of State with a much higher level of basic competence than what Whitley has demonstrated.

Harvey was hard on farms, too

It wasn’t just the cities like Houston that suffered a lot of damage from Harvey.

Harvey did more than transform cityscape by turning highways into rivers; It also upended life for farmers and ranchers across dozens of counties that Gov. Greg Abbott declared disaster zones. The powerful winds and rains destroyed crops, displaced livestock and disrupted trade.

Texas typically exports nearly one-fourth of the country’s wheat and a major portion of its corn and soybeans, according to the state Department of Agriculture, but a shutdown of ports ahead of Harvey halted export.

At least 1.2 million beef cows graze in in 54 counties Abbott had added to his disaster list as of Tuesday, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. State and industry officials did not immediately have data on how many were lost, but news reports and social media have circulated images of wandering cattle and dramatic rescues of the animals from floodwaters.

[…]

Harvey also affected cropland. Texas rice producers had already harvested about 75 percent of the year’s rice crop, according to the Agriculture Department, but wind and water likely damaged storage bins, leading to more crop loses.

Harvey hit cotton farmers like Reed particularly hard, destroying their prospects of a banner year. While of region’s crops — corn, for instance, were out of the ground before the storm hit, cotton was another story.

“A lot of cotton didn’t get harvested,” said Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau. “We know that they were racing the clock trying to beat landfall…I think anything left on the clock, you got to consider that a total loss.”

In Matagorda County, for instance, just 70 percent of cotton had been harvested, while only 35 percent was out of the ground in Wharton County, Hall said.

What’s more, high-speed winds ripped apart cotton modules — machines that pound processed cotton into rectangular blocks — leaving them strewn about fields and gin yards.

You can help farmers and ranchers affected by Harvey via the State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund. There are a lot of small farms in the path of Harvey, and a lot of farms that supply Houston’s restaurants. One example of that is Gundermann Acres, which was completely wiped out. They farm vegetables – you’ve probably eaten some of their produce – so they can’t get crop insurance. You can help them out here if you want. As with everything else, it’s going to take all of these folks some time to recover, too.

White Stallion coal plant deep sixed

I mentioned this in passing the other day, but the news that White Stallion has been shelved deserves its own post.

Developers have dropped plans for the White Stallion Energy Center about 90 miles southwest of Houston, signaling the end of a once heady rush to build several new coal-fired power plants across Texas.

White Stallion is the latest abandoned coal-burning project amid record low prices for natural gas and increased environmental scrutiny. The decision announced Friday means that Texans might not see another coal plant built after an 800-megawatt unit near Waco comes online in April.

The demise of the White Stallion project “hopefully represents the last dying gasp of ‘new’ coal plants in Texas proposing to employ technologies from the last century,” said Jim Marston, who leads the energy program for the Environmental Defense Fund.

Texas now has 19 coal plants, but once had plans for more. In 2005, Gov. Rick Perry issued an executive order that put their permits on the fast track, but most approved projects were never built.

The natural gas boom, driven by low prices on natural gas, is the single biggest reason why White Stallion and many other proposed coal plants were scrapped, and the main reason why there are no new coal plants on the horizon after the Waco plant was built. But that wasn’t the only factor – the Environmental Protection Agency did its job, too.

White Stallion had run afoul of new federal limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants. The project’s developers had asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review the regulations, but the case is on hold.

The project also faced the EPA’s first-ever limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming from new power plants.

And it did not have the support of many locals.

See here for the last update I had regarding litigation over the EPA’s regulation of greenhouse gases. As State Impact notes, White Stallion was in danger of seeing its state permit expire before getting an answer one way or another from the courts, and that would have meant needing to start over, which wasn’t going to happen. Pulling the plug was their only choice. While this is very good news for clean energy proponents, it’s not all good:

“The only downside of this shift to natural gas is that it has made the challenge for renewable energy to be competitive without subsidies even greater,” Rep. [Mark] Strama says. “Because any time that lower-priced natural gas power electricity displaces coal, for the same reason it tends to displace wind and solar. I think this story highlights again the need for a renewable strategy in Texas.”

To that end, Strama has advocated for state incentives and subsidies for more solar and coastal wind projects, which could help the state during hot summer days when demand for electricity is at its peak. He has filed legislation to that end, and is more hopeful that it stands a chance this legislative session.

“Let me put it this way,” Strama says. “We were really close in 2009 to passing meaningful legislation around renewables. [Then] we didn’t come very close in 2011. But this year feels a little more receptive to having a discussion.”

Some of what needs to be done to promote renewable energy in Texas is regulatory and not legislative, but either way there are things to do. In the meantime, let’s celebrate a win for a cleaner tomorrow. The Environmental Defense Fund has more.

Matagorda smog

I feel like there are some pieces missing in this discussion.

Matagorda County, 1920s map from the General Land Office

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking to add Matagorda County to the list of Texas’ smog violators because Gulf breezes that blow through the area send air pollution toward the sprawling metropolis.

Local leaders are pushing back, saying the dubious distinction would lead to stricter regulation of industry at a time when unemployment is at 11 percent in the county.

“We have two plants, and they are minute by Houston’s standards,” Matagorda County Judge Nate McDonald said. “We are not the problem, so do not throw us under the bus because we are in a two-county proximity.”

McDonald is asking other public officials in the region for support in his fight against the EPA. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, for one, said through a spokeswoman that the federal agency has not made a scientific case to add Matagorda County to the smog list.

The move signifies the first change in geography in the federal efforts to clean Houston’s air. The list long has included Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller counties.

[…]

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says EPA data overstates Matagorda’s emissions. Also, federal regulators cannot directly link the pollution to bad air in Houston using models of wind paths, the state agency contends.

“There is nothing we have seen that shows these emissions are contributing to ozone in Houston,” said David Brymer, the TCEQ’s air quality director. “It is just a possibility.”

Carl Young, a scientist for the EPA’s Region 6, which includes Texas, said there is “no bright line” that ties Matagorda’s emissions to Houston’s dirty air, but the “weight of evidence” suggests a connection.

The TCEQ is sufficiently Perry-ized that I don’t trust it in these matters. However, it doesn’t sound like the EPA has (if you’ll pardon the expression) a smoking gun to point to. I doubt Mayor Parker would question the evidence if it were conclusive. So, I don’t know what to make of all this right now. There is an elephant in the room that the story doesn’t being up, though, and that’s the proposed White Stallion Coal Plant in Bay City, which was approved by the TCEQ but is still on hold and recently was unable to get a contract for water. There’s no question that it would have a negative effect on Houston’s air quality. I don’t know what if anything one may have to do with the other, but I’m a little surprised it wasn’t brought up in the story. Whatever the merits of including Matagorda County on the EPA smog list now, they’re surely greater if White Stallion gets built.