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February 9th, 2013:

Saturday video break: Got My Mind Set On You

Song #32 on the Popdose Top 100 Covers list is “Got My Mind Set On You”, originally by James Ray and covered by George Harrison. Here’s the original:

Add this one to the “Songs I hadn’t realized were covers” pile. Recorded in 1963, it was already an oldie by the time Harrison got his synthesizer on it. Speaking of which:

I think George did this one right, but I can’t let this go without acknowledging Weird Al Yankovic’s critique:

I wonder if Al knew this was a cover. Not that it really matters. And yes, I know that “This song is just six words long” is seven words long. What’s your point?

We have a runoff date

It’s earlier than I thought it would be.

Rep. Carol Alvarado

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday set a March 2 special runoff election to fill the open seat created by the death of the late state Sen. Mario Gallegos. The race, between State Rep. Carol Alvarado and former Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, will occur just six days before the deadline for lawmakers to file bills in the 83rd legislative session.

Sylvia Garcia

Because Harris County has 10 days to canvass those results and the governor’s office has an additional four days after that, the spring election likely means SD-6 will not have representation until mid-March. The winner cannot take her oath until the governor’s office performs its official canvass, the secretary of state’s office confirmed last month.

Perry spokesman Josh Havens said the March 2 date was the earliest possible runoff date after Harris County performed its canvass on Feb. 4.

March 2 is of course also Texas Independence Day. Clearly it will be more festive for some folks than for others. I have to say, I fully expected Perry to set the date for March 16, the latest possible date, because he had no reason to do otherwise and it would maximally screw the district. I’m glad to see that for once I was too cynical about him. Now let’s see if the Chron can manage to narrow its endorsement down to one candidate sometime before then.

TEA orders North Forest ISD shut down

This could be the end for North Forest ISD.

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams recommended that the district of 6,900 students be annexed into the mammoth Houston ISD effective July 1. His statement came just two days after the district said it would seek a partnership with Texas A&M University to assume day-to-day operations of its 10 schools.

Last March, then-TEA Commissioner Robert Scott granted North Forest a one-year reprieve. Scott’s successor, Williams, said the reprieve is over.

[…]

The commissioner’s recommendation will now go to TEA Chief Deputy Lizzette Gonzalez-Reynolds, who was designated by the previous commissioner in 2012 as TEA’s final decision-maker in this matter. If Reynolds approves the closure, the U.S. Department of Justice must pre-clear the merger with Houston ISD, according to the TEA.

Meanwhile, North Forest leaders have 10 days to ask for the record review to be reopened. They could then appeal the ruling to the State Office of Administrative Hearings, said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

Ideally, the legal appeals would be done by June 1 so that the annexation could be completed by July 1, she said.

See here for the background, here for the TEA news release, and here for the letter from Commissioner Williams to NFISD. I guess the Texas A&M experiment didn’t work out. Pre-clearance is an issue because North Forest ISD has a Board of Trustees that will cease to exist when NFISD goes away. I suppose it’s possible that HISD could be required to redo its trustee districts again, but I’m just guessing. Assuming the appeals are denied and there’s no further legal action, it will be a big task for HISD to absorb NFISD and its students. It’s not clear to me if the NFISD schools themselves will close, which would be a big logistical deal for HISD, or if they’ll just now operate under HISD supervision. Either way, HISD has its work cut out for it. This Trib story from last April examined the issue of school district closures, which are rare – NFISD would be the first one since 2006 – and for which there’s not a consensus that it’s actually beneficial to the students. That story also notes that a second district, Premont ISD in South Texas, was under the same threat of shutdown as NFISD. We’ll see when the TEA makes a decision about them. Hair Balls has more.

Time for another report on how much traffic sucks

We love this sort of thing, don’t we?

Houston commuters continue to endure some of the worst traffic delays in the country, according to the 2012 Urban Mobility Report released Tuesday by the Texas A&M Transportation Commission. Area drivers wasted more than two days a year, on average, in traffic congestion, costing them each $1,090 in lost time and fuel.

And it’s unlikely to get any better, researchers and public officials say.

“I think as rapidly as this area is growing, (the challenge) is just trying to stay where we are,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the traffic congestion.

Planned toll projects on Texas 290 and eventually Interstate 45 will help ease traffic, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes did in 2008, Emmett said.

With all due respect to Judge Emmett, these projects will help ease some traffic, for some people, just as the Katy Freeway managed lanes have done. It will make traffic worse for some others. Anyone who has driven inside the loop on I-10 in recent years knows what I’m talking about. Traffic coming in on 290 is still going to dump onto 610 and I-10, and they’re not getting any more capacity. Traffic coming in on I-45 is still going to enter downtown streets and get stuck on the Pierce Elevated, and I’m sorry but no crazy downtown roundabout scheme is going to solve that.

Based on the mobility report, in 1982 drivers spent about 22 hours each year stuck in congestion, a figure that has increased almost every year since. Traffic congestion peaked in 2008 at 55 hours, the same year two carpool/toll lanes along I-10 opened between downtown and Katy. The lanes took five years to complete and cost $2.8 billion.

But some of the best ways to reduce congestion are less costly. As Houston drivers have acclimated to rush-hour traffic jams, they’ve become more adept at saving themselves time.

“People are adjusting when they leave,” [report co-author Tim]Lomax said, noting resources that provide real-time traffic information. As smartphones and computers become more common, and workdays come with greater flexibility for some people to work from home, commuters can adjust to less-stressful drive times.

Emphasis on the “some” in that statement. Those of us who have to drop off kids at school in the morning, for instance, don’t have a whole lot of flexibility.

Public transit can provide some relief, but with jobs in Houston divided among a dozen or so job areas, it’s hard for public transit to carry everyone where they need to go efficiently, Lomax said.

Public transportation doesn’t need to carry everyone everywhere, it just needs to be a viable alternative for enough people at least some of the time. The current light rail expansion will help some, and if we ever build the University Line and the Uptown Line (or a reasonable facsimile of it), that will help more. Better bus service will help, as will more park and ride service. Longer term, the best thing that can happen is a shift away from living a long distance from your job to living closer to it, close enough to make other options like walking, biking, and car sharing viable options. If we’re really lucky, that Chapter 42 update could help with that.

Anyway. A copy of the report with a few tidbits highlighted is here, or visit the TTI webpage for more.

First Hobby expansion details announced

Moving forward at Hobby Airport.

The Southwest Airlines-proposed expansion, green-lighted by the Houston City Council last May, calls for construction by the end of 2015 of a new concourse with five gates capable of accommodating midsize aircraft; a federal inspection services facility with 16 stations; three additional baggage carousels; six security checkpoints; and an expanded ticket counter.

The concourse is being designed by Dallas-based architecture and interior design firm Corgan Associates. It is the same firm Southwest selected for a major renovation project under way at Dallas Love Field, home to its headquarters.

Southwest, which is preparing to become an international carrier after its 2010 acquisition of AirTran Airways, will foot the bill for the 280,000-square-foot, two-story expansion that will increase the square footage of Houston’s second largest airport by more than 40 percent. The estimated price tag is $150 million. Construction is to begin in May.

“It’s more than just a terminal expansion or a runway or one of the other many other pro-jects that we do at the airports,” Samar Mukhopadhyay, the Houston Airport System’s chief development officer, told a City Council budget committee on Monday. “This is going to change the functionality, the look and feel of Hobby Airport after we finish.”

Council approved the expansion plan last May. Southwest expects to being international flights from Hobby by 2015, and construction is supposed to begin this year. It’s an exciting time, though it probably won’t feel that way if you’re actually flying in and out of Hobby during construction.

One of the concerns raised by Chicago-based United Airlines, which fought Southwest’s proposal last year, was that staffing a new customs facility would require reassigning officers from Bush Intercontinental Airport – its largest hub – and the Port of Houston to Hobby.

While acknowledging the tough budget climate in Washington, [Houston Airport System Director Mario] Diaz said the airport system is preparing to begin serious discussions with customs about staffing the new facility at Hobby without taking away federal inspectors from Bush, currently Houston’s only international airport.

Saba Abashawl, the airport system’s director of external affairs, told the committee the airport system and the city will be “working very closely” with the Houston congressional delegation to secure adequate federal funding for customs officers.

There’s plenty of time to get this worked out before flights actually depart from Hobby for international destinations. Who knows, maybe the atmosphere in Congress will be slightly less poisonous by then, or perhaps the economy will have taken off to the point that there’s less fanaticism about austerity, thus making the appropriation of funds for a few Customs agents a routine matter. And if there’s a problem with the local delegation, then there’s nothing stopping HAS or Southwest Airlines from forming a PAC to support candidates that will work with them. Point being, while the issues that United raised were real, they’re hardly intractable, and they certainly shouldn’t have been a reason to forego this kind of opportunity. One way or another, there’s a solution.