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Medical Center

Still surging

Hospitalizations.

The number of lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in Texas broke 4,000 on Friday for the first time since March, a worrying sign of the pandemic’s quick resurgence since the Delta variant was discovered in the state.

[…]

As of Saturday, Texas Department of State Health Services data reported 4,320 lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in the state, more than three times the cases it had at its low of 1,428 less than a month ago. In the span of one week, COVID hospitalizations had spiked nearly 50 percent.

The increases in COVID hospitalizations have been dramatic. In the week ending July 24, Texas averaged 3,710 people hospitalized with COVID, up from 2,537 in the week before and 1,838 in the week before that.

Texas Medical Center hospitals are seeing an influx of COVID patients in ICU beds, and medical leaders may soon consider postponing elective procedures, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

“Everywhere is experiencing that same sort of explosive growth right now, so that’s obviously very concerning,” said McDeavitt, who has been closely tracking local COVID data since the start of the pandemic.

Positive tests.

More than 1,000 people are testing positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than seven times last month’s daily average, according to the Texas Medical Center.

As the delta variant dominates new COVID-19 infections across the country, the Texas Medical Center is returning to daily coronavirus updates.

The takeaways, sent every morning from William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, provide a glimpse into one of the world’s largest medical complexes as its clinicians treat infected patients. Previously released weekly, the switch back to daily missives illustrate how rapidly delta is spreading across the region.

Last week, an average of 1,069 people tested positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than double the prior week’s daily average.

“The COVID-19 Delta variant is spreading rapidly throughout Texas as only 43 percent of our population is fully vaccinated,” McKeon wrote in a Monday email.

If you don’t know what to do by now, I can’t help you.

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

One local hospital is reinstating visitor limits and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is mulling a change to the county’s threat level amid a wave of COVID-19 variant cases that medical leaders warned Tuesday could overwhelm area hospitals and wreak further havoc as schools reopen next month.

The warning came amid massive spikes in hospitalizations across the Houston region, which Hidalgo’s office is closely monitoring to decide if the county needs to raise its emergency threat level from yellow to orange — or moderate to significant.

“We’re watching this very, very closely,” Hidalgo spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre wrote in an email. “The trends are moving in the wrong direction again and we are in a high-stakes race against the delta variant of this virus. Our message to the community is simple and clear: If you haven’t been vaccinated, take action now.”

In May, Hidalgo lowered the threat level from red — where it had been for nearly a year — to orange, then yellow a few weeks later, as COVID cases waned statewide.

But this month, hospitalizations across the state have more than doubled, ballooning from 1,591 on July 1 to 3,319 as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state’s hospitalization count peaked in January at 14,000.

Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said he fears the closing of many testing centers will make it more difficult to gauge the extent of COVID’s spread in the coming weeks.

“As this fourth wave begins in force, our radar is down,” Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “We have only a fraction of the testing…. We’re going to be running much more blind to the spread of delta variant in our community.”

[…]

Memorial-Hermann Health System plans to readopt visitor restrictions this week, and will test all patients for COVID, regardless of their vaccination status, said Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, vice president of employee health medical operations.

The hospital system had about 100 confirmed COVID cases on July 4; by Tuesday, there were more than 250.

We’ve been discussing this, and you know how I feel. The hospitalization numbers are still relatively low, but that’s a sharp increase, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be more. And I hadn’t even thought about the drastic reduction in testing facilities – I don’t know how big an effect that may have, but it’s not going to help.

I drafted this a couple of days ago, and before I knew it, Judge Hidalgo had already taken action.

Harris County’s emergency threat level was raised to orange — or “significant” — on Thursday and County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for resumed mask wearing amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 that has already caused hospitalizations to spike across the region.

“It’s not too late,” Hidalgo said. “But if we don’t act now, it will be too late for many people…. We are at the beginning of a potentially very dangerous fourth wave of this pandemic.”

The guidelines for the orange threat level are voluntary, and urge residents — namely those who are not vaccinated — to avoid large gatherings and businesses with poor safety procedures.

Hidalgo also said “everyone” should resume wearing masks to protect the County’s population who are not fully vaccinated. Currently, about 2.1 million county residents are fully vaccinated — 44 percent of Harris County’s total population.

She noted the county’s positivity rate is now doubling about every 17 days, quicker than any other point in the pandemic.

Get your masks back on, and hope for the best. I trust Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to ameliorate this situation, but as we know, there’s not a lot she can do. Greg Abbott has seen to that.

One thing that could help is if more places of business begin putting in their own vaccination requirements, mostly for employees but also possibly for customers or business partners, depending on the situation. Putting some limits on what one can do as an unvaccinated person is one of the few effective ways to compel people to get their shots. That will have to come from the private sector, because it sure won’t come from the state. The FDA giving final approval to the Pfizer and Moderna shots will help, too. I just don’t know how long we can wait.

Methodist anti-vaxxers officially fired

I have three things to say about this.

More than 150 Houston Methodist Hospital employees resigned or have been fired as of Tuesday over a recent policy that required hospital employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday.

All told, 153 people are no longer employees of the Houston health care chain, Methodist spokesperson Patti Muck said. The hospital has about 25,000 employees, nearly all of whom have abided by the policy, Methodist leaders have said previously.

The firings follow a contentious few weeks in which hospital employees staged protests and filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming the policy, announced in April, violated their rights. Methodist was one of the first large health care providers in the country to announce vaccine requirements.

“I’m so happy and relieved,” Jennifer Bridges, the lead plaintiff in the suit, said Tuesday. “I don’t want any part of Methodist.”

Earlier this month, a federal judge tossed the lawsuit filed by more than 100 Methodist employees, most of whom were not doctors or nurses. In it, the plaintiffs argued Methodist’s policy violated the Nuremberg Codes, a World War II-era agreement that bans involuntary participation in medical trials.

Bridges said Tuesday that she and others planned to protest outside Methodist on Saturday, and that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones will be in attendance.

See here and here for the background. My three things:

1. I strongly suspect Methodist would say that the feeling is mutual, Jennifer.

2. Inviting Alex Jones to your protest really makes one question the previous statements made about how these folks are not anti-vaccine, just super cautious about this particular vaccine.

3. As Methodist cardiovascular technician Deedee Mattoa says in this story, the real surprise here is not that Methodist followed through, but that Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine, which have made public promises to require COVID-19 vaccines but have not set deadlines for when staff will need the shots, have not yet followed suit. What are you guys waiting for? The Trib has more.

Methodist anti-vaxxers appeal lawsuit dismissal

As expected.

A group of Houston Methodist employees who sued the hospital system over its COVID-19 vaccine requirement have appealed a ruling dismissing the case.

Over the weekend, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes tossed the lawsuit, calling it “reprehensible” to compare the vaccine requirement to Nazi Germany’s medical experiments.

“Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible,” Hughes said. “Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.”

[…]

Although the lower court judge thought the case had no merit, Woodfill could get traction from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court, known as one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country. On several recent occasions, the 5th Circuit has dealt blows to Hughes, a historically stubborn 79-year-old Reagan appointee.

The appeals court ordered him to re-sentence a defendant in a terrorism case who was accused of supporting ISIS overseas. After Hughes re-sentenced the man to the same abbreviated sentence, 18 months, which did not consider a sentencing enhancement, the government appealed and the 5th circuit removed the sentencing from Hughes’ court.

The 5th circuit also admonished Hughes for remarks he made on the record about female employees of the federal government. Hughes later barred the Houston prosecutor from appearing at the jury trial involved in that case.

More than half of frontline medical workers nationwide have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. But as of April, nearly one in five said they did not plan on receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

See here for the previous entry. It’s true that Judge Hughes can be a crank, but I kind of doubt that any of those previous instances will weigh on this case. For some analysis of the lawsuit and subsequent dismissal, this WaPo story has some good information.

Valerie Gutmann Koch, co-director of the University of Houston’s Health Law & Policy Institute, called the decision “another step in demonstrating the legality of these mandates, particularly in a health crisis like this.”

“There isn’t much there to rely on to argue these mandates should be illegal,” she said.

[…]

Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, characterized the lawsuit’s claims as “absurd” in recent remarks to The Washington Post, noting that tens of thousands of people participated in the vaccine trials. The suit also repeats misinformation circulated widely online about the shots altering DNA.

The inoculations are seen as key to a return to normalcy, yet most employers have shied away from mandating them, concerned about the thorny politics and previously untested legal issues. Colleges and universities, along with Houston Methodist and a handful of other health-care institutions, are the exception.

Koch said the ruling shows “employer mandates of the covid-19 vaccine, particularly in the health care arena, are absolutely legal.” She said she expects to see more legal battles around vaccination mandates but noted she has “always predicted that they have very thin legal legs to stand on.”

There is precedent for vaccine requirements, she said, such as when health-care institutions require vaccinations during particularly bad flu seasons. Koch said she was “encouraged by the fact that this was dismissed as quickly and expeditiously as it was.”

Veronica Vargas Stidvent, executive director at the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, said the ruling is based on employment law in Texas, so the extent to which it sets a precedent for other jurisdictions is not clear.

“At least here in Texas, under this ruling, it’s pretty clear employers can require employees to get vaccinated,” she said.

Yeah, I don’t think it should be a surprise that Texas employment laws are much more favorable to employers than to employees. As Reuters notes, Judge Hughes wrote that “Texas law only protected employees from being fired for refusing to commit an illegal act and that the requirement is consistent with public policy.” I’ll be more than a little surprised if the Fifth Circuit decides that this is the place to take a stand in favor of the workers.

Lawsuit over Methodist Hospital vaccination mandate tossed

That was quick.

A federal judge has tossed a lawsuit against Houston Methodist over its policy to terminate workers who refuse to get the COVID vaccine, calling it “reprehensible” that plaintiffs compared the requirement to those made under Nazi Germany.

In the lawsuit on behalf of 117 Houston Methodist employees, lawyers likened the vaccine requirement to the Nuremberg Code, a set of medical ethics standards created at the end of World War II following medical experiments by the Nazis on German citizens.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes heavily criticized the comparison in a decision Saturday.

“Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible,” Hughes said. “Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.”

Houston Methodist is one of the first hospitals in the nation to require employees to be vaccinated. The hospital system allows employees to opt out of the vaccine requirement if they provide a medical or religious exemption.

[…]

Jennifer Bridges, a Houston Methodist Baytown nurse who originally circulated a petition in April asking the hospital’s executives to reconsider the policy, said the plaintiffs plan to appeal.

“This will go all the way,” Bridges said. “This is only the beginning.”

Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials issued guidance on Thursday outlining new COVID-19 precautions and procedures to prevent the spread of the virus in health care workplaces. Under the new rule, health care employers must provide paid time off for workers to receive COVID-19 vaccinations and recover from the side effects. Federal regulators in May issued guidance allowing employers to require proof of vaccination as a condition of employment.

Hughes wrote in the dismissal order that the vaccinate mandate “was not coercion.”

“Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus,” the judge wrote. “It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer.”

He also denied a request for a temporary restraining order to block the hospital from suspending the 178 employees who have not received a shot.

See here for some background – the policy was announced in late April, the lawsuit was filed shortly afterwards. As of the last day before the suspensions, all but 178 employees out of 25,000 had been vaccinated, and 27 of those 171 had since received a first shot. The nurse who has acted as the spokesperson for the holdout employees has insisted this isn’t about vaccine skepticism but about not wanting to rush things and so on, but as the Chron editorial board noted over the weekend, her rhetoric has veered more into conspiracy theory land as this has progressed. Plus, there’s the whole “hiring Jared Woodfill as their attorney” thing, which is something you never do if you want to be taken seriously. Anyway, my guess is that they will get no joy from the appeals courts, who I suspect will be more pro-employer than pro-not-getting-vaccinated, but we’ll see. The Press has more.

Will Methodist fire its unvaccinated workers?

In two weeks, if they haven’t gotten vaccinated, the answer is Yes.

Dozens of cheering supporters gathered outside the Houston Methodist Baytown campus Monday evening as several medical workers who refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine ended their last shifts working for the hospital system.

The act of protest was aimed at what workers said was the hospital’s decision to suspend employees for two weeks without pay and then fire them for failing to immunize themselves.

Jennifer Bridges, a nurse who effectively lost her job at the Baytown facility for deciding not to be inoculated, said the goal was to stage a walkout but that did not go as planned. Participating employees who refused the vaccine’s first dose were told not to gather or linger on the hospital grounds after ending their shift, she said.

“The hospital wouldn’t let us do it,” Bridges said.

She got out of work early, emptied her locker and gathered with others on a grassy medium near the ambulance entrance to the hospital. Bridges fished a paper out of a backpack — a suspension report — that she had been asked to sign. She refused, she continued.

About 117 employees in May filed a class action lawsuit against the health system for requiring its workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Bridges said the plaintiffs in the suit are a mix of those who want more trial data to emerge on the long-term effects of the vaccine before taking it, and those who simply don’t want any shots.

Sorry, I’m with Methodist on this. I cannot see any reason why health care workers – who by the way were already required to get a flu shot every year – should be able to opt out of this. If the concern is that we still don’t know enough about the potential negative effects of the vaccines, which at this point have emergency authorization from the FDA and not full clearance yet, all I can say is that over 300 million doses have been administered so far, with basically zero serious negative effects. There’s no way that the risk analysis comes out more favorably for not being vaccinated. Hiring Jared Woodfill as your attorney for that class action lawsuit doesn’t say much for one’s commitment to science, either.

In the end, it’s a pretty small number of employees who are affected.

While nearly 25,000 Houston Methodist workers are now vaccinated against COVID-19, 178 employees are now suspended without pay for not receiving a shot.

In a Tuesday memo to hospital staff, Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom said 27 of the 178 workers who have not been fully vaccinated have received at least one dose of the vaccine. If they comply, they will not face termination.

“I wish the number could be zero, but unfortunately, a small number of individuals have decided not to put their patients first,” Boom said.

More than 600 employees were granted deferrals or exemptions for medical or religious reasons, the hospital said.

The hospital will have a final number of employees fired for not complying with the vaccine mandate in two weeks. Houston Methodist also requires its workers to get an annual flu shot.

That’s 0.7% of the Methodist workforce that was affected, and some of them have already decided it wasn’t worth getting fired over. Good for them. All of these folks did have a choice, and they made it. That there are consequences is just how life is sometimes. Erica Greider and the Press have more.

Houston Methodist tells its employees to get vaxxed or else

I’m okay with this.

Four out of five Houston Methodist employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. The sliver who are not will be suspended or fired if they refuse the shot, according to company policy.

The hospital required managers to be vaccinated by April 15 and all other employees — about 26,000 workers in total — by June 7, said Stefanie Asin, a Houston Methodist spokesperson.

With 84 percent of the staff vaccinated, the hospital is close to herd immunity, CEO Marc Boom wrote in a letter to employees this month.

“As health care workers we’ve taken a sacred oath to do everything possible to keep our patients safe and healthy — this includes getting vaccinated,” Boom wrote.

A little more than 4,100 employees have not received at least a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital does not know yet how many employees potentially will be suspended or terminated because of the mandatory vaccination policy.

Since 2009, a hospital policy has mandated its workers receive the flu vaccine each year, unless they have a medical or religious objection qualifying them for exemption.

[…]

Several nursing homes in Houston are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations of their workers, while other hospitals in the Texas Medical Center have not yet followed suit.

“UTMB is not mandating vaccination,” said Christopher Smith Gonzalez, senior communication specialist for the hospital. “But, in view of the high contagiousness of the some of the SARS-CoV-2 variants, UTMB has implemented enhanced respiratory precautions for all unvaccinated individuals caring for or evaluating patients for COVID.”

While 80 percent of Texas Children’s Hospital employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, the hospital does not require inoculation. St. Luke’s Health has vaccinated “thousands of our staff,” vaccinations are not mandatory, according to the health system.

But some are considering it to cut back on health hazards for employees and patients.

“As a provider of health care services, Baylor College of Medicine currently requires vaccination for employees for a variety of infectious diseases,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president of Baylor College of Medicine. “For example, flu vaccination for employees has been mandatory for several years. With appropriately defined exemptions (medical contraindications, religious beliefs), we support mandatory vaccination for COVID-19. We do not yet have this requirement in place, but it is under active consideration.”

Memorial Hermann will make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory after it relaxes some of its COVID-19 protocols, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. However, it has not set a deadline for employees to receive the vaccine, said Drew Munhausen, a Memorial Hermann spokesperson.

This all makes sense to me. They’re health care workers, which not only makes them at high risk for catching COVID, it means they’re in very close contact with a lot of extremely vulnerable people as well. The story notes a recent incident in a Kentucky nursing home, where an unvaxxed worker was the cause of an outbreak. While most of the residents, who had been vaccinated, had only mild symptoms, one of them died. None of that should have happened. State law requires that health care facilities have a policy about vaccinations, but doesn’t require that they mandate them; federal law allows employers to require vaccinations, but also doesn’t mandate it. I for sure would want to know that the doctor or nurse or physician’s assistant who is giving me medical assistance, as well as all of the support staff, have been vaccinated for COVID. I understand that some of the employees may be hesitant about the vaccine, and I have some sympathy for them, but only so much.

There is also this:

Houston Methodist was one of several companies to offer incentives for its workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The hospital is granting $500 bonuses to anyone who worked during the pandemic and received the vaccine.

“Already we’re seeing positive results as the number of employee infections has dropped inversely with the number of employees receiving the vaccine,” Boom wrote.

Paying people to get vaxxed has its merits. One of the hesitant Methodist employees from the story says that some of her fellow hesitators are thinking about getting the shots to keep their jobs. Clearly, incentives work. Maybe that’s a lesson for us for the broader issue.

Scooters banned from sidewalks

Fine by me.

Houston has scuttled scooter rentals along city sidewalks, and kicked riders of the two-wheel transports in busy areas into the street.

City Council on Wednesday approved changes to Houston’s codes outlawing any rental activity that impedes public sidewalks or blocks a city-controlled parking spot, a move aimed at eliminating businesses that use temporary trailers and the public walkway to offer rental scooters. The businesses have grown in popularity, but critics complain they block sidewalks and encourage novice riders to rocket along crowded sidewalks.

“They ride them recklessly, they don’t have helmets on,” District G Councilman Greg Travis said. “It is a disaster.”

In addition to banning scooter rental companies, the council revised existing rules to outlaw scooter use on sidewalks in a business district, effectively moving them off walkways in downtown, Uptown and the Texas Medical Center.

Scooter rental companies earlier this month complained they are being singled out for offering a popular activity where customers want them. Forcing them them onto private property, such as parking lots, or to permanent locations limits where people can find and use the rentals, the owners say.

[…]

Though they approved the measure, council members said shifting the scooters to the streets comes with its own challenges. Pedestrians will not have to share space with the motorized two-wheelers but scooter users now must contend with vehicle traffic.

The scooter rules are identical to those for bicycles, which also are banned from sidewalks in business districts.

Despite the need to ensure safety, some observers lamented the council’s actions limited mobility but did not improve the on-street conditions that make some of those interactions calamitous.

“A truly pro-business city might see this as not just an opportunity but a duty to build safe rights-of-way on our downtown streets so people can get around efficiently, and to create an environment that supports entrepreneurship,” said Joe Cutrufo, executive director of the advocacy group BikeHouston.

District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said he will discuss additional safety needs in an upcoming Quality of Life Committee meeting, “so we can do what we can to keep (scooter users) safe, as well.”

Advocates said those discussions should include the addition of amenities, including dedicated bikes lanes similar to those along Lamar, Austin and Gray in downtown and Hardy and Elysian north of the central business district.

See here for the background. No question, these things do not belong on sidewalks, for the same reason that bicycles don’t – they’re a hazard for pedestrians. As noted before, the “leave your scooter on the sidewalk when you’re done with it” method for returning them is an extra hazard for people with disabilities. This was the right call.

I do think there should be a place for electric scooters in the overall transportation ecology in Houston. As with B-Cycle, the scooters can be an alternative to driving for people who need to take a short-but-not-short-enough-to-walk trip in the cited locations – downtown, Uptown, the Medical Center. It’s a question of doing it safely. I’ve ridden B-Cycle bikes downtown, and I generally felt fine riding in the right-hand lane on the one-way downtown streets. For the most part, the right lane is for buses and right turns only anyway, so you’re generally not being trailed by a car that’s dying to pass you. There are more bike lanes downtown now as well, and I too would like to see more of them. I think scooters and scooter riders will be fine doing this. Maybe it’s not as great an idea for entertainment purposes, but that’s the way it goes.

Vaccine progress

Good news.

Texas will surpass more than 7 million COVID-19 vaccination doses administered today, top public health officials told the Texas Senate as Gov. Greg Abbott lifted all capacity limits for businesses and ended government-imposed mask mandates in the state.

At the same time, the health officials also offered a strong defense of the previous mask mandates, saying they reduced the chance of asymptomatic people spreading the virus and resulted in a record low year for influenza in Texas.

The speed with which vaccinations are being distributed is one of the keys to Abbott’s new order removing all mask mandates and allowing all businesses to re-open to 100 percent of their occupancy. Still, Texas has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with 15.8 percent of residents having received at least one shot.

“We have come a long way in a very short period of time,” said Imelda Garcia, a top official with the Department of State Health Services, as she testified before a committee in the Texas Senate on Wednesday morning.

Garcia reminded lawmakers that Texas didn’t get its first vaccine shipments until Dec. 14. She lauded vaccine providers around the state for stepping up to administer so many shots in such a small window.

“They have been busting their butts in order to get shots in arms as fast as they physically and possibly can,” Garcia said.

Harris County alone topped 1 million doses on Tuesday.

Because the majority of vaccines in Texas require two doses, the number of people fully vaccinated is just over 2 million statewide.

Yes, there has been a lot of great work done, and everyone involved should be praised and thanked for it. There have been plenty of obstacles to overcome, that’s for sure. Because I’m a numbers nerd, I feel like I have to say something about the totals and percentages cited in this story, because as is they’re making me twitch. Seven million people would represent about 23% of the total state population. Given that the vaccines are only being given to those 16 and up, that makes the denominator in that fraction smaller, and thus would make the percentage higher. The only way this works if that total of “seven million doses administered” counts all shots given, both first and second. That would put the number of people that have had at least one shot at almost five million, which is closer to that 15.8% (it’s now higher on that NYT page, as it updates in real time). I’m just a little annoyed that I had to think it through like this to make sense of it all.

Not so good news.

The Texas Medical Center, in partnership with the city, is now administering 232,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per week, and experts expect that number to ramp up as more vaccines are shipped to the state.

While vaccination rates are increasing and COVID-19 cases are trending downward again, medical officials said the public shouldn’t get too comfortable. Texas Medical Center leaders said there is currently no strong correlation between vaccination and hospitalization rates.

Experts are anxious that there could be another surge as students go on spring break this month. There’s more virus in Houston, and it’s spreading faster as more infectious variants circulate in the area.

“We’re not seeing the rapid decline we want to see,” Bill McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center, said at a Wednesday webinar on the state of COVID-19 in Houston.

Part of the reason for this is that it takes time for the vaccine to take full effect – this is true of both the one-shot J&J vaccine and the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – and it is eminently possible to continue to carry the disease after getting your shots. You will be much less likely to get sick, but you can pass it on to others, who may not be so lucky. This is why everyone who cares about keeping people alive and healthy are continuing to urge everyone to wear masks and maintain social distancing. We are approaching a point where those things will not be vital, but we are not there yet.

Good news for some, just news for others.

Texans ages 50 and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting March 15, state health officials announced Wednesday.

“We’ve seen a remarkable decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths since people 65 and older started becoming fully vaccinated in January,” said Imelda Garcia, the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. “Expanding to ages 50 to 64 will continue the state’s priorities of protecting those at the greatest risk of severe outcomes and preserving the state’s health care system.”

Currently, the state is vaccinating members of priority groups 1A and 1B, which include health care workers, Texans 65 and older, and anyone over age 15 who has a pre-existing condition. Last week, state officials also made educators and child care employees eligible for a dose.

Those 50 and older will be included in priority group 1C. More than 93 percent of Texans who have died from the virus have been at least 50 years old, health officials said in a press release.

One can certainly argue that some other folks should have been next in line, but this is where we are. On the plus side, thanks to President Biden, everyone will be eligible for the shot in a few weeks. Until then, get yourself signed up at your first opportunity. And keep that mask on until someone other than Greg Abbott tells you to take it off. The Trib has more.

More COVID restrictions are about to happen in Harris County

Blame Greg Abbott and the virus, in whatever order you prefer.

Houston and its surrounding communities on Tuesday became the latest region to require new emergency restrictions after seven straight days of ballooning coronavirus hospitalizations.

The rollback, mandated under Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency protocols, includes restaurants dropping to 50 percent occupancy from 75 percent, and bars that have not reclassified as restaurants closing immediately. The restrictions remain in place until the region drops below 15 percent COVID-19 hospitalizations for seven straight days.

As of Monday, the latest day of available data, the Houston region was at 19.9 percent, up from just over 13 percent a week earlier. Infections and hospitalizations have been rising steadily in recent weeks, following spikes in other parts of the state and amid holiday gatherings.

All but four of the state’s 22 hospital regions were over 15 percent as of Monday.

Texas Medical Center Hospitals in Houston announced earlier Tuesday that they were putting a hold on certain elective surgeries to save resources for coronavirus patients. Under the governor’s protocols, hospitals are required to postpone elective surgeries that would deplete COVID-19 resources.

“The best thing we can do is take this threshold as a wakeup call,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “This is the time to take this for the red alert that it is. We are only going to get through this if we are able to quickly stem the tide of hospitalizations.”

More here.

The rollback comes as Texas Medical Center hospitals already had begun deferring certain elective procedures or readying such a managed reduction strategy, the same one they deployed during the summer when patient censuses spiked. The reduction is not the wholesale delay of elective procedures all Texas hospitals invoked in the spring.

Hospital leaders said Tuesday their systems will continue some elective procedures but suspend those non-urgent cases whose demands on staff and space detract from resources better used to treat COVID-19 patients. Procedures such as mammography and colonoscopy will continue because they don’t tax needed hospital resources, for instance, but some procedures like heart catheterizations might be better delayed.

[…]

The surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations has been relentless. The number of admitted COVID-19 patients in the Houston region has increased for 13 straight weeks, and the 25-county area anchored by Harris County had more than 3,100 hospitalizations on Monday, the highest since July, the peak of the first wave in Texas.

Houston Methodist was just short of 700 COVID-19 patients on Monday. Methodist CEO Dr. Marc Boom emailed employees that if this trend holds the system will surpass its peak July numbers in a matter of days.

“This may well be among the most challenging few weeks we’ve experienced during this pandemic,” Boom wrote in the email to employees Monday. “Together, we will get through this, but it will be difficult.”

Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann, said his system exceeded 800 patients and should eclipse July numbers by the third week in January. The system’s number of patients has increased three-fold over the last month, he said.

[…]

The COVID-19 positive test rate statewide is now at 20.53 percent. Methodist’s is nearly 32 percent.

Porsa said said Harris Health is about to enter Phase 3 of its surge plans, which involves closing some of its clinics in order to deploy its nurses and other staff at Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson hospitals, both of which are near capacity. He said the leadership is currently determining which clinics to start with.

Hospital officials said they are encouraged that ICUs aren’t being overloaded with COVID-19. They said their staffs have gotten much better, thanks to better treatment options and nine months of experience with the disease, at getting patients discharged faster now compared to early summer.

But with the Houston area now averaging more than 3,300 new COVID-19 cases a day — compared to roughly 2,330 such cases at the pandemic’s height in July — it appears the peak won’t come before late January or February, hospital officials said. They also worry a more contagious strain — not yet identified in Houston but maybe already here — poses an even greater threat ahead.

“January and February are shaping up to be our darkest days, given these record numbers,” said William McKeon, CEO of the TMC. “Hospitals lag behind in feeling the effects of increases in cases so expect the numbers to keep going in the wrong direction before things get better.”

We’re already passing the levels we had seen at the worst of it in July, and we’re probably a few weeks out from hitting the peak this time around. Remember all this next year, when it’s time to vote for our state government.

A new high in hospitalizations

This is fine.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported Monday a pandemic high 11,351 hospitalizations from COVID-19.

This surpasses the previous all-time high of 10,893, which occurred on July 22.

The record comes in the midst of a holiday season public health experts worry could exacerbate the already rapidly spreading virus and following an increase in cases weeks after Thanksgiving.

This hospital data does not account for people who are hospitalized but have not gotten a positive test, and DSHS says some hospitals may be missing from the daily counts. As of Monday, the state is also reporting 49 deaths from COVID-19, a lagging indicator of the extent of transmission rates, and more than 12,800 new confirmed COVID-19 cases. Reported cases may have appeared lower the last few days because some local health departments did not report data to the state over the holiday week.

Earlier this month, Texas’ ICU capacity was already the lowest since the start of the pandemic, leaving health care experts worried hospitals could be pushed to the brink as coronavirus cases continue to climb. Across the state, COVID-19 patients occupy 17.8% of the state’s hospital beds, and only 745 staffed ICU beds are still available.

At a press conference Monday, Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said that this week alone, “ICU utilization” is up 62% in Travis County and that hospital beds could become scarce in a matter of weeks.

“Our projections forward into the new year continue to look worse and worse day after day,” Escott said. “I think right now it appears we’re going to enter 2021 in a state of emergency.”

This is fine:

This is fine:

Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he anticipated a major fall surge amid a wave of new infections in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Those areas are among the hardest hit in the country, he said.

“Up in Midland and places like that, it’s still a really tough area,” he said, adding, “In terms of surges, I’m maybe a little less worried about the Texas Medical Center. But in other parts of the state, it’s going to be a real concern.”

There are 745 ICU beds available across the state, according to data from the Department of State Health Services, the lowest number available since the pandemic’s surge during the summer. Among 63,679 staffed hospital beds, 13,416 are available statewide.

Further, 15 of the state’s Trauma Service Areas are reporting that more than 15 percent of their total hospital capacity is taken up by COVID-19 patients, crossing the threshold for what the state considers “high hospitalizations.”

At the Texas Medical Center, the weekly average of new COVID patients has more than doubled since early November, from 104 to 248. Medical center data from Sunday shows 1,594 total COVID patients and another 404 in the ICU. There are 1,298 total occupied ICU beds with hundreds more available, the data shows.

“The medical center has gotten a lot of heft, in terms of being able to accommodate COVID patients,” Hotez said.

[…]

The sporadic use of masks has contributed to the surge, said Hotez, adding that he doesn’t anticipate the number of statewide hospitalizations decreasing anytime soon. He noted that the number of beds is less of a concern than the number of trained staff available.

Hotez said he did not know how much Christmas gatherings would impact the number of infections. But he warned people that New Year’s celebrations would be the “best party the COVID virus can hope to have.”

“I would just say any kind of New Year’s celebration is fraught with risk ,” he said. “Because when you have this high level of transmission going on in the state, anytime you bring four or five people together, there’s a good likelihood they’re going to have COVID.”

I’m really scared for what the next few weeks may bring. Wear your mask, practice social distancing, avoid indoor gatherings, and try to survive until you can get vaccinated.

It’s still not too late to prevent a big spike in COVID infections

But it will be soon.

A rise in COVID-19 cases has health care officials and government leaders pleading with Houstonians: Act now to prevent, or at least minimize, a third wave of infections across Greater Houston.

“This feels a lot like late May, early June when we saw the early warning signs that things were beginning to increase,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, told the Chronicle on Tuesday, “and then things slipped out of our control.”

According to a Chronicle analysis, the seven-day rolling average for newly reported cases was 1,044.2 as of Monday in an eight-county Houston area. That’s the highest since Oct. 8. In the summer, the rolling average peaked July 17 at 2,432.7.

The rate at which the virus is spreading, called the reproduction rate, reached 1.18 across a nine-county Houston area as of Monday, according to the Texas Medical Center. A number below 1, which the Houston area did report for a few weeks, means the virus is burning out. A number above 1 means that virus spread is increasing. During the COVID-19 spike this summer, Houston’s reproduction rate was in the 1.5-1.7 range when things were getting out of control, Boom said.

Finally, the seven-day average for COVID test positivity rate was 4.2 percent for TMC hospital systems as of Monday. It had been 3.4 percent last month.

For the city, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday reported the positivity rate was 6.5 percent as of Oct. 21. Statewide, the positivity rate was 9.42 percent as of Monday.

[…]

Houston-area case increases are not as severe as in other parts of the country and state. In the U.S., 489,769 new cases have been reported since Oct. 20. There are surges in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. In El Paso, state health officials converted a convention center into a makeshift hospital to ease the crush of patients.

Still, Shreela Sharma, an epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health, knows how quickly COVID cases can climb. And she said the number of new cases in the Houston region is roughly 40 percent higher than when the summertime peak began. That means if a third wave does occur, it would start with a higher baseline.

The time is now to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash your hands.

“Our window is right now,” she said. “We could rapidly lose that window over the next few weeks.”

Yes, that is the one piece of good news. We know how to get a handle on this, and we’ve been doing it all along. Wear your mask – yes, wear it while voting, too – maintain social distancing, and avoid indoor gatherings. This week’s colder weather excepted, we’re in much better shape to handle the winter than the northern climes, because for most of our winter it’s still perfectly amenable outside for activities and dining and whatnot. Again, just don’t be an idiot. Do the things that you know you need to do. The alternatives are so, so much worse.

One more thing:

Researchers with Houston’s Health Department will monitor the wastewater flushed from 60 schools and 15 senior living homes in the city for COVID-19 in hopes of catching outbreaks before they arise in clinical testing.

City council on Wednesday unanimously approved $11.5 million in federal COVID-19 spending. Included in that was $221,000 to buy the sampling equipment needed to expand the city’s existing wastewater testing program into K-12 schools in areas with high positivity rates.

People shed the novel coronavirus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The samplers will be installed in manholes outside the schools, and researchers will analyze them, looking for the virus.

“It’s very granular,” said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the health department’s chief environmental science officer. “We don’t expect to see any positives at all, we expect to see nothing… If we see something in a school and we see it two days in a row, then we know someone in that school is shedding the virus.”

The department would then alert the school and deploy the more traditional, clinical testing, according to Hopkins.

Don’t laugh, this is an effective method of contact tracing. It’s already been used successfully by the city. Now, if there are people who can test wastewater to see if your poop has the COVID virus in it, you can damn sure keep wearing your mask.

Don’t look now, but COVID numbers are ticking up again

In the state as a whole.

Texas reported more than 4,100 people hospitalized with the coronavirus on Wednesday, its largest total in six weeks and one that comes amid rising infections in El Paso and North Texas.

Hospitalizations hit a low in late September after a summer surge, but have risen incrementally for the past 10 days, reaching 4,133 on Wednesday. Other key metrics were also up slightly from a week earlier, including the reported rolling average of new daily infections and the number of people testing positive for the virus.

Public health officials said the increase is likely due to a combination of factors, including pandemic fatigue and expanded reopenings, especially bars. Bars were only allowed to begin reopening in select counties on Wednesday, but many have already been opened for weeks after reclassifying as restaurants — a loophole that the state created in hopes it would lead to better social distancing.

[…]

The biggest increases appear to be in West Texas and areas in and around Dallas.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins raised the county’s pandemic risk level back to red on Wednesday, and earlier this week Gov. Greg Abbott sent medical staff and supplies to El Paso to help respond to a wave of new COVID-19 cases.

“With a new and quickly escalating wave of COVID-19 cases hitting North Texas, it is more important than ever that we make good decisions,” Jenkins tweeted.

And here in the Houston area.

Houston-area COVID-19 numbers, trending in a positive direction for the last couple months, have taken a turn for the worse.

Four key coronavirus metrics all show an increase in the past week, according to the Texas Medical Center, which tracks the data for the complex’s seven major hospital systems. Those numbers had started trickling up the previous week in daily reports produced by the center.

The latest numbers from Wednesday’s report:

• The number of COVID-19 cases reported Tuesday, 671, represents a 62 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 412 cases per day.

• The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to TMC hospitals Tuesday, 102, represents an 18 percent increase over last week’s daily average of 86 patients per day.

• The TMC COVID-19 test positivity rate of 3.8 percent represents an 8 percent over last week’s daily average.

• The so-called R(t), or reproduction rate, the rate at which the virus is spreading, hit 1.16 Tuesday, an 18 percent increase in the past week. On Sept. 29, the number was 0.64, which meant the virus’ spread was then decreasing significantly.

The latest metric is probably the most concerning to health officials. A number below 1.0 means the virus is burning out in the area; a number above 1.0 means the spread is accelerating. After 32 consecutive days in which the metric showed the virus was burning out in the Houston area, it now shows the virus is again picking up steam.

And as was the case in the month of June, it’s already too late to stop this. The best we can do now is go back to what we had been doing before to bend the curve back in the downward direction. First and foremost, wear your goddamn masks, and practice social distancing. Don’t be this guy.

As for bars, I want them to survive, and I’ve been up front about the arbitrariness of the state’s definition of what a “bar” is versus what a “restaurant” is. I support the various ways that have been suggested to help bars survive by being more like restaurants, and by enabling to-go and outdoor service. And we really need a federal rescue bill for bars and restaurants and theaters and music halls and other public-gathering businesses that have been so devastated by this pandemic. But we have to be real and recognize that there are no circumstances under which crowding a bunch of people into indoor spaces is a good idea. How many times are we going to have to learn this lesson? The Trib has more.

How it’s going at the hospitals

In a word, it’s bad.

At Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital on Sunday, the medical staff ran out of both space for new coronavirus patients and a key drug needed to treat them. With no open beds at the public hospital, a dozen COVID-19 patients who were in need of intensive care were stuck in the emergency room, awaiting transfers to other Houston area hospitals, according to a note sent to the staff and shared with reporters.

A day later, the top physician executive at the Houston Methodist hospital system wrote to staff members warning that its coronavirus caseload was surging: “It has become necessary to consider delaying more surgical services to create further capacity for COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Robert Phillips said in the note, an abrupt turn from three days earlier, when the hospital system sent a note to thousands of patients, inviting them to keep their surgical appointments.

And at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, staff members were alerted recently that the hospital would soon begin taking in cancer patients with COVID-19 from the city’s overburdened public hospital system, a highly unusual move for the specialty hospital.

These internal messages highlight the growing strain that the coronavirus crisis is putting on hospital systems in the Houston region, where the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has nearly quadrupled since Memorial Day. As of Tuesday, more than 3,000 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the region, including nearly 800 in intensive care.

“To tell you the truth, what worries me is not this week, where we’re still kind of handling it,” said Roberta Schwartz, Houston Methodist’s chief innovation officer, who’s been helping lead the system’s efforts to expand beds for COVID-19 patents. “I’m really worried about next week.”

What’s happening in Houston draws eerie parallels to New York City in late March, when every day brought steep increases in the number of patients seeking care at overburdened hospitals — though, so far, with far fewer deaths. But as coronavirus cases surge in Texas, state officials here have not reimplemented the same lockdown measures that experts say helped bring New York’s outbreak under control, raising concern among public health officials that Houston won’t be able to flatten the curve.

“The time to act and time to be alarmed is not when you’ve hit capacity, but it’s much earlier when you start to see hospitalizations increase at a very fast rate,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who leads the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. “It is definitely time to take some kind of action. It is time to be alarmed.”

[…]

Although hospital executives in Houston stress that they have the ability to add additional intensive care beds in the region to meet the growing demand — for a few more weeks, at least — the strain on hospitals is already being felt in other ways.

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said his paramedics sometimes have to wait for more than an hour while emergency room workers scramble to find beds and staffers to care for patients brought in by ambulance — a bottleneck that’s tying up emergency medical service resources and slowing emergency response times across the region.

Part of the problem, Peña said, is that when his crews arrive at a hospital with a patient suspected of having COVID-19, the hospital may have a physical bed open for them, but not enough nurses or doctors to staff it. That’s a problem that’s likely to deepen as a growing number of medical workers have been testing positive for the virus, according to internal hospital reports. Just as New York hospitals did four months ago, some Houston hospitals have posted on traveling nurse websites seeking nurses for “crisis response jobs.”

“If they don’t have the nursing staff, then you can’t place the patient,” Peña said. “Then our crews have to sit with the patient in the ER until something comes open. It has a huge domino effect.”

There’s more, so read the rest. If you’re thinking that the death rate is low and that that’s a small blessing, that is true, but it’s also a bit illusory. For one thing, the sheer number of deaths will increase as the infection rate rises, not all deaths for which COVID-19 is a factor are recorded as COVID-19 deaths, and it is already the case that people are avoiding going to the hospital now for other reasons because of COVID-19, and that some of them will also die as a result. The official death count numbers have always been underestimated, and there’s no good way to spin it. Even if we were to go into total lockdown right now, we won’t begin to see the positive effects of that for another two weeks. We really need masking and better social distancing to have an effect or it’s going to get much worse. Oh, and the Texas Medical Center is above 100% ICU capacity. So we’ve got that going for us.

And as you ponder all that, ponder also this.

Despite Texas’ surge of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Tuesday evening that he doesn’t need the advice of the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci.

“Fauci said today he’s concerned about states like Texas that ‘skipped over’ certain things. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Patrick told Fox News host Laura Ingraham in an interview. “We haven’t skipped over anything. The only thing I’m skipping over is listening to him.”

Patrick also said Fauci has “been wrong every time on every issue,” but did not elaborate on specifics.

Dan Patrick does not care if you live or die. You and everyone you know mean nothing to him.

Have we gone from “concerned” to “alarmed” yet?

We’re getting there.

With cases of the coronavirus surging to record levels in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recommended Tuesday that Texans stay home as much as possible and for the first time moved to allow the tightening of two kinds of restrictions that had been eased under his reopening plan.

“We want to make sure that everyone reinforces the best safe practices of wearing a mask, hand sanitization, maintaining safe distance, but importantly, because the spread is so rampant right now, there’s never a reason for you to have to leave your home,” Abbott said during an early-afternoon interview with KBTX-TV in Bryan. “Unless you do need to go out, the safest place for you is at your home.”

Within hours, Abbott made two announcements to alter the reopening process. He scaled back a previous statewide order and gave local officials the ability to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people, a threshold he originally set at 500 people. And Abbott said the state would enact mandatory health standards for child care centers after prior rules became voluntary earlier this month.

The moves came a day after Abbott said at a news conference that the coronavirus was spreading at an “unacceptable rate” but did not offer any new policies to stem the virus’ spread. Instead, he reiterated long-established guidelines such as social distancing and pointed out that the state was increasingly cracking down on businesses that allow large crowds. At the news conference, Abbott also encouraged Texans to stay home, albeit in less explicit terms than he did in the KBTX interview.

The Monday news conference marked a newly urgent tone by Abbott, which he continued into Tuesday. During TV interviews in the noon hour, he made the somewhat unusual move of getting ahead of the state’s daily announcement of new coronavirus cases, bracing audiences for a new record high exceeding 5,000 — a big increase over the last peak of 4,430 on Saturday.

Before sharing the new record figure with KBTX, Abbott said he was trying to “make sure people around the state really comprehend the magnitude of the challenge we’re dealing with.”

By the end of the afternoon, the state Department of State Health Services had reported the precise number: 5,489 new cases.

At the same time, two metrics that Abbott has prioritized — hospitalization levels and positivity rate — continued to trend in the wrong direction. Hospitalizations reached 4,092, marking the 12th straight day of a new peak. The positivity rate — or the ratio of cases to tests, presented by the state as a seven-day average — reached 9.76%, back to the level it was at in mid-April.

It’s bad, y’all.

The Texas Medical Center’s intensive care capacity could be exceeded as soon as Thursday because of the surge in COVID-19 patients, the hospital system projects.

A TMC model also predicts ICU surge capacity — extra, temporary beds and equipment used in emergencies — could be exceeded as soon as July 6 if the steep rate of new COVID hospitalizations continues, the most aggressive modeling to date.

Eleven leaders of the system’s member hospitals and medical schools said in a joint statement that COVID-related admissions were increasing at an “alarming rate,” stretching the capacity of ICU units. Texas Children’s Hospital this week began admitting adult patients to handle the surge.

“If this trend continues, our hospital system capacity will become overwhelmed, leading us to make difficult choices of delaying much-needed non-COVID care to accommodate a greater number of COVID patients,” the group wrote.

The leaders urged residents to stay home when possible, practice social distancing and wear masks.

Stay home.

Houston employers ought to send workers back home from the office if possible due to spiking coronavirus cases in the region, the region’s leading business group said Wednesday.

Bob Harvey, the president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, said in a statement that Houston COVID-19 cases are reaching a “critical point” and that employers need to do their part in helping to curb what he called an “alarming trajectory.”

“We encourage employers to strongly consider returning to a work-from-home model,” Harvey said. “To keep our Houston economy moving forward, we must all do our part.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott asked Texans to voluntarily stay home if possible.

We’re basically back where we were in March and April, with county governments still trying to figure out what to do without clear direction from the state and a complete abdication of responsibility from the White House. The Texas Restaurant Association is calling for a statewide face mask mandate, a thing that is very much necessary now but could have done so much more good a month ago when we were in this mad stupid rush to reopen everything. Imagine if we could have been able to reopen without thousands of people getting sick every day? Too bad, that’s not how it went. What we’re doing now – and what we’re still not doing because Greg Abbott still isn’t doing it – is definitely too late. If we’re very lucky, maybe it won’t be too little. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Oh, the irony.

Visitors from Texas will soon have to quarantine for 14 days if they travel to New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, according to the three states’ governors, who also took aim at Texas’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday.

The move comes as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations hit record highs in Texas, surpassing 5,000 new cases in a single day on Tuesday and making the state one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, and Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut, all Democrats, held a joint press conference Wednesday to announce the policy, which will affect nine states whose infection rates have met thresholds indicating “significant community spread,” including Texas, Arizona, and Florida, according to reports.

“We need to do things right inside the four walls in our respective states,” Murphy told reporters.

The restriction on Texas travelers marks a notable shift in which states are being flagged nationwide for the most alarming increases of coronavirus cases. Earlier in the pandemic, Texas touted comparatively low hospitalization rates and was pointing the finger at other states where the virus was raging.

In late March, Texas imposed a 14-day quarantine on travelers from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, and California – some of the early coronavirus hotspots. The state also mandated quarantines for those driving or flying to Texas from neighboring Louisiana as well as flying from Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago. Those orders have since been lifted.

Abbott did not respond to a request for a comment for this story, but that’s all right. We know what he’d have said: He’s “concerned, but not alarmed”. You’re welcome.

Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

Are we near the peak yet?

We sure hope so, but it’s still a little soon to tell.

After weeks of grim, ever-worsening statistics, Houston medical and public health leaders say the area has begun to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the rate at which the disease is spreading through the community.

The start of such flattening, seen in testing and hospitalization data, represents the turning of a significant corner for an area that has been shut down for more than a month to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The virus has infected more than 2 million people globally and killed more than 33,000 in the U.S.

“We haven’t peaked yet, but we’re seeing very encouraging signs that the curve is flattening,” said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist. “The number of people testing positive has slowed and hospitalizations have also leveled off.”

Dr. Paul Klotman, president of Baylor College of Medicine, added that the trend is “definitely positive — we’re getting closer to the peak.” But he noted that “the peak is not a good place to be. The only safe place is when we’re going toward the valley.”

Texas Medical Center leaders told Mayor Sylvester Turner this week that the rate of the virus’s spread, exponential early, has definitely slowed. But they were quick to warn again complacency and stressed that now, more than ever, people need to keep aggressively practicing social distancing.

[…]

Despite the measures, the Houston area’s COVID-19 numbers continued to spike — expected, experts said, because of the virus’s incubation time of two to 14 days, the sometimes slow disease progression, the lack of access to testing and the often lengthy delays in lab results.

But in recent days, public health officials said, the signs such measures are working have become evident.

According to new research by two Harvard scientists and a Baylor doctor, for instance, the rate at which the virus is spreading dropped from nearly 30 percent a week and a half ago to almost 5 percent as of Wednesday. That means the time it takes to double the size of the outbreak has gone from every three days to 20 days now.

“It’s too early to really tell — the next week or two will be crucial — but Houston’s social distancing appears to be doing enormous good,” said Dr. Mark Siedner, a Harvard professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The trend over the last week is really positive.”

The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak.

“The peak is not a good place to be”, and “The next two weeks are when a number of models project Houston’s cases will peak” are the quotes you should keep in mind when you hear people talk about “reopening the economy” and things like that. Two weeks from now is when the current stay-at-home order for Harris County expires. That order will certainly be extended, and if we’re lucky then by then we will be seeing the numbers decline. But we’re not there quite yet. Keep doing what you’re doing, we will get there.

Does Houston have enough hospital capacity?

We sure hope so.

Houston-area hospitals would not have enough resources to respond to a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus unless they take strong action to significantly increase capacity, according to new calculations released by Harvard University.

Even in the most conservative of three outbreak scenarios that it created, the Harvard Global Health Initiative found that Houston-area hospitals would lack the necessary beds to care for all patients in need of hospitalization. In a worst case scenario, it would need four times the number currently available in the region.

In the middle scenario — if 40 percent of adults contract the virus over a 12-month period and a fifth of them require hospitalization — more than 430,000 people would be hospitalized in that time. That would require 14,300 beds on an average day, nearly three times the estimated number currently available in Houston.

“We simply do not have enough hospital capacity to assume all of those people,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said last week, assuming 30 percent of county residents were to become sick at the same time. “We can’t afford to have a sudden spike in cases.”

The Harvard initiative data, taken from what’s known as a modeling exercise, don’t constitute predictions so much as they provide scenarios that hospital and policymakers can take into account in planning for a possible surge of the epidemic of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. The data was produced at local hospital market-specific levels because “how many beds are available in Boston is irrelevant to a person in Utah,” said Ashish K. Jha, director of the institute.

The study, released Tuesday, modeled nine scenarios. The scenarios use infection rates of 20 percent, 40 percent and 60 percent and outbreak spans of six, 12 and 18 months.

A 20 percent infection rate over 18 months would mean fewer people caught COVID-19 than fell ill to the flu last year, according to an analysis by ProPublica. Previous studies have suggested the virus is more transmissible than the flu.

The study assumes that hospitals will not free up occupied beds by delaying elective procedures or sending people home early. It also assumes hospitals will not add beds.

[…]

The Harvard calculations were criticized by some policy experts and doctors, who said not enough is known about the spread of COVID-19 to make meaningful assumptions.

“It’s incredibly hard to (make) projections about what’s going to happen because this is a unique first-time event and we have so little data,” said Vivian Ho, a Rice University health economist. “Because we don’t have that much testing, we do not know how quickly it’s spreading, what percent of cases are serious, if we can target hot-spot areas and essentially shut them down.”

Ho added, “I hope there’s something wrong with their assumptions because if not, we’re doomed.”

I’m not an expert, but I do know that Houston hospitals are in fact now suspending elective procedures, so that should help. I have hope that all this social distancing we are doing will help, too. Beyond that…man, I don’t know. I can’t wrap my mind around the possible bad outcomes we may face. I have hope because the other options are just too grim.

Your Super Bowl AirBnB dream probably did not come true

Alas.

Vacation rental websites like Airbnb and Home Away still have pages of listings available for this weekend. Many are asking well over $1,000 per night for, in some cases, run-of-the-mill two-bedroom apartments.

Data from Airbnb Thursday show the typical price of booked listings in Houston for the Super Bowl is $150 per night. Listings within a 5-mile radius of NRG Stadium get a slight premium: $200 per night.

The most popular Houston neighborhoods for guest arrivals included Montrose, the Medical Center area and the Greater Heights.

See here and here for the background. That story was from Thursday, so I suppose it was still possible for some desperate last-minute renters to come in and sweep up those unclaimed listings at the listed rates. I kind of doubt it, though. Turns out, unless you have a particular kind of high-end property to rent out – and a particular kind of high-end renter looking for that kind of property – AirBnB is going to be the cheap alternative to a hotel, not the expensive alternative. Maybe next time, y’all.

Next B-Cycle expansion approved

Good.

Expansion of Houston’s bike sharing system is pretty much in high gear after City Council on Wednesday signed off on a $4.1 million plan to roughly triple the number of bikes and kiosks.

With the agreement in place, local B-Cycle operators can proceed with their plan to purchase 568 bikes and install 71 new kiosks where people can check out a bike.

By 2018, Houston is slated to have roughly 100 stations and 800 bicycles spread across the central business district, Midtown, Texas Medical Center, Montrose, Rice Village and around the University of Houston and Texas Southern University campuses.

Seventeen of the stations in the medical center and Museum District should be operational by March, said Carter Stern, executive director of Houston’s bike sharing system.

Stern said new stations will pop up in Midtown and the Montrose area in the summer, with stations on the college campuses expected to open in the fall.

“The rest of the allocated stations will occur piecemeal as we finalize locations and secure the matching funding,” Stern said last month.

This expansion was announced in August, with funding coming from a TxDOT grant and the nonprofit Houston Bike Share. Usage continues to grow as well, and in the parts of town where B-Cycle exists and will exist getting around on a bike often makes more sense than driving and parking. I look forward to further growth, and eventual further expansion.

Next B-Cycle expansion announced

From the inbox:

Houston’s bike share system, Houston B-cycle, will more than triple in size over the next two years, adding 71 stations with 568 bikes. The expansion will be paid for with federal grant dollars.

“The expansion of the B-cycle system will bring bike sharing into new neighborhoods and to new users,” said Mayor Turner. “As I’ve said, we need a paradigm shift in transportation away from single-occupancy motor vehicles. Making cycling more accessible by building a strong bike sharing system is a critical component of that change.”

The City’s Planning and Development Department sponsored an application for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The grant will reimburse the City for $3.5 million of the cost of expanding the system. Houston Bike Share, a local nonprofit that administers Houston B-cycle, will provide the remaining $880,000.

Currently, the system has 31 stations with 225 bikes. The expansion will bring the total to 102 stations and 793 bikes. The grant will also pay for two new transportation vehicles.

Houston B-cycle is a membership-driven bike share system. Memberships are available by day, week or year. All members have unlimited access to the bikes for up to 60 minutes per trip. There is a charge of $2 for every additional half hour.

The expansion brings bike sharing into the Texas Medical Center with 14 stations and 107 bikes. The new stations will also serve Houston’s students, with 21 new stations and 248 bikes at the University of Houston Main Campus, Texas Southern University, UH-Downtown and Rice University.

Since January 1, cyclists have made 73,577 trips and traveled 508,044 miles. Houston Bike Share CEO Carter Stern estimates Houstonians are on track to exceed 100,000 trips by the end of 2016.

“We could not be more grateful for the Mayor and City Council’s unflagging support of the Houston B-Cycle program and our efforts to expand the program,” Stern said. “The expansion approved today will allow us to build on the immense success that B-Cycle has had in just 4 short years and bring this affordable, healthy, sustainable mobility option to more Houstonians than ever before.”

Sounds good to me. There isn’t an updated system map yet, but this does a lot to expand B-Cycle outside the borders of downtown/Midtown, in areas that are dense and proximate to light rail lines. You know how I feel about using the bike network to extend transit reach, and B-Cycle is a great fit for the rail stations because trains are often too crowded to bring a bike onto them. I can’t wait to see what the new map looks like. The Press has more.

Our bioscience future

Looking bright.

Biotechnology continues to grow in Texas, contributing to the state’s overall economy by adding jobs, making strides in research and innovation and last year attracting $1 billion in federal funding for research, a new report on business development from a biotechnology trade association found.

As the Texas economy struggles under the weight of an oil and gas industry downturn, the biosciences of medical research, treatment innovation and pharmaceutical development are seen as a bright light that stands to soon glow brighter.

The Texas bioscience industry reported 81,000 jobs in 2014 across 4,865 businesses, which translates to 1 percent growth since 2012, according to a report released [recently] by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the national trade association, which compiled the study along with Teconomy Partners to measure growth over previous years.

The findings were made public in San Francisco at the organization’s annual convention, which attracts 15,000 biotechnology and pharmaceutical professionals from around the world.

“Texas is one of the top-tier states in the size of its bioscience and biomedical research and innovation base,” the report concluded.

[…]

In that time the state has set its sights on becoming a true competitor with the more established institutions of research and pharmaceuticals on the East and West coasts. “The third coast” has become a popular rallying cry for those working to turn Texas in general and Houston in particular into a bio-science destination.

“Houston is becoming a major player not just from a research perspective but also in its clinical prowess,” said Melinda Richter, head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation JLABS.

JLABS opened a state-of-the-art, 34,000-square-foot business incubator not far from the Texas Medical Center’s main campus in March. The project offers laboratory space, equipment and guidance for biotechnology and life science startups in their march toward commercialization.

The luring of a JLABS facility was seen as a coup not only for the innovation expected to blossom there but also for bragging rights.

“That is huge,” Kowalski said of the opening of JLABS @ TMC. “They don’t just go anywhere.”

Nationally, biotechnology exploded in the early 2000s but slowed during the recession years. The report says the industry is now regaining lost ground.

In 2014, the industry employed 1.66 million people at more than 77,000 businesses across the country, the report found. Wages continue to be robust with a $95,000 average annual salary.

You can find a copy of the report here. This is all to the good, though we’re a ways away from being able to mitigate the effects of the energy industry slowdown. Imagine how much better things could be if our state leadership wasn’t so relentlessly hostile to science, too. Until that time, we’ll take the growth we can get.

Want to buy a big piece of land near the Medical Center?

Here’s your chance.

A single tract of land large enough to hold multiple office towers, high-rise residential buildings and a hotel doesn’t often come available inside Loop 610. One near the Texas Medical Center is even more uncommon.

After 45 years, Shell Oil Co. is selling 21 acres it owns at the southwest corner of Old Spanish Trail and Greenbriar, just south of the Medical Center’s main campus and directly west of the Woman’s Hospital of Texas.

The site houses a midrise office building, a parking garage and several warehouse structures.

As far as most people in real estate development would be concerned, they’re all teardowns. The value of the property is in the land, which is likely worth tens of millions of dollars.

The land is next to a giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center that is the proposed location of a medical research project to be called the TMC3 Innovation Campus.

The facility would bring together several Medical Center institutions and for-profit commercial components, such as hotels, shops and restaurants. It would have a large plaza shaped like a double helix, a nod to intertwining strands of DNA.

The Shell property is along the light-rail line and represents the largest contiguous redevelopment site in the Texas Medical Center area, according to Cushman & Wakefield, which has the listing.

I used to work out that way, and I can tell you, the stretch of Old Spanish Trail from 288 to where it meets up with Main Street, just to the west of this property, used to be mostly run down and vacant lots but is now packed with new Medical Center complexes and residences. The “giant parking lot owned by the Medical Center” referenced is in front of the Smithlands light rail station, which is two blocks from the main entrance to the for-sale tract. That lot is always full – there was a dedicated traffic light put in for it on OST between Greenbriar and Stadium – so I have no idea what will happen when it gets developed as well. I would also note that the large tract of land at Main and Greenbriar where The Stables once was is still a vacant lot after just shy of a decade has passed. In other words, just because a large tract of land is coming on the market, doesn’t mean something will get built on it any time soon. Anyway, if you have a few million bucks lying around, this might be a nice piece of land to pick up.

Turner wants to rethink transportation

I like the way he’s thinking.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in less than a month on the job, has hit the streets at full speed. First he tackled potholes. Last week he tackled a state transportation department that’s spent the past half-century developing a highway network that is increasingly getting farther from Houston’s core and, according to the mayor, is worsening a congestion crisis.

“If there’s one message that I’d like to convey, it’s that we’re seeing clear evidence that the transportation strategies that the Houston region has looked to in the past are increasingly inadequate to sustain regional growth,” Turner told the Texas Transportation Commission [recently]. “Our agencies must look beyond these strategies if we are to successfully accommodate the growth that Texas’ major urban areas are anticipating.”

[…]

Annise Parker was both cheered and criticized for her support of alternatives to driving such as expanded light rail and many new bicycling projects. The two local leaders Turner took with him to Austin for the meeting, the city’s planning and public works directors, were installed by Parker and praised by local transit advocates for their breaks from previous agency philosophy.

But Turner, at least in tone, said what none of his predecessors ever publicly uttered. To a dais filled with sate highway officials, he declared: You’re doing it wrong.

“The traditional strategy of adding capacity, especially single occupant vehicle capacity on the periphery of our urban areas, exacerbates urban congestion problems,” he said. “These types of projects are not creating the kind of vibrant, economically strong cities that we all desire.”

That story is from last week, right after Turner’s address. This is more recent, with some reactions to what Turner said:

Clark Martinson, general manager of the Energy Corridor District, called Turner’s speech “the boldest, best thing I have heard from a mayor in the 30 years I’ve been in Houston.” Martinson said more mass transit and nicer, safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists are as important for his west Houston area as they are for the blocks around City Hall.

To attract the sort of workers nowliving in Midtown and working downtown, Martinson said, the Energy Corridor must seek better streetscapes and more transportation options. Citywide, he said, that meanssidewalks near schools, better access to the Bayou Greenways trail network, and working with land owners to plant shade trees as city streets are rebuilt.

“I believe you cannot solve our congestion problems by building traditional highway projects,” Martinson said. “Once you build all the highways, you have now acknowledged that we’re always going to fill up those highways with cars. If we want to move more people, the way you move more people is you shift your resources from accommodating the single-occupant vehicle to encouraging high-capacity mass transit.”

It remains an open question, however, whether the paradigm shift Turner seeks is attainable.

Alan Clark, director of transportation planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group of local governments, noted that most state highway funds are restricted only for freeways. HGAC’s Transportation Policy Council, which divvies up regional transportation funding, also will play a key role, Martinson said, as council members work to change minds on a board that includes many representatives from far-flung counties with different needs.

“Making a major change in how the money is invested would be a big challenge,” Clark said.

[…]

One of the five state transportation commissioners Turner addressed last week was Jeff Moseley, a former director of the Greater Houston Partnership who said it struck his colleagues that Turner would travel to Austin in the midst of his mayoral transition to address them.

“That just speaks volumes about this mayor’s strong interest in working with all parties to make sure that the demands Houston is facing in its future have a comprehensive response,” Moseley said. “The mayor’s office over the last several administrations has looked at Metro as being the city’s response. What we see is that the mayor’s interested in Metro and all the other opportunities to address mobility.”

Moseley said he and TxDOT’s district engineer met with the leader of Turner’s transition team, David Mincberg, and the two heads of the mayor’s transportation transition committee recently, discussing everything from freight moving through the Port of Houston to pending work on U.S. 290, Texas 288 and Texas 249, and the concept of light rail expansion to Hobby and Bush airports.

It is good timing for Turner to seek a shift in thinking, Moseley said, because TxDOT will confront a legislative review during the 2017 session, having gotten the message in each of its last two so-called sunset examinations that its approach must broaden.

“The Legislature has been very, very clear that we are a Department of Transportation,” Moseley said. “When we were created about 100 years ago, we really were a highway department.”

Good to know. The main naysayer quoted was County Commissioner Steve Radack, who likes doing things the way they have always been and has no interest in the city. People like him are the obstacle that Turner will have to overcome to get anything done differently.

Let’s look a bit more closely at what Turner said. Here’s a trasnscript. The main points:

First, we need a paradigm shift in how we prioritize mobility projects. Instead of enhancing service to the 97% of trips that are made by single occupant vehicles, TxDOT should prioritize projects that reduce that percentage below 97%. TxDOT should support urban areas by prioritizing projects that increase today’s 3% of non-SOV trips to 5%, 10%, 15% of trips and beyond. Experience shows that focusing on serving the 97% will exacerbate and prolong the congestion problems that urban areas experience. We need greater focus on intercity rail, regional rail, High Occupancy Vehicle facilities, Park and Rides, Transit Centers, and robust local transit. As we grow and density, these modes are the future foundation of a successful urban mobility system. It’s all about providing transportation choices.

Second, I believe we need to focus the highway resources for our urban regions in the urban core, where congestion is most severe. Urban cores are the crossroads where freeways, railways, and ports such as the Port of Houston come together, and where the region’s mobility systems often bear the greatest stress. Spending limited resources on the region’s periphery, rather than the core, exacerbates the City’s already severe urban congestion and dilutes TxDOT’s ability to address the most vital challenges to economic development and mobility in the urban core.

Third, our agencies should to continue to collaborate to find comprehensive solutions for the traveling public. TxDOT and local partners like the City of Houston should work together to ensure TxDOT’s projects are coordinated with enhancements to the local street system – the “last mile”. Highway improvements impact our local thoroughfares, and that last mile must have adequate capacity to receive increased volumes resulting from highway improvements. Cities need to be at the table throughout project development to ensure highway improvements do not create new congestion problems along local thoroughfares with inadequate capacity.

The argument that widening the highways causes at least as much “last mile” congestion on the local streets as it relieves on the freeways is one I’ve made before, usually in the context of proposals to add lanes to 288 in town, with some kind of “dedicated lanes’ for the Medical Center. At some point, people still have to get into parking lots, one car at a time. To me, there are two basic principles that need to be understood and observed. One – and this is a point I’ve made in the context of providing bike parking, too – is that it’s in everyone’s best interests if we make it easier for the people who can walk or bike or carpool or take transit to do so. The more people who can find alternate means of transportation that do find it, the fewer single-occupancy vehicles that are competing for highway lanes and parking spaces. That’s a win all around.

What that requires is more robust transit, a more extensive bike infrastructure, better and safer sidewalks and crosswalks, not just for getting to and from work but also for going to lunch and running the basic kinds of errands that people who have cars do during the work day. Tiffany and I carpool into work downtown, and we face this all the time. Metro has been our solution for when one of us needs to go somewhere else after work, and recently for when we both needed to go somewhere at lunchtime. She wound up taking the 82 bus to her appointment, which with its 10-minute off-peak headway made it a viable option. This is what I’m talking about.

The other principle is simply that we are reaching, if we have not already reached, a point at which it no longer makes sense to prioritize minimizing travel times for single occupancy vehicles over other transportation solutions. Yes, the Katy Freeway needed to be expanded, and yes we were going to get a lot of extra traffic out that way whether we built more capacity or not. But that project was sold from the beginning as an answer to traffic congestion. That has not been the case, and any further “solution” of a similar nature will be a lot more expensive and convoluted and destructive to the environment, including and especially the built environment. Hell, just look at what’s being proposed for I-45 downtown to see what I mean. It has to make more sense at this point to find and implement ideas that encourage and allow people to drive by themselves less often. That’s my way of thinking, and I’m glad to know that not only is it also Mayor Turner’s way of thinking, it’s something he’s willing to say to those who need to hear it. CityLab, Streetsblog, and Houston Tomorrow have more.

B-Cycle expansion coming

Good.

Houston area officials are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into widening Interstate 45, and they could be paying much more for even larger upcoming projects along the corridor.

But a comparatively-paltry sum is about to boost bike sharing in Houston in a big way.

The same transportation improvement plan aiming $140 million at I-45 includes $4.7 million meant to expand the B-Cycle program in the city. The plan is set for discussion Friday by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council.

The money, including a 21 percent match from B-Cycle, will add stations in the Texas Medical Center and Rice Village in one phase, increase density in the downtown and Midtown area from the Med Center in another, before expanding east and southeast to EaDo and the University of Houston and Texas Southern University area.

“By the time this is finished, our goal is to go from 29 stations and 210 bikes to 100 stations with 800 bikes,” said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle.

[…]

Having 800 bikes at Houston kiosks would build on what supporters have said is strong use of the bikes by Houston residents and visitors. From January to July, more than 60,000 bike checkouts occurred. The theory, following on similar reaction in Denver, is more stations and bikes exponentially increase use, provided the stations are where people want to go.

See here, here, and here for some background. According to the Mayor’s press release, about $3.8 million is coming from H-GAC, and the rest is from B-Cycle, which as he story notes has generally covered most of its operating costs. Having more stations will make B-Cycle a lot more usable; I personally have had a couple of recent occasions where I needed to get somewhere on the edges of downtown from my office, but the nearest B-Cycle station was far enough away from my destination that it wasn’t worth it. Especially now with the rerouted buses and the new rail lines, expanding B-Cycle access will make transit that much more convenient as well. I look forward to seeing where the new kiosks go. The Highwayman has more.

Texans like having health insurance

Who knew?

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

A first-of-its-kind survey asking Texans if health insurance is necessary found an overwhelming majority believe having coverage is critical for them and their families, with 50 percent calling it “absolutely essential.”

The Texas Medical Center commissioned Nielsen to survey attitudes surrounding health insurance ranging from its importance, what you would give up to pay for insurance, and whether people with bad health habits should be required to pay more.

The Houston Chronicle obtained advance results from the online poll posed to 1,000 Texans over 18 between Jan. 27 and March 3. The complete results will be unveiled Monday at the Medical World Americas 2015 conference in Houston.

Most striking was that 83 percent of those surveyed – a rate that held steady across age, race, income, education and insurance status categories – said having health insurance was either “very important” or “absolutely essential.” Only 5 percent said it was “not important at all.”

“That includes the all-important 25-to-35 demographic. It flies in the face of those groups who have been saying that young people don’t need or want health insurance,” said Dr. Arthur “Tim” Garson, director of the Health Policy Institute at Texas Medical Center.

[…]

Currently, Texas leads the nation in the number of uninsured with roughly 22 percent, or about 5.7 million people. And while it is not unusual for people living on the edge to experience periods without insurance, in Texas more than half of uninsured adults have been uninsured for five years or more, including 31 percent of the uninsured who have never had coverage in their lifetime, according to a 2014 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of the state’s uninsured.

I can’t find a copy of the study anywhere – a description of it is here – so you’ll just have to take the story’s word for it. Not really sure what there is to say other than I don’t know why anyone would be surprised by this. And in case you’re wondering, people who bought plans via the Obamacare exchanges are pretty happy with them, too. So yeah, health insurance good. Film at 11.

On streetcars and BRT

Offcite considers some alternatives to light rail.

Two new light rail lines set to start service early next year will drastically expand Houston’s rail network, but our city will remain dreadfully underserved by the system. Many neighborhoods seeing a greater density of midrise and townhouse developments will not be reached by rail. The bus system is undergoing a much needed reimagining but it will be difficult to coax those moving into luxury apartments to ride the bus. Furthermore, the current political climate will not yield federal funding for new light rail anytime soon. Now is a good time to consider further expansion of transit through a combined streetcar and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that we can afford, and possibly even agree upon.

[…]

BRT is generally touted as the quickest and cheapest solutions for car-centric cities hoping to provide mass transit options. These projects dedicate separated road space specifically for buses, with the intention of removing them from the common stream of traffic and decreasing the delays for commuters. Stations that protect riders from the elements and with raised platforms allow riders to enter buses as they would a train. Coming in at 1/5 the cost of light rail, BRT projects can provide a very similar level of service, especially when given designated right-of-way.

The Uptown Management District is currently working on installing a contentious BRT system along the medians of Post Oak Boulevard. Such systems could be installed along the esplanades of former streetcar lines and permanent raised bus platforms installed along the routes at a fraction of the cost of a streetcar line. All of this can be installed with the understanding that a streetcar line would go in along the route once the city has reached a more sustainable density.

Reinstalling streetcars in Houston is not a novel idea. The Greater East End Management District has been working on a streetcar initiative since 2011, planning a route through the Second Ward that connects to the light rail line and nearby stadiums. The project is meant to spur development in the area but could provide decent service for a broad swath of Houstonians. The very fact that rail transit is desirable enough to attract developments is a sign that we should be considering more possible additions.

I’m OK with BRT for the Uptown line because that was always going to be locally funded, and it’s what we can afford. It’s been hard enough overcoming other obstacles to just get to the point where things can move forward. This project will do a lot to relieve the fierce congestion in the area and I believe it will help up the pressure to get the Universities line built since the need to connect the Uptown line to the rest of the system will be so obvious. I consider BRT to be a lesser version of light rail, but this is likely the best we were going to get any time soon, so let’s not quibble while there is forward momentum.

As for streetcars, they’re basically light rail without the dedicated right of way, and as such they can and will get stuck in traffic just like buses would. Yes, I know there are things that can be done to mitigate that, but ultimately streetcars don’t add capacity, and that’s an issue. Especially with bus reimagining going on, I’d be hesitant to think too much about streetcars, but there are two situations where they might make sense. One is in areas where there’s enough road capacity to handle sharing a lane with streetcar tracks, and the other is as a short-distance extension of light rail. The Greater East End Management District plan cited above might be an example of the former; as it is intended to connect to the Harrisburg line, it also works for the latter. Another example of the latter I’ve been thinking of is a streetcar extension to light rail in the Medical Center, as there are now so many more buildings that are a decent walking journey away from the existing rail stops. I’m not exactly sure what route this thing might take – maybe something along MacGregor into Holcomb, then somehow to Old Spanish Trail? There are many details to work out – but you get the idea. You might be able to do the same sort of thing with shuttle buses, but streetcar tracks could be laid outside existing streets, and can be in closer proximity to pedestrians since their paths are completely predictable. I’m just thinking out loud here. The basic goal here is to increase capacity and make it easier for more people to travel to dense, hard-to-park places without cars. The more we all think about this stuff, the better off we’ll be.

And we (finally) circle back to food trucks

We’ve done HERO, we’ve done vehicles for hire, what other high profile issues are there out there? Oh yeah, food trucks. I’d almost forgotten they were still an agenda item, but they’re back and they should be getting a vote soon.

Proposed changes to three major ordinances could provide food trucks with new freedom. While the commissary requirement isn’t changing, the other three regulations will be going away if the Houston City Council approves recommendations developed over the last two years by a task force that includes representatives from various city departments, food trucks and the brick and mortar restaurant community, as represented by its lobbying group, the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.

[…]

Laura Spanjian, the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability, explains that the goal of removing the prohibition that prevents trucks from operating downtown and in the Texas Medical Center “is to create a level playing field for food trucks.” In debates two years ago, some council members expressed concerns about the safety of having trucks, which can carry up to 60-pound tanks of propane, operating in the Central Business District, but Spanjian says the Houston Fire Department is “very confident there is not a safety concern in these two areas. They have a very strong inspection routine.”

Spanjian also notes that the city’s increased density makes separating downtown and the Medical Center from other, similarly populated areas like Greenway Plaza and The Galleria somewhat illogical.

Removing the 60-foot spacing requirement between trucks is another change to the fire code that reflects confidence in the Fire Department’s inspection routine and spot checks of truck operations. Both of these changes are being made as part of larger updates to the fire code, which happens every three years. Spanjian expects them to come to a vote before Council early next year.

The final proposed change is an adjustment to the health code that removes the prohibition against trucks operating within 100 feet of tables and chairs. As this requirement is routinely ignored when trucks park near bars in Montrose, along Washington Ave and the Heights, it brings the regulations in line with standard practices. If all goes according to plan, Council will vote on the issue in mid-September.

Spanjian also notes that the 100 foot rule should never have been in the health code. “There’s no health issue with a food truck being near tables and chairs. It doesn’t belong in the health care requirements at all,” she says.

While the 100 foot regulation may have been an attempt to prevent food trucks from competing directly with brick and mortar restaurants, Spanjian thinks the time has come for the two to be on a more equal footing.

“We’re letting the market decide, which is a very Houstonian thing to do,” she says. “It should be up to the private property owners what they want to do on their private property.”

The last mention I had of this was in November, right after Mayor Parker’s re-election, in which she promised that there would be a vote on a food truck ordinance by the end of this year. Before that, the news is all from 2012. If the Greater Houston Restaurant Association really is on board, or at least not opposed, that should clear the way. This Chron story from yesterday’s Quality of Life committee meeting sheds a bit of light and also suggests what in retrospect is an obvious parallel.

“Deregulating food trucks will create major challenges for small businesses,” said Reginald Martin, president of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, which represents more than 4,100 industry members.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Jerry Davis both emerged as critics of loosening the food truck regulations, largely because they were concerned about competition with established restaurants and enforcement of food truck rules.

“They’re awesome,” Stardig said of food trucks. “I’m not taking away from that. What I’m concerned about is the enforcement, and the stinkers that give the mobile community a bad name.”

[…]

Council member Ed Gonzalez said the city should not be in the business of “protecting someone’s monopoly.” He also played down concerns about some food trucks violating city code, something he said was no different from restaurants that break rules.

“I don’t think we should punish all 800 trucks or new entrants simply because there are the bad apples out there,” Gonzalez said.

I’m not the only one who hears an Uber/Lyft echo in all that, am I? Please tell me I’m not the only one. Anyway, if all goes well we should see a Council vote on this in September. I look forward to seeing it get resolved. Link via Swamplot, the Chron editorial board is still in favor, and the Houston Business Journal has more.

Commuter rail status

There’s still a push for commuter rail in Houston.

HoustonCommuterRailOptions

With freight trains on Houston area tracks teeming with cargo, supporters of commuter rail to the suburbs are focusing on three spots where they can potentially build their own lines for passengers.

The Gulf Coast Rail District – created in part to find a way to make commuter rail work in Houston – is studying three possible routes for large passenger trains.

What’s clear, at least for the near future, is that commuter trains will not share any track with local freight railroads, or buy any of their land.

“There is a lot of freight moving through the region because of all the new business, and the freight carriers are trying to meet the demand for that,” said Maureen Crocker, executive director of the rail district. “They are not willing to discuss the use of their rail for passenger rail operations.”

[…]

Without access to the freight lines, Crocker said, commuter rail must find its own way. Focusing on land owned by local governments or the state, and near current freight lines, officials identified three possible routes for study: along U.S. 290, U.S. 90A and the Westpark corridor.

The plan is to further study all three, looking at how much ridership they could expect while analyzing the type of property that would have to be purchased, engineering challenges and costly factors such as bridges.

Each of the routes includes some easily obtainable land and could connect suburban commuters to the city. The goal would be to develop commuter rail from the suburbs to Loop 610 – or farther into the central city under some scenarios – and connect it to local transit.

Both the Westpark corridor and U.S. 290 offer close access from western or northwestern suburbs to The Galleria and Uptown areas, where a single bus or light rail trip could carry travelers from a train station to their final destination. The U.S. 90A corridor, which Metro has studied before, offers access from the southwest to the Texas Medical Center.

Developing rail along any of the corridors would pose many challenges. In the case of the Westpark and U.S. 290 routes, both would abut local roads, meaning ramps and entrances would have to undergo serious changes. Other projects, such as light rail and toll roads, also are being considered for the space.

The terrain poses challenges as well. A U.S. 90A commuter rail system would need to cross the Brazos River and would pass by the southern tip of Sugar Land Regional Airport.

“There are challenges out in Fort Bend County,” Crocker said. “But the demand is so high we would like to take another look at it.”

To me, US90A is the clear first choice. I’ve been advocating for Metro to turn its attention back to what it calls the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC). As recently as two years ago, they were holding open houses to get community support and finish up a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which would put them and that project in the queue for federal funds. Unfortunately, as of September of 2012, the plans are on hold. I would hope it wouldn’t be too difficult to revive that process, in partnership with the GCRD. Note that while Metro’s original plan for the SWRC stopped at Missouri City, just across the Fort Bend County line, while the GCRD plan goes all the way to Rosenberg. The latter would clearly have much greater ridership potential, and would include destinations that would be of interest outside the regular commute, such as the airport and Skeeters Field. You only get to do this sort of thing right the first time, so it would be best to plan to maximize ridership from the beginning.

As for the other two, it must be noted that the corridors in question are already fairly well served by Metro park and ride. There’s some overlap with the US90A corridor, but not as much. Both Westpark and US90A continue well into Fort Bend County and thus beyond Metro’s existing service area, so I suppose the Westpark corridor would be the next best choice for commuter rail. The other key factor at play here is that the US90A line would connect up with the existing Main Street Line, thus potentially carrying people all the way from Rosenberg and elsewhere in Fort Bend to the Medical Center, downtown, and beyond. The 290 corridor will at least have the Uptown BRT line available to it as a connection, and if it were to happen it might revive discussion of the Inner Katy Line for a seamless trip into downtown via Washington Avenue. As for Westpark, well, go tell it to John Culberson. You know what we’d need to make any Westpark commuter rail line the best it could be. Anything the GCRD can do about that would be good for all of us.

B-Cycle keeps racking up good numbers

Great to see.

From meager beginnings, Houston’s bikesharing program has blossomed into a big draw for visitors and locals looking for a quick ride.

For the first six months of 2014, Houston B-Cycle logged 43,530 checkouts, according to agency data. The system had about 2,000 checkouts in all of 2012, the year it started with three stations and 18 bikes.

“We are excited about continuing the expansion and operations,” Houston B-Cycle director Will Rub said. “We still feel like we are on track for our five-year plan for having 100 stations and 1,000 bikes by 2017.”

The smooth ride to a 29-station, 225-bike system hasn’t been all downhill, however. Use of a couple of stations meant to move B-Cycle into targeted areas is well below expectations, and three bikes, valued at about $1,200 each, have gone missing.

The bumps are balanced by good ridership even in the city’s hotter months, if June is any indication. As the weather warmed, the system still averaged more than 220 checkouts a day. Based on calculations of how long the bikes were checked out and an average travel distance, officials estimate the bikes have traveled more than 143,000 miles this year.

[…]

Denver’s growth is a good aspiration for Houston, however. Its system, one of the country’s largest, logged 263,000 trips last year. Denver has 84 stations and 624 bikes.

Houston’s long-term plans mirror what Denver has already built in some sections of the city. Stations are spaced about every 1,000 feet, making it easy for a rider to grab a bike for a quick trip down the street for lunch or an appointment. From there, stations have been added to expand the edges of the system.

Although Houston has a group of committed, frequent riders, it hasn’t hit the level where grabbing a bike becomes a viable option for most people, Rub said.

“Right now we don’t have the station density that really contributes to it being a really integrated network,” Rub said.

Houston B-Cycle is hoping to lure a title sponsor – like New York’s 6,000-bike system did with Citibank – to commit $4 million over five years. Paired with grant money and federal funds for air quality improvements, the title sponsor would give Houston the capital to blanket many areas, such as the Texas Medical Center.

“I think that network in and of itself is going to create some very impressive numbers when we are in the (medical center),” Rub said.

I renewed my membership this weekend. I don’t use B-Cycle as often as I thought I would, but when I do use it, it’s been for the reasons I expected – to get me places in and near downtown that are too far to reasonably walk but which make no sense for me to drive to. A lot of folks – some visitors, some locals – have used B-Cycle on impulse, which is good for the system since they pay a slightly higher rate than members do. It would be nice to understand why some of the stations have been lightly used, and as I’ve said before I hope all interested parties are talking about how best to integrate B-Cycle with the new bus routes going forward. I can’t wait to see what B-Cycle’s numbers look like next year and the year after.

It takes time to park, too

The Atlantic Cities had an article a couple of weeks ago about light rail in Houston. It’s an overview written for people who aren’t from Houston, so other than the extremely high opinion of themselves of some rail opponents – who knew we needed Daphne Scarbrough’s permission for infrastructure projects in this town? – there isn’t anything there you don’t already know. There was one bit at the end, talking about the North Line extension, that I wanted to discuss.

Wandering this neighborhood, now a ten-minute train ride from downtown, I came across Del’s Ice Cream, a small shop one block from a brand-new light rail station. Owner Delfina Torres has a front row seat for Houston’s transit experiment, but she has doubts. “Houston is a vehicle town,” she says. “They love their cars. It’s going to be a long way coming to a city with less driving and more walking.” Though it is now a direct light rail trip from her home to the Houston Rodeo, eight miles away, she says she can get there and back faster in her car.

I live north of downtown, likely a comparable if not closer distance to Reliant Stadium, and I commuted by car from here to there for more than a decade. On a good day, I’d agree that you can drive from here to there faster than the train can take you. It’s not quite the slam dunk that Ms. Torres makes it out to be. Your main options are I-45 to 288 to either Old Spanish Trail or 610 and Kirby, or the non-highway route which for me means either Studewood/Montrose to Main or Shepherd all the way and for her likely means Main all the way. The former swings you a couple miles east of Reliant because that’s where 288 goes, and you will almost certainly run into at least one stretch of non-highway speed, on the Pierce Elevated. The latter leaves you at the mercy of traffic lights and road construction. In my experience, the former is a 20-25 minute trip while the latter is more like 25-30, though either can take longer if your traffic karma is bad that day. A train ride from the Quitman station (where Del’s Ice Cream is located) is probably 32 minutes, but it’s unlikely to vary by more than a minute or so, as neither traffic nor red lights are factors.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s my observation that if you ask someone in Houston how long it takes to drive from point A to point B, they will most likely base their estimate on the highway driving part of the trip. If there’s a significant non-highway part of the trip – maybe the destination is a half mile from the exit, or something like that – I think that tends to get discounted. And if parking is something other than a free, adjacent lot or street parking right in front – if there’s a parking garage or a mall-style expanse of parking, or if there’s a fee to be paid on the way in, it’s not factored in at all. As such, what might be ten minutes on the highway can easily mean fifteen minutes or more to the front door.

That matters. It makes a difference if you’ve got an appointment, a job with a designated start time, tickets to an event, or anything else where you need to think about when you have to leave in order to get there on time. I work downtown, and it usually takes only five minutes or so to “get” there, but I carpool with my wife and we park where she has subsidized parking, which is much closer to her building than to mine. It’s a good fifteen minute walk from the car to my desk, counting elevator time in my office. If Ms. Torres has tickets to a Texans game with a noon kickoff, I seriously doubt she’d head out from Del’s at 11:30. It might take you longer to get into the parking lot than it did to get from your house to the point where everything ground to a halt and the lines to get into the parking lots formed. That’s part of what I was getting at with my post about Medical Center mobility. You can do whatever you want with I-45 and you can add toll lanes and express bypasses on 288, but you’re not going to get into the parking lot at Reliant or Texas Children’s any faster. You might estimate the time it takes you to actually reach your destination a bit less accurately, however.

That’s one advantage of light rail, BRT, and other transit with dedicated right of way. Your trip times are generally more predictable, and in some cases at least you get dropped off closer to the front door of your destination than you would if you parked. That’s not always the case, and for Reliant Stadium there’s still a significant walk from the rail station, but it’s something people don’t think about. I do, because the bus stop I use when Tiffany takes the car to run errands after work is a two-minute walk from my office. Even when I have to wait a few minutes for a bus, I usually get home about the same time as I would have if we’d driven as usual. It matters more than you might think.

One other thing people often don’t think about: If parking isn’t free, it’s often expensive. There are very few free-parking destinations along the Main Street Line, so if you’re headed south from Del’s to someplace that the line serves, it’s going to cost you a few bucks to park. And driving itself isn’t free. Going eight miles, the stated distance from Del’s to Reliant, in a 25 MPG car with gas at $3.50 a gallon costs about as much as as one-way rail ticket. These things add up.

Holmes Road

It kind of blows my mind that something like this could be the case in 2014 in Houston.

Holmes Road

Holmes Road in south Houston, for a stretch, feels less like a city street and more like a weathered country road in Central Texas, even though NRG Stadium and the Texas Medical Center shimmer in the distance.

On the surface, there is no reason this accessible area – over 1,400 acres – should be the city’s largest single mass of undeveloped land.

The problem lies underground. Neither the city nor private developers ever extended sewer service to the area, leading developers to skip it in favor of other sites with more infrastructure and lower up-front costs.

Houston and Harris County officials propose to remedy that by burying an $11 million sewer line along Holmes Road.

The project is still being negotiated but is scheduled for 2016, the same year Holmes is slated to be widened and rebuilt and when Buffalo Speedway is to be extended south through the area.

“A lot of migration in terms of development has moved south to the Pearland area, and I don’t think it’s because the developers desire to be in Pearland,” said Houston’s deputy director of development, Gwen Tillotson. “I just think it’s because we did not have the adequate infrastructure. The longer we delay moving forward on this project, the more opportunities for development we stand to lose.”

Linda Scurlock, president of the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition, has lived in the area for 37 years. Holmes Road, she said, has been an eyesore for many of those years, so isolated it invites illegal dumping.

“We’re close to the Medical Center, we’re close to Reliant (NRG) Stadium, we’re close to 610, we’re close to the Beltway, we’re close to 288,” Scurlock said. “We see those as pluses, and we can’t see why there has not been development out here. If you have the infrastructure there, then I think development will come.”

You know how I suggested we build more places to live proximate to the Medical Center as a way of coping with its mobility needs? This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. I had suggested it for the undeveloped land along Hiram Clark, but if you look at that Google maps image I provided with that post, you can see the gigantic plot of land south of Holmes Road mentioned in this story as well. I didn’t suggest it as a target for development in my post because I figured it had to be a park or something – it was just too big. You know that former KBR site in the East End that everyone was talking about awhile back? It’s 136 acres, which is to say one tenth the size of this plot. If this expanse of land south of Holmes Road were in the process of being developed right now, you think that might have an effect on Houston’s housing shortage? This is a smart move by the city, and I’m glad to see Harris County playing a role in it as well. I look forward to seeing what eventually comes out of this.

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

[…]

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

Chron wonders where B-Cycle is going

Last week in an unsigned editorial, the Chron asked a provocative question about B-Cycle.

Are bicycle rental programs supposed to be legitimate transportation or merely toys for urban bohemians? New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante revealed Friday that her city’s attempts to make bike share more affordable, such as distributing free helmets and subsidizing Citi Bike memberships for low-income New Yorkers, have so far reached few people.

Houston’s policies don’t paint a better picture. We do have a bicycle helmet fund, which was created to raise money to provide bicycle helmets for very low-income families. But the list seems to stop there. We lack a program to subsidize B-Cycle memberships for needy families, though one has to wonder how much of an impact that program would have. After all, there are no B-Cycle stations in the poor neighborhoods surrounding downtown’s B-Cycle core. It is not as if these neighborhoods aren’t bike-friendly. The Fourth Ward is accessible by West Dallas St., a designated bike-share road that connects directly with downtown. And the Columbia Tap bicycle trail stretches from east of downtown through the Third Ward to Brays Bayou – one of the most convenient bicycle paths in the city, utterly wanting for a B-Cycle station.

Here’s that NYT article the editorial refers to. I can’t speak to Citi Bike, which is a new program and has its share of kinks to be worked out, but the point about making B-Cycle more accessible to more Houstonians is very much a valid one. I sent an inquiry to Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian about the editorial, but she had already sent a letter to the editor in response, which she pointed me to.

Houston B-Cycle appreciates the Chronicle’s calling attention to a wonderful three-month old program – and the call for more bikes and greater coverage. When first launched, some thought this could never work in Houston.

But Houstonians are proving the skeptics wrong. Houston B-cycle is well ahead of projections with over 5,000 unique users and an average of 1,300 bikes checked out each week. And in a city accused of being too fat, these riders have burned an estimated 4 million calories! But we recognize that we have more work to do.

The Houston bike share system, like successful programs in other cities, has used a proven formula, placing the first bikes in the densest part of our city … the downtown urban core and dense adjacent neighborhoods. We want to expand the program across the city, and the Chronicle is right to push for broader coverage.

B-cycle’s growth will build off of the current network. The existing program is a great example of private and public partnership, built with zero local tax dollars. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas has been a key partner and financial supporter. They share our goal of making Houston B-cycle the best in the nation.

We need more partners to continue expansion plans. If you want to help, please visit us at http://houston.bcycle.com/.

Laura Spanjian, director, city of Houston Sustainability

Michael Skelly board member, Houston Bike Share

I agree with what Spanjian and Skelly say here, but they don’t exactly get into specifics in their response. I think there’s a more fundamental point that needs to be addressed, but before I get to that, let me point to the story that I suspect was the genesis of the Chron editorial, which was in one of the neighborhood section and thus probably wasn’t widely noticed. (I only saw it because it was on the B-Cycle Facebook page.)

As cycling’s popularity rises in Houston, city officials and planners see the west side of the Inner Loop as the logical next place to focus energy on developing a more prominent role for the quiet, eco-friendly mode of transportation.

Rice University, the Texas Medical Center and area shopping districts already attract cyclists, said Laura Spanjian, sustainability director for Mayor Annise Parker.

“There’s a lot of bike commuters to Rice,” she said. “There’s already some good infrastructure there.”

The city is looking at ways to expand offerings in the neighborhood, with one option being a project where certain streets will close to vehicles and open only for bicycles on Sundays, Spanjian said.

Will Rub, director of Houston Bike Share, hopes that the city’s B-cycle bike rental program can become more established in the area.

“We have very high hopes of expanding the bike share program into the medical center,” he said. “Bike share is an ideal supplement to the Texas Medical Center environment and would go a long way towards reducing a significant number of ‘intra-center’ car rides and eventually reducing some of the shuttle trips.”

He said the next natural step would be to expand the program to Rice Village and at Rice University.

“I’ve had discussions with a few representatives from the school, but no plans or commitments at this time,” he said.

Spanjian said the mayor’s office is working to expand bicycle routes into the medical center and other neighborhoods by year’s end.

I talked about the logical next steps for B-Cycle expansion, and this story makes sense to me. Ideally, as Spanjian and Skelly said, B-Cycle is going to go where the biggest bang for the buck will be – dense places where parking is at a premium and it’s often not convenient or practical to retrieve your car for a short trip. B-Cycle will mostly be a convenience in these locations, helping to reduce short-trip driving, which in turn helps relieve parking congestion, while extending the range of places that a non-driver can get to. This is all to the good.

What we need to keep sight of is that at its core, B-Cycle is a transit network. Extending that network by adding more stations makes it more useful and valuable, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The B-Cycle network can and should integrate well with our existing transit network.

Last month, we recorded 15,232 bikes on buses – that’s 15 percent more than the same month a year ago. And that’s 28 percent more than the previous month of April’s boardings.

Now, no one is going to put a B-Cycle bike aboard a Metro bus. But if we locate some B-Cycle kiosks near bus stops in parts of town that are heavily dependent on buses for local transit, that not only makes both networks more extensive, it also helps to address the Chron’s concern about who is being served by B-Cycle. As we know, Metro is re-imagining its bus system. I say this redesign needs to be done in conjunction with B-Cycle and its future expansion plans. Having these two networks – and the light rail network, and the Uptown BRT line – complement each other will make the whole that much greater than the sum of the parts. To address the question about the helmet fund, perhaps Metro could kick in a little something for that, and perhaps there’s some H-GAC mobility money available to help as well. The point I’m (finally) making here is that we need all these components to work together. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think about this, but I haven’t seen it addressed anywhere else. We have an opportunity here to really make non-car transit in Houston a lot more convenient and attractive. Let’s take full advantage of it.