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Bob Hebert

Meet KP George

He’s the new Fort Bend County Judge.

KP George

In December, that strange suspended-in-motion month between his election and taking office, K.P. George was checking out the quaint old domed Fort Bend County Courthouse, soon to be his domain. In November, to the surprise of almost everyone outside his campaign, George had been elected Fort Bend’s county judge — which is to say, the top boss of one of the United States’ fastest-growing counties, with 765,000 residents, nearly 3,000 employees, and an annual budget over $370 million.

When George takes office on Jan. 1, he’ll become arguably the most powerful Indian-American in U.S. government — as well as a potent symbol of the new Fort Bend, and of Asian-Americans’ growing power in Texas and American politics.

[…]

And still, to most political insiders, George’s election came as a surprise. “He was not someone on our radar,” said Gautam Raghavan, executive director of the Indian-American Impact Fund. “It wasn’t a race we engaged in. In hindsight, that’s a lesson for us: In some of these places with fast-shifting demographics, like the Texas suburbs, there are huge opportunities for us.”

“For Republicans in Fort Bend County, Donald Trump is a real liability,” [Rice poli-sci professor Mark] Jones said. “Socially and fiscally conservative Asian-Americans used to vote for more Republicans. But Trump’s rhetoric and policies are seen as anti-immigrant — anti-Latino, but also anti-Asian.”

“Many Trump administration policies, such as targeting Muslims as terrorists, don’t play well with Asian-Americans…. Indian-Americans may not love Pakistanis, but the same racial discrimination that targets Pakistanis targets them.

“In Fort Bend, there was a double whammy for Republicans. A much larger proportion of Asian-Americans voted for Democrats, and Asian-Americans also turned out at a much higher rate than they had previously.”

Observers have long predicted that Texas’ changing demographics will eventually turn the most Republican of states into one that’s more bipartisan or even reliably Democratic. That’s already true of Texas’ cities. Now the battles have shifted to the suburbs.

Notably, George is a Democrat. “It’s a historic election for Texas,” said Jones — Fort Bend is the first exurb to elect a Democrat to the top of its county government. “It could portend the future for diverse counties such as Denton and Collin.”

I’m honestly surprised that this race wasn’t on the radar of any national organizations like the Indian-American Impact Fund. George was not a novice politician – he’d been twice elected to the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees. Fort Bend had been trending Dem for some time, and fit in every way the profile of the suburban, diverse, won-by-Hillary-in-2016 Congressional districts that were so hotly contested. Outgoing Judge Bob Hebert had served for a long time, but didn’t have the bipartisan cred that Ed Emmitt had, which might have helped him ride out the wave. This race should have been seen as a prime opportunity, and if it wasn’t that was a failure of imagination.

And yes, I believe this is a leading indicator for other suburban counties. Williamson County didn’t elect anyone countywide despite being carried by Beto O’Rourke, MJ Hegar, and Justin Nelson, but it did elect two Democratic State Reps and two JPs, while a Dem County Commissioner candidate fell just short. Dems didn’t carry any race in Denton or Collin, but elected a State Rep in Denton while just missing on two in Collin, and a JP in Denton County. It was a big step forward. There are no guarantees for 2020, of course, but the obstacle of credibility – the belief that it’s really possible a Dem could win – has been cleared. That can only help.

Fort Bend vote centers report

They seemed to work OK.

vote-button

Not all the kinks had been worked out in Fort Bend County – the first Election Day here that voters were allowed to cast ballots at any polling place.

When results were finally tallied and posted – around 10:40 p.m. – one of the effects became clear: 49,947 ballots had been cast, making for a 13.4 percent voter turnout.

It was a sizable increase over the 8.7 percent turnout in the county’s November 2013 election, which also included a bond proposal.

“We think it played out well,” Elections Administrator John Oldham said.

Fort Bend County was among six Texas counties with populations of more than 100,000 to use the so-called “Countywide Polling Precinct Program” on a trial basis Tuesday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Four other counties with populations less than 100,000 people also tried the system.

[…]

Fort Bend officials for years had considered whether to switch to all-county polling, Oldham said. Last summer, they put together how such a plan would be promoted and executed.

Elections staff expected to see increases at sites that had been used during early voting but didn’t predict the high demand that materialized at some centers.

“We didn’t really know where people would vote,” Oldham said. “We thought we did.”

Officials planned for about 500 voters at a site near Pecan Grove that had seen a few more than 100 voters a few years prior. On Tuesday, 998 people cast ballots there.

“We know we had some lines,” Oldham said, explaining that 40 or 50 people were still in line at the Pecan Grove site come 7 p.m.

Added Oldham: “We didn’t have horrible waits, but, you know, to me 40 minutes is too long … to me 20 minutes is too long.”

Although the aim of opening up polling places is not necessarily to increase voter turnout – the idea is to remove the hassle and confusion of voting so that residents don’t give up in frustration – higher turnout is a welcome side effect, Oldham said.

See here and here for some background. Turnout may have been up over 2013, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in a one-year comparison. As I’ve said before, I generally favor this idea. I don’t know if it will prove to be a turnout-increaser as a rule, but I think it has value even if there is no effect there. If you’re in Fort Bend or some other place that uses these, what is your opinion of them?

The future of Fort Bend transit

Public transportation in Fort Bend County has grown quite a bit since its inception, and there’s a lot of potential for future growth if the pieces can be put into place.

On Tuesday, county leaders, staff and transit partners gathered in Richmond to celebrate the rapid evolution of the Fort Bend Public Transportation Department since it was formed 10 years ago. They marked projects that moved from the initially limited efforts of the 1990s, which benefited a few hundred people a month, into a system that serves tens of thousands of riders. Leaders also talked about what might be next for public transportation in the suburban county west of Houston.

“In 2003, we were providing 300 rides per month,” Patterson said. “This last six months, we transported 33,000 rides per month.”

This year, the transit department will create a master plan to outline priorities and possibilities through 2040, coordinating with the roads department to anticipate future needs.

“Where is the growth going to be in Fort Bend County? Will it be residential or commercial? What will the overlay of transportation needs be?” Transportation Director Paulette Shelton asked, listing the core questions to be considered as the plan is developed. “We pull out 37 buses every day to do service. If I look ahead five years, we’ll probably be around 60 or 70 buses.”

How the system expands will depend on “where the development happens and the needs in the cities,” she said.

County Judge Bob Hebert said he does not intend for the county to ever operate a major bus system with fixed routes, but still expects to add new services. The future of the department will hinge “to some extent on where Harris County goes,” he said.

Because Fort Bend’s future is linked to the wider region – with about 60 percent of residents working in Houston, according to Census figures – many transportation and roads projects will require coordination with Harris County and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as Metro.

Hebert said the most common question about public transit that he is asked is, “When are we going to have commuter rail?” He compared the undertaking to the construction of Fort Bend toll roads.

“They have to be tied into a bigger system,” he said. “When Harris County started building the Westpark Tollway, our Westpark Tollway became viable. It gave you a path somewhere people wanted to be in large numbers. We will not put in rail until we know for certain there is rail coming out to the Harris County line.”

Commissioner Richard Morrison lists a commuter rail out to Missouri City and along Highway 90 as a top priority, but said a more practical concern must be considered first: funding.

Here’s the FBPTD website. Note that their buses are “demand response service”, which means you call at least a day in advance to schedule a stop by your house or wherever, and they take you where you want to go as long as it’s within their service area. Sounds an awful lot like the Flex Zones in Metro’s reimagined bus network, which have caused so much anxiety. I wonder how well this service has worked for Fort Bend. Might be nice for their to be some reporting on that, to get a better feel for what Houston Flex Zone riders might expect.

As for commuter rail into Fort Bend, that may well hinge on the Metro/Culberson peace treaty, as working to secure funding for that line was among the goodies Rep. Culberson promised to work on. The Lege may need to get involved to authorize Metro to operate in Fort Bend, but if there is a plan in place to get that rail line going, I would expect such authorization to be a formality. Mostly, I’m glad that this is such a persistent question for Judge Hebert, as that is surely a key component to moving this along. For now, I’d say the ball is in Congress’ court, and there is some motion (finally) on a transportation bill, so we’ll see what happens.

Metro approves study of Fort Bend commuter rail line

In the last act for several Metro board members, we get a step forward on another commuter rail line.

Moving to extend Metro’s reach into Fort Bend County, the agency’s board agreed Thursday to spend up to $500,000 on environmental studies for a commuter rail line connecting southwestern suburbs with central Houston.

During the last meeting for chairman David Wolff and three other Houston appointees, the Metropolitan Transit Authority board authorized its staff to finalize the alignment, begin public meetings and environmental review and take other steps to advance the 8.2-mile, $250 million project in the U.S. 90A corridor.

U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, whose district includes much of the corridor, has agreed to seek federal funding for the project, Metro officials said. Service could begin within three to five years, they said, enabling Fort Bend County residents to board a single Metro train that would bring them to jobs in the Texas Medical Center.

Despite all the talk about maybe having to slow some things down, it’s been a busy couple of weeks for the advancement of commuter rail plans. First Galveston, then Hempstead, and now Fort Bend. I think those are all the corridors that have been actively bandied about lately, though there are certainly other possibilities; west on I-10 and north on I-45 come to mind. I hope the new Board is able to pick this ball up and keep running with it.

A key advantage of Metro’s plan, Wolff said, is that it would use trains Metro already owns on tracks that would parallel Union Pacific freight tracks in the same corridor, tying into the existing Main Street light rail line to create a seamless experience for passengers.

The commuter line would begin at Fannin South, the southern end of the Main Street line, and continue to the Fort Bend County Line at Beltway 8.

“The commuter rail has to tie into light rail in order to be attractive to the consumer,” Wolff said.

Now where have I heard that before? This is an advantage for the Fort Bend line, one that the Hempstead line at least does not share. It would of course be best to be able to continue on from the FB line into Greenway Plaza or the Galleria, but being able to get to the Medical Center and downtown is a good start. Continuing this line into Fort Bend, for which various options already exist, is vital as well, but that would require Fort Bend County giving Metro permission to operate there. As it happens, when I spoke to David Wolff, he told me that Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert was on board with the idea. We’ll see how it goes from here now that Metro has taken this step.