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Too many people don’t get sick leave

From the CPPP:

All Texans should be able to care for themselves or a loved one if they get sick, regardless of what kind of job they do or how much they earn. Approximately 4.3 million Texas workers – or 40 percent of the total workforce – lack access to paid sick days, and it’s estimated that between 39 and 44 percent of private sector workers in the U.S. are not able to earn paid sick days.

Paid sick days are also a public health issue. When people are forced to go to work sick, everyone—employers, coworkers, and customers—is worse off. Children also face the consequences when their classmates come to school sick because their parents can’t afford to take the day off to care for them. Texas public employers, cities, and our state should work to implement paid sick days policies, which will improve the financial stability and health of all Texans.

Our new policy brief examines the inadequate access to paid sick days in Texas and highlights how businesses and families can thrive when workers are able to earn paid sick days. Across the country, there is growing momentum and support for city, county, and statewide paid sick days policies, which require employers to provide a certain number of paid sick days to workers each year based on the number of hours worked. To date, 44 cities, counties, states, and Washington, D.C. have passed paid sick days policies.

Everyone gets sick, and everyone should have the ability to earn paid sick days. A multi-city or statewide policy would ensure a high-quality standard so that all workers are able to care for themselves or a family member.

You can read the report here. I agree with this of course, as a matter of public health and of basic humanity, but as we know we live in a state where the business interests and Republican elected officials vehemently oppose the idea. The city of Austin has passed an ordinance to require sick leave, and the city of Dallas is poised to vote on a similar measure, but neither of those will matter if the current lawsuit or the sure-to-come legislation to preempt such ordinances succeed. You know what I’m going to say before I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: Nothing will change until we change who we elect. If you’re fine with being surrounded by sick people in the course of your daily life, then keep doing what you’re doing. Otherwise, you might consider fighting for something better.

NASA to test Uber’s flying cars

Just simulations, thankfully.

NASA will soon begin testing in Dallas how Uber’s on-demand air-taxi concept would affect crowded areas.

Uber is in the midst of designing an air-taxi service, called UberAIR. Officials hope to conduct flight demonstrations starting in 2020 and start operating commercially in Dallas and Los Angeles by 2023.

And on Tuesday, NASA announced that it would help the company “ensure a safe and efficient system for future air transportation in populated areas.”

“NASA is excited to be partnering with Uber and others in the community to identify the key challenges facing the [urban air mobility] market, and explore necessary research, development and testing requirements to address those challenges,” Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “Urban air mobility could revolutionize the way people and cargo move in our cities and fundamentally change our lifestyle much like smartphones have.”

Under this agreement, Uber will provide NASA with its plans for implementing this cutting-edge ride-share network and NASA will use computer modeling and simulations to determine the impact of this kind of aircraft. The simulations will take place at NASA’s research facility at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.

NASA personnel will analyze safety issues that could arise from small passenger-carrying aircraft flying through the airport’s airspace during “peak scheduled air traffic,” according to the space agency.

See here for the background. There are still a lot of issues to be worked out, and there’s no real reason to think any of this is practical. But hey, we were promised flying cars, so onward we go. I just hope they remember to simulate a few falling-debris scenarios, because I’m pretty sure we’re going to need to know what to do with them.

Texas Central and Amtrak

Connectivity is good.

Amtrak and Texas Central announced a partnership Friday to link the proposed bullet train from Dallas to Houston to the national passenger rail network.

Passengers will be able to book their bullet train trips through Amtrak. The partnership also commits the high-speed rail operator to transport passengers between Amtrak’s Dallas endpoint, Union Station, to the Texas Central’s multilevel station between South Riverfront Boulevard and South Austin Street.

Texas Central will also provide similar shuttle service between the Amtrak endpoint and the former mall site it has chosen for a terminal in northwest Houston.

[…]

The agreement also makes Amtrak training, marketing and sales capabilities available to Texas Central.

See here for the press release. I don’t know how many people might take advantage of this networking between Amtrak and Texas Central, but being able to plug into Amtrak’s ticketing system instead of having to build their own is a win for TCR. And seriously, all of the connections, from the proposed extension to D/FW Airport to the Uptown BRT and whatever else Metro may build to this, they’re all good and make the overall system better. Keep it coming.

Time for an update on that other high speed rail line

It’s been awhile.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

Backers continue to move along on plans to build a bullet-train route between Dallas and Houston, but it’s not the only high-speed passenger rail project on Texas drawing boards.

With a proposal to run between cities such as Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and Laredo, the project recently got a green light for new money to do further study.

“We’re still an embryo,” said Kevin Feldt, a North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager overseeing the high-speed rail project regionally. “We’re still in the first week or two of pregnancy.”

Nobody has begun buying right of way or buying trains, let alone figured out funding and finance — topics that can fire skepticism about the passenger rail’s ability to break even or turn a profit — but there’s now an environmental impact statement, and potential investors have come calling.

“Suffice it to say, there’s interest in developing (from) Fort Worth southward, possibly to Monterrey, Mexico,” Feldt said. “We’ve had the French and Chinese and Spanish come to us and meet with us to talk about it.

“Some wanted to do one piece; we had others who wanted to do everything.”

The proposed line from North Texas cities — Dallas and Arlington included — is part of an 850-mile project called the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program Corridor.

[…]

Feldt said that whatever comes out of the next round of study, actually building a high-speed passenger rail — not to mention a Hyperloop system — will be “a lot more complex” than the challenges the private company working to roll out the Dallas/Houston passenger train has encountered.

The Dallas/Houston corridor is not only flatter and easier to run a high-speed train across, but less populous.

Still, like Feldt, Bill Meadows, who chairs the Commission for High Speed Rail in the Dallas/Fort Worth Region, noted the interest from Chinese and French rail representatives in discussing a public-private project here.

And, said Meadows, “They like the (Interstate) 35 corridor better than the (Interstate) 45 corridor.”

See here for the last update that I have, from July of 2016. Since then, the Draft Environmental Study has been completed, which “formally identifies seven Selected Alternatives that will serve as the framework for future investment in new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service in three regions between Oklahoma City and South Texas”. The story also mentions the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, for which Texas remains in contention, though it’s not clear to me from the story how it fits in here. There’s lots of other obstacles that will need to be cleared for anything tangible to happen here, from choosing a single route to putting together financing and governance, to overcoming the inevitable political opposition. But things continue to move, and at this stage that’s about all you can ask for.

Northwest Mall will be your Houston high speed rail terminal

No surprise.

Texas Central Partners and Houston-area elected officials on Monday announced that the company, which is seeking federal approval for a 240-mile high-speed train line, has chosen Northwest Mall near Loop 610 and U.S. 290 as their preferred site.

The company has an option to buy the land, said Jack Matthews, who is handling property acquisition for Texas Central.

The announcement was largely expected, as the mall site remained the most viable site to put a train station along Hempstead Road in the area around Loop 610. It also emerged from a federal environmental review as the most practical site in terms of displacing fewer homes and businesses. Still, the line will affect landowners along Hempstead as the tracks extend from the proposed station into northwest Harris and southern Waller counties.

[…]

Almost all of the stores within the mall itself are closed. Only a handful of stores and venues with exterior entrances remain open.

City leaders also joined with Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, noting they hoped the station could spur rail development from Metro’s nearby Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said the site was chosen because its location gives the company ready access to many Houston area travelers. The area around Loop 610 and U.S. 290 is essentially the population center of the region, as development has spread rapidly north and west of the urban core.

“This is the best site for Houston for many reasons,” Aguilar said.

That happened on the same day that the public hearing for the draft EIS was held in Cypress. The Dallas end of the line was chosen last week. The Trib adds a few details.

The chosen location is about 1.5 miles from Northwest Transit Center, a major bus hub and the closest public transportation connection. Despite that distance, the company said in a prepared statement Monday that the station will provide “convenient, efficient and direct” connections to the Houston METRO transit system.

METRO does not currently have any light-rail lines in that part of the city. The agency is working on a long-term plan for expanded transit service.

“So we’re in a broad range of conversation and thought as to how to provide that connection,” Texas Central President Tim Keith told The Texas Tribune on Monday.

There’s pictures at Swamplot, so go check it out. It’s true there’s not much there now, but as you can see there are big plans to change that. There aren’t any transit connections yet, but we’re talking about a 2024 debut for TCR, so there’s a lot of time for stuff to happen. I feel confident the forthcoming Metro referendum will include an item to deal with this in some fashion. I’m looking forward to it.

Texas Central picks its midway stop

Hello, Roans Prairie.

A proposed high-speed train between Houston and Dallas on Thursday announced its midpoint, even as common ground with opponents near the proposed Roans Prairie stop remains elusive.

Texas Central, the company proposing the Texas Bullet Train, said the only stop between Houston and Dallas will occur at a 60-acre site along Texas 30, just west of Texas 90. The spot is about midway between College Station and Huntsville, officials said.

The announcement comes 10 days before a round of meetings to discuss the project, coordinated by the Federal Railroad Administration, following the release in December of an environmental assessment of the train line. The federal agency must still approve plans for the project, estimated to cost at least $12 billion. Public meetings start Jan. 29 in Dallas and move south. A meeting in Houston is planned Feb. 5.

[…]

The so-called Brazos Valley stop acts as the only other place people can hop aboard.

“This will drive growth in Texas not only to the big cities but also to the areas around the station. It’s going to be very exciting,” said Brady Redwine, a vice president of Texas Central, in a statement.

Grimes County residents, however, have been some of the staunchest critics of the project, which has faced stiff opposition from affected landowners and many rural residents who say the line is unnecessary and ruinous to their rustic surroundings.

Roans Prairie is in fact in Grimes County. One way of looking at this is that it’s a direct response by Texas Central to the criticism that the rural areas between Houston and Dallas where some land will need to be taken for the right of way will see no benefit from the train line. If this goes as planned, then one of the hotbeds of such criticism will in fact get something potentially quite substantial out of this. That could be quite the construction project, on that large tract of basically empty land. Put in the station, some retail, a place to eat, shuttle service to College Station and Huntsville and maybe one or two other places, and now you’ve got a lively enterprise in the middle of what was once nowhere. Will it change any minds? Can’t hurt to try.

No Amazon HQ2 for Houston

Never really expected that we’d be a top contender, to be honest.

Amazon ruled out Houston as a candidate for its $5 billion second headquarters on Thursday, delivering a blow to local leaders who had hoped to lure the Seattle tech giant to a four-mile stretch between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

The largest U.S. online retailer whittled down more than 200 proposals from North America cities to just 20, eliminating Houston but keeping the city’s longtime rivals Austin and Dallas on its short list.

Amazon’s decision marks a setback for local leaders including the Greater Houston Partnership, which led an effort last fall to pitch the city as an attractive market for the company to set down stakes.

“I believe this is a wake-up call for Houston,” GHP CEO Bob Harvey said in a statement. “While there has been growing momentum in the innovation space over the last couple of years, this is a clear indication that we have much more work to do as a region to grow our digital economy.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called Amazon’s decision ” disappointing and heartbreaking.:

But, he added, “It serves as a wake-up call that we must move at a much quicker pace. The city is well positioned, but it’s also is an indication that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done.”

[…]

In his statement Thursday, Harvey said Houston should focus on developing the Innovation Corridor and its technology sector further. He also said Houston should move forward with the proposed Houston Data Science Institute, a data center recently announced by the University of Houston.

“While we are the number one market in the country for STEM talent, we need to bolster our pipeline of digital tech talent that is relevant to tomorrow’s digital economy,” Harvey said. “This means working with our higher education partners across the region to develop and invest in programs that will produce the talent we need to succeed.”

But economists warned that Houston would rank low on Amazon’s wish list in the nationwide bidding war for a campus that could bring 50,000 jobs, saying the city lacked a robust public transportation system. Only 2 percent of the local population takes public transportation to work, according to Census data.

See here and here for some background. On the one hand, it’s always a bummer to miss out. On the other hand, I wasn’t excited at the thought of giving zillions of dollars in incentives and tax breaks to a behemoth like Amazon as deal-sweeteners. There’s too much of that going on already. Doing things like developing the Innovation Corridor and building a Data Science Institute, that’s fine and worthwhile as investments. And let’s be sure not to overlook the feedback about our public transportation infrastructure. Imagine where we could have been if we’d had a Congressional delegation that was unanimous in its support of of more robust transit system. We’ll have an opportunity to support that at the ballot box this November. If we’re serious about wanting to be more competitive with the cities we lost out to, we need to put our money where our mouths are. The Trib, Texas Monthly (which is very skeptical of the chase to lure in Amazon), Swamplot, and the Dallas Observer have more.

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.

Hyperloop versus high-speed rail

I’ve been pondering whether our state is big enough for two high speed land-based forms of transportation, and I think the answer is “yes, at least for now”.

The Hyperloop is nearly twice as fast as Texas Central’s High-Speed Rail project already in the works to connect Houston and Dallas. To boot, the lightning-quick travel time is not even direct. The journey is routed through Austin, which would act as a hub connecting the Texas cities.

Hyperloop One could also be operational before Texas Central’s line. In its announcement, Hyperloop One declared its intent to begin shipping freight by 2020 and passengers by 2021.

One major factor will be ticket pricing. Texas Central has not released specifics but expects pricing to be on par with airline prices. That will likely be far cheaper than the Hyperloop, which is expected to be around $330 one-way.

If Hyperloop One does move forward in Texas, it will likely face many of Texas Central’s same growing pains; the company has met plenty of resistance from Texas landowners. Unlike Texas Central, which is developing its project privately, Hyperloop One will work with government agencies on development in some capacity. Though the specific arrangement has not yet been detailed, Hyperloop One is already working closely with the Colorado Department of Transportation and has said it intends to continue government relationships wherever it ends up.

[…]

A spokesperson for Texas Central told Bisnow the two projects are not in competition. Hyperloop One is not building a direct line from Houston to Dallas. Texas Central sees the two different modes of transportation as complementary, similar to airlines.

See here for some background. I’m glad to hear that both Hyperloop One and Texas Central see their systems as complimentary and not competitive at this time. Things may change if they’re both successful, of course, but we’re at least a few years out from that. Unlike high speed rail, hyperloops are brand new and untested technology, so who knows what will happen with the development, but like high speed rail there is likely to be opposition from communities that this project will pass through. I have to think we’ll begin to hear more about this now that the chances of it happening here are greater. In the meantime, one of the lead planners with AECOMM on this project has been talking to the press about it – see this followup story in Bisnow and this DMN article for his thoughts. I remain excited by the possibilities, but still want to see this thing in action before I buy in all the way.

Texas remains in hyperloop competition

We’re still a long way from anything happening, but if it does it could happen here.

There’s still a chance Texans could be some of the first people in the world to whisk along in tubes at 700 mph.

Hyperloop Texas, a joint proposal of engineering firm AECOM and public agencies in the state, is one of 10 winners of the Hyperloop One Global Challenge, a competition to find the best routes for the system.

Hyperloop, the brainchild of Tesla founder Elon Musk, envisions vacuum tubes and travel pods making interstate travel at faster-than-flight speeds. In their proposal, AECOM estimated the trip from Houston to San Antonio could be made in 21 minutes. Getting to Austin would take another eight minutes. Houston-to-Dallas, not including the time for layovers, would take 48 minutes.

A freight component would use the Hyperloop system to ferry goods from Laredo to the Port of Houston.

[…]

Winning doesn’t mean anything will get built, but Hyperloop One said in a release it “will commit meaningful business and engineering resources and work closely with each of the winning teams/routes to determine their commercial viability.”

See here for the background. What I like about the proposed route is that it wouldn’t directly compete with the Houston to Dallas high speed rail line. You can get to Dallas from Houston via this route – indeed, you can get all the way to DFW Airport – but you have to go via San Antonio, so the total travel time is shown as 48 minutes, about what it would be for the Texas Central ride. Basically, this is the Texas T-Bone, with Laredo, DFW, and the Port of Houston as the endpoints. We can debate whether this technology is feasible or not, but if it is, then I hope subsequent routes include some of the spaces in between and elsewhere. Let’s add stations in New Braunfels and San Marcos and Waco, and do a similar T-Bone in the other direction, to bring in El Paso and Midland/Odessa and Lubbock and Amarillo. If it works, of course. I can dream, can’t I? KUT has more.

Paxton’s preemptive “sanctuary cities” lawsuit dismissed

Good.

Best mugshot ever

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks on Wednesday dismissed the state of Texas’ lawsuit against Travis County and other defendants over the state’s new immigration enforcement law.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a pre-emptive lawsuit shortly after the bill was signed in May seeking a ruling that the controversial measure is constitutional. Among the defendants named in Paxton’s suit were the city of Austin; Travis County and its sheriff, Sally Hernandez; and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

[…]

But opponents of the measure, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties, have argued the law violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Those entities filed a separate lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton in San Antonio, trying to prevent the law from taking effect. Oral arguments in that case were heard in June.

Sparks’ ruling means the case will stay in San Antonio.

In a statement, the attorney general said he was disappointed in Sparks’ ruling but that Wednesday’s decision has no effect on the San Antonio case.

“We were first to file a lawsuit concerning SB 4, filed this case in the only proper court, and moved quickly to consolidate other lawsuits against SB 4 in Austin,” he said. “The health, safety, and welfare of Texans is not negotiable. We’re disappointed with the court’s ruling and look forward to pressing our winning arguments in the San Antonio cases and beyond (if necessary) on this undoubtedly constitutional law.”

Though Sparks’ ruling Wednesday is a small victory for SB4’s opponents, they must now wait and see what U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia decides following a seven-hour hearing in Bexar County on June 26.

So that means that Judge Garcia will get to decide whether the law goes into effect on September 1 or if it is put on hold pending final judgment in the lawsuit. I don’t think this ruling changes the basic contours of the case, but as I recall if Paxton had prevailed in his lawsuit, that would have put the defendants he filed against on the hook for court costs. That’s no longer the case now. Now we await what Judge Garcia has to say.

Abbott versus the cities

The continuing story.

If Gov. Greg Abbott has disdain for how local Texas officials govern their cities, it didn’t show in a Wednesday sit-down with three mayors who were among 18 who jointly requested a meeting to discuss legislation that aims to limit or override several municipal powers.

“Whether we changed anybody’s mind or not, you never know,” said Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough. “But I will say it was a healthy conversation.”

What also remained to be seen Wednesday: whether Abbott plans to meet with mayors from the state’s five largest cities — who were also among those who requested to meet with the governor. So far, Abbott hasn’t responded to the requests from the mayors of Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Wednesday that when he was a member of the Texas House, Republican lawmakers repeatedly complained about government growing and overstepping its bounds.

“And now we find that the state government is really reaching down and telling local governments what they can or cannot do and pretty much trying to treat all cities as if we are all the same,” Turner said.

During invited testimony to the House Urban Affairs committee on Tuesday, several city officials and at least one lawmaker denounced what they said were overreaching and undemocratic attempts to subvert local governance.

“If people don’t like what you’re doing, then there are things called elections. I don’t see it as our job to overreach and try to govern your city,” said State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg testified that it felt like the state was waging a war on Texas cities.

“The fundamental truth about the whole debate over local control is that taking authority away from cities — preventing us from carrying out the wishes of our constituents — is subverting the will of the voter,” Nirenberg said.

At Wednesday’s meeting with Abbott, Yarbrough said he and his counterparts from Corpus Christi and San Marcos told the governor that local officials have a better finger on the pulse of city residents’ expectations and demands.

“We wanted to make sure we preserved the ability for local municipalities to be able to adjust and react to the needs of their community,” he said.

See here for some background. It’s mighty nice of Abbott to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule of threatening legislators to meet with these concerned constituents, but they shouldn’t have had to take time out of their busy schedules to try to persuade the Governor to leave over a century of accepted governance in place and butt out of their business. And not for nothing, but the cities whose Mayors Abbott has been ignoring are the reason he can make elaborate claims about how awesome the Texas economy is.

Let’s begin with population. The five counties that contain the state’s five largest cities have a combined 12,309,787 residents, which is 44 percent of the state’s total. If you want to talk about elections, the registered voters in those counties make up 42 percent of Texas’ electorate.

Those counties out-perform the rest of the state economically. Texas’ five biggest urban counties constitute 53.5 percent of total Texas employment. If you broaden it out to the metropolitan statistical areas, which include the suburbs as well, the proportion becomes 75.8 percent — and growth in those regions has outpaced growth in the state overall since the recession.

Not convinced Texas’ cities drive the state? Let’s look at gross domestic product: The state’s five biggest MSAs contribute 71 percent of the state’s economic output, a proportion that has increased by two percentage points over the past decade. Focusing just on counties again, workers in the ones that contain Texas’ largest cities earn 60 percent of the state’s wages.

If you look at the embedded chart in that story, you’ll see that the metro area that is doing the best economically is the Austin-Round Rock MSA, and it’s not close. It’s even more impressive when you take into account how busy the city of Austin has been systematically destroying Texas with its regulations and liberalness and what have you.

As I said in my previous post on this subject, quite a few of the Mayors that are pleading with Abbott to back off are themselves Republicans, and represent Republican turf. It’s good that they are trying to talk some sense into him, but I’d advise them to temper their expectations. Abbott and Dan Patrick and a squadron of Republican legislators, especially in the Senate, don’t seem to have any interest in listening. The one thing that will get their attention is losing some elections. What action do these Mayors plan to take next year when they will have a chance to deliver that message?

Mayors to Abbott: Don’t mess with our cities

Good luck getting through.

Less than 24 hours after Gov. Greg Abbott blasted local government restrictions like tree ordinances as a threat to the “Texas brand,” city government leaders statewide are seeking a meeting with the Republican leader.

“We would like the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the role cities play in attracting jobs and investments to support the prosperity of the State of Texas,” a letter signed by 18 mayors, including Houston mayor Sylvester Turner to Abbott states.

[…]

The letter from the mayors makes clear that they fear the Texas Legislature is overreaching and doing too much harm to local governments.

“Harmful proposals such as revenue and spending caps, limiting annexation authority, and other measures preempting local development ordinances directly harm our ability to plan for future growth and continue to serve as the economic engines of Texas,” the letter states.

The mayors on the letter include those from Houston, Amarillo, Arlington, Austin, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Fort Worth, Frisco, Galveston, Irving, Lubbock, McKinney, Plano, San Antonio, San Marcos, and Sugar Land.

You can see the letter here. You might note that some of the cities in question are Republican suburban kind of places. It’s not just us smug urbanites that would like to have our current level of autonomy left alone. I’m going to say the same thing to these Mayors that I’ve been saying to the business folk that have been working to defeat the bathroom bill, and that’s that they are going to have to follow up all these words with actions, because Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t care what they have to say. If you’re not working to elect better leadership in 2018, which in this case means leadership that is not actively undermining and degrading Texas’ cities, then you’re part of the problem too, and your words have no meaning. The Current and the Press have more.

Ellis seeks Harris County entry into SB4 litigation

From the inbox, an email from Commissioner Ellis:

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Despite strong opposition from law enforcement officials, faith leaders, local governments, civil rights organizations, constituents, and advocacy groups, Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the “show-me-your-papers” legislation, has been signed into law. The new legislation unfairly targets immigrant families, allows state-sanctioned racial profiling, and violates rights to due process. SB4 also undermines local governments by forcing them to choose between enforcing a blatantly unconstitutional law or facing strict punishment and excessive fines from the state.

As the nation’s third-largest county with the fifth-largest foreign-born population, Harris County is at particular risk under SB4. Immigrants are a vital part of our community and strengthen the social fabric of Harris County. This new legislation threatens to tear families apart. Immigrants cannot and should not be driven back into the shadows or live in fear because of this unconstitutional law.

Already, local governments have filed suit against SB4, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday in San Antonio. Just this past week, the Houston City Council voted to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Bexar County and other local governments in a consolidated lawsuit challenging the law.

As Commissioner, I will continue to stand with immigrant families and defend the right of local government and law enforcement to set their own priorities. In a June 9 letter, I asked Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan to seek authorization from Harris County Commissioners Court to join the lawsuit against SB4. I believe it is vitally important for Harris County to fight this unjust law and look forward to working with County Attorney Ryan on this important issue that we both care about. You can read the letter below:

SB4 is a reflection of the anti-immigrant sentiment permeating our society and stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. It upholds a flawed and outmoded form of immigration control that tears families apart, increases racial profiling, and violates due process. We need immigration solutions that attend to the complex issues surrounding reform with compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness in mind. And wherever there is discrimination, we must be prepared to speak out and take action.

I’ve got a copy of the letter, which was embedded as an image in the email that Commissioner Ellis sent, here. Houston-area Democratic legislators supported Ellis’ call with a letter of their own that calls on the Court to get involved. I can’t say I expect that to happen – unlike Houston City Council, Commissioners Court is 4-1 Republican – but given the unfunded costs on the county that SB4 will impose, as well as the decline in cooperation with law enforcement, you’d think there’d be a simple dollars-and-cents argument in favor of getting involved. Anything can happen, but I’m not holding my breath. Stace has more.

Houston officially gets in the SB4 litigation business

Well done.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council voted Wednesday to sue the state over its new “sanctuary cities” law, joining Texas’ three other largest cities in challenging the controversial measure.

Council voted 10-6 to join San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, El Paso County and several other local governments and nonprofits in a consolidated case challenging the state. Councilman Jack Christie abstained.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday.

“This is not an issue of our choosing,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “But when it ends up on your plate, you have to address it.”

Turner, who had shied away from the sanctuary cities issue for months, decided two weeks ago to put a lawsuit to a vote.

He was joined by council members Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Dwight Boykins, Karla Cisneros, Robert Gallegos, Mike Laster, Larry Green, David Robinson and Amanda Edwards in voting for litigation.

Council members Brenda Stardig, Dave Martin, Steve Le, Greg Travis, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh voted against a lawsuit.

See here and here for the background. No surprises in the Council vote, not that I expected any. One can make the case that a Council vote wasn’t strictly necessary – the Mayor has the authority to direct the City Attorney to get involved – but on procedural and political grounds I think this was the right call. Give everyone the chance to do the right thing, and demonstrate that majority support for this action existed. It’s possible Houston could have gotten involved sooner without this formality, but in a world where we were trying to get a pension reform bill through the Legislature, I think Mayor Turner (or anyone in his place) was going to wait until that was in the bag first. For sure, he’s loosed his tongue now that he’s gotten what he needed from Austin and is now playing defense.

The bottom line is that Houston did the right thing, and did it in time for the Monday court hearing. Better to be right slow than wrong fast, as long as it’s not too slow. The Trib has more.

Bathroom bill or NFL draft?

Back to some familiar questions as the special session looms.

The Cowboys have made their pitch to host the NFL draft.

Whether that occurs depends, in large part, on what happens in Austin this summer.

NFL officials have no interest in drawing a line in the ideological sand heading into next month’s special session of the Texas Legislature. It’s better to work behind the scenes than publicly antagonize at this stage. But the conclusion lawmakers reach on what bathrooms people are allowed to use impacts the Cowboys’ opportunity to land the draft, multiple sources said.

Other factors and cities are in play for the event. But when the NFL does announce the location of the 2018 draft, the special session will be complete and where the state stands on transgender rights will be known.

“We expect to have a decision on the location of next year’s draft later this summer/early fall,” said Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of communications.

The timing of the NFL’s decision isn’t tied to the Texas legislative schedule, which begins its special session July 18. The league has awarded the draft in August, September and October the last three years. But the timetable works to the league’s advantage by letting the issue play out without inserting itself into what has become a contentious public debate.

Again.

[…]

The NFL issued a release about inclusiveness and how its policies prohibit discrimination in the days leading up to the [Super Bowl in Houston]. A few days after the game in early February, when asked specifically about the so-called bathroom bill, McCarthy issued this statement on behalf of the league:

“If a proposal that is discriminatory or inconsistent with our values were to become law there, that would certainly be a factor considered when thinking about awarding future events.”

The question was asked in relation to the state hosting another Super Bowl, and that is how McCarthy’s response was applied. The headline became how Texas was in danger of losing out on future Super Bowls if the bathroom bill became law.

But the statement read “future events.” It didn’t limit the league’s response to the Super Bowl.

The draft, like the Super Bowl, is an event to be awarded.

We all know the drill here. I will note two points of interest. One, as the story indicates, the NFL is doing its work behind the scenes here so as not to provoke another hissy fit from Greg Abbott. And two, it would be awfully ironic if the NFL winds up showing more spine on this issue than the NBA did. Of course, for them to show that spine would mean that a bathroom bill did pass, so let’s hope they don’t get the opportunity. You can do your part to help with that by calling your legislators and letting them know in no uncertain terms that even the watered-down bathroom bill is bad for Texas. If even the NFL gets that, the Lege has no excuse.

Dallas gets in the fight against SB4

Good for them.

Mike Rawlings

Dallas is joining some other Texas cities, including Austin and San Antonio, in taking on the state’s so-called “sanctuary city” law.

Mayor Mike Rawlings made the announcement Wednesday afternoon, calling SB4 “unconstitutional” and a law that “greatly infringes on the city’s ability to protect” the public. According to Rawlings, the city attorney has “serious constitutional concerns” with the new measure, which goes into effect Sept. 1.

Rawlings said after Wednesday’s council meeting that he had already spoken with Austin Mayor Steve Adler and San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor about potential litigation.

“I told them both this was a serious issue,” Rawlings said.

A San Antonio federal district court announced Wednesday it would consolidate the lawsuits filed by all of the cities against the bill and designate the city of El Cenizo as the lead plaintiff. A hearing in that case is set for June 26.

[…]

The Dallas city code allows the city attorney to initiate litigation without the council’s approval. Rawlings made his announcement moments after the City Council met with City Attorney Larry Casto behind closed doors.

Rawlings said he wanted to make sure the council was aligned before Dallas joined the fray. He said Wednesday that a majority of the council agreed with Casto’s recommendation to take on the state.

“We are not a sanctuary city,” he said. “We live by the national laws, and now the question is who’s boss in all this. And this is an unfunded mandate. They’re telling us how our police officers should spend their time and not giving us any money to do that.”

Add yet another city to the list. Dallas may have joined in without it being clear whether they’d be on their own or as part of an existing lawsuit, but that matter appears to have been cleared up for them.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia Wednesday ordered that lawsuits challenging Senate Bill 4, which limits local law enforcement policies on immigration, by San Antonio, the border town of El Cenizo and El Paso County be joined in one large case.

Garcia denied a request by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to move those suits to Austin and combine them with a preemptive suit the state filed to have the law declared constitutional.

That also addresses the motion filed by Ken Paxton to combine all the lawsuits with the one he filed. It’s not clear to me why the San Antonio court responded to that and not the Austin court, but I assume the judges have their reasons. In any event, whether one lawsuit or many, the more the merrier. And as far as Houston goes, there may be some action later this month. The Trib has more.

More “sanctuary cities” plaintiffs gearing up

Local governments are not going down without a fight.

On Tuesday, which organizers said was the beginning of a “summer of resistance,” Austin City Council member Delia Garza said the city will move this week to take formal action to stop SB 4 in the courtroom.

“I am proud to announce today, with much gratitude for my colleagues, this Thursday we are poised to approve a resolution that directs our city legal team to take any legal action necessary to challenge this awful law,” she said at Tuesday’s rally, which was organized by the Austin City Council, Texas Organizing Project and United We Dream.

[…]

“I have to preserve the work of these brave leaders in Austin,” said Phillip Kingston, a member of the Dallas City Council. “We will be discussing intervening in the case, coming to the aid of Austin because we have a large city attorney’s office we have lots of legal resources.”

Later, El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said the Commissioner’s Court there voted 4-to-1 to move forward with a federal lawsuit in the Western District of Texas.

“We feel that it’s discriminatory and unconstitutional but also we have a settlement agreement … from back in 2006 that basically states we’re not able to have our law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law,” he said. “So [SB4]will in effect put us in non compliance.”

Stout was referring to a 2006 legal settlement that El Paso County agreed to after a local resident sued, accusing sheriffs’ deputies of conducting unlawful immigration checks at roadside checkpoints. The parties reached an agreement: The sheriff’s office had to “memorialize in writing its policies that prohibits Sheriff’s Department Deputies from enforcing civil immigration law.”

Paxton has since said that El Paso County would be in compliance but local leaders disagree. The El Paso Times reported that County Judge Veronica Escobar said the county would allocate about $150,000 for litigation costs.

There are multiple lawsuits already in the courts or in the works, plus the one filed by the state to try to head this off. The main question I have at this point is whether there will be a bunch of individual lawsuits filed by various entities – cities, counties, and school districts may all want in on the action – or one monster lawsuit with a gazillion plaintiffs. Either way, there will be no shortage of work for a lot of attorneys. One other point is that while several cities – Austin, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio – are gearing up to fight, as yet I have seen no indication that Houston will join in. I have seen some griping about this on Facebook, but so far it’s limited to that. CM Robert Gallegos was at the event in this story, but if anyone has asked Mayor Turner what his intentions are or if a Council member has announced an intention to push the issue, I have not yet seen it. The Statesman, the Observer, the Current, and the Press have more.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a flying car!

Seriously.

Uber is looking to North Texas as a testing ground for its initiative to make intra-urban flying vehicle rides a reality. The company announced Tuesday that Dallas and Fort Worth are its first U.S. partner cities for what its dubbing the “Uber Elevate Network.”

The company hopes to have the first demonstration of how such a network of flying, hailed vehicles would work in three years.

Uber is also working with Dallas’ Hillwood Properties to plan vertiports, sites where the aircraft would pick up and drop off passengers. Fort Worth’s Bell Helicopter is among companies partnering with Uber to help develop the actual vehicles, called VTOLs because they would vertically take off and land.

The announcement was made at a three-day Uber Elevate Summit being held in Dallas.

“This is an opportunity for our city to show leaders from around the world and across industries why Dallas should be a part of building a better future for urban mobility,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a prepared statement.

[…]

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Bell is developing propulsion technology to build electric airborne vehicles “that are quieter than the usual helicopter.”

“It’s not going to happen right away, tomorrow, but the technology is definitely there,” Bell chief executive Mitch Snyder told the newspaper. “We definitely believe the hybrid electric is something we could go make and fly right now. But I think full electric, to give it the range and everything you want out of it, is not quite there.”

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a prepared statement that she is “thrilled” her city is part of the Elevate initiative.

“Being in the North Texas region, which encourages innovation and responsible businesses to thrive, we trust that this will be a beneficial choice for the development of the Elevate project,” she said.

Fast Company reported that Uber is portraying Elevate as “a cheap alternative to building new roads and expanding public transit” but noted that Rawlings maintains Dallas has to provide as many transportation options as possible.

“Anytime there’s innovation in the marketplace, I don’t think anybody truly knows the results of these things, or the costs,” Rawlings told Fast Company. “We’ve got to be multimodal — there’s no question — in this city.”

Well, that’s one way to avoid traffic, I suppose. Someone should call up Avery Brooks and tell him his question may soon be getting an answer. Uber has a former NASA engineer working on this idea, for which they released a white paper last October, and they say they hope to have it off the ground (as it were) by 2020. How likely is that? Wired asked the same question.

If that sounds ambitious, you possess a basic understanding of the challenges involved here. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling customers through the air—electric, with vertical takeoff and landing capability, and capable of flying 100 miles in just 40 minutes—don’t exist yet. Nor does the infrastructure to support them. The FAA, an agency not known for speed, must ensure these aircraft meet all federal safety regulations and figure out where and how they fit into a complex air traffic control system.

Instead of cracking those problems on its own, Uber plans to punt. It hopes to play the role of a catalyst, spurring manufacturers to build the aircraft, the FAA to figure out the regulations, and cities to wave them in. Company CEO Travis Kalanick apparently wants to play the role of Elon Musk, who came up with the idea for hyperloop and is letting everyone else figure out how to make it work. The reward for playing Kalanick’s game? Accessing Uber’s 55 million monthly active riders in nearly 600 cities worldwide.

And here’s the crazy part: Uber could make it happen. “I think 2020 is realistic for a vehicle that is not replacing an airplane but replacing a car,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A purely electric aircraft might remain elusive, but a serial hybrid setup—where the aircraft carries a fuel-burning turbine to keep the juice flowing, much like the Chevrolet Volt—could work.

Which is not to say there aren’t other obstacles.

“If there are flying cars, then well obviously you have added this additional dimension where a car could potentially fall on your head and would be susceptible to weather,” [Tesla CEO] Musk said. “And of course you’d have to have a flying car [that operates by] autopilot because otherwise, forget it.”

Think weaving through traffic on a busy day is frustrating? Try adding an entirely new dimension to the mix. “Essentially with a flying car you’re talking about going 3-D,” Musk says. “There’s a fundamental flaw with cities where you’ve got dense office buildings and apartment buildings and duplexes, and they’re operating on three dimensions, but then you go to the street, and suddenly they’re two-dimensional.”

Getting your 3-D driving license from the DMV isn’t the only challenge a future of flying cars would have to overcome, Musk added. While Tesla has announced an update that promises to ease drivers’ “range anxiety,” seeing a flashing empty light while your car is in midair might cause more of a range heart attack. And just imagine being one of the poor street-bound souls if two-ton automobiles start falling out of the sky.

“Even in autopilot, and even if you’ve got redundant motors and blades, you’ve still gone from near-zero chance of something falling on your head to something greater than that,” Musk said.

So good luck with that, Dallas. I guess we may soon find out what a few billion dollars in venture capital and an utter disregard for the rule of law or the norms of society can do. The Verge and the Dallas Observer have more.

Houston hyperlooping

How soon can this be built?

A Texas plan using the Hyperloop concept envisioned by Tesla founder Elon Musk is one of 35 proposals from around the globe competing this week in Washington for bragging rights as the best initial project for the technology. Hyperloop One, the company currently testing the idea, sponsored the contest.

“From a planning perspective and from a regulatory perspective Texas is a good first step for Hyperloop,” said Steven Duong, the team leader, based in Dallas, for Hyperloop Texas. “Population is a big part of it, but not just population, but population growth. So is the climate in Texas for development.”

[…]

Though winning the contest guarantees nothing, there is benefit to putting Texas high on the map – if only for U.S. bragging rights. A good idea that generates investment, he said, might be the first one completed. In some ways Texas is ahead of proposals in places like the West Coast where interest is high, but so are the regulatory hurdles.

“There are states and areas with a progressive reputation out there … but from our standpoint, this is the place to do it,” Duong said.

The proposal, a feasibility study, is a very early look at possibilities and includes no cost projections or analysis of site-specific needs. While many Hyperloop projects focus on buried tubes and include tunneling into the ground, the Texas pitch envisions above-ground enclosed tubes, possibly with solar panels on top that would power the system, making it energy-efficient to the point of burning no fossil fuels.

See here for past hyperloop blogging. Elon Musk has been talking about building a “test track” for hyperloops in Texas for over two years now, so I hope this contest indicates that we are getting closer to something actually getting built. I’m not getting any younger, I want the future to get here already. Hyperloop One, the company sponsoring the contest, says it hopes to announce finalists by May. I can’t wait.

Deep thoughts:

If a Hyperloop happens in Texas, however, it could bring profound change. Already, the Houston region is stretched to the point where sense of place can be tough to define. Are Sugar Land residents Houstonians? What does it mean to live in a region of many cities?

A Hyperloop that makes drinks in Austin and dinner in Houston possible stretches that to even farther limits, Duong said.

“If you could travel between all these different cities, it kind of devalues what it means to put your roots down in a community,” he said. “That’s something we think about, talk about, a lot.”

I don’t know that I agree with that. I think where you actually live and where you do things like go to church and send your kids to school will still strongly determine what people think of as their community. I admit that a world in which you can easily be in Houston, Austin, and Dallas all in the same day will be different and may well cause some definitions of neighborhood and community to change and possibly expand. But I think that at some fundamental level we will still be rooted to the things we are rooted to now. Ask me again after this thing gets built. The Dallas Observer, the DMN, and Swamplot have more.

NCAA rewards North Carolina for its weaksauce HB2 repeal

So this happened.

Discrimination won the championship this year.

The NCAA announced Tuesday morning that it completely fell for the bait-and-switch concocted by Republican leadership in North Carolina’s legislature and Gov. Roy Cooper (D). Last week, they passed a compromise bill that repealed HB2, the state’s infamous anti-LGBT law, and replaced it with HB142, which consists of most of the same provisions that HB2 had.

In its statement, the NCAA acknowledged that “this new law is far from perfect” — but apparently, the organization’s standard is so low for standing by its LGBT students, staff, and fans that it’s still rewarding North Carolina by reopening the state for consideration in hosting championship events.

“We recognize the quality championships hosted by the people of North Carolina in years before HB2,” the NCAA wrote. “And this new law restores the state to that legal landscape: a landscape similar to other jurisdictions presently hosting NCAA championships.”

This is blatantly untrue. Only two other states, Arkansas and Tennessee, ban municipalities from passing LGBT nondiscrimination protections. No other state has North Carolina’s new prohibition on any subdivision of government creating policies assuring transgender people have access to restrooms.

“This new law has minimally achieved a situation where we believe NCAA championships may be conducted in a nondiscriminatory environment,” the organization wrote. “Outside of bathroom facilities, the new law allows our campuses to maintain their own policies against discrimination, including protecting LGBTQ rights, and allows cities’ existing nondiscrimination ordinances, including LBGTQ protections, to remain effective.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter if trans people can’t be guaranteed access to bathrooms — or that the state law imposing that burden continues to unfairly stigmatize transgender people as some kind of threat to safety — because everything else is apparently good enough for the NCAA to return.

Unlike the NCAA, many of the cities that punished North Carolina for its discriminatory legislation do not see the new law as a viable solution. The mayors and city councils of Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Cincinnati, and Salt Lake City have all reiterated that they still ban publicly-funded travel to the state.

See here for the background. It’s discouraging, but I suppose it’s par for the course for the NCAA. That said, my fear all along has been that just as North Carolina did the barest minimum to win back the NCAA, the SB6 zealots will tweak things enough around the edges to get the business lobby to back off. That may not happen with the full bill, but a scaled down version of it may happen with one of the zillions of budget amendments or other bills that may serve as a vehicle for some form of SB6.

And there are still concerns about Texas even as SB6 sits in the House.

San Antonio officials and other opponents of similar legislation in Texas have often cited the NCAA move as a cautionary tale. They worry the organization will move its 2018 Final Four championship games out of San Antonio if the proposal is signed into law, taking with it an estimated $135 million in local spending on restaurants, hotels and attractions.

Michael Sawaya, San Antonio’s director of Convention & Sports Facilities, said city officials continue to fight the bill, which “will create the perception that Texas is not an open and hospitable place to all residents, visitors and those who do business here.”

The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday regarding whether it would move the Final Four from San Antonio if the Texas bill is adopted.

So far, the NCAA hasn’t said publicly whether it would pull the San Antonio championship — which is expected to draw about 70,000 ticket-holding attendees — if the Texas bill passes.

The local Final Four organizing committee is working “full steam ahead” to secure thousands of volunteers and staff coordinating committees that will make decisions regarding security, transportation and marketing among other areas surrounding the event within the next 12 months, said Jenny Carnes, San Antonio Sports associate executive director.

“There have been no signs or indications of the NCAA backing off of what would be our normal timeline,” Carnes said.

NCAA’s North Carolina decision is a “positive” development but not a guarantee the organization won’t pull the Final Four championship from the city, said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio, the former city Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But, Visit San Antonio is currently booking fewer conventions and meetings because groups are waiting to see whether Texas Senate Bill 6 passes before they finalize plans, Matej said.

Two organizations have told Visit San Antonio they will not consider the Alamo City to host future conventions because of the bill, according to the organization. Nine other organizations are waiting to see whether the bill will pass before deciding whether to return to San Antonio, she said.

San Antonio would lose an estimated $40 million in convention and tourism spending if all 11 organizations decide to move their events.

In total, tourism officials in the state’s four largest cities — San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Houston — say they stand to lose a combined $407 million within the next few years just on the conventions and events that have already threatened to take their business elsewhere if Senate Bill 6 passes.

“Am I completely relieved and think we don’t still have to be communicating to our lawmakers?” Matej said. “No, I think we need to continue to explain and really impress upon our lawmakers it could have a negative economic impact for our community and around the state.”

It’s already had a big negative effect on our reputation. So far TAB hasn’t changed its tune on SB6, and I’m not aware of any other entity caving on HB2 as the NCAA has, so perhaps the benefit they got from tweaking HB2 will be limited to that. But this is a reminder that as nice as it is to have the business lobby on our side for this, the problem with SB6 is and always will be its capacity to hurt people. That will be the case no matter what the economics of it are. Deadspin and Slate have more.

The Trib and the DMN on the train

The Texas Tribune and the Dallas Morning News are teaming up on a deep dive into the Texas Central Railway’s high-speed rail proposal. This story, the third in their set, explains where the money to build this thing may come from.

But, really, how does a private company go about lining up the billions of dollars it needs to pay for a 240-mile bullet train line? And is it possible for it to actually turn a profit?

First, it’s important to distinguish between financing and funding a major infrastructure project, said Michael Bennon, managing director of Stanford University’s Global Projects Center.

Financing is how Texas Central will get enough money to build the high-speed rail line in the first place. Funding is the revenue that will keep the train running.

“They’re two very different things and people get them really mixed up,” Bennon said.

Financing is the more complicated side of the equation because it’s essentially a high-stakes gamble that may not pay off for decades.

Texas Central executives are confident they’ll be able to find the money, in large part because investors are hungry for “real assets” — tangible projects, basically — that could provide bigger returns than what’s available in today’s market.

Managers of huge pots of money, like private equity funds or pension funds, “have obligations to pay their plan holders and they need long-dated assets,” Keith said.

In other words, low interest rates and other factors have meant that there aren’t a lot of places to park portions of those pools that will reliably pay out to investors over long periods of time.

That’s part of why pension funds, which are supposed to be how workers get paid their retirement, are seeking out safer investments.

Upfront money from investors will pay for roughly a third of the project, Keith said. The other two-thirds will be debt.

So far, Texas Central has raised about $115 million from investors.

Keith said Texas Central is considering a range of financing options, including federal credit programs that would essentially provide cheap loans aimed at spurring infrastructure construction.

[…]

More private capital is finding its way into projects that were once the domain of government.

The McKinsey Global Institute recently noted that institutional investors — like the pension and private equity funds Keith mentioned — “seem like an obvious source of capital” in a world where increasingly urgent infrastructure projects are seriously underfunded.

Its report said institutional investors have $120 trillion to move around. Blackstone Group, the world’s biggest private equity firm, is reported to be raising as much as $40 billion for infrastructure investments.

Of course, there are caveats.

“To attract these investors, governments and other stakeholders need to develop their project pipelines, remove regulatory and structural barriers, and build stronger markets for infrastructure assets,” the McKinsey report said.

Public-private partnerships, like toll roads, have had mixed success, including in Texas.

Still, the McKinsey report underscores the hunger for worthy projects.

“Insurance companies and banks recount instances in which investors outbid each other in a rush to finance the rare infrastructure deals they consider ‘bankable’ and that have appropriate risk-return profiles,” the report said.

All that goes to say there are institutions that could theoretically bankroll a high-speed rail line. But only if it’s a sustainable business.

And that points back to the second part of paying for a big infrastructure project: funding.

Infrastructure projects rely on two main sources of funding — taxes or user fees, Bennon said. For public transit, it’s usually a combination of both.

Texas Central has promised not to use tax money as funding. That leaves ticket sales, plus smaller sources of side revenue from station parking fees and concessions. Texas Central has said the project passes muster, by that measure.

“This project is fully financeable based on ticket sales,” Keith said.

That’s what experts — and critics — are skeptical about.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. If you want to read the other stories, here they are:

Texas’ rural roots and urban future are on a high-speed collision course

“Come and take it”: Eminent domain dispute at heart of bullet train battles

Texas Central releases ridership study

From their website:

A comprehensive ridership study conducted by L.E.K Consulting has confirmed that Texas is ready for a privately developed Bullet Train line serving North Texas, the greater Brazos Valley and The Greater Houston Metro areas. According to this landmark study, 90% of the 16 million people living in the Texas Bullet Train service areas would save at least 1 hour on their journey times as compared to air or road travel. In addition, the overwhelming majority of surveyed Texan Travelers (over 83%) said they would use the Bullet Train in the right circumstances, with only 15% of survey respondents stating they would not consider any alternative but their personal vehicle. Looking further into the study, 71% of frequent travelers, and 49% of non-travelers said they either probably or definitely would use the Texas Bullet Train on their next trip to North Texas or Houston if it were an option today!

Bringing together end-to-end journey time analysis, primary market research on perceptions of high-speed trains, and long distance travel market size estimates, it is possible to develop estimates for future levels of demand for the Texas Bullet Train. Ultimately, the L.E.K study concludes that Bullet Train ridership is anticipated to ramp up to 5 million journeys by the mid 2020’s, and 10 million journeys by 2050. That’s 30% of the anticipated number of long-distance trips between North Texas and The Greater Houston Metro Area.

Here’s the study brochure. The main selling point is that travel times via Texas Central will be predictable and generally an hour or so less than either driving or flying, which includes the time it takes to get to the airport, get through security, get on the plane, and get your luggage afterwards. A large percentage of people they surveyed said they would the service, but then we kind of already knew that. I mean, they wouldn’t be investing all this money to build it if they didn’t have good reason to think that enough people would want to use it to make it profitable.

Here’s the Chron story about this. The main question remains whether Texas Central will ever get to build the thing in the first place.

Earlier this week, Waller County’s sub-regional planning commission – which has already stated its opposition to the train line’s passage through its area – filed a lawsuit in Austin against the Texas Department of Transportation, related to the transportation agency’s refusal to coordinate planning activities related to the line.

TxDOT, under the guidance of the Federal Railroad Administration – which ultimately will approve or deny plans for the line – is the state agency overseeing Texas Central’s environmental plans.

Waller County is claiming its objection and concerns to the line are being ignored, as federal and state officials prepare the environmental review.

“Without meaningful coordination, our community will suffer immediate and irreparable harm and that is totally unacceptable,” Waller County Judge Trey Duhon said in a statement.

The main obstacles at this point remain acquiring the land for the right of way, and whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain. If they can make it through the next legislative session alive, I like their chances, but that remains a big if. Click2Houston has more.

Superintendents begin speaking out against special education limits

Good for them.

The leaders of two of the state’s biggest school districts are calling on the Texas Education Agency to stop penalizing districts for giving specialized education to more kids than the agency has deemed prudent.

Superintendents Michael Hinojosa of Dallas and Pedro Martinez of San Antonio came out against the arbitrary enrollment target after a Houston Chronicle investigation found it has led schools across the state to keep tens of thousands of children with disabilities out of special education.

Hinojosa said he would launch a review of special education in Dallas, where, the investigation found, just 6.9 percent of students receive special education services such as tutoring, therapies and counseling – about half the national average.

“I was surprised to see (the special education percentage) so low,” said Hinojosa, who previously worked as a superintendent in Georgia. “I’m used to that number being higher.”

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza, who was hired last month, said he could not yet say whether the target should remain in place.

Already, some state officials have decried the state’s policy, and the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, has acknowledged it was likely to be “tweaked.”

The state Senate minority leader, Jose Rodriguez, has begun drafting legislation to address the issue.

“It’s important that we address this issue to ensure children with special needs and their families aren’t denied rights established by federal law,” said Rodriguez, D-El Paso, in a statement. “I’m deeply concerned that this arbitrary performance indicator has disincentivized schools from fulfilling their moral obligation, and obligation under federal law, to proactively search out kids who may qualify for special education services and give them initial screenings.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Because I am that kind of person, I will note again that we have yet to hear anything on this topic from either Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick. I’m glad that Sen. Rodriguez plans to file a bill to address this, but I have little to no faith that it will go anywhere in Dan Patrick’s Senate. He just doesn’t care about this. I do have faith that new HISD Superintendent Carranza will have something to say about this, and I hope we hear from him soon.

“Unholstered”

Some really good work by the Trib here.

The Texas Tribune spent almost a year attempting to collect information on police shootings from departments in the state’s 36 largest cities, which have a population of 100,000 or more, and was able to confirm 656 fatal and nonfatal shooting incidents involving 738 individuals that occurred between 2010 and 2015. Those 36 cities make up almost half of the state’s population.

It remains impossible to determine exactly how many more times police officers in Texas pulled the trigger, and the data vacuum isn’t just about total shooting incidents. At a time when much public attention — and political debate — is focused on police shootings of minorities, it is also virtually impossible to know how many shootings in Texas involve Hispanics, the state’s largest minority group, because some departments don’t distinguish between race and ethnicity in their records.

Frustration over the lack of readily available, standardized and reliable data on police shootings is widespread among lawmakers, criminologists and the general public, particularly after several deadly shootings — like those in Ferguson, Missouri, Minnesota and Baton Rouge — that have garnered national attention.

With such an information void in Texas, it’s difficult to find a starting point in assessing police interactions with communities — and any possible reforms or solutions, said Durrel Douglas, co-founder of the Houston Justice Coalition. “If we can’t get there, it’s absolutely frustrating,” Douglas said. “We have absolutely nothing to even start with.”

The FBI tries to collect nationwide data, but its statistics are incomplete and riddled with mistakes. Texas lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 requiring statewide reporting, but those efforts won’t capture all police shootings in the state.

Access to comprehensive information rests almost completely in the hands of local police departments. Departments in big cities, such as Houston and Dallas, post information on every police shooting on their websites. But a list from most departments can only be obtained through an open records request — and often after a fight over what information should be made public.

[…]

National record-keeping efforts are also inconsistent. The FBI’s database of police shootings — based on voluntary reporting by departments, which fluctuates from year to year — only includes fatal shootings, and even those are often undercounted.

From 2010 to 2014, the latest year for which FBI data is available, the Tribune confirmed at least 198 fatal shootings by the 36 departments examined. But it appears at least 89 fatal shootings were either not reported to the agency or reported incorrectly.

Additionally, the FBI’s incomplete database only counts fatal shootings, which the Tribune’s analysis shows made up just 36 percent of all shootings in Texas during that time.

Calling the current system a “travesty,” the FBI has said it plans to revamp its system for tracking police shootings in 2017, including expanding reporting to note other injuries caused by police. That would still miss instances in which police shoot but miss. From 2010 to 2015, 142 of those incidents made up more than one-fifth of all shootings in Texas’ biggest cities.

Read the whole thing, and be sure to click on the other stories in the series as well. We can’t understand the situation, let alone make sensible reforms as needed, if we don’t have the basic facts of it. Shootings are also only one piece of the puzzle, as people die in police custody for other reasons as well. That information is supposed to be collected but often isn’t, and the information we do have is not readily available. Grits for Breakfast contributing writer Amanda Woog, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the UT-Austin Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, has been working on this, with the data she has gathered at the Texas Justice Initiative website; here’s a podcast conversation with her about it. We need to know what is actually happening, we need all relevant entities to report their data in a timely and cooperative fashion, and we need to ensure there are consequences for not complying. Then we can move forward.

Feds leave oversight of Texas Central to the state

No change in status.

A proposed high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas will remain a mostly Texas matter following a federal decision which opponents cheered as a blow to the project, while backers said provided a definitive scope of the planning process.

The Surface Transportation Board on Monday determined it has no oversight of the 240-mile line planned by Texas Central Partners that has drawn opposition from rural residents while enjoying support in the two metropolitan areas because the project lies completely within Texas. Texas Central had argued its connectivity to Amtrak gave federal officials some oversight, but the board rejected that.

“Should Texas Central develop concrete plans that would make the Line part of the interstate rail network, such as an actual through ticketing arrangement with Amtrak or a shared station with an interstate passenger rail line, Texas Central could seek board authority at that time,” federal officials wrote in their decision.

[…]

Texans Against High-Speed Rail, formed to oppose the line’s development through rural areas, called the federal decision a major victory, along with a number of local elected leaders.

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the STB’s letter is embedded in the Chron story. I’m not sure how much difference this makes, because whatever the STB had decided to do, there will be a renewed effort among Texas Central’s opponents to put insurmountable obstacles in their way in the next legislative session. There’s a group of legislators – mostly rural, with some suburban, all east of I-35 – who oppose the proposed high speed rail line, and there’s a group of legislators – mostly urban, with some suburban, all in the Houston and Metroplex area – who support it. The former group is larger and more driven, but they are not close to a majority. The question is what happens if they manage to get a bill that would cripple the rail line out of committee. We don’t know how open the large number of uncommitted legislators are to either side’s arguments, and we also don’t know what Greg Abbott’s opinion is. If Texas Central can make it through the 2017 session without getting kneecapped, they will be able to start construction as they hope to later that year. I believe that once they do start building the line, it will become a lot harder to kill, though that won’t stop anyone from trying. This will be a big issue to watch in the spring. The Press has more.

Alignments proposed for Oklahoma City-South Texas passenger rail

Check ’em out.

TexasOklahomaPassengerRailStudyRoutes

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) have released 10 service and route options for new and improved conventional and high-speed passenger rail service connecting Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.  The options are evaluated in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

“This corridor is home to major financial, energy, and education centers that people rely on every day,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.  “Providing efficient, more reliable, and faster higher-speed passenger rail options to move between cities is crucial for the economy and the population to thrive.  I encourage those along the I-35 corridor to participate in the comment and public hearing opportunities so that they are able to learn more and share their input.”

During a 45-day public comment period, FRA and TxDOT will take comments on the 10 options and the seven recommended preferred options that the two agencies identified.  Four public hearings will also be held to give residents a chance to learn about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study, understand how their communities may be affected, and provide comments.

Current passenger rail service along the Interstate 35 (I-35) corridor includes three intercity Amtrak services from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth (Heartland Flyer), Fort Worth to San Antonio (Texas Eagle), and Los Angeles to New Orleans through San Antonio (Sunset Limited).

The DEIS addresses the relationships of the major regional markets within the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Program corridor in three geographic sections, and preferred alternatives are recommended for each geographic section separately.  The three sections of study are:

  • Northern Section:  Edmond, Oklahoma, to Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas
  • Central Section:  Dallas and Fort Worth to San Antonio
  • Southern Section:  San Antonio to south Texas (Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Laredo, and the Rio Grande Valley)

More than 10 million people currently live along the 850-mile corridor, which is expected to grow by 39 percent in Texas and 25 percent in Oklahoma City by 2035.  As a state with some of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation, spread out over hundreds of miles, Texas is now in high demand for alternative modes of transportation.  Since the majority of the state’s population is centered in the eastern half of state, along I-35 stretching into Oklahoma City, the highways have experienced increased congestion.

“More passenger rail service will help relieve already congested roads along the I-35 corridor and help this region manage the significant population growth on the way,” said FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg.  “I encourage everyone to provide feedback on the 10 options that FRA and the Texas DOT have presented to continue moving this effort forward.”

In fiscal year 2012, FRA awarded a $5.6 million grant to TxDOT to fund a study of new and improved passenger rail service to meet future intercity travel demand, improve rail facilities, reduce travel times, and improve connections with regional public transit services as an alternative to bus, plane, and private auto travel.  The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study evaluates routes and types of service for passenger rail service between Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and South Texas.

More information about the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study can be found here.  The Final EIS is projected to be released by early 2017.

There are three public hearings scheduled to discuss these alignments, on August 9, 10, and 11, in Laredo, Austin, and Arlington, respectively. Relevant documentation is here if you have a few hours to spare and an enjoyment of poring over PDFs, while TxDOT’s page on the project is here. Just looking at the map, which I have embedded above, doesn’t give a clear picture of where the tracks would be. Streetsblog says it wouldn’t actually stop in “urban Austin”, but the map seems to indicate it would go near or by the airport, so perhaps this is a question of terminology.

This project has been kicking around for awhile – Oklahoma got a federal stimulus grant in 2009 to study rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, which isn’t actually part of this proposal but may have been the genesis of what we now have – with TxDOT creating the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study page in late 2013; as you can see at that link, there’s a separate project to link this rail line, if it happens, to the Houston-Dallas high speed line, if that happens. An extension into Mexico has also been floated, though I have no idea if we’re even allowed to say that sort of thing out loud any more. As this is a TxDOT project, one presumes that there won’t be any questions about whether or not this qualifies as a real railroad for eminent domain purposes, which is not to say that there won’t be any resistance to the possibility. I’m never sure how seriously to take this, as TxDOT has never been all that interested in anything but roads and there are plenty of ways for the chuckleheads in Congress and the Lege to put up obstacles, but we are at the DEIS stage, and that’s progress. What do you think? See here for the impact statement, and KVUE has more.

GetMe waits in the wings

No matter what happens with the rideshare repeal referendum in Austin, there will be at least one vehicle for hire company in the capital city.

Early voting is underway in Austin on Proposition 1, where residents will decide which regulations the city should adopt for vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft.

Both companies have pledged to leave the city if the proposed ordinance is not adopted — a claim they’ve made good on in three Texas cities this year. But at least one ride-hailing company insists it can fill the gap Uber and Lyft would leave behind.

“We’re not going to be the donkey or the elephant,” said Jonathan Laramy, the chief experience officer for Get Me LLC, which the company has stylized as getme. “We’re here to stay. Vote Prop. 1, vote Prop. 2 – we don’t care.”

[…]

Laramy said getme — which currently operates in Austin, Dallas, Houston and Las Vegas — is willing to adhere to any local regulations, as long as the process for obtaining fingerprint-based background checks is “fast, easy and cost effective.”

“We’re a good corporate citizen,” Laramy said, adding that the company is willing to collaborate with cities on their regulations.

While his company is still working out the specifics, Laramy said that “at some point, we will fingerprint all of our drivers” — even in cities without a requirement.

If Austin voters do not approve the proposed ordinance, Uber and Lyft have said they will leave the city — although The Daily Dot reported last week that Uber fully intends to stay, regardless of the outcome of the election. If the companies leave, Laramy said getme would be prepared to process a potential influx of driver applications.

“We have a platform where we could actually — and we already have this in place and ready to go — sign up conceivably 5,000 drivers in a month, if not more,” Laramy said. He would not elaborate on specifics of the plan, but he said it involved “using information that’s already been done and then verifying and showing us that.”

After starting up in Dallas in February 2015, getme recently relocated its headquarters to Austin. Laramy said it has more than 10,000 drivers across the four cities where it operates, more than 2,000 of whom are in Houston. The company boasts 6 corporate employees and a handful of contractors, making it a significantly smaller operation than ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft.

Laramy says the company soon plans to offer services in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and Atlanta. In Texas, he said, the company is launching operations in Galveston next week and Corpus Christi this summer.

This follows Uber’s cessation of operations in Galveston and Corpus Christi earlier this year after both cities adopted fingerprint background check requirements. Laramy said getme’s interest in both cities was unrelated to Uber’s actions and that they had planned to launch in both locations well before Uber left.

“You can’t get home if you take a ride down there,” said Laramy, describing someone looking to travel between Houston and Galveston using getme. “It’s silly not to have both cities.”

See here and here for more on GetMe, which will likely get a little extra exposure here in Houston now as well. That Daily Dot report seems thinly sourced and contradicts everything we’ve heard so far, but who knows. Regardless of the outcome on May 7, I suspect there will be more than a few people in Austin looking for an alternative to Uber and Lyft, so whether they clear out or not, this is a smart move on GetMe’s part. Has anyone out there used them?

AG upholds Dallas Zoo ban on guns

For now.

It’s back

The Dallas Zoo can continue to ban guns at its 106-acre campus in Oak Cliff after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this week rejected a citizen complaint that the zoo’s firearms policy violated state law.

Paxton’s office said in a letter dated Wednesday that the zoo qualifies as an amusement park. That’s an area where state law says the licensed carrying of handguns can be prohibited, so long as the proper notice is given.

So the privately-run zoo can keep up the signs prohibiting both concealed carry and open carry that it has posted at its entrance.

“We’re heartened that the Attorney General realizes that our zoo … isn’t the place for weapons,” Gregg Hudson, the zoo’s president said in a news release. “The vast majority of our guests are families with children, and they have strongly supported us on this issue.”

Edwin Walker, a Houston attorney, had challenged the zoo under a new state law that allows Texans to formally complain about some local “no guns” policies. His complaint was one of about 50 that have been filed in Texas since September.

He said on Friday that he disagreed with the ruling – arguing that the zoo shouldn’t be able to ban guns since it is owned by the city of Dallas. He predicted that the Legislature, run by gun-friendly Republicans, would take up the issue next year.

“I certainly don’t think that the Legislature envisioned, whenever they created the exception for amusement parks … that a piece of government property would be viewed as an amusement park,” Walker said.

[…]

The zoo offered a multi-pronged argument for why it could ban firearms, including that it should count as an educational institution. But the attorney general’s office ignored those other claims and focused only on the Dallas Zoo’s amusement park exemption.

The carve-out dates back to 1995 and the legislation that created concealed carry in Texas. Then-Rep. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, amended the bill create an exemption aimed at the state’s major theme parks, such as Arlington’s Six Flags Over Texas.

“The nature of the rides and the activities at these theme parks are such that they could create a hazard,” he said during the House debate on the bill.

Today, privately owned theme parks like Six Flags don’t need that specific exemption to ban guns. That’s because the state’s gun laws were tweaked in 1997 to create a process for all private property owners to be able to prohibit guns if they so choose.

The eight-point definition for an amusement park exemption, however, remains part of the gun statutes. And the Dallas Zoo – which, for instance, has security guards on its premises at all times – meets all of those listed standards.

Point being, the Houston Zoo, which had taken down its “no guns” signs then put them back up after declaring itself an “educational institution”, can’t take any comfort from this opinion. And even if they could, I’m certain that Walker is correct and the Lege will trip over itself to accommodate the people like Walker who can’t feel safe anywhere unless they’re armed. So enjoy the reprieve while you can, zoo fans.

Earthquake!

It’s a real risk in Dallas now.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has a 1 to 5 percent chance of experiencing an earthquake strong enough to damage buildings in the next year, the U.S. Geological Survey said Monday.

That risk has grown tenfold since 2008, when the area began experiencing a surge of mild to moderate-sized quakes, said Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project at the USGS in an exclusive interview with The Dallas Morning News. North Texas’ earthquake hazard is now on par with parts of Oklahoma and California.

“One of the big concerns for me is that there is a very high population density in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and this activity is taking place within that area,” he said.

Last week, The News obtained a report, produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, detailing the potential damage from earthquakes of magnitude 4.8 and 5.6, which fall within the hazard map predictions.

The vast majority of damage to buildings would be minor, such as cracks in walls and ceilings. “I don’t want people to feel like their houses are all going to come down,” Petersen said.

But he said he couldn’t rule out a larger earthquake because the Dallas-Fort Worth area has long faults running through it that may have the potential to rupture.

Earthquakes and their risks are in the news this week because of a new report from the US Geological Survey that mapped out the risks of both natural and human-induced earthquakes. Here’s NPR.

A decade ago, an Oklahoman could count the number of noticeable quakes on her fingers. “In this past year, we had over 900,” says USGS seismic hazard expert Mark Petersen. “So the rates have surged.”

Petersen says induced quakes have become more frequent because there’s more wastewater from oil and gas operations around the country that has to be disposed of. Companies pump it down into underground wells, and sometimes that water raises pressure on underground faults that then slip and cause small quakes.

Industry officials say the percentage of waste wells that pose quake risks is very low. But with the rise in hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which produces a lot of polluted water that needs to be disposed of, the overall number of waste wells around the country has skyrocketed.

The new maps also include the risks of natural quakes around the country, as they have in the past. Those risks haven’t changed much. But the number of induced quakes has increased tenfold since 2014, according to the USGS.

Petersen notes that most of these induced quakes are not likely to bring down buildings. Most are in the range of magnitude 3 or 4, which are minor. But some are above magnitude 5, which can do serious damage — cause cracks in your house, for example, or in bridges and roads.

[…]

“I think that we need help people understand that they do face a risk in these areas of induced earthquake activity,” Petersen says, “and they need to take precautions just like people in California do.”

Taking precautions against induced earthquakes — such as strengthening buildings or changing insurance rates — might be tricky, though.

Mark Zoback, a geophysicist at Stanford University who studies induced quakes, says: “It’s important to recognize the risk that these maps point out, but that risk is going to change depending on what’s happening on the ground.” Wastewater wells may not be active for more than a few months or a year; after that, they may no longer pose a risk. Meanwhile, it can take years for a state or community to change building codes to make structures more quake-sturdy.

Moreover, some states have started to ban or limit waste wells in these quake zones. “And in the few places where the injection has stopped,” Zoback says, “the earthquakes have stopped.”

Zoback adds that the boom in oil and gas exploration in some places is dwindling, which would likely mean fewer waste wells and lower risk. On the other hand, wherever the industry drills new waste wells could become the next quake hot spot.

Can’t wait to see what the discussion of this looks like in next year’s Legislature. Assuming they’re allowed to talk about it at all, of course. Vox and the Chron have more.

Recycling officially re-upped

That new recycling agreement with Waste Management was on Council’s agenda yesterday. Here’s a reminder of what it was about.

Originally, Houston was to ink a four-year deal with Waste Management, paying a $95-per-ton processing fee, a nearly 50 percent price hike. [Mayor] Turner, hoping the market would rebound quickly and strengthen the city’s negotiating position, countered with a one-year deal at a higher processing fee, but Waste Management rejected that.

The deal facing a vote Wednesday is a two-year agreement that omits glass, which is more costly to process and comparatively less valuable to resell, and carries a $90-per-ton processing fee.

Compared to what other Texas cities pay, that figure – and even the $65-per-ton processing fee Houston paid under its expiring contract – is an outlier.

San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth all pay their recycling contractors about $35 per ton to process recycled material; in the latter two cities, Waste Management is the vendor.

The other Texas cities’ contracts are much longer than any of the deals Houston was considering, however, and took effect when the market was stronger.

Dallas’ deal, inked in 2007, expires at the end of the year. Fort Worth’s current agreement began in 2013 and expires in 2018. San Antonio began its contract in August 2014, as commodities entered their current slide; that deal runs through 2024.

Only Austin pays rates similar to Houston’s, under 20-year deals with two contractors that began in 2012. Balcones Resources, which gets 60 percent of Austin’s recyclables, collects $79 per ton to process the first 2,000 tons of material every month and $75 for every ton after that. Texas Disposal Systems, which gets the remaining material, charges $90.50 per ton.

“We were in a really tough spot since we were negotiating the contract at a time when commodity prices are at one of their lowest points, and other cities had the advantage of negotiating during more favorable commodity markets,” said Melanie Scruggs of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We’re also at a disadvantage because Waste Management has a monopoly and apparently there are no firms large enough that take residential recycling.”

[…]

Scruggs said a key difference between Houston and its peer cities is that Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have adopted waste diversion goals backed by investments in public education, recycling programs at apartment buildings or composting efforts. Those efforts have strengthened the cities’ recycling markets.

“It’s a signal the city is going to be providing, whether it’s ordinances or publicly funded incentives, things that would benefit their business,” Scruggs said. “Houston has no such environment for recycling as of yet, which is why we’ve been advocating that the city get a zero-waste goal and a plan.”

Turner on Tuesday said one of the options the city could consider at the expiration of the recycling contract in two years would be drafting a “recycling plan that is robust for Houston.”

In the end, the new contract was approved, with two No votes. The city and groups like TCE will get the word out to people about not putting glass in their bins. In a best-case scenario, people will bring glass to recycling centers and the city will make a few bucks from that to help offset these other costs. Most likely, the vast majority of that glass will wind up in trash bins, which will cost the city some money but not as much as it would for the glass to be in the recycling bins. A Zero Waste goal and plan would probably help with that – you can see the TCE make its case for that here – so I hope the city begins consideration of a “draft recycling plan” before this contract expires.

Plane sharing

Sure, why not?

Ken Haney has flown in the cockpit of military and commercial planes for more than 35 years. His business partner Steve Geldmacher has logged more than 4 million miles as a traveler. Both say they have watched too many fliers lose valuable time to crowded airports, security lines and flight delays.

“We both basically went through and saw firsthand the difficulties in traditional commercial flying and really wanted to change the dynamics of how that model works,” Geldmacher said.

A better option for business, they decided, lies somewhere between commercial flying and chartering a private aircraft. Their company, Texas Air Shuttle, is the latest in Houston to cater to the burgeoning demand for ride-sharing in the sky. They are set to launch service in the next month or so with all-you-can-fly memberships starting at $1,895 a month that let travelers reserve seats on a plane that runs scheduled flights.

Dallas-based Rise and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based JetSmarter already offer members this semiprivate service to and from the Bayou City.

“It says there’s a huge demand for an alternative service like this to commercial,” Geldmacher said. “It says that people are fed up with commercial flying and the experience that goes along with it.”

[…]

Hans Reigle, director of the Aviation Program at Delaware State University, said memberships for such services are reasonably priced compared with maintaining one’s own flight operations. He agreed that dips in the economy should boost their popularity as corporate flight departments downsize.

“It’s a safe, efficient way to have the benefits of corporate aviation without all of the costs,” Reigle said.

But some worry about the security and regulatory oversight of ride-sharing services.

“Ride-sharing programs that don’t screen passengers and their baggage present a significant risk to the flying public. If a stranger can board an aircraft bristling with weapons or worse, an explosive device, that’s clearly a problem,” Scott Bickford, co-founder of the Air Charter Association of North America, said in a written statement.

“Of course,” he added, “if there are ride-share programs that screen passengers and baggage, then this isn’t an issue. The concern is that it should be a regulatory requirement, not a decision by ride-share companies whether or not to screen passengers and their baggage.”

Flight-sharing companies in Houston emphasized safety, noting that they have various processes for screening passengers. They say they’re Argus Gold Rated or work with operators that have, at minimum, this third-party safety rating for charter operators or the Wyvern Wingman Standard safety benchmarking.

Companies also touted their ability to save time. A 2013 report identifying the impact of stress in business travel found that an average of 5.2 hours are lost per domestic trip, according to consulting firm CWT Solutions Group. This lost time arises from factors such as getting to the airport and flying economy class on medium- and long-haul flights.

Geldmacher estimates he’s spent the equivalent of four years walking in terminals, waiting at gates and sitting in planes as they taxi for takeoff. That’s on top of actual flight time, he said.

Ride-sharing services say they reduce this time by favoring smaller airports over congested hubs. Travelers don’t hunt for parking, and they don’t wait in long security lines.

“It’s all about making them productive,” Haney said. “Time is money.”

Texas Air Shuttle, which is based at Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport, will begin with flights to smaller airports in the Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Midland and Oklahoma City areas. It wants to add flights to Austin, New Orleans, northwest Arkansas, Corpus Christi and Harlingen. The three-year goal is to fly to more than 40 markets and offer 250 flights a day.

The parallels to Uber/Lyft and the cab industry are obvious, though any regulatory fights will play out at another level. It seems to me that a regional high-speed passenger rail system could be the biggest competitor to an outfit like this, since they could be competitive on travel times as well as being a lot cheaper. We’re a long way off from that, even once Texas Central gets rolling, so they have nothing to worry about on that front at this time. It’s more a matter of reaching the market that might be best suited for them.

TOP releases report on inefficiency of development tax subsidies

From the inbox:

[Thursday], the Texas Organizing Project and the Workers Defense Project released a report on the ineffectiveness of tax subsidies in cities across Texas, and proposed ways to increase requirements for such deals in Houston to offer benefits in the form of good paying jobs with community investment for Houstonians.

The report, compiled by the Workers Defense Project, looked at corporate tax subsidies throughout the state, including Houston, and found that Texas’ cities are giving away huge subsidies without enforceable community benefits agreements.

“Today, we are asking the hard, critical questions,” said Lola Garcia, a community leader with the Texas Organizing Project, “Economic development for whom? For out-of-state multi-billion dollar companies and wealthy developers? Or for neighborhoods and Houstonians in need?”

After analyzing Houston’s tax subsidy deals, contracts and compliance records, researchers found that Houston’s tax subsidy programs have failed to deliver on their promises of equitable development, specifically, they:

  • Failed to create good jobs that pay well;

  • Failed to incentivize affordable housing, and instead contributed to the gentrification of our neighborhoods; and

  • Failed to create a level playing field for small and local businesses to access these programs.

“It’s time to address the city’s long history of picking winners and losers through tax give-aways that fast-track gentrification and fail to provide any direct benefits to neighborhoods most in need of a lift,” said Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director for TOP. “The good news is that we have the opportunity to change this narrative, to redesign the programs, raise and clarify the city’s expectations and criteria for developers seeking multi-million dollar tax deals.

“We know Mayor Turner is committed to creating good jobs for Houstonians, and this research can help us set new standards on economic development projects.”

Get the full report here: The Failed Promise of the Texas Miracle: Corporate subsidies in the Lone Star state.

And here’s the executive summary:

Over the last year, researchers from the Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas at Austin have undertaken a study of tax subsidies and other economic incentives utilized at the state and local level to spur economic development in Texas. Researchers sought to understand the role economic incentives play in the Texas economy by examining how these programs have fulfilled or failed to fulfill their promise of creating high-quality, high-paying jobs and increasing local tax revenue. While there are over a dozen kinds of giveaways to businesses in the form of tax breaks, loans and grants in Texas, our research team conducted a thorough case study of one of the least transparent local programs: Chapter 380 (city) and Chapter 381 (county) agreements, which provide grants, tax breaks, and low-cost loans to corporations. To understand the impact of these economic programs, our research team combed through thousands of pages of contracts and compliance records from three Texas cities and county governments: Austin & Travis County, Houston & Harris County, and Dallas & Dallas County.

Researchers also examined data from over a dozen local, state and federal agencies including city and county governments, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the State Auditor’s Office, among others. Additionally, researchers reviewed existing studies from numerous academic sources on the impact of economic incentives, as well as existing data on state incentive programs, including the state-level equivalent of Chapter 380/381 agreements: The Texas Enterprise Fund.

To provide context for the use and impact of Texas’ economic incentive programs, we have structured this report around the three pillars necessary to build a strong economy: good job creation, investment in education and training, and fair market competition. Researchers found that while the Lone Star State has made substantial investments to attract Fortune 500 companies to the state, it has failed to invest in Texas businesses and workers, and left many homeowners footing the bill for billions that have been doled out to big business. This study seeks to provide in-depth analysis to how these tax subsidy programs work, how they have failed or fulfilled their promise to Texans, and to provide robust solutions to ensure that our state builds a strong economy that puts Texas business, workers, and taxpayers first.

I’m not opposed to the idea of economic incentives. There does need to be a good, measurable return on the investment, there needs to be a way to enforce the agreements, and the benefits need to be distributed equitably among the population. There’s plenty of room to do all of these things better. The full report is here, and the Austin Chronicle, the Press, and KUHF have more.

#IWillProtectYou

This is great and terrible at the same time.

Melissa Yassini and her 8-year-old daughter, Sofia, spend some time every evening reading messages from the thousands of people who have told Sofia not to be afraid just because she’s Muslim.

Sofia’s story of terror that she would be forced to leave America inspired a social media campaign with a hashtag, “#IWillProtectYou,” that has generated posts from soldiers, veterans and others supporting her.

“A lot of them, they call her out by name,” Melissa Yassini said on Wednesday. “That’s very important to her.”

Melissa Yassini originally shared her daughter’s response to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump calling for a ban all Muslim immigration into the United States.

Sofia heard about Trump’s proposal while the family was watching the evening news. While Trump has said he isn’t targeting American Muslims, her mother said Sofia didn’t make that distinction.

She packed a bag with Barbie dolls, a tub of peanut butter and a toothbrush. And she checked the locks of her family’s home because she thought soldiers were coming to take her away.

[…]

Yassini said her daughter is less afraid, but still nervous. She blamed Trump’s comments about Muslims – which also include suggestions that he would require Muslims to register with the federal government or carry identification cards – for driving anti-Islamic sentiment.

“Trump’s words don’t just end at what he says on that podium,” she said. “It’s far more reaching than that. When he goes on and says these things, it almost legitimizes or empowers the general public that they can say what they feel with Muslims.”

Search Google or Facebook for plenty more. It’s wonderful that so many Americans are expressing their support for a scared little girl. It is, to use a word with which Donald Trump is familiar, disgusting that there was ever a need for this. And let’s be clear, the problem goes well beyond Donald Trump. If I thought Trump and people like him had any capacity for shame for their actions, I’d hope they are now feeling it acutely. I’ll settle for the hope that there are fewer of them that need to feel it than I fear.