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What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit involving voters from Houston and Dallas.

A Houston woman who was forced to turn a firefighters T-shirt inside out at the polls and a Dallas-area man who tried to vote in his Trump MAGA cap are suing a long list of public officials in federal court here for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June invalidating a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue oriented” apparel at the polls. The case filed in Houston federal court Thursday on behalf of two Texas voters was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group that won the free speech victory in the Minnesota case.

The conservative foundation wants a Houston judge to overturn the Texas law that restricts what people can wear when they vote. Texas is one of several states that still have clothing restrictions on the books. The concern is not just that voters won’t feel free to express themselves, but also that enforcement by poll workers will be “arbitrary and erratic.”

Douglas Ray, an special assistant overseeing election issues at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. said the county will defend itself but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who was also sued — will likely take the lead. County officials last dealt with this issue in 2010, when voters showed up at the polls with Obama-related gear, Ray said. President Barack Obama was not on the ballot, but several measures that reflected his policies were, he said.

“What we tell the election judge is they have the power to adjudicate when they think electioneering is going on and when it’s not,” said Ray. “We tell them to make that determination based on a totality of the circumstances and if it’s consistent with advocacy for somebody or some party that’s on the ballot.”

In the case of the firefighters shirts, Ray acknowledged the county was aware the shirts caused friction at the polls. “We had a lot of trouble with that during the last election because there were people wearing these yellow shirts with red lettering that said ‘Vote for Prop B’ but they were almost identical to a shirt that just said ‘Houston Fire Fighters.’”

He said the shirts had the same colors, logo and lettering but one had “Vote for Prop B” and one didn’t. The county attorney’s office advised election judges that the yellow shirts were problematic if they said something specific about voting.

“But that is just advice,” Ray said. “The election judge in that situation makes the adjudication.”

[…]

The Texas law is more specific than the Minnesota one that the Supreme Court addressed last year, which could help or hurt the case, according to David Coale, a constitutional law expert at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas. The Minnesota law prohibited voters from wearing political badges, buttons or other political insignia to the polls, while Texas law prohibits inside or within 100 feet of the voting site the wearing of badges, insignia, emblems representing any a candidate, measure or political party appearing on the ballot or to the conduct of the election.

“The Supreme Court said it was a legitimate state interest to have a polling place free of distracting political activity. But by doing so, it still requires the election official to make judgment calls about what ‘relates to’ the election…and also means that the official can get it wrong,” Coale said. “The argument that a ‘MAGA’ hat ‘relates to’ the subject of this election is not a strong one. I think that is why the Pacific Foundation focused on this case as its test case, to get some law made on how far away from the specific subject of an election you can be and still ‘relate to’ it.”

There are always going to be some issues when you are relying on individual election judges to exercise their own judgment in interpreting election law. We see plenty of examples of this every year with the voter ID law and whether or not the name on their ID matches what’s on their voter registration card. Restricting what is allowed at the polling place is much more fraught than that. Wherever a line is drawn for what is acceptable, there will be cases right on that line where reasonable people may disagree. I have a certain amount of sympathy for these plaintiffs, but I don’t know that it adds up to enough weight to warrant throwing out the existing law. I suspect the courts will say that it does, but we’ll see.

The down side of scooters

Watch out for that tree. And that pedestrian, and that street light, and that strange bump in the sidewalk, and that abandoned scooter someone just left lying there…

Photo: Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News

In September 2017, Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room doctor, and Catherine Lerer, a personal injury attorney, started seeing electric scooters everywhere. Santa Monica, California, where they live, was the first city where the scooter company Bird rolled out its rechargeable two-wheelers, which could be rented with a smartphone app and dropped off anywhere. Lime and other scooter companies soon followed. As riders zipped down the street, reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour without helmets, both Trivedi and Lerer thought of the inevitable injuries.

Soon enough, victims of e-scooter accidents, both riders and pedestrians, began to show up in the ER. “I started seeing patients who had significant injuries,” Trivedi recalls. Calls about scooter-related injures poured into Lerer’s office. She says she now gets at least one new call a day. “We recognized that this is a very important technological innovation that has a significant public health impact,” Trivedi says.

More than a year after the Birds landed, Trivedi and researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have authored the first study to quantify the public health impact of e-scooters. Their peer-reviewed study, published in JAMA Network Open, details 365 days of scooter crashes, collisions, and wipeouts. Digging through records from two Los Angeles-area emergency rooms, the researchers found 249 patients with injuries serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER. In comparison, they found 195 bicyclists with injuries and 181 pedestrians with similar injuries during the same period.

The goal of the study was to characterize how people were getting hurt, as well as who was getting hurt. Of the 249 cases the study looked at, 228 were riders, most of whom were brought to the ER after falling, colliding with an object, or being hit by a moving vehicle. The other patients were injured after being hit by a rider, tripping over a scooter in the street, or getting hurt while attempting to move a parked scooter. About 31 percent of patients had fractures, and around 40 percent suffered from head injuries. Most were between the ages of 18 and 40; the youngest was eight and the oldest was 89. While many of the injuries were minor, severe and costly injuries like bleeding in the skull and spinal fractures were also documented. Fifteen people were admitted to the hospital.

Trivedi thinks that the actual number of scooter injuries was likely higher, since the study took a conservative approach to tallying up patients, focusing only on standing electric scooters and dropping many ambiguous cases. (It also eliminated instances where riding a scooter was not the cause of a scooter-related injury—such as assaults where a scooter was used as a weapon, or injuries during attempts to steal a scooter.)

That’s from California, and it’s a partial picture of what has been observed in Los Angeles, based on two emergency rooms. The authors didn’t extrapolate from there, but it’s clear there would be a lot more than just what they focused on. That’s the first study of its kind of scooter injuries, but we do have some anecdotal evidence from Texas cities where the scooters have invaded, including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, where there has also been one reported fatality, though it is not clear if that person (the victim of a hit-and-run) had been using the scooter at the time of his death.

Let’s be clear, cars cause vastly more havoc every day than scooters do. The magnitude of injury and death resulting from our automobile-centric culture just dwarfs anything even an onslaught of electric scooters can do. In the long run, more scooters may lead to less vehicular damage, if it means more people rely on them in conjunction with transit to take fewer trips by car. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or minimize the potential for injury that scooters represent. It’s up to cities and states to figure out how to regulate these things in a way that maximizes their benefit and minimizes their risk. That means we need good data about the real-world effect of scooter usage, and we need to avoid being unduly influenced by the scooter companies and the venture capital behind them. Let’s pay attention to this stuff and be responsible about what we learn.

Take a Tesla to Austin

Because sure, why not?

Want to ride in a Tesla? For $250, you can be chauffeured on a one-way trip between Houston and Austin.

Dallas is just $400 away.

Austin-based ElecTrip is billed as an energy-efficient alternative to private flights or high-end buses. Ride with colleagues or friends, and the per-seat cost — the $250 and $400 price tags are for the entire car, with prices varying based on the Tesla model and membership in a subscription plan — becomes more comparable to commercial flights or high-end bus service Vonlane.

“A lot of people haven’t necessarily ridden in a Tesla yet,” said Eliott Lee, co-founder of ElecTrip, “so it’s a pretty neat experience for them.”

[…]

The trip comes with Wi-Fi, drinks and snacks. Riders are picked up from their door and then dropped off at their destination. ElecTrip uses the Tesla Model X SUV, Model S and Model 3. The $250 and $400 prices are typical for riding in a Model X.

The company has provided more than 150 rides since May 2018. ElecTrip owns one Tesla, and it pays other Tesla owners to use their vehicles. The chauffeurs are selected from highly rated Uber drivers that provide the Uber Black service, described as luxury rides with professional drivers, and Uber Select service, described as premium rides in high-end cars.

I mean, I guess I can see the appeal. If you’re not the prone-to-motion-sickness type, you could read or watch a movie or surf the web in comfort, for a price comparable to flying. (They cite a $550 roundtrip fare for flying from Houston to Austin. I checked Southwest, and that’s fairly accurate. Megabus is still way, way cheaper, though.) I just have to wonder what the size of the market for this is. (I had the same thought about Hitch, which this story references.) They’re averaging fewer than 20 rides per month so far. How many do you think they’d need to do to be financially viable? Is the lure of riding in a Tesla that strong? Color me skeptical.

FIFA World Cup update

Still a year away from a decision.

Houston is among 17 American cities vying to become one of 10 host cities selected when the finalists are trimmed by 2021. The 2026 World Cup will also include 10 games each in Canada and Mexico. A host city would get six games during the 32-day event.

Bid committee president Chris Canetti is hopeful of Houston’s chances but sees the addition of [John] Arnold as another boon for the bid.

“One of the things that we’re going to need to do as a committee here and as a city is raise funds,” Canetti said. “So when you agree to host a World Cup, there’s an expense that comes with it. This is really the same exact formula that existed when the Super Bowl came a couple years ago, so to have someone like John who’s so well-respected in the community, so well-connected in the community … it’s really important to us to be able to open some doors.

“When you look at Houston as a package, we’ve got everything in place,” Canetti said, referring to the city’s recent history hosting national events and its broad infrastructure. “We look at it as, ‘What’s going to put us on top with the decision makers and let them know that Houston belongs.’ And we think being funded is a great thing.”

Committee members believe Houston’s preparation has helped distinguish the city from its competitors. Still, it’s a cautious optimism. And to an extent, they see the potential for collaboration.

“FIFA’s indicated that they have a preference for some geographic concentration to make travel easier for both teams and fans, so … Dallas and Houston can work together, and they can be complements rather than an either-or situation,” Arnold said, pointing to Houston’s relative proximity to Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey, three Mexican cities included in the joint bid among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. “The geographic spread of cities will be important, the amount of fan support and community support that each city can show and demonstrate will be important, and I think the culture of soccer that each city shows will be important in that process.”

See here for the previous update. Houston really does have a lot going for it, including a track record of doing well hosting other big sporting events. The World Cup would be bigger still, thanks to the number of matches and influx of international fans, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Here’s hoping for the best.

Here come the e-bikes

To Dallas.

Uber is about to jump into Dallas with a brand-new rent-a-ride for this market: rechargeable electric bikes.

Jump, which Uber bought in April for $200 million, has filed an application with Dallas City Hall to bring 2,000 stationless e-bikes to town. The company is waiting for city staff to review and approve the permit, which would also include 2,000 Jump-branded electric scooters.

Chris Miller, Uber’s public policy manager for Texas, said the roll-out is expected early next year.

“It just makes sense in a city with a large population, a desire for innovation — and a lot of ground to cover,” Miller said.

City transportation officials have long expected the arrival of electric-pedal-assisted bikes, referring to them as a sort of sweet spot between the bikes that flooded the streets in the summer of 2017 and the seemingly ubiquitous electric scooters that have mostly replaced them in recent months. Riders still have to move their feet, but the motor does the hard work — and allows the bikes to hit speeds up to 20 mph.

[…]

Uber’s Miller said Jump’s e-bikes are a “real commuter option” because they do so much of the hard work for the rider. In San Francisco, he said, riders pedal up to 2 miles on their Jump bikes; in Austin, where Jump made its debut in the summer, even farther.

Uber hasn’t set prices for Dallas yet. But in Austin, the cost is $1 for the first 5 minutes and 15 cents for every additional minute.

The e-bikes will arrive with scooters having supplanted the buck-an-hour bike as Dallas’ preferred mode of rented transportation. The city, once filled with 20,000 of the older bikes, now has just 1,000 — 500 from Lime, 500 from Garland-based VBikes.

To San Antonio.

In a year that saw e-scooters take over the city – eventually multiplying to more than 8,000 vehicles – seated e-scooters have arrived, and about 2,000 dockless bicycles are set to enter the fray.

Razor USA quietly recently rolled out new scooters with a cushioned seat and front-mounted basket.

Meanwhile, Uber’s micro-mobility arm Jump is planning to launch 2,000 e-bikes this month, the City of San Antonio confirmed. On top of that, Jump is applying to bring 2,000 scooters to the city.

“People probably have more experience riding bikes than scooters,” said John Jacks, who heads the City’s Center City Development and Operations department. “To use an old cliché, it’s just like riding a bike. … That may increase opportunities for some that would be hesitant to try a scooter.”

Jacks added the new Razor scooter model provides an additional option for scooter-averse riders because it’s similar to a bike.

“We’ll see if they prove to be more popular,” he said.

[…]

If and when Jump launches in San Antonio, the City’s dockless vehicle fleet would eclipse Austin’s total. With e-scooter company Spin’s impending arrival, the total number of operators would climb to six – including Bird, Lime, Razor, and Blue Duck – and its total fleet would rise to about 12,600 vehicles, according to data provided by the City.

Gotta figure these things will be coming to Houston sooner or later. I hope Dallas and San Antonio do us the favor of figuring out what the regulatory structure should look like for these things. They will add something beneficial, mostly in that they will help to keep people out of cars for short trips, but safety for riders and pedestrians needs to be a priority. Also, we should try to make sure that people don’t throw scooters into the bayou, because that would be bad. Anyway, we’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes to come to our streets. Would you ride on one of these things?

Houston to get XFL 2.0 team

For those of you that need more football.

TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston will be the home field for Houston’s team in the XFL, the spring football league owned by WWE chairman Vince McMahon that will begin play in 2020, the league announced Wednesday.

Joining Houston among the eight XFL charter cities are teams in Dallas-Fort Worth, playing at Arlington’s Globe Life Stadium, plus Los Angeles (StubHub Center), New York-New Jersey (MetLife Stadium), St. Louis (The Dome at America’s Center), Seattle (CenturyLink Field), Tampa (Raymond James Stadium) and Washington, D.C. (Audi Field).

Houston’s team has yet to be named, but the announcement signals a return to the city’s football heyday of the 1980s, when the upstart USFL’s Houston Gamblers shared the pro football landscape with the established Oilers, much as the XFL now will do with the Texans.

Coincidentally, the announcement of Houston’s XFL selection came from the league’s president, Oliver Luck, who was a quarterback for the Oilers during the Gamblers’ 1984-85 run at the Astrodome.

“We believe the Houston-Harris County area is a fantastic place for one of our franchises, given the deep love and passion that people here have for football at all levels,” Luck said in an interview prior to Wednesday’s announcement.

“It was a pretty easy decision to place a franchise in Houston.”

[…]

Houston will be in the XFL’s Western Division with Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Seattle. New York, Tampa, St. Louis and Washington will comprise the Eastern Division. Teams will play a 10-game regular season, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.

Teams will have 45-man rosters with seven-member practice squads. A centralized “Team Nine” of players under contract to the league will be available to replenish rosters as needed.

While Luck did not offer details, he said the XFL continues with what he described as a “reimagining” of football as it awaits its 2020 debut.

“We’re looking at some of the administrative rules of the game – time outs and other things – and at what technology can do to improve and enhance the game,” he said.

“Our goal is to have a fast-paced, high-octane game with less down time – less stall and more ball. It will be a rock-’em, sock-’em, 11-on-11 game.”

See here and here for some background. All this sounds good, but in an earlier version of this story, there was this:

The new XFL, league officials have said, aims to offer an alternative to fans disenchanted with the increased length of NFL games and the social activism of some of its players. Games will last under three hours, and the league has said that anthem protests will not be allowed.

Yeah, I’m not going to support that. If you want a different option, there’s yet another league in the pipeline, and San Antonio is a charter member. There will be more than one way to get your extra football fix.

Are we ready for Texas Central?

This is more about the experience than anything else.

Texas Central said it will break ground late next year on the first bullet train line in the United States, which will connect Dallas to Houston, and the train, technology and much of the know-how is coming from Japan.

“We will start the construction next year,” said Masaru Yosano, Chief General Manager of Central Japan Railway Company.

Yosano flies to Texas once a month to help coordinate the project with partners at Texas Central Railway Company, the private firm that’s developing the United States’ first bullet train.

The Texas bullet train, which will be privately funded, has already passed multiple milestones and is currently awaiting final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.

When that last permission is granted Texas Central said it will then begin looking for financial backers. The firm said it already has options to purchase a third of the land needed and is currently negotiating for the remainder.

[…]

In Japan, the bullet train is not only a source of pride, but a fixture in the culture.

“It’s more spacious than actually sitting in a plane for me,” said Joel Deroon, an Australian living in Japan who uses the bullet train to commute daily. “For airliners you have all the extra added costs [such as] paying for luggage, paying for petrol. On a Shinkansen, no one’s going to check how much your luggage weighs or anything like that.”

So, what’s it like to be on board? Both the economy and First Class cars have high ceilings, wide aisles, and big seats. The cars are configured with two seats on each side of the aisle. Perhaps the biggest difference in the Central Japan Railway’s N700-series is the legroom in both cabins. Unlike an airliner, there’s plenty of extra space to move around.

Onboard restrooms are substantially larger, as well, with a massive handicapped lavatory.

And at 177-miles per hour, the landscape is less of a blur than many would imagine. A bottle of water easily balances on an arm rest.

[…]

One reason the bullet train is so successful in Japan is that riders can easily connect to subways. But Dallas and Houston don’t have that same infrastructure.

So, will it work?

“What happens to that last mile is an opportunity for taxi companies, for Uber, for hotels to build and businesses within walking distance of the terminus to develop themselves,” Swinton said.

The last mile can be lucrative. Not much was around when the Tokyo’s Shinagawa train station was built in the 1990s. But within a decade, skyscrapers had risen around it. Central Japan Railways also makes money leasing space at the station to restaurants, shops, and hotels.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had the opportunity to take the shinkansen in Japan. It’s really cool! It’s amazingly quiet, and a very smooth ride. There is a lot more room on the trains than on an airplane – not a high bar to clear, to be sure – and you basically walk onto the platform and board when the train arrives. If you’ve ever taken the light rail line in Houston or Dallas, it’s basically the same as that, which means boarding is quick and efficient and once everyone is on you can just go. There won’t be any security checkpoints like there are at airports. All this means that the total travel time won’t be much more than the actual time on the train. I do think people will like it. The question is getting them to try it, and pricing it in a way that makes it worth doing on a regular basis.

“The Rise and Fall of Dockless Bike Sharing in Dallas”

Amazing story.

Several dockless bike-share companies first converged on Dallas last August after promising local officials that their services would come at no cost to taxpayers, and the impact was immediate. The dockless feature allowed bike-share companies to distribute its fleet untethered and controlled by apps. By February, the presence of five bike share companies (VBike, Spin, LimeBike and Beijing-based companies Ofo and Mobike) had transformed Dallas from the largest American city without a bike-share system to the city boasting the largest fleet in North America—a whopping 18,000 bikes, way more than New York City’s 12,000 or Seattle’s 10,000—and Dallas was deemed the “bike-share capital of America” by D Magazine. “Let’s not screw this up,” they warned in February.

But it was clear from the beginning that the program was growing way too big and way too fast. The city reported in February that it had received thousands of comments regarding its dockless bike-share program through its 311 phone number for constiuents, with commenters complaining about bikes that were vandalized, left behind in neighborhoods for extended periods, blocking sidewalks, or mounting in “excessive” numbers. “Some of the bikes are left for days, weeks, or months, in some cases without being moved,” Jared White, who manages alternative transportation in the Dallas Department of Transportation, told CNN in February.

“It’s making people a little bit hostile,” Fran Badgett, the owner of Transit Bicycle Company in Dallas, also told CNN. “From my front door you can see about 200 bikes. Not a single one is parked in a way I’d call respectful or helpful.”

In March, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Dallas was “ground zero for a nascent national bike-share war,” as bike-share companies stormed cities across the country in the past year or so, hoping to capitalize on a booming new business while simultaneously flooding the market beyond sustainability. Companies operating in Washington, D.C. have lost half their fleet due to theft. One dockless company recently pulled out of France, citing the “mass destruction” of its bikes. In China, oversupply led to absurd, mountain-like heaps of discarded bikes. Just a few weeks into its dockless pilot program, New Yorkers are already complaining about dockless bikes requiring maintenance and clogging city sidewalks. Some cities have responded by implementing regulations, like capping the number of bikes that companies can have in the streets, or clearly demarcating curb space designated for dockless bikes.

Rarely have these systems failed with as much gusto as the one in Dallas.

[…]

The bike-share business was so poorly regulated and the public reaction was so overwhelmingly caustic that Dallas’s city council was eventually forced into action, unanimously approving an ordinance in June that requires bike-share companies to pay the city $808 for a permit to operate, plus an additional $21 for each bike in their fleet. The bike companies will now be responsible for responding to 311 complaints of bikes that are blocking sidewalks or have fallen over, too—they have two hours after each complaint to clean up the mess themselves. The council also forced the companies to fork over more specific ridership data to get a better sense of where and when people are riding dockless bikes.

You need to click over to see the pictures, if nothing else. It boggles my mind how any of this could be coexistent with a viable business plan – these two stories, linked in the TM piece, helped answer some of my questions – but the bike companies Did Not Like It when the city got involved. All I can say is that I now appreciate the implementation and managed growth of B-Cycle here in Houston that much more.

Dallas hyperlooping

North Texas takes the lead for this super sexy but possibly vaporware transportation technology.

The Regional Transportation Council announced Wednesday that it will consider the feasibility of a hyperloop as a way to connect Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington. The group is made up of 44 elected and appointed officials that choose funding priorities. It has been in discussions with Virgin Hyperloop One, a Los Angeles-based company that has a test track in Nevada.

“Whatever we build will be around for 100 years, so we need to consider it [a hyperloop system] as we move forward and let the process decide if it’s the best way to move or not,” said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The regional group has been exploring solutions that would speed up trips between Dallas and Fort Worth and boost economic activity. It plans to hire consultants later this year to evaluate hyperloop and high-speed rail and compare them based on a variety of factors, such as noise, vibration and potential ridership. The study, called an environmental impact statement, will cost about $5 million and take two to three years to complete, Morris said.

A hyperloop system that carries passengers isn’t a reality yet — but that hasn’t kept companies and transportation officials from imagining a time when long commutes and trips to a sports arena or a restaurant in another city could take only a few minutes. A computer model by Virgin Hyperloop One estimated that a trip between downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth would take about 6 minutes and 20 seconds by hyperloop with passengers cruising at about 360 miles per hour.

[…]

Hyperloop One got a new name and infusion of funding last year from the Virgin Group and its founder Richard Branson. Texas was already on the company’s radar. Last fall, it included a Texas route on its short list of potential hyperloop sites. The proposed route of approximately 640 miles, dubbed the Texas Triangle, would connect Dallas-Fort Worth to Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Laredo. The proposal was submitted by engineering firm AECOM.

Dan Katz, Virgin Hyperloop One’s director of North American projects, said the company began talking to North Texas officials because of the proposal. He said the Dallas-Fort Worth hyperloop route could be the first phase of a larger, statewide project.

See here for some background. As noted, that larger statewide project contains a connection to Houston, but that’s not on the table right now.

A Houston leg from San Antonio remains possible, but company officials said it is not part of the current projects.

[…]

Wednesday’s announcement fulfills part of the plan envisioned when Hyperloop Texas advanced in a global competition to develop the projects. The San Antonio-to-Houston leg left out of the process is among the busiest corridors in the state.

Katz said the company is proceeding based on where officials have shown interest, with North Texas officials promoting both the Dallas-Fort Worth and Fort Worth-to-Laredo lines. Dallas officials toured the company’s Nevada test site earlier this year.

Interest in a direct Dallas-to-Houston hyperloop has lagged, as Texas Central Partners has worked on a high-speed rail line between the metro areas.

Facing huge demands on travel between Texas’ biggest metro areas, however, officials across the state are looking at all options.

“Adding an option like hyperloop to the existing system of roadways, rail transit, bicycle/pedestrian facilities and high-speed rail to Houston would expand the system in an exciting way,” said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “Connecting other regions in Texas through hyperloop would open up economic opportunities throughout the state.”

Might open up some opportunities for choosing where to live, too. Again, it’s easier to dream on this technology than it is to objectively assess it, but if they’re doing an environmental impact statement we’ll get some of the latter as well. I look forward to seeing what that has to say. The Dallas Observer has more.

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.