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Our all-important metro areas

Another look at the trouble Republicans face in Texas now.

The key to Texas’ political future is whether it finally follows the geographic realignment that has transformed the politics of many other states over the past quarter century.

Across the country, Republicans since the 1980s have demonstrated increasing strength among voters who live in exurbs at the edge of the nation’s metropolitan centers or beyond them entirely in small-town and rural communities. Democrats, in turn, have extended their historic dominance of the nation’s urban cores into improved performance in inner suburbs, many of them well educated and racially diverse.

Both sides of this dynamic have accelerated under Trump, whose open appeals to voters uneasy about racial, cultural and economic change have swelled GOP margins outside the metropolitan areas while alienating many traditionally center-right suburban voters.

In Texas, only half of this equation has played out. In presidential elections since 2000, Republicans have consistently won more than two-thirds of the vote for the two parties in 199 mostly white nonmetropolitan counties across the state, according to a study by [Richard] Murray and Renee Cross, senior director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. (Trump in 2016 swelled that number to three-fourths.) The GOP has attracted dominant majorities from those areas in other races, from the Senate and US House to the governorship and state legislative contests. Democrats consistently amassed big majorities in 28 mostly Latino South Texas counties, but they have composed only a very small share of the statewide vote.

The key to the GOP’s dominance of the state is that through most of this century it has also commanded majorities in the 27 counties that make up the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas: Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. Demographically similar places in states along the coasts and in the upper Midwest have moved consistently toward the Democrats since Bill Clinton’s era. But in Texas, Republicans still carried 53% to 59% of the vote in those metropolitan counties in the four presidential races from 2000 through 2012, Murray and Cross found.

In the Trump era, though, that metro strength has wavered for the GOP. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Trump across the 27 counties in Texas’ four major metropolitan areas. Then in 2018, Democrat O’Rourke carried over 54% of the vote in them in his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz, Murray and Cross found. O’Rourke won each of the largest metro areas, the first time any Democrat on the top of the ticket had carried all four since native son Lyndon B. Johnson routed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race, according to Murray and Cross.

Looking just at the state’s five largest urban counties — Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin), Bexar (San Antonio), Tarrant (Fort Worth) and Dallas — the change is even more stark. In 2012, Obama won them by a combined 131,000 votes. By 2016, Clinton expanded the Democratic margin across those five counties to 562,000 votes. In 2018, O’Rourke won those counties by a combined 790,000 votes, about six times more than Obama did in 2012. Along the way, Democrats ousted Republican US House incumbents in suburban Houston and Dallas seats and made substantial gains in municipal and state house elections across most of the major metro areas.

“We have now turned every major metropolitan area blue,” says Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state.

Yet that, of course, still wasn’t enough for O’Rourke to overcome Cruz’s huge advantages in smaller nonmetro communities. That outcome underscores the equation facing Texas Democrats in 2020 and beyond: They must reduce the GOP’s towering margins outside of the major metropolitan areas and/or expand their own advantage inside the metro centers.

Few in either party give Democrats much chance to record many gains outside of metro Texas, especially given Trump’s national strength with such voters. O’Rourke campaigned heavily in Texas’ smaller counties and made very limited inroads there, even relative to Clinton’s abysmal performance in 2016. Exit polls conducted for a consortium of media organizations including CNN found that O’Rourke carried just 26% of white voters without a college education, only a minuscule improvement from the 21% Clinton won in Texas in 2016.

O’Rourke’s very limited rural gains have convinced many Texas Democrats that while they can’t entirely abandon smaller parts of the state, their new votes are most likely to come from the metropolitan centers.

“It’s a matter of emphasis,” says Smith, a senior adviser to the liberal group Progress Texas. “You’ve got to do urban/ suburban areas first. You’ve got to maximize your advantage there.”

The stakes in the struggle for Texas’ big metro areas are rising because they are growing so fast. While the four major metro areas cast about 60% of the statewide votes in the 1996 presidential election, that rose to about 69% in 2016 and 2018, Murray and Cross found. Murray expects the number to cross 70% in 2020.

And the concentration of Texas’ population into its biggest metropolitan areas shows no signs of slackening. The Texas Demographic Center, the official state demographer, projects that 70% of the state’s population growth through 2050 will settle in just 10 large metropolitan counties. Those include the big five urban centers that O’Rourke carried as well as five adjacent suburban counties; those adjacent counties still leaned toward the GOP in 2018 but by a much smaller cumulative margin than in the past. Overall, O’Rourke won the 10 counties expected to account for the preponderance of the state’s future growth by a combined nearly 700,000 votes.

We’ve been talking about this literally since the ink was still wet on the 2018 election results. I touched on it again more recently, referring to a “100 to 150-county strategy” for the eventual Democratic nominee for Senate. None of this is rocket science. Run up the score in the big urban areas – winning Harris County by at least 300K total votes should be the (very reachable) target – via emphasizing voter registration, canvassing apartments, and voters who turned out in 2008 and/or 2012 but not 2016. Keep doing what we’ve been doing in the adjacent suburbs, those that are trending blue (Fort Bend, Williamson, Hays), those that are still getting there (Collin, Denton, Brazoria), and those that need to have the curve bent (Montgomery, Comal, Guadalupe). Plan and implement a real grassroots outreach in the Latino border/Valley counties. We all know the drill, and we learned plenty from the 2018 experience, we just need to build on it.

The less-intuitive piece I’d add on is a push in the midsize cities, where there was also some evidence of Democratic growth. Waco, Lubbock, College Station, Abilene, Amarillo, Killeen, San Angelo, Midland, Odessa, etc etc etc. There are some low-key legislative pickup opportunities in some of these places to begin with. My theory is that these places feature increasingly diverse populations with a decent number of college graduates, and overall have more in common with the big urban and suburban counties than they do with the small rural ones. Some of these places will offer better opportunities than others, but they are all worth investing in. Again, this is not complicated. We’ve seen the data, we will definitely have the resources, we just need to do the thing.

High speed rail line route finalist chosen

Here’d where the Texas Central rail route will be, modulo some possible final tweaks and any further political obstacles.

Federal officials narrowed the possible paths for a Dallas-Houston bullet train down to one likely route Friday, providing an unknown number of rural Texans the most definitive answer so far as to whether their land will be in the path of the controversial project.

Much of the planned route had already been largely solidified. But documents released Friday by the Federal Railroad Administration filled in the rest of the gaps, favoring a more westerly route that runs through Navarro, Freestone, Leon, Madison and Limestone counties. Another potential route that was dropped from consideration would have avoided Limestone County.

[…]

The release of the draft Friday marked a major step toward getting federal clearance for the project. While it provides a clearer picture of the expected route, the path could slightly change in some areas as development and federal oversight continues.

The study also provided new details about stations planned in Grimes County and Houston. The Grimes County station is planned for State Highway 30 between Huntsville and College Station. There are three potential Houston station locations: land where Northwest Mall currently sits, an industrial area across from that shopping center and an industrial area closer to the nearby Northwest Transit Center.

The planned Dallas station remains just south of downtown.

The report is here. The original report, which listed six possible routes, came out two years ago – the environmental review process is not intended to be quick, but to be thorough. The station in Grimes County is intended to serve the Bryan/College Station area; the Texas Central summary of the report notes that “direct shuttle service to Texas A&M University” will be included, so you Aggie fans might make note of that. What I notice is that the route avoids Montgomery County, where a lot of the opposition to the line was based. Maybe some of those folks will lose interest now that they’re not in consideration any more. Grimes County, where the midpoint station will be located, is also a hotbed of resistance to TCR; Ben Leman, chair of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, just stepped down as Grimes County Judge to run for the Lege. If all goes well for TCR, they’ll have construction going before the next Lege gavels in.

Anyway. This is a big step forward for Texas Central. There’s still a 60-day public feedback period, and then the final route will be determined. Both DART and Metro will need to make some decisions about how they will connect to the terminals, and the Houston end has to be chosen. But we’re getting close. With a bit of luck, by this time next year we’ll have had a groundbreaking. I’m looking forward to it. The DMN has more.

Uber to abandon Corpus Christi

Another one bites the dust.

Uber

In what has become a familiar move for Uber, the vehicle-for-hire company announced Wednesday it will cease operations in Corpus Christi, pointing to “unnecessary” regulations recently adopted by the city.

Corpus Christi’s City Council approved new regulations this week that would require app-based vehicle-for-hire drivers to undergo a fingerprint background check, a requirement Uber has resisted in most markets. The company plans to end services in Corpus Christi on Sunday, two hours before the new law goes into affect, according to the Corpus Christi Caller Times.

“The proposed ordinance would require drivers to complete unnecessary and duplicative steps that make it difficult for them to earn extra money and hurt our ability to ensure that riders have access to reliable and affordable transportation,” Sarfraz Maredia, Uber’s general manager in South and East Texas, wrote in a letter to Corpus Christi’s city council on March 4.

Corpus Christi will be the third city Uber has left this year in response to local laws. In February, the company ceased operations in Galveston and Midland after the cities voted to enact background-check requirements.

[…]

Despite Uber’s disdain for mandatory fingerprint-based background checks, the company has continued to operate in Houston, where drivers are required to undergo those background checks.

Corpus Christi Mayor Nelda Martinez said she feels Uber is more lax when it comes to accepting regulations in larger cities. Houston is Texas’ largest city with over 2 million residents. Corpus Christi, with a population of around 316,000, is the eighth largest city in Texas.

“It is unfortunate that they believe that comprehensive background checks with fingerprints and safety in smaller cities are less important,” she said Wednesday. “We have been working with them since the fall of 2014 and what makes me most sad about them leaving Corpus Christi is that they are leaving loyal customers and drivers who depend on them.”

Martinez said she would welcome the company back in the future, but would “absolutely not” consider softening the ordinance.

So the pattern is pretty clear here – your city can have fingerprint checks, or it can have Uber, but not both. Unless your city is Houston, apparently. But how long will that be the case? With that in mind, I sent the following questions to Uber spokesperson Debbee Hancock:

1. Is it now Uber’s policy to no longer operate in cities that require fingerprint checks?

2. Does this mean that Uber plans to pull out of Houston? if not, then how does Uber respond to Corpus Mayor Martinez’s statement that “Uber is more lax when it comes to accepting regulations in larger cities”?

And the answers I received:

We know from our experience in Houston that these rules can have a devastating impact on our ability to provide the experience that drivers and riders have come to love and expect. ​Since then, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations in every city that has adopted new laws that require similarly​ duplicative r​egulations on drivers.

We have also made a major shift in our expansion strategy.​ At the beginning of 2014, the only people in Texas that had access to Uber were the people of Dallas. With a goal of making transportation as reliable as running water, we rapidly expanded our operations across the state. Today, millions of Texans in more than a dozen cities can open the app to request a ride.​ ​

Most cities have rapidly embraced this innovative transportation option. In fact, multiple cities where we did not already operate, such as San Marcos and Beaumont, invited us to launch by​ proactively​ adopting pro-ridesharing regulations. We have limited our expansion plan to cities that adopt similar regulations as Beaumont, San Marcos, College Station, and Abilene.

We have been monitoring the impact these regulations are having on riders and drivers, and we’re concerned by the trends we see (barriers to entry for drivers, longer wait times, fewer available rides late at night when people need it most , etc.). It is no surprise that these regulations don’t work for ridesharing since they were designed for the taxicab industry long before this technology existed. It is our hope that we can work with the City to modernize the process so we can continue to operate in Houston.

So there you have it. I’m just speculating here, but if the Austin rideshare referendum passes, I won’t be surprised if we see some action in Houston afterward.

The economic impact of the high speed rail line

It could be a lot, if one study is to be believed.

An analysis of a planned high-speed line between Houston and Dallas shows the $10 billion-plus project will have an economic impact roughly three times its expected price tag, though critics contend that estimate ignores many costs rural residents will pay, if the line is ever built.

The economic impact report, commissioned by the firm planning a high-speed train between Houston and Dallas, estimates the 240-mile line would have a $36.3 billion impact on Texas over the next 25 years. The analysis, by Allen-based Insight Research Corp., was commissioned by Texas Central Partners, which summarized its findings on Thursday.

Texas Central CEO Tim Keith said the economic analysis – one of many the company is preparing as part of its federal review and the process of selling communities on the line – supports the benefits the company has claimed.

“The overall message here is we are on a path to keep our development pace moving quickly,” Keith said.

The company plans to begin construction in 2017, and start ferrying passengers in 2021. Officials on Thursday also confirmed they plan a stop between the two sprawling metro areas aimed at potential Bryan-College Station riders. That station would be located in Grimes County, one of the counties where the bullet train has faced the stiffest opposition.

[…]

“One of the questions that’s been asked is ‘what does this do for me?” Keith said, noting the push back the project has received.

Grimes County, for example, would receive an estimated $50 million – five times the county’s fiscal 2016 property tax collections – while the local school district would receive more. Across Texas, the project would create about $3.1 billion in tax revenue between now and 2040, including $2.5 billion directly from construction of the line.

What’s unclear is whether those communities consider any economic gain something to celebrate.

“Their private property rights are not for sale,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail, which formed to oppose the current plan. “That is not something they look forward to. If they wanted a lot of development they would move to Houston.”

Workman said the economic impact included many details officials already have hinted at. He called some of the pronouncements speculative until the public had a chance to examine the complete economic analysis.

“Their whole economic analysis is based on a successful project,” he said, noting success is not assured with airline travel popular between the metro areas and people likely preferring to drive.

Well, sure, I mean, who studies the potential impact of a failed project? It’s called “potential impact” precisely because you’re assuming it will be successful, not because you know it will be. You can find the study and the associated press release from Texas Central here. Of interest to me is that there will be a station added in Grimes County, home of some fierce opposition as well as proximity to Bryan/College Station. Will that dampen any of the opposition? Will the addition of an in-between station change anything about the viability of the route? In an alternate universe, we could be talking about a station in The Woodlands, which might have been more appealing to Texas Central and its potential riders. I look forward to seeing what comes next. The Trib, the Highwayman, and Dallas Transportation have more.

It’s not so easy being green

For cities, anyway, at this time.

Easy for him, at least

College Station, the maroon-hued home of Texas A&M University, is finding it is not easy being green.

Four years after launching an ambitious local effort to fight global warming, city leaders say their high hopes have fallen to hard economic realities, forcing them to abandon their green-at-all-costs approach.

The College Station City Council decided last month that its green efforts should be “fiscally responsible” and create “a real and tangible return of investment to the city.” The city also no longer will strive be a leader in energy efficiency and the reduction of emissions from carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

“Enthusiasm remains, but it is tempered by the current economy,” said Bob Cowell, the city’s planning director.

So, now the city, for example, will look at the cost of maintenance and the lifespan of a hybrid vehicle before buying one. If the objective is a greener fleet, the city may look at reducing its size, instead of adding another hybrid, Cowell said.

“We are being a little more deliberate,” he said.

The problem is that these things have sizable up front costs, which are recouped over some number of years in lower energy expenses. Cities and states are still feeling large effects of the economic collapse from 2008, so investments of all kinds tend to get deferred, no matter how good the payoff is. The federal government helped once with the stimulus, and it would make a lot of sense to do it again what with interest rates being as low as they are and the need being as strong as ever, but suffice it to say that ain’t gonna happen any time soon. So here we are, and when cities are able to start doing this again it’ll wind up costing them more, both from the lost time and from higher interest payments.

On we go with the red light camera debate

The DMN has a story about the ongoing red light camera debate around the state. There’s a lot of familiar stuff in there, but this bit caught my eye:

While camera critics dispute the safety data, the money generated has raised even more questions and intrigue, especially as collections have pushed into the tens of millions. A 2007 state law requires cities to set aside half of all profits to help fund regional trauma care centers. Most cities use their share for traffic safety and enforcement efforts.

Houston police Sgt. Michael Muench, who oversees that city’s red-light camera program, said his department has plowed all revenues into crash-scene investigation equipment, extra traffic patrols, radar guns and other traffic-related improvements. “So far, it’s working,” Muench said. Critics point to large disparities in the profits cities generate as evidence that some are just out to make a buck.

“In College Station, cameras were not put at the most dangerous intersections, but the most profitable ones,” said Jim Ash, a sales representative who began the petition drive to take down the cameras there.

I don’t get that. The “most profitable” intersections would be those that have the most red light runners. Isn’t that exactly where you’d want to put the cameras? I guess you could have intersections with a lower violation rate but a higher accident rate. I don’t know what things are like in College Station but I can’t say I recall hearing that argument in Houston. What am I missing here?

I’ll be honest, I’ve never really understood the “it’s all about money” argument against red light cameras. I get the concerns about cameras in the public sphere, and the concerns about due process. I certainly agree that cities should not reduce yellow light intervals as a way to generate more violations, as Baytown admitted to doing last year. For sure, cities can get into trouble if they depend on red light camera revenue for their general funds, as happened to Dallas. Their contract with the camera company seems to be less favorable to them than some others; compare the revenue and expense data for Dallas and Houston in the DMN story, for example. Houston, as far as I can tell, has done a decent job with this, but it is a potential issue.

All of these things I understand. But when I hear complaints about profits and cash grabs and whatnot, my reaction is always the same: If people didn’t run red lights, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Everybody is fully capable of avoiding red light camera expenses. When I hear this argument, at least when I hear it in the absence of specific complaints about manipulated yellow light intervals or bad budget practices, what I hear is approximately “People should have the right to run red lights”. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the anti-camera position, but that’s where the camera opponents lose me.

The story notes that the anti-camera forces in Houston are preparing to announce that they have the signatures to force a vote on whether or not to ban the cameras this November. As things stand now, I don’t see any reason why I would vote for that proposition. Houston’s implementation seems to be working as intended, the contract is not onerous, and the revenue is being used appropriately. I’d like to see updated information about the violation and accident rates at the camera-enabled intersections, but I’d expect that to be part of the campaign for and against the proposition, so I can wait a little longer. One thing that could get me to change my mind would be evidence that camera data is being manipulated, as opponents in Baytown claim is happening there. Byron Schirmbeck, one of the leaders of the camera opposition in Baytown, sent me performance data for the cameras for March and April of this year, with the following explanation:

There are a few things to know about what is on the report. There is column A which is labeled “events” this is essentially each time that particular camera detects a violation of a steady red and forwards that to ATS for them to review. Column B is the total rejections, which would be for every reason, like they can’t see the plate clearly, there was glare in the camera, the camera malfunctioned etc, and anything that they declare as a “non violation” which is column C and accounts for the greatest number of the total rejections. Which would mean ATS reviewed the event and determined it to not be a violation for whatever reason. This is where the problem is: ATS, not the police department, has control over what they send to the PD without any oversight and any violation detected by the camera can be declared a “non violation” for any reason they see fit, including trying to manipulate the data. You could explain away a single digit variance for a couple of months, but you can’t explain away a 20% or more increase that continually grows to the point where nearly 6 out of 10 violations are declared to be “non violations”. The way I see it there are only 2 reasonable explanations possible, 1. ATS has deliberately thrown out tickets to make violations appear to have gone down in anticipation of a vote on the cameras, or 2. the cameras are detecting 20% more violations that really aren’t violations, which is alarming in itself as this makes one wonder about the integrity of the program. Why are the cameras doing that over several months each month? Who would get caught that shouldn’t have?

“ATS” is the camera vendor that has a contract to provide these services to Baytown. There may be a good answer for the questions that Schirbeck raises, but I’d want to know what it is before I’d endorse the Baytown program.

Anyway. There’s an accompanying story about how the business of red light cameras also means business for lobbying shops, as they try to fend off another attempt by the Lege to ban them. If that surprises you in any way, you would also probably be surprised by the news that it is currently hot and humid outside.

The anti-red light camera referendum drive begins

As we know, the anti-red light camera forces intend to collect enough petition signatures to put a charter referendum on the ballot this November. On Friday, they got started.

Because red-light camera citations remain outside the realm of tickets that can be contested with assistance from a lawyer, many who specialize in that work have lined up behind the anti-red-light camera effort.

The push to defend the cameras also has been joined by local furniture store magnate Jim McIngvale, signaling that the political fight over the devices could grow heated by the time it is expected to culminate in a November charter amendment vote.

Paul Kubosh, a lawyer who sent petition forms to more than 20,000 former clients Friday and is bankrolling the effort to seek voter rejection of the cameras, said the devices have increased accidents and do not free up police resources.

“Red-light cameras are dangerous,” he said. “What are they really for? There’s only one thing, and that’s money.”

For all his bleating about red light cameras being about money, I don’t think it had occurred to me before I read that first paragraph quoted above that Paul Kubosh also has a financial stake in this. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s be clear about it.

This story doesn’t mention it, but the Chron story cited in that previous post said that 20,000 signatures were needed by July 1, and that Kubosh claimed to have “at least 50,000 registered voters in my client base”. Assuming they have the resources to get the forms in front of enough people, I don’t think they’ll have any trouble getting the signatures they need.

I’ve mentioned before that neither Paul nor Michael Kubosh is resident of the city of Houston, and thus are not eligible to vote in this referendum they want to force. Turns out that the same is true of camera defender Jim McIngvale. Am I the only person who’s annoyed by this?

There was a lot of discussion in my previous post about the successful effort last year in College Station to pass an anti-camera referendum. There were charges and counter-charges made by the opposing sides, and a post-election lawsuit that was filed over the wording of the referendum; according to Ballotpedia, the judge ultimately ruled that the wording of the referendum was unclear, but the city had already terminated its contract with camera company American Traffic Solutions, so the effect was nil. The Battalion link above mentioned a poll that showed a very similar level of support for the cameras among “likely” voters – 64% in College Station, 65% in Houston. I don’t know how they did their likely voter screen for that poll, but the average turnout for municipal elections in College Station is about eight percent. The 2009 referendum drew twice that amount; I’d guess the poll didn’t account for that possibility. I expect this year to be a higher turnout year than usual, but we’re not going to see anything like that. This referendum will surely be lower profile, relatively speaking, than the one in College Station, which had essentially nothing competing with it for voters’ attention. Whether either of these factors benefits the pro- or anti-camera side, I couldn’t say. We ought to be in for an interesting campaign.