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Galveston

The Courts of Appeals

The other judicial races where Dems have a chance to gain ground.

Republicans dominate Texas politics — but their stranglehold is especially noticeable in the courts.

Republicans hold all 18 seats on the state’s two high courts. Of the state’s 14 appeals courts, Democrats hold majorities on just three. On the other 11 courts, Democrats have no seats at all.

Democrats are hoping to flip that advantage on Election Day. In their eyes, the stars have aligned. They have a high-profile liberal darling running a competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. They have a controversial Republican president expected to generate backlash in his first midterm election. And enough judicial seats are up for election that Democrats could flip the four sprawling appellate court districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016, but the courts are currently held entirely by Republicans.

If Democrats can sweep those races in 2018, they’ll take control of half the state’s appeals courts. And strategists say that goal is in sight.

[…]

No Democrat has been elected to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1992. The six-county district includes liberal-leaning Dallas, but also some of Texas’ most reliably red areas. In Dallas, as in Houston and Austin, large, urban centers contribute the lion’s share of the judicial district’s electorate, but right-leaning rural and suburban voters in surrounding counties have handed victories to Republicans for the past several election cycles. Only the 4th Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, has a partisan split with Democrats in the majority. The Legislature controls these maps; the districts have changed only twice since 1967, most recently in 2005.

[…]

Ken Molberg, a district judge in Dallas, ran for 5th Court of Appeals in 2014 and came up nearly 72,000 votes short. This year, in another attempt, he’s confident things will be different. Molberg, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chair, has accumulated several hundred thousand dollars — an impressive sum for such an unstudied race — and said his region of the state is “ground zero for the party this go around.”

“The potential to switch this court in one election cycle is there, and it would be somewhat earthquake-like if that happened,” Molberg said. “It’s a tough race all the way around, but my analysis is that it can be done.”

Molberg is the best-funded of the eight Democrats battling Republicans for seats on the 13-justice court. But he said the slate will likely succeed or fail as a group.

“I don’t think individual campaigns have any effect at the court of appeals or district court level. …That’s an example of where you’re almost entirely dependent on straight-ticket voting,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University. “At the courthouse level, it’s easier for one party to dominate.”

[…]

“There is a real conformity, a uniformity of judicial thought on these courts that I think would really benefit from different experience,” said Meagan Hassan, who’s running as a Democrat for the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals. She pointed to the tiny fraction of dissenting opinions written by Houston-area appellate judges, arguing that ideological balance is needed for the critical decisions these courts make.

In Tyler, for example, an all-Republican court of appeals struck down as unconstitutional the state’s new “revenge porn” law. The 3rd Court of Appeals is currently weighing the city of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. And state appellate courts are the last appellate stop for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state — yet many state appellate judges have no background in criminal law.

Democratic wins, Hassan said, “would bring balance to the court that hasn’t existed there in 25 years.”

That’s a theme several of the CoA candidates mentioned in the Q&As I did with them this year. They also point out that a lot of the Court of Appeals rulings stand because they don’t get heard by the Supreme Court or the CCA. I wrote about these races in 2016, when there were several pickup opportunities available, in part due to the wipeout of 2010. Dems did gain one seat each on the 4th and 13th Courts of Appeals in 2016, the latter being one they lost in 2010. They had gained three on the 4th and lost one on the 3rd in 2012, with all of those being up for re-election this time around.

For the 1st and 14th Courts, which are the ones that include Harris County, Dems lost the CoA races by a wide margin in 2014 but came much closer in 2016. Here’s an example from 2014 and an example from 2016. The deficit was close to 150K votes in 2014 but only about 40K votes in 2016. The formula for a Democratic win is pretty straightforward: Carry Harris County by a lot, break even in Fort Bend, and limit the damage in Brazoria and Galveston. That’s all very doable, but it’s likely there won’t be much room for error. It all starts with running up the score in Harris County (or Travis County for the 3rd, and Dallas County for the 5th). If that happens, we can win.

We have an Ike Dike plan

Now we need a plan to pay for it.

A decade after Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that a more ambitious version of the proposed “Ike Dike” — a 70-mile-long coastal barrier that could cost as much as $31 billion — is the preferred choice for protecting the state’s coastline from future storm surges.

The decision moves the project closer to ultimately being built, but leaves unanswered how to pay for it, especially with the estimated cost skyrocketing to between $23 billion and $31 billion — two to three times above original estimates.

The option backed by the Army Corps and the Texas General Land Office is similar to the original “Ike Dike” proposal developed by researchers at Texas A&M University in Galveston after Ike hammered southeast Texas in 2008, with some subtle differences.

“This study actually incorporates both coastal storm risk management features and ecosystem restoration features up and down the coast and some coastal storm risk management down on South Padre (Island),” said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the Army Corps’ study. “It’s a comprehensive study so it’s looking at the entire coast of Texas, much bigger than the Ike Dike per se.”

[…]

The coastal barrier would be a system of levees and sea gates beginning on high ground north of High Island and running the length of the Bolivar Peninsula. It would then cross the entrance of Galveston Bay and extend the length of Galveston Island, incorporating the existing seawall. It would end at San Luis Pass.

At the entrance to Galveston Bay, a system of storm surge gates would be constructed to protect the coastline during storm events but otherwise allow for navigation to the ports of Galveston, Texas City and Houston. A large navigation gate would also be placed along the ship channel. These gates are modeled after similar structures in London on the River Thames and on the coast of the Netherlands.

A “ring levee” would also be placed around Galveston to protect the bayside of the island, a densely populated area, from surge and flood waters. Gates and other barriers would be built near Clear Creek as well as Dickinson, Offatts and Highland bayous.

The plan also includes beach and dune restoration along the lower Texas coast, and nine ecosystem restoration projects to increase resilience.

Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University Galveston professor who proposed the Ike Dike concept more than nine years ago, noted some minor differences between his original plan and the one backed by the two agencies.

Merrell’s plan included a gate at San Luis Pass, which is south of Galveston, and a mix of gray and green infrastructure along the coast, most notably a series of 17-foot high dunes on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston in lieu of a seawall. Built after the catastrophic 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 17-foot-high seawall spared the island from many storms but was overtopped by Ike’s storm surge and waves.

He also did not include any protection for High Island, nor a ring levee around Galveston, which he called an “extreme” measure that would require a sophisticated pumping system in the event of heavy rains.

“It’s a fishbowl effect. You have to pump it, and if your pumps work, you’re happy, and if your pumps don’t work, you drown,” Merrell said. “You’d have to pour a lot of maintenance money into it.”

Burks-Copes said that dunes and beach nourishment are “still in play” as options for Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula as opposed to a more hardened barrier.

See here for the background, here for the four alternatives that were under consideration, here for the plan that was chosen, and here for the related documents for public review. I just want to stress that the federal government absolutely, 100%, no questions asked can afford this. We may need to chisel back a tiny portion of the massive giveaway to the rich known as the Trump tax cuts to make us feel like we can afford it, but we can afford it. What we can’t afford is to do nothing.

Army Corps to present Ike Dike options

About time.

Later this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recommend a multi-billion-dollar plan to help protect the Texas coast — the Houston area in particular — from hurricanes. When it will become a reality, however, is anyone’s guess.

The more than 200-year-old agency — in partnership with the Texas General Land Office — embarked on the largest study in its history in 2014 to determine how best to guard the Bayou City and other coastal communities from devastating storm surge.

Four years later, the agency has devised four proposals for the Houston area; it will announce which one it thinks is best on Oct. 26 and open a 75-day public comment period, according to Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager at the Army Corps’ Galveston District.

The plans are distinctly different — one of them has an alternate variation — but all include a mixture of new levees, improvements to existing levees and seawalls and the installation of so-called “navigation” gates, which would be closed ahead of storms to protect densely populated areas southeast of Houston and the city’s port — home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the nation, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey — from the deadly swells generated by a hurricane’s strong winds. That storm surge can result in major flooding even before a storm makes landfall.

One of the plans calls for the construction of a 17-foot-high levee along the entirety of Galveston Island, which is about 27 miles long, and the barrier island to its north, Bolivar Peninsula — a concept that has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” Another includes a levee through most of Bolivar but not Galveston. Others call for the construction of new levees and floodwalls further inland. All the plans include the installation of navigation gates in various places and the construction of a so-called “ring levee” around the heart of the Galveston that would protect the island’s backside from retreating storm surge.

Here’s the study. The four proposals are:

Alternative A: Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Galveston Ring Levee
Alternative B: Coastal Barrier (Modified)
Alternative C: Mid Bay Barrier
Alternative D: Upper Bay Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Bay Rim

Click over to read what they mean. There are also nine Ecosystem Restoration proposals to go along with this. As the story notes, both the original “Ike Dike” idea, proposed in 2008, and the more recent SSPEED Centennial Gate, or maybe the even more recent mid-bay gate, I’m honestly not sure, are in the running. Like I said, go see for yourself what’s on the table. One winner will emerge, and we’ll get a public comment period after that, and then we just need to solve the trivial problem of funding. No big deal, right?

Galveston, ten years after Ike

Overall things are better now, but not for everyone, and nothing can ever truly be the same as before.

Galveston has a long and storied history dealing with epic storms, and the destruction Hurricane Ike wrought was no different — a Category 2 storm that battered the island and the Texas Gulf Coast with 100 mile-per-hour winds and 17-foot storm surges, killing 43 people across the state and causing nearly $30 billion worth of damage, the third-costliest storm in U.S. history.

A decade later, post-Ike Galveston looks a bit different. Island landmarks like the Flagship Hotel and Balinese Room, which sat perched on piers overlooking the Gulf of Mexico off of Seawall Boulevard, have been demolished, casualties of the storm surge that leveled parts of the island.

University of Texas Medical Branch, the island’s main hospital and a huge employer, underwent $1 billion worth of updgrades to make it more resilient to major storms, but also ceased providing indigent care.

Galveston’s beaches were restored with 500,000 cubic meters of sand, and tourism rebounded after a sluggish few years in Ike’s wake. In 2007, Galveston raked in $7.5 million dollars in hotel tax revenue from June through August. By 2012, the island exceeded that total with $8.3 million in hotel receipts.

Eighty percent of the city’s homes and much of its critical infrastructure were damaged by Ike’s high winds and devastating flooding, forcing building code changes that led many residents on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston’s West End to raise their homes on stilts. The city’s population has about 50,550 residents today, per 2016 U.S. Census estimates, still shy of the 57,000 from before the storm.

[…]

And yet a vast swath of vacant land dotted with palm trees on the north side of Galveston, where the Oleander Homes, a public housing complex, used to sit, serves to remind that the legacy of Ike did not reach its most vulnerable populations.

The 10 to 15-foot waves that laid waste to single-family and vacation homes also damaged the island’s four public housing developments — located in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color. Four months after the storm, the Galveston Housing Authority decided to demolish all four developments — 569 housing units — due to extensive damage to the buildings.

Under a state and federal government mandate, the city is required to rebuild every unit, but fewer than half of the units have been reconstructed — delayed by a toxic combination of bureaucratic red tape, racially-tinged public outcry, political inaction and the housing authority’s lack of financial capital to manage and maintain the new housing.

“It’s just tragic that a decade after the disaster when the money has been available for all of that time that most of the public housing has not yet been rebuilt,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, a statewide housing advocacy group.

There were serious concerns about UTMB’s ability to exist after Ike. It’s a major employer for the city, so the fact that it’s still there is a big deal. I’d still be very concerned about Galveston’s future – not to mention the future of much of the rest of the Gulf Coast – until some form of the Ike Dike gets built. After Harvey and Maria and Irma and Florence I have to wonder what else needs to happen to get that approved, but here we are anyway. I’m rooting for Galveston, but in a very real sense we’re all in the same boat with them.

Typhus in Galveston

An infectious disease update for you.

Typhus fever, a disease carried by fleas and once thought to be eradicated, is rearing its head in Galveston County, county health officials said on Monday.

The Galveston County Health District reported that 18 cases of typhus fever have been reported so far in 2018, up from 17 reported for all of 2017. The disease has rebounded in other parts of Texas in the last decade.

“I believe we are seeing an increase in reported cases because physicians now know what symptoms to look for,” said Randy Valcin, Galveston County Health District’s director of epidemiology and public health preparedness, in a written statement. “Typhus has been around for a number of years, but physicians are testing more and we’re seeing those results.”

Typhus symptoms, which include fever, headache, muscle pain, anorexia, rash, nausea and vomiting, are often confused with a number of viral ailments. People become infected when they come in contact with infected flea feces through open wounds, scratching and even breathing in the infected feces. Symptoms usually present about 7 to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

Murine typhus is a flea-borne illness, now believed to be carried mostly by opossums and other backyard mammals that spread them to cats and dogs, which then bring them indoors. Historically, typhus was carried by rats, before aggressive use of DDT, a pesticide, in the mid-1940s largely eliminated the problem in most U.S. areas. Before the use of DDT, typhus fever peaked in the United States with 5,400 reported cases. By 1956, there were less than 100 reported cases. The use of DDT has since been banned.

The disease is often mild, and treatable with antibiotics. But left untreated, severe illness can cause damage to one or more organs, including the liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and brain.

Over the last 15 years, typhus has been making a comeback in Texas. In 2017, the Chronicle reported the number of Texas cases rose from 30 in 2003 to 364 in 2016, and the number of Harris County cases from zero to 32. Eight Texas deaths have been attributed to the infection since 2003, with more than a quarter of cases reported to the state health department involve children from 6 to 15 years old.

See here for some background. Like Zika, typhus is a tropical disease, and one reason we’re seeing it here now is because of climate change. Basically, the conditions under which these diseases, and the insects that carry them, now exist in a much broader and less-equatorial range. We can accept that as the new normal or we can try to maybe do something about that, I dunno. Just a thought.

ACLU sues Galveston County over bail practices

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, the ACLU and Arnold & Porter filed a federal class-action lawsuit today against Galveston County, Texas, for violating the constitutional rights of people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies.

The lawsuit was brought against the County itself, as well as each of the County’s judges who hear felonies and misdemeanors, the County magistrates, and the District Attorney. This is the first filing by the ACLU to include the District Attorney as a defendant in bail reform litigation. It seeks an immediate and permanent change to an unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against people who are financially strapped.

Those who cannot afford to pay money bail amounts determined by the county’s bail schedule are detained for a week or longer, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay the money bail amounts are freed until trial. Galveston County’s district attorneys are involved in setting bail amounts for felony charges, often recommending bail amounts even higher than what the bail schedule suggests.

“A system that requires people to buy their freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Our client is seeking one thing: a fair hearing. Rich or poor, everyone should have a meaningful chance for a judge to hear them out before they are locked in a jail cell – but that’s not what’s happening in Galveston County.”

The lawsuit argues that Galveston County’s system of money bail violates the Constitution because it keeps people in jail if they can’t afford bail, while allowing those who can pay to go home to their families, jobs, and communities. With each day in jail, the person’s chances for a fair trial diminish as evidence and witnesses disappear, and many who are innocent nonetheless plead guilty simply to end the ordeal.

“A person’s wealth should never decide their freedom, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Texas and across the country,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Galveston’s bail system disregards the presumption of innocence, destroys families, and negatively affects jobs, and homes.”

The suit, filed on behalf of one plaintiff representing a class in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, accuses county officials of operating a two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the right to counsel, the right to due process, and equal protection under the law.

“Studies consistently show that individuals who are held in jail until trial are more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be sentenced to prison, than those who are released pending trial,” said Christopher Odell, an attorney with Arnold & Porter. “Our goal is to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair to everyone in Galveston County, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between.”

The plaintiff Aaron Booth, age 36, was arrested on April 8 for drug possession. He cannot afford the $20,000 money bail required by the court’s bail schedule. Mr. Booth fears losing his job because he is in jail; a job he needs to help his mother afford her monthly expenses.

Galveston’s system of wealth-based detention is arbitrary, the lawsuit argues. Each offense has an assigned dollar amount. If a person can arrange to pay the full amount to the sheriff in cash or property, or can arrange for payment through a bail bond company or another third party, the sheriff releases that person automatically.

Those who cannot pay the pre-determined bail amount must remain in jail indefinitely.

The lawsuit against Galveston County is a continuation of efforts from the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice to end wealth-based bail detention in Texas and across the nation. This January, a related lawsuit aimed at ending Dallas County’s disciriminatory, wealth based bail practices was filed by the ACLU of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice — an unprecedented effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system — is focused on bolstering the movement to end money bail and eliminate wealth-based pretrial detention through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation. Thirty-seven ACLU state affiliates are spearheading efforts to end this unjust system.

The complaint can be found here. The Chron adds a few details.

The Galveston County Commissioner’s Court issued a resolution in September supporting an immediate end to pretrial detention for misdemeanor and state jail cell arrests and committing a minimum of $2 million to those efforts.

The county also voted in December to approve a contract with the Council of State Governments to help implement reforms to the county’s jail system.

But Trigilio said that the county has not committed to large-scale changes to its bail system in an appropriate timeframe. The ACLU drafted a standing order proposal outlining steps that needed to be taken to create a model pretrial system and requesting that the county come up with its own detailed plan. Their requests were ignored, with only one judge, Lonnie Cox of the 56th District Court, reviewing the standing order in November.

“We’re very open to collaborative solutions with policymakers, in fact, that’s what we prefer,” Trigilio said. “But it’s important to act with the urgency that the situation merits, and when they’re locking hundreds of people away every day just because they’re poor, that’s not something we can tolerate while we work out the nuances of a system that might be in place any year from now.”

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said on Monday that he had not had a chance to look at the lawsuit yet but that the county has been working with the ACLU “for nine months or so” to implement their suggested reforms to the bail system.

“We are certainly trying, yes,” he said, adding that he had not yet seen the suit but that the county was “absolutely committed” to making the changes already discussed.

“It’s not necessarily in our control,” he said. “There are about 15 other elected officials that have to agree and implement their part of it.”

Those of us in Harris County can relate to that complaint. You know where I stand on this, so let me just say that I hope other counties are looking at their own practices and taking proactive steps to get in line so they don’t have to be sued as well. But if suing them is what it takes, then so be it. Think Progress and KUHF have more.

Filing roundup: Outside Harris County

A look at who filed for what on the Democratic side in the counties around Harris. These are all predominantly Republican counties, some more than others, so the Democrats are almost all challengers. On the flip side, there are many opportunities for gains.

Lisa Seger

Montgomery County

CD08 – Steven David

HD03 – Lisa Seger
HD15 – Lorena Perez McGill
HD16 – Mike Midler

County Judge – Jay Stittleburg
District Clerk – John-Brandon Pierre
County Treasurer – Mandy Sunderland

First, kudos to Montgomery County, hardly a Democratic bastion, for having so many candidates. They’re a County Clerk candidate away from having a full slate. I’m not tracking judicial candidates, County Commissioners, or Constables, but the MCDP has those, too. Steven David is a business and efficiency expert for the City of Houston. He’s running against Kevin “Cut all the taxes for the rich people!” Brady. Lisa Seger, whose district also covers Waller County, is a fulltime farmer in Field Store Community who has helped feed first responders during the fires of 2011 and is also involved in animal rescue. Her opponent is Cecil Bell, who was possibly the most fanatical pusher of anti-LGBT bills in the State House. She’s also a Facebook friend of my wife, who knows a lot of local farmers through her past work with Central City Co-Op. Jay Stittleburg is a Navy veteran and Project Management Professional who has worked in oil and gas. John-Brandon Pierre is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. A very solid group.

Fort Bend County

CD22 – Letitia Plummer
CD22 – Margarita Ruiz Johnson
CD22 – Mark Gibson
CD22 – Sri Preston Kulkarni
CD22 – Steve Brown

SD17 – Fran Watson
SD17 – Rita Lucido
SD17 – Ahmad Hassan

HD26 – Sarah DeMerchant
HD27 – Rep. Ron Reynolds
HD27 – Wilvin Carter
HD28 – Meghan Scoggins
HD85 – Jennifer Cantu

County Judge – KP George
District Clerk – Beverly McGrew Walker

Gotta say, I’m kind of disappointed in Fort Bend. They had a full slate for county offices in 2014, but this year there wasn’t anyone to run for County Clerk or County Treasurer? I don’t understand how that happens. Mark Gibson and Steve Brown list Fort Bend addresses, while Letitia Plummer and Margarita Johnson are from Pearland and Sri Kulkarni is from Houston. The Senate candidates we’ve already discussed. For the State House, Sarah DeMerchant ran in 2016, while Wilvin Carter is the latest to try to take out Rep. Ron Reynolds, who is the only incumbent among all the candidates I’m listing in this post and whose story you know well. Meghan Scoggins has a background in aerospace but works now in the nonprofit sector, while Jennifer Cantu is an Early Childhood Intervention therapist for a Texas nonprofit. KP George is a Fort Bend ISD Trustee and past candidate for CD22.

Brazoria County

CD14 – Adrienne Bell
CD14 – Levy Barnes

SBOE7 – Elizabeth Markowitz

HD29 – Dylan Wilde Forbis
HD29 – James Pressley

County Judge – Robert Pruett
County Clerk – Rose MacAskie

CD22 and SD17 also contain Brazoria County. HD25, held by Dennis Bonnen, is in Brazoria but it is one of the few districts that drew no Democratic candidates. I haven’t focused much on the SBOE races, but as we know longtime Republican member David Bradley is retiring, so that seat is open. It’s not exactly a swing district, but maybe 2018 will be better than we think. Adrienne Bell has been in the CD14 race the longest; she’s a Houston native and educator who was on both the Obama 2012 and Wendy Davis 2014 campaigns. Levy Barnes is an ordained bishop with a bachelor’s in biology, and you’ll need to read his biography for yourself because there’s too much to encapsulate. Dylan Wilde Forbis is one of at least three transgender candidates for State House out there – Jenifer Pool in HD138 and Finnigan Jones in HD94 are the others I am aware of. The only useful bit of information I could find about the other candidates is the Robert Pruett had run for County Judge in 2014, too.

Galveston County

HD23 – Amanda Jamrok
HD24 – John Phelps

CD14 and SBOE7 are also in Galveston. Remember when Galveston was a Democratic county? Those were the days. I don’t have any further information about these candidates.

Hope these posts have been useful. There are more I hope to do, but they’re pretty labor intensive so I’ll get to them as best I can.

Please don’t complain about the lack of an evacuation

There are good reasons why there was not an evacuation order for the greater Houston area in advance of Harvey.

Ultimately, mayors and county judges are charged with making such decisions. Leaders in Houston and Harris County told residents to stay put ahead of the storm and have since defended those decisions — even as bayous spill into the streets in what might be the worst flood event the area has ever seen.

“To suggest that we should have evacuated 2 million people is an outrageous statement,” Harris County Judge Emmett told CNN on Sunday.

Emmett and others have offered a litany of reasons for hunkering down. That includes the reality that such a mass evacuation can turn into logistical nightmare with huge safety risks of its own.

“People disproportionately die in cars from floods, so evacuation is not as straightforward a call as seems,” Marshall Shepherd, a program director in atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, tweeted Sunday.

Shepherd pointed to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing that drivers accounted for 66 percent of U.S. flood fatalities in 2014.

For a vivid example of what can go wrong in a large-scale evacuation, Texans can look twelve years back to Hurricane Rita, when more than 3 million people from south and southeast Texas set off on one of the largest evacuations in U.S. history.

The backdrop of that blistering summer in 2005: Just three weeks earlier, Hurricane Katrina had submerged New Orleans and killed 1,200 people when Rita barreled toward the coastline. Texans didn’t want to stick around to see how Rita would compare, so they bolted — or tried to.

Traffic jams stretched across hundreds of miles over two days, and many people ran out of gas. Dozens died from accidents and heat-related illnesses, all before Rita even made landfall.

Of the 139 deaths that the state linked to Hurricane Rita, 73 occurred before the storm hit Texas. Twenty-three people died in a bus fire. Ten others died from hyperthermia due to heat exposure. In the years since Rita, state and local officials say new laws and better planning would help the state’s next evacuation go more smoothly, but Houston mayor Sylvester Turner this weekend indicated Rita’s legacy factored into his decision.

“You cannot put, in the city of Houston, 2.3 million people on the road…That is dangerous,” he said in a press conference Sunday. “If you think the situation right now is bad — you give an order to evacuate, you create a nightmare.”

Emmett, the Harris County Judge, has pointed to additional factors in defense of calls to stay, drawing distinctions between danger from Harvey — primarily rainfall — and the hurricanes that struck before it.

“When we have hurricanes, we know who to evacuate, because you have a storm surge coming, and we have that down to a very fine art,” he told CNN Sunday. “In this case, we have a rain event. Unless you know where the rain is going to fall, we don’t know who to evacuate.”

I agree with everything Judge Emmett and Mayor Turner have said about this, and I say that as someone who did evacuate during Hurricane Rita. One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned in this conversation is that if Houston evacuates, it means that all of Galveston and Texas City and La Marque and Dickinson wind up being in line behind us. In a situation where storm surge is an issue, that’s really not a good thing. Bear in mind also, that as recently as Saturday afternoon, after landfall in Rockport, it was not clear exactly what path Harvey would take. It was entirely possible that Harvey would be a big-but-not-catastrophic rainmaker on Houston. How do you justify evacuating millions of people for that? Never mind where they would go.

There may come a time, God forbid, when Houston will truly need to evacuate for an apocalyptic hurricane aimed at us. If that happens, we’ll know it when we see it. In the meantime, as big and bad as Harvey has been, Judge Emmett and Mayor Turner made the right call. If you still need convincing, go read Kam Franklin. She says what I’m saying with far more poetry. (A version with less cussing is here, if you prefer.)

The rural/suburban tradeoff

Martin Longman returns to a point he has been making about the way the vote shifted in the 2016 election.

Let’s try to be clear about what we mean. Hillary Clinton won a lot of votes in the suburbs from people who had voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney. She lost even more votes from folks in small towns and rural areas who had voted for Barack Obama.

So, if I understand what Jeet Heer and David Atkins are saying, it’s basically that the Democrats can’t make much more progress in the suburbs than they’ve already made and that the easier task is to win back Democrats that they’ve recently lost. Either that, or they’re just wrong about how likely Romney Republicans are/were to defect.

I don’t have a strong opinion on which would be the easier task. But I do know that so far this trade has not favored the Democrats. The left’s votes are already too concentrated and I can make this point clear fairly easily.

When suburban Chester County was voting 50-50 in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, it was possible for the Democrats to also win down ballot seats. And the Democrats have succeeded in electing representatives from Chester County to the state legislature. Gaining 25,000 votes at the top of the ticket helps, but the area is still competitive. But in many other counties in Pennsylvania, the Democrats went from winning 50 percent or 40 percent to winning only 30 percent or 20 percent. The result is that many more legislative seats became so lopsidedly red that downticket Democrats no longer have a fighting chance.

In this sense, not all votes are equal. It’s more valuable for the Democrats to add a voter in a rural area than one in a competitive suburb, and rural votes are definitely of more use than added votes in seats where Democrats are already winning by comfortable margins.

Longman confines his analysis to Pennsylvania, which is obviously a critical state in Presidential elections as well as one that has been greatly affected by strongly partisan gerrymanders. Be that as it may, I wanted to look at how this perspective applies to Texas. It’s been my perception that Texas’ rural legislative districts, which had already been strongly Republican at the federal level but which still elected Democrats to the State House, had become more and more hostile to Democrats since the 2010 election, when nearly all of those Democratic legislators from rural districts were wiped out. If that’s the case, then the increased redness of these districts, while problematic as a whole for statewide purposes, doesn’t change anything in terms of legislative opportunities. On the other hand, if the suburbs are becoming less red, that would open up new possibilities, both now and in the future as this is where much of the population growth is.

That’s my hypothesis, anyway. To check it, I took the electoral breakdown of the State House districts for the 2012 and 2016 elections from the Legislative Council, and put the results from the Presidential election into a new sheet. I also added the results from the Keasler/Burns (2016) and Keller/Hampton (2012) Court of Criminal Appeals races in there, to act as a more neutral comparison. I then sorted the spreadsheet by the Romney percentage for each district, in descending order, and grouped them by ranges. I calculated the change in R and D vote from 2012 to 2016 for each district in both the Presidential and CCA races, then summed them up for each of the ranges I defined. That’s a lot of words, so let’s see what this looks like, and I’ll explain it again from there:


Romney 70%+ (42 districts)

Trump     + 143,209    CCA R   + 267,069
Clinton   +  36,695    CCA D   -   8,330


Romney 60-70% (31 districts)

Trump     +  15,054    CCA R   + 135,280
Clinton   + 164,820    CCA D   + 116,534


Romney 50-60% (23 districts)

Trump     -  32,999    CCA R   +  69,230
Clinton   + 148,633    CCA D   + 101,215


Romney 40-50% (9 districts)

Trump     +   3,081    CCA R   +  16,418
Clinton   +  45,233    CCA D   +  39,721


Romney 30-40% (20 districts)

Trump     -   9,360    CCA R   +  17,429
Clinton   +  84,385    CCA D   +  69,785


Romney < 30% (25 districts)

Trump     -   3,485    CCA R   +  23,031
Clinton   +  90,251    CCA D   +  76,447

Let’s start at the top. There were 42 district in which Mitt Romney collected at least 70% of the vote in 2012. In those 42 districts, Donald Trump got 143,209 more votes than Romney did, while Hillary Clinton gained 36,695 more votes than Barack Obama. In the CCA races, Republicans gained 267,069 votes while Democrats lost 8,330 votes. Which tells us two things: The pro-Republican shift in these already very strong R districts was pronounced, but even here there were some people that refused to vote for Trump.

Now that doesn’t address the urban/suburban/rural divide. You get into some rhetorical issues here, because West Texas includes some decent-sized metro areas (Lubbock, Midland, Abilene, etc), but is still more rural in character than anything else, and some primarily suburban counties like Montgomery and Williamson include sizable tracts of farmland. Keeping that in mind, of the 42 counties in this group, I’d classify nine as urban/suburban, and the other 33 as rural. To be specific:


Dist  County      Romney   Trump   Obama  Clinton     Diff
==========================================================
015   Montgomery  57,601  56,038  16,348   24,253 D +9,468
016   Montgomery  45,347  52,784  10,229   12,666 R +5,000
020   Williamson  49,271  56,644  17,913   20,808 R +4,478
024   Galveston   49,564  51,967  16,936   20,895 D +1,556
033   Collin      51,437  56,093  18,860   27,128 D +3,612
063   Denton      50,485  53,127  18,471   24,600 D +3,487
098   Tarrant     58,406  57,917  18,355   25,246 D +7,390
128   Harris      40,567  40,656  14,907   17,165 D +2,347
130   Harris      53,020  55,187  15,928   22,668 D +4,583

These are urban/suburban districts among those were 70% or more for Mitt Romney. Hillary Clinton gained votes everywhere except in the two, with the two exceptions being the most rural among them; HD16 is the northernmost part of Montgomery County, including Conroe, while HD20 has most of its population in Georgetown and includes Burnet and Milam Counties as well. In the other 33 districts, all of which I’d classify as rural, Clinton did worse than Obama in all but three of them, CDs 82 (Midland County, Tom Craddick’s district, where she had a net gain of 16 – yes, 16 – votes), 81 (Ector County, which is Odessa and Brooks Landgraf’s district, net gain of 590 votes), and 06 (Smith County, home of Tyler and Matt Schaefer, net gain of 871).

I’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you here, so let me sum up: Hillary Clinton absolutely got blitzed in rural Texas, with the gap between her and Donald Trump increasing by well over 100,000 votes compared to the Obama/Romney difference. However, all of this was concentrated in legislative districts that were far and away he least competitive for Democrats to begin with. The net loss of potentially competitive legislative races in these parts of the state is exactly zero.

Everywhere else, Clinton gained on Obama. More to the point, everywhere else except the 60-70% Romney districts, downballot Democrats gained. Even in that group, there were big steps forward, with HDs 66 and 67 (both in Collin County, both held by Freedom Caucus types) going from over 60% for Romney to under 50% for Trump, while HD26 in Fort Bend went from nearly 63% for Romney to barely 50% for Trump. They’re still a challenge at lower levels, but they’re under 60% red and they’re the swing districts of the immediate future.

Now I want to be clear that losing the rural areas like this does have a cost for Democrats. The reason Dems came as close as they did to a majority in 2008 is because they held about a dozen seats in rural areas, all holdovers from the old days when nearly everyone was a Democrat. Those seats went away in 2010, and with the exception of the one that was centered on Waco, none of them are remotely competitive going forward. The end result of this is that the most optimistic scenario I can paint barely puts the Dems above 70 members, not enough for a majority. To have a real shot at getting a majority sometime in the next decade or two, Dems are going to have to figure out how to compete in smaller metro areas – Lubbock, Abilene, Tyler, Odessa, Midland, San Angelo, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, etc etc etc – all of which are a little bit urban and a little bit more rural. Some of these places have growing Latino populations, some of them are experiencing the same kinds of problems that the larger urban areas are facing. Becoming competitive in the suburbs is great, but there’s still a lot more to this very large state of ours.

Anyway. I can’t speak for places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but in Texas I’d call the rural/suburban tradeoff we saw in 2016 to be a positive step. There are plenty more steps to take, but this was a good one to begin with.

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.

There is trouble with the trees

More to the point, there is trouble with the idea that municipal tree ordinances are somehow a bad thing, but that’s where we are, and it’s got some folks worried.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

More than 40,000 trees were lost to [Hurricane] Ike, according to the nonprofit Galveston Island Tree Conservancy. A replanting campaign that began in 2010 has made significant progress: Volunteers have spent more than 17,000 hours planting more than 16,000 trees, including 250 live oaks and 60 palm trees on Broadway.

Now this effort faces a new threat – not from nature, but from politicians in the state Capitol. Gov. Greg Abbott wants the Legislature to strip cities of the authority to regulate – and essentially protect – trees on private property. It’s one of 21 items the Republican governor has placed on the agenda for a special session that begins July 18.

This action would weaken tree-protection ordinances in more than 50 Texas cities.

Local leaders across the state oppose the idea, but the issue has particular resonance in Galveston because of Ike’s devastating effect on its tree canopy.

In the storm’s aftermath, trees became precious jewels. Homeowners agonized for months, hoping in vain that their treasured oak or magnolia would somehow recover, before accepting the inevitable. Every dead tree that was felled and hauled away left the island a little barer, its people a little more sorrowful.

“Everyone was just so devastated by the loss,” said Jackie Cole, president of the nonprofit Galveston Island Tree Conservancy.

To bolster the recovery effort, the City Council passed a tree-protection ordinance in 2015. The measure requires property owners to seek a permit before removing trees considered significant based on their size or other factors. Trees that are unhealthy, that pose a hazard or that meet certain other criteria may be removed without penalty; others may be cut down only if the owner replaces them with trees of a specified size or pays into a local tree fund.

See here for some background. I would point out that for all of Abbott’s tree-hatred, his little vendetta will still require the consent of the Legislature. I hope the people of Galveston have been directing their concerns to Sen. Larry Taylor and Reps. Wayne Faircloth and Greg Bonnen. If local control still means anything, it needs to mean something to them.

By the way, story author Mike Snyder has a sidebar piece about the effort to defend local tree ordinances, which is being led by Defend Texas Trees. Turns out that most of the municipal tree ordinances in the state aren’t about what homeowners can and cannot do but about what developers can and cannot do, with restrictions and incentives in place to preserve mature trees. In other words, Abbott’s intended ordinance isn’t just an attack on trees, it’s a boon for developers. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Welcome to summer, y’all.

The nation’s climate agency on Thursday predicted an above-normal 2017 hurricane season with 11 to 17 named storms, five to nine of them hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 45 percent chance of the hurricane season that begins June 1 being above normal, a 35 percent chance of a normal season and a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season. An average season is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

The agency said it expected two to four of the hurricanes to be Category 3 or higher.

“The outlook reflects our expectation of a weak or non-existent El Niño, near- or above-average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and average or weaker-than-average vertical wind shear in that same region,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Bell said a strong El Niño causes more intense wind shear, which tends to break up tropical disturbances before they can grow into a hurricane. He cautioned that chances were 50-50 that a stronger El Niño could develop later in the hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.

[…]

The United States has had a long run of good luck, said Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator. “It’s been a record 12 years since a Category 3 or higher storm has hit the United States, Friedman said.

And it’s been nine years since Hurricane Ike, which caused a lot of problems even if it wasn’t nearly as bad a storm as it could have been. It’s not unreasonable to think that people have relaxed a bit recently, given how mild the storm seasons have been since then. Be prepared, don’t panic, and if you live in Katy go ahead and start evacuating now. Texas Monthly has more.

Galveston wants a bag ban

Good luck.

Reacting to a groundswell of concern about the effect of plastic bags on the environment, Galveston is on the forefront of a statewide controversy over cities’ ability to ban plastic bags that are killing turtles, birds and fouling beaches.

A proposed ordinance with unanimous City Council support and strong community backing faces fierce opposition from outside forces, including conservative think tanks and plastic bag manufacturers who have already sent threatening letters.

[…]

Not all businesses support the ban, but it has the backing of the influential Galveston Hotel and Lodging Association. “As business operators we typically don’t like this type of business regulation,” said Steve Cunningham, association president and manager of the Hotel Galvez. “But being on the Gulf, this one is necessary because of the damage to the wildlife and the environment.”

City Attorney Don Glywasky drafted the Galveston ordinance to avoid the legal pitfalls encountered by cities such as Laredo. The Laredo bag ban was challenged under the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal law that bars local governments from adopting regulations to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Glywasky believes Galveston is unique. “I don’t really see that this is a solid waste management issue,” he said. “If we can cut down on some of the plastic bags that go into the marine environment, that is not something for the purpose of solid waste, it is for the protection of the marine environment on which we depend.”

That argument drew no sympathy from an influential conservative organization, the Texas Public Policy Foundation. James Quintero, director of the foundation’s Center for Local Governance and Think Local Liberty, said Galveston’s proposed ordinance conflicts with state law.

“Our position would be that Galveston’s ordinance, no matter what the stated reason would be, is still prohibiting containers,” said Bryan Mathew, policy analyst for Texas Public Policy Foundation. “In our view, a lot of local governments have been attempting to regulate out of bounds by hiding under the term of local control.”

Mathew called anything that smacks of what Gov. Greg Abbott lamented were attempts to make Texas more like California “out of bounds.”

“Texas is being California-ized and you may not even be noticing it,” Abbott said last year during remarks at a Public Policy Foundation gathering, where he warned of “a patchwork quilt of bans and rules and regulations that is eroding the Texas model.”

That erosion would include anything that hinders “people from being able to sell and buy with minimal government regulation and a low tax burden,” Mathew said.

Mathew saw no contradiction with the traditional conservative support for local control, arguing that local control refers to legislatures, not local governments.

“Utter hogwash,” said Zach Trahan, spokesman for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “They made it up this last year to justify their abandonment of local control.”

Yeah, let’s be clear that the “conservative” principle at work here is “because we said so”. Local control is great up to the point where localities do things that displeases authoritarians like Greg Abbott and the TPPF, thus requiring they be brought to heel. I think Galveston has perfectly good reasons for wanting to regulate plastic bags, but the court ruling against Laredo’s bag ordinance does not bode well for its future.

Climate change will not be kind to Houston

It could be even worse, if that’s any consolation, but it will be bad as things are going now.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5105566

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5105566

Houston’s brutally hot summers, persistent humidity, floods and hurricanes never have been much of a selling point. It’s been something to endure.

In 50 years, scientists predict Houston’s climate will look a lot like what it does today, but amplified – more hot days, more downpours, more hurricanes, and more sea-level rise.

The frequency and ferocity of those events is the subject of scientific debate. But make no mistake: Climate change will alter Houston over the next century.

“I think the last year gave us a pretty good insight into the next decade,” said Gavin Dillingham, a Houston Advanced Research Center scientist working with the city to develop a sustainability plan. “There’s going to be significantly more flooding, summers that last longer, more vector-borne diseases. Zika could be just the beginning.”

The federal government’s most recent national climate assessment paints a rather grim portrait of Texas by 2100: a increase in the number of days over 100 degrees and more drought, particularly for West and North Texas.

Likewise, oceans are expected to continue to warm, adding fuel to potential hurricanes that come into the Gulf of Mexico.

Presumably, Houston will have some kind of hurricane protection system in place in 50 years, but that seems far from certain given the current pace of the “coastal spine” project. To better protect the Houston-Galveston area, the concept involves combining barriers and gates to lessen the effects of storm surge. For example, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Greater New Orleans Barrier was built to protect the city from storm surge.

Either way, climate science now suggests there will be less of the coast to protect in the future due to sea level rise. By 2100, estimates range for sea levels to increase on the Texas coast anywhere from a foot and half to 6 feet. At five feet, roughly 68 percent of Galveston would be underwater.

[…]

So just how hot will Houston get in the future?

The good news is Houston always will enjoy breezes from the Gulf of Mexico. The bad news is Houston is Houston.

“It will be warmer,” said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon when asked what Houston might be like in 50 years. “One thing you’ll see is warmer minimum temperatures in the winter time. It won’t be as cold as it is now.”

So one day you might only need those sweaters you like to wear in the winter for when it’s overly air-conditioned. Sure is a good thing climate change is all a hoax, isn’t it?

Statewide review: 2016 was like 2008, but not in a good way

vote-button

There’s no point in beating around the bush, so I’ll just come out and say it: Despite the excitement about increases in voter registration and heavy early voting turnout. statewide Democratic candidates outside of Hillary Clinton generally did not do any better than their counterparts in 2008. Republican statewide candidates, on the other hand, were generally setting new high-water marks for vote totals. Every statewide Republican other than Wayne Christian topped Donald Trump’s 4,681,590 votes, with all of them but one besting it by at least 100,000. Meanwhile, only Dori Contreras Garza’s 3,598,852 votes exceeded President Obama’s 2008 tally. Overall turnout was up in Texas (in absolute numbers, though not in percentage), but while Dem turnout was better than 2012, it didn’t hit any new heights. I fear we may be at a plateau, as we have been in the off years since 2002.

Why am I not more encouraged by Hillary Clinton’s 3.8 million-plus total? Because I estimate at least 100,000 of her votes came from people who supported Republicans in other races, and because the dropoff from her total to downballot candidates was enough to show no visible growth. For these purposes, I’m using judicial races as my metric, as I believe it is a better proxy for partisan intent. I used as a baseline for comparison between 2012 and 2016 two Court of Criminal Appeals races – the 2012 Sharon Keller/Keith Hampton race, and the 2016 Mike Keasler/Robert Burns race. I believe these contests are low enough profile to draw a relatively small number of crossovers, and in this particular case they were the only such races each year to have just a Libertarian candidate in addition, thus allowing for a more apples-to-apples comparison. I put all the county totals into a spreadsheet and then calculated the difference between the two. From a Democratic perspective, there’s good news, so-so news, and bad news.

I’ll get to the news in a second. You can see the spreadsheet here. I’ve put a list of the 62 counties in which Democrats gained votes from 2012 to 2016 beneath the fold. Take a look and then come back, and we’ll talk about what I think this means.

Ready? Democrats really killed it in the big urban counties. Harris, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, and Dallas combined for nearly 240,000 more Democratic votes in 2016, compared to 83,000 for the Republicans, a net of over 150K. Dems took such a big step forward in Harris County that HD144 might not really be a swing district any more, while HDs 132, 135, and 138 are now in the picture as pickup opportunities, with HD126 a little farther out on the horizon. I’ll have more to say about Harris County beginning tomorrow, but I feel like maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally turned a corner. I know that the off-year turnout issue is a problem until we can demonstrate that it’s not, but I believe it’s getting hard to dispute the assertion that there are just more Democrats in Harris County than there are Republicans. I also believe that national conditions will be different in 2018 than they were in 2010 and 2014. Doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be better, but they will be different, and when you’ve consistently been on the short end of the stick, having conditions change – even if you don’t know how they will change – is a risk you ought to be willing to take.

Democrats also showed a nice gain in the big Latino counties (Hidalgo, Cameron, and Webb), while netting over 9,000 votes in Fort Bend. I’ll be looking at Fort Bend data later as well, and while this wasn’t enough to push any non-Hillary Dems over the top there, it’s a step in the right direction.

The so-so news is that Dems more or less held steady in most of the big suburban counties, by which I mean they mostly lost a little ground but not that much. Other than Fort Bend, Dems posted a solid gain in Hays County and barely gained more votes in Brazoria County than the GOP did. They had modest net losses in counties like Tarrant, Collin, Denton, and Williamson, such that one might feel we are at or near an inflection point in those counties. In math terms, the second derivative is approaching zero. This is a genteel way of saying that we’re falling behind at a slower pace. Better than falling behind in huge chunks, but still not good news.

The bad news is that in several other suburban counties, and basically all the non-Latino rural ones, Democrats got crushed. Montgomery County continues to be a sucking chest wound, with 21,087 more Republican votes and 8,432 more Dems. Comal County is Montgomery’s little brother, with continued steady growth and a deep red tint that shows no signs of abating. And if you’re old enough to remember when Galveston County was reliably Democratic, well, the score here is 10,335 more votes for the GOP, and 1,521 more for the Dems. So, yeah.

It’s the rural counties where things really become dreary. I said the Dems gained votes over 2012 in 62 counties. That means they lost votes in 192 others. Now, most of these are small counties, and the losses themselves were small in most of them; the average loss was 323 votes. But Republicans gained an average of over 700 votes in each of those counties, and as they say after awhile it adds up. Plus, some of these counties are now more exurban than rural, and like the suburbs are seeing steady growth. Two examples for you are Johnson County, northwest of Travis and home of Cleburne, and Parker County, west of Tarrant where Weatherford is. Those counties saw a combined voter registration increase of about 20,000. Of that, 17,201 were Republican and 449 were Democratic. That right there is enough to negate the Democratic net gain in Dallas County.

The single most eye-catching item in here is Polk County, up US59 between Houston and Lufkin; Livingston is the county seat. Unlike Johnson and Parker, it has about the same number of voters as it did four years ago. The difference is that in 2012 fewer than half of registered voters bothered, while this year nearly everyone did. Turnout in the Presidential race in Polk County was an mind-boggling 89.48%, and nearly the entire increase came from Republicans. In this CCA comparison, Mike Keasler got 12,183 more votes than Sharon Keller did, while Robert Burns improved on Keith Hampton by only 1,845 votes. All this with only 38,530 total registered voters. OMG, to say the least.

So what should we be doing about this? Well, we should keep doing what we’re doing in the urban counties, because it definitely bore fruit this year. I’d like to think we’re starting to maybe get a little traction in the suburbs, at least some of them, but it’s going to take a lot more resources and an effort that doesn’t just gear up at campaign time to really get that going. Mostly, we need to have a way to make sure we’re being heard in these places, because I don’t think we are, not outside of the faithful who are there. If I were a fabulously wealthy person who wanted to move the needle outside the urban counties, I’d throw a bunch of money at the Texas Organizing Project and ask them to figure out (and execute) a way to do for these suburbs and exurbs what they’ve been doing in Pasadena. It’s slow and methodical and just one piece of the puzzle, but we have got to start somewhere.

Data on the counties where Dem turnout grew is beneath the fold. More to come over the next week or so.

(more…)

Two Ike Dike updates

Ike Dike could be hidden by dunes:

The “Ike Dike” that is being proposed to protect the Galveston-Houston area from a potentially catastrophic hurricane storm surge could take the form of undulating sand dunes hiding a steel or concrete core.

The proposal to craft a storm barrier that would blend in with the environment and potentially strengthen beaches against erosion is one of three proposals for where and how to build a surge barrier, an idea that has gained considerable political momentum and is likely to be the subject of some form of action when the Legislature convenes next year.

The six-county Gulf Coast Protection and Recovery District, known as the storm surge district, has looked at placing the surge barrier landward of the highways that run along the coast on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (or SSPEED) has recommended raising the highways as the most economical way to build a surge barrier and still ensure an evacuation route as storm water rises. Several people died during Hurricane Ike in 2008 as rising tides isolated them on the highway.

Placing the surge barrier on the beach, as has been done successfully in the Netherlands, is a proposal being pushed by the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston. Engineering the storm barrier to be part of the natural landscape would create habitat for plants and animals and protect homes between the beach and the highway that otherwise would be left to the mercy of the storm, said Sam Brody, who teaches marine science at the center.

Brody conceded that it will be more expensive to build the barrier along the beach and will increase the estimated $5.8 billion cost. “The added cost of restoring and enhancing the environment is worth it over the long term,” Brody said.

The idea is getting no resistance from the SSPEED Center and the storm surge district. “We don’t have a strong position one way or the other,” SSPEED Center Co-director Jim Blackburn said. Chris Sallese, program manager for the storm surge district, said his agency looked at building the barrier landward of the highway because SSPEED and Texas A&M were looking at the other alternatives and the district wanted to make sure all possibilities were examined.

Coastal barrier plan ‘Ike Dike’ draws support, needs funding:

If there is a lesson from the devastation of Hurricane Ike eight years ago, it is that the Houston-Galveston region is extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic storm surge, and the next hurricane could send the regional economy into a deep tailspin.

But plans to protect the region from such a storm surge have lagged as officials and experts argued about whether to build a major coastal barrier called the “Ike Dike” or a series of smaller projects that could be completed more quickly.

Now, there is strong support for building the $11.6 billion Ike Dike plan, designed to keep a massive storm surge from rushing into developed areas. A six-county storm surge district recently recommended a plan that calls for 277 miles of coastal barriers, including raised seawalls, levees and surge gates.

[…]

Planners have completed studies showing that the Ike Dike could prevent $38 billion in losses and save 151,000 jobs over a 50-year lifespan.

Unlike earlier proposals, the plan now backed by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, also known as the storm surge district, recommends raising the Galveston seawall by 4 feet, building a levee on the bay side of Galveston and a gate at Clear Lake. A proposed gate at San Luis Pass on the west end of Galveston Island was eliminated.

Differences remain over how to block a storm surge inside Galveston Bay and how close to the beach to build the surge barrier. Some also worry about the environmental effect of a proposed surge gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, told legislators that it was better to move ahead with smaller projects, such as the center’s proposal for a gate inside Galveston Bay, that could be financed locally.

“Are we going to sit back and wait for the federal government to give us the $10 billion we need?” Dunbar asked. “We believe … it can be built in pieces if necessary.”

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I don’t have a point to make, I just wanted to note this stuff before it got completely lost in the 2016 election hole. Actually, I will say that if Sen. John Cornyn wanted to propose some kind of funding mechanism for this, I’d bet President Hillary Clinton would be amenable to working with him on it. Just a thought.

Early voting starts today

From the inbox:

EarlyVoting

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart announced today that 46 locations will be open Monday, October 24 to Friday, November 4 where voters in the third largest County in the nation may cast ballots during the early voting period for the November 8, 2016 Election.  The total is approximately 25 percent more than the number of early voting locations available in the County during the previous presidential election.

“Since the 2012 Election, nine additional early voting locations have been added. Additionally, the time to vote during the first week of early voting has been extended to 6:00 pm,” said Stanart, the chief election official of the County.

“I expect approximately 800,000 voters will choose to vote during the early voting period for this election.  Preparedness on the part of the County Clerk’s Election Division, as well as voters,  is key to a successful election,” added Stanart.

To ensure the voting process is a pleasant experience, the chief election officer of the County  has a few suggestions for voters heading to the polls:

1.   Voters should confirm voter registration status. A voter registration search can be performed athttp://www.hctax.net/voter/search;

2.   Voters should study a sample ballot, mark it, and take it to the poll. Voters can download a voter-specific ballot at www.HarrisVotes.com;

3.   Voters should identify the nearest or most convenient early voting location. Voters can vote at any one of the 46 early voting locations;

4.   Voters should find out what photo identification is acceptable to vote at the poll, what other identification options are now available to vote a regular ballot, and what identification expedites the qualification process. The voter identification guidelines are available at www.HarrisVotes.com;

5.   Voters should NOT wear clothing or paraphernalia that promotes a party, a candidate or a proposition to the poll;

6.   Voters should be aware that the use of electronic devices is prohibited inside the poll. The right to cast a secret ballot must be respected;

7.   Voters should not wait until the last minute to vote early. During peak voting hours, the wait time could be  longer than we wish.

“Don’t procrastinate. Do your homework.  Then, go vote early,” summed up Stanart. “For voters in Harris County, voting early is the simplest and easiest method of voting. ”

To obtain the early voting schedule, a list of acceptable credentials to vote at the polling location and other election information, voters may visit the Harris County Clerk’s website at www.HarrisVotes.com or call 713.755.6965.

Early Voting Days and Hours

October 24 – October 28: 8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

October 29: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

October 30: 1:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

October 31 – November 4: 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

November 8, 2016 Early Voting Locations, Harris County, Texas
Location Address City Zip
Harris County Administration Building 1001 Preston Street Houston 77002
Champion Forest Baptist Church 4840 Strack Road Houston 77069
Prairie View A&M University Northwest 9449 Grant Road Houston 77070
Baldwin Boettcher Branch Library 22248 Aldine Westfield Road Humble 77338
Kingwood Branch Library 4400 Bens View Lane Kingwood 77345
Lone Star College Atascocita Center 15903 West Lake Houston Parkway Houston 77044
Crosby Branch Library 135 Hare Road Crosby 77532
Kyle Chapman Activity Center 7340 Spencer Highway Pasadena 77505
Freeman Branch Library 16616 Diana Lane Houston 77062
Harris County Scarsdale Annex* 10851 Scarsdale Boulevard Houston 77089
Juergen’s Hall Community Center 26026 Hempstead Highway Cypress 77429
Tomball Public Works Building 501B James Street Tomball 77375
Hiram Clarke Multi Service Center 3810 West Fuqua Street Houston 77045
Katy Branch Library* 5414 Franz Rd Katy 77493
Lone Star College Cypress Center 19710 Clay Road Katy 77449
Harris County MUD 81 805 Hidden Canyon Road Katy 77450
Nottingham Park 926 Country Place Drive Houston 77079
Harris County Public Health Environmental Services 2223 West Loop South Freeway Houston 77027
Metropolitan Multi Service Center 1475 West Gray Street Houston 77019
City of Jersey Village City Hall 16327 Lakeview Drive Jersey Village 77040
Richard & Meg Weekley Community Center 8440 Greenhouse Road Cypress 77433
Bayland Park Community Center 6400 Bissonnet Street Houston 77074
Tracy Gee Community Center 3599 Westcenter Drive Houston 77042
Bear Creek Park Community Center 3055 Bear Creek Drive Houston 77084
Trini Mendenhall Community Center 1414 Wirt Road Houston 77055
Acres Homes Multi Service Center 6719 West Montgomery Road Houston 77091
Fallbrook Church 12512 Walters Road Houston 77014
Lone Star College Victory Center 4141 Victory Drive Houston 77088
Hardy Senior Center 11901 West Hardy Road Houston 77076
Northeast Multi Service Center 9720 Spaulding Street, Building 4 Houston 77016
Octavia Fields Branch Library 1503 South Houston Avenue Humble 77338
Kashmere Multi Service Center 4802 Lockwood Drive Houston 77026
North Channel Branch Library 15741 Wallisville Road Houston 77049
Alvin D. Baggett Community Center 1302 Keene Street Galena Park 77547
Ripley House Neighborhood Center 4410 Navigation Boulevard Houston 77011
Baytown Community Center 2407 Market Street Baytown 77520
John Phelps Courthouse 101 North Richey Street Pasadena 77506
HCCS Southeast College 6960 Rustic Street, Parking Garage Houston 77087
Fiesta Mart 8130 Kirby Drive Houston 77054
Sunnyside Multi-Purpose Center 9314 Cullen Boulevard Houston 77033
Palm Center 5300 Griggs Road Houston 77021
Moody Park Community Center 3725 Fulton Street Houston 77009
SPJST Lodge 88 1435 Beall Street Houston 77008
Alief ISD Administration Building 4250 Cook Road Houston 77072
Champion Life Centre 3031 FM 2920 Road Spring 77388
Lone Star College – Creekside Center 8747 West New Harmony Trail Tomball 77375
* Indicates New Location

www.HarrisVotes.com

That of course is for Harris County. Early voting information for some other counties of interest:

Fort Bend
Brazoria
Galveston
Montgomery

Check your local county clerk or election administrator if you are elsewhere.

Battleground Texas reminds you what form of ID is acceptable:

The state of Texas has made it easier for more Texans to vote in this election by expanding the types of identification that a voter can present at the polls!

If you don’t have a photo ID (reminder of the accepted forms of photo ID here), you’ll just need to fill out a short form stating the reason why you haven’t been able to get one and swearing that you are who you say you are.

Then you can present any government document that lists your name and address. A copy of the document will do, unless it has a photo, in which case be sure to bring the original. Poll workers cannot question or challenge you regarding your lack of a photo ID.

If you don’t have a photo ID, bring one of these documents to the polls:

  • Voter registration certificate (the card mailed to you shortly after you register to vote)
  • Certified birth certificate (original)
  • Current utility bill (copy or original)
  • Bank statement (copy or original)
  • Government check (copy or original)
  • Paycheck (copy or original)

Election poll workers are prohibited by law from challenging your reason for being unable to obtain a photo ID. If you experience any issues at the polls, call our Voter Protection Hotline at 1-844-TXVOTES, and we can help.

Voters with a disability may apply with the county voter registrar for a permanent exemption to showing ID at the polls.

And here’s a guide as to what poll watchers may and may not do.

Poll watchers may look on as voters cast ballots or as officials count them. They can also observe inspection of voting machines. But they can’t talk to voters or election officials unless they are reporting an irregularity to an election officer. They also can’t make audio or video recordings or take photos inside a polling place.

The Texas Election Code includes several other rules governing poll watchers:

  • They must be eligible to vote in the county where they they are serving (or in elections limited to a smaller jurisdictions, they must be eligible to vote in those communities).
  • They must present a “certificate of appointment” to the election judge at a polling station and the certificate must come from the political party, candidate or ballot measure group that appointed them (Groups of registered voters may also appoint poll watchers on behalf of certain write-in candidates.).
  • They may not access a voting station while someone is casting a ballot.
  • State law also prohibits poll watchers — or any voter, for that matter— from wearing a badge, insignia or emblem related to a candidate, measure or party on the ballot within 100 feet of a polling place’s door.

Here are two other relevant rules:

  • Parties, candidates and campaigns may not appoint more than two watchers at each precinct polling spot, early voting ballot board meeting or central counting station. They may appoint as many as seven watchers to each early voting polling location, but no more than two may serve at the same time.
  • Candidates on the ballot may not serve as poll watchers during their own elections. State law also bars from the following from serving: current public office holders, close relatives of election judges at the polling place and people convicted of election-related offenses.

Bottom Line: Poll watching is a common practice in Texas elections, but those who do it must follow plenty of rules.

Here’s a Chron story about poll watchers and the Trump-inspired hysteria that has boosted their numbers. Make no mistake, some number of them will be up to no good and should be closely watched themselves. On the plus side, there will be no Russian poll watchers, which is a sentence I never thought I’d type. If you see poll watchers engaging in activities they shouldn’t be, I strongly urge you to call your elections administrator and county party. I haven’t seen an announcement that the HCDP has set up a hotline for such complaints, but their main number is 713-802-0085 if you need it. Now go forth and vote. I expect it will be a busy early voting period.

Chron overview of HD23

We go to Galveston for one of the few interesting Legislative races in the area.

Rep. Wayne Faircloth

Rep. Wayne Faircloth

A former Democratic state legislator is trying to recapture the Texas House District 23 seat from the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction.

In one of the few competitive legislative contests, Democrat Lloyd Criss, who represented Galveston County in the Texas House from 1979 to 1991, is challenging first-term Republican Rep. Wayne Faircloth.

Faircloth, 63, won the seat in 2014 by defeating Criss’ daughter, former Galveston County District Judge Susan Criss.

Although the district was redrawn to favor the GOP by combining the predominantly Democratic areas of Galveston County with overwhelmingly Republican Chambers County, Republicans have struggled in the district. Faircloth fell short in his first attempt to win the district in 2012, losing to then-Rep. Craig Eiland, a Democrat.

Lloyd Criss

Lloyd Criss

The seat came open in 2014 after Eiland decided to retire from a post he had held for two decades.

The district includes Democratic-leaning Galveston, the Bolivar Peninsula, Texas City, La Marque and the unincorporated community of San Leon before stretching across Galveston Bay to take in more conservative Chambers County.

[…]

[Sean Skipworth, who teaches government at the College of the Mainland,] said that Faircloth won during a mid-term election with low turnout, which usually favors Republicans. Incumbents are most vulnerable during their first reelection campaign, he said, and having presidential candidate Donald Trump at the top of the ticket could hurt Republicans farther down the ballot like Faircloth. The 75-year-old Criss also has high name recognition in Galveston County, which has 80 percent of the district’s population.

“If I was Faircloth, I would be a little nervous,” Skipworth said.

True, but Eiland was the only Democrat to receive a majority of the vote in HD23 in 2012. The district, like Galveston County itself, had been trending the wrong way for some time, and I suspect Eiland’s decision to retire rather than run in 2014 was predicated as much by an inking about which way the wind was blowing as anything else. That said, Susan Criss did about as well as one could expect in that environment, and it’s hardly outrageous to think that a guy like Faircloth, who represents a relatively balanced district, could get swept out in the Year of the Trump. It’s just that if that does happen, he’d immediately be the favorite to win it back in 2018, at least until we get a feel for where there will be a more permanent effect from this election. Bottom line, if the statewide polls are accurate, this seat could well be in play. Holding it after this year, that’s the challenge.

What it will take to win the District Court of Appeals benches

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that one place on the local ballot where Democrats could potentially gain some real ground is with the district Courts of Appeals. There are no competitive Congressional or State Senate races, the one competitive State House race in HD144 would be Democratic-favored in any Presidential year, and the countywide races have a greater dependency on the candidates themselves than any other contest. Republicans have done well in those races even as Democrats were winning district court benches, with the GOP successfully defending the offices of District Attorney and Tax Assessor in 2008 and 2012. The stakes are higher this year with the GOP hoping to keep the Sheriff’s office as well. Those races will get a lot of attention, with the outcomes less likely to be determined by partisan turnout levels.

The judicial races are where the candidates are mostly at the mercy of the blue/red mix. The wild card in those contests are for the 1st and 14th District Courts of Appeals, which encompass more than just Harris County. Jim Sharp broke through in 2008 to become the first (and so far only) Democrat in recent years to claim a spot on these benches, but several other races that year were fairly close, as each of the Democratic candidates carried Harris County. Republicans had a much easier time holding those positions in 2012, but the overall trend as well as the dynamic of this year’s Presidential contest suggests Dems may have a good shot at these. Let’s take a look at the numbers from the last two Presidential years and see if we can take a guess at what would need to happen for that to be the case.


2008

Race         Harris D  Harris R     Diff  Others D  Others R      Diff     Total
================================================================================
14th CJ       568,713   539,696  +29,017   199,332   258,576   -59,244   -30,227
1st Pl3       585,249   526,393  +58,856   209,510   250,194   -40,684   +18,172
1st Pl5       565,338   543,216  +22,122   198,502   259,452   -60,950   -38,828
14th Pl4      561,284   544,873  +16,411   194,751   261,775   -67,024   -50,613
14th Pl6      569,641   536,050  +33,591   198,463   257,779   -59,316   -25,815
14th Pl7      571,737   533,566  +38,173   198,849   257,265   -58,416   -20,245


2012

Race         Harris D  Harris R     Diff  Others D  Others R      Diff     Total
================================================================================
1st Pl2       567,793   572,351   -4,558   194,826   297,572  -102,746  -107,304
1st Pl6       565,699   572,594   -6,895   193,294   298,479  -105,185  -112,080
1st Pl7       565,258   572,326   -7,068   191,908   299,769  -107,861  -114,929
1st Pl8       560,865   575,397  -14,532   191,293   300,076  -108,783  -123,315
1st Pl9       567,466   570,529   -3,063   192,017   299,588  -107,571  -110,634
14th Pl3      580,356   557,224  +23,132   197,511   294,162   -96,551   -73,519
14th Pl4      555,639   580,450  -24,811   188,891   302,216  -113,325  -138,136
14th Pl5      557,972   578,436  -20,464   190,155   300,711  -110,556  -131,020
14th Pl8      575,206   562,417  +13,211   196,161   295,426   -99,265   -86,476

There are a couple of things going on here. The level of Democratic turnout in each year is roughly equivalent. The average dipped from 570,327 in 2008 to 566,250 in 2012, but that’a less than one percent. The Dem totals dropped a bit more in the other counties, falling from an average of 199,901 to 192,895, with the difference being exaggerated a bit by Jim Sharp’s showing in 2008. The bottom line remains that while the average Democratic candidate in these races received about 10,000 fewer votes in 2012, those totals didn’t affect the competitiveness of these races.

What did that were the Republican turnouts, which rose considerably in Harris and in the other counties, though for slightly different reasons. Republican voters in Harris County were far more likely to skip downballot races in 2008 than they were in 2012. It was the same way in 2004, with about ten percent of their Presidential voters disappearing for races like these, while Democratic voters were far more persistent about filling out their ballots. That pattern changed in 2012, with Rs and Ds about equally likely to fill the whole thing in. Some of that is no doubt the effect of straight-ticket voting, but there were still over 400,000 voters in Harris county who didn’t vote straight ticket in 2012. Maybe it was increased partisanship, maybe it was people absorbing the local message to vote all the way down, but whatever the case, it had an effect. As for the other counties, the increases are basically the result of population growth in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria Counties. Put the two together and you can see the effect.

Obviously, that makes winning these races this year a challenge, but I believe it can be done. Republicans have little to no prospect for growth in Harris County, and having Donald Trump at the top of the ticket is more likely to be a drag than an asset. Democrats need to put up a decent margin in Harris County, and they ought to be able to, but that won’t be enough. There needs to be some help in Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria for there to be a fighting chance. I don’t know what is going on in those counties to try to boost turnout, though I know Fort Bend Democrats have been pretty active in recent years. I may be the only person in the state obsessing about these races as attainable targets for this year – these are low-visibility contests that have no immediate impact – but they represent an opportunity that we don’t often get, and it’s not like there are a bunch of legitimately exciting legislative or Congressional elections to focus on. The point I’ve been trying to make is that this is a good year to be thinking about other parts of the political bench, which includes county offices and judicial races. Remember, these appellate court positions come with six-year terms, so anyone who wins this year could if they chose run for a statewide bench in 2018 or 2020. There’s no downside to any of this, but we have to be aware of it first.

GetMe waits in the wings

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Me goes to Galveston

Swooping in to fill the gap left by Uber’s departure.

Galveston is close to getting app-based transportation back.

Get Me, a Dallas-based company that started serving Houston in October, has submitted an application with Galveston to provide ride services on the island, city spokeswoman Kala McCain said Monday.

Galveston has not had any competition to cabs since Uber – the most popular ride-hailing service – left the city over its decision in February to regulate the company exactly as it does taxi firms. The loss of Uber was predicted to mostly hit tourists, especially the cruise lines.

Get Me, which provides both ride and delivery services via smartphone app, has started Galveston’s application process, McCain said. Licensing is a multi-step process that includes providing detailed insurance and licensing information.

“It is my understanding everything is going well,” McCain said, saying the company could be operating in a matter of a few weeks.

Get Me is a new entrant on the scene, operating in a handful of places so far. Galveston was recently dumped by Uber, so this is an opportunity for them to come in and have this market to themselves. They have said that they will comply with municipal ordinances that mandate fingerprinting as part of the background check process for drivers, so that opportunity for them is potentially lucrative, especially if Austin rejects that referendum to repeal its ordinance. Has anyone used Get Me? I’m curious what you think, in particular how the experience compares with Uber and Lyft.

Not everyone likes the latest hurricane surge protection plan

Yet another obstacle.

A new proposal to protect the Houston area from hurricanes is reigniting controversy, and potentially diminishing the odds that a consensus will emerge anytime soon on the best plan to safeguard the nation’s fifth-largest metropolitan area.

Since Hurricane Ike in 2008, Texas scientists have pushed several different plans to shield the region, home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex, from devastating storm surge.

Some accord emerged in recent years around a $6 billion-to-$8 billion Dutch-inspired concept called the “coastal spine,” creating some hope that state and federal lawmakers may have a single proposal to champion before the next big hurricane hits. The concept — an expanded version of another, dubbed the “Ike Dike” — is designed to impede storm surge right at the coast with a 60-mile seawall along Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula. A massive floodgate between the two landmasses would be closed ahead of a storm. Several dozen communities have endorsed the coastal spine — conceived at Texas A&M University at Galveston — along with some state lawmakers, the Texas Municipal League and at least one major industry group.

But a six-county coalition studying how best to proceed now says a 56-mile, mostly mainland levee system — several components of which have been proposed before by other entities — would provide a nearly equivalent level of protection while costing several billion dollars less. The catch: several Houston-area communities on the west side of Galveston Bay, including Kemah, La Porte, Seabrook, Morgan’s Point and San Leon, would be left outside the dike.

And officials from those communities say that is unacceptable.

“Just the fact that it’s mentioned — I take it as a serious threat,” Seabrook Mayor Glenn Royal said.

The $3.5 billion proposal by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, unveiled in a report last week, calls for expanding and extending an existing levee around Texas City northward along State Highway 146 and westward to the community of Santa Fe. The recovery district’s plan also calls for placing a “ring” levee around the entire city of Galveston to protect it from storm surge. (During hurricanes, the island gets hit by surge once from the front and a second time from the back when surge that reaches the mainland recedes.)

The part of the proposed levee closest to Texas City — home to three major refineries — sits right on Galveston Bay, but most of it is set back from the water, meaning the communities between it and the bay are left unprotected.

See here for the background, and be sure to read the whole thing. I’m not sufficiently informed to have an opinion about what the best option is, I’m just trying to stay on top of what’s out there.

Storm protection is expensive

But then so would be getting hit by a truly bad storm.

Building a storm surge protection system along the Texas Gulf Coast could cost between $7.9 billion and $11 billion, and likely would not be completed for about two decades, according to a new study.

The report by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes six counties along the upper Texas coast, comes after years of urging by academics to take action to prevent a massive storm surge like the one spawned by Hurricane Ike.

The study analyzed the costs and benefits of a range of major infrastructure projects – from systems of levees to a giant gate in the Houston Ship Channel.

Robert Eckels, the district president, said even with the highest cost estimate of $11 billion, paying for surge protection is still far cheaper than the aftermath of Ike, which caused more than $30 billion in damage when it hit in 2008.

“Just the damage from Ike is more than double even what the most expensive alternatives are,” Eckels said.

But the study is likely to reignite a debate over how to best balance protecting the coast with the potential harm to the environment posed by artificial barriers.

[…]

The most expensive proposal, with a construction cost of $5.8 billion, involves building a 55-mile storm surge protection system that includes a massive navigation gate across the Houston Ship Channel. The alternative, at $3.5 billion, involves a series of separate systems that would not provide direct protection to the upper reaches of the ship channel.

We’ve been talking about this for years now, and while there’s no consensus on what the best course of remediation is, there’s definitely a consensus that a worst-case storm is a real if small possibility, and its effects would be devastating. Take a look at the Hell and High Water interactive slideshow put together by the Trib and ProPublica if you want to freak out a little. Of course, the first problem that has to be solved for this is how to pay for whatever we decide to do. I personally think that a combination of federal and state funds should be the source, but we can quibble over who pays how much for what. But first, we need to agree to Do Something. The rest can work itself out once we take that step. Swamplot has more.

Two more places that Uber won’t operate

Goodbye, Galveston.

Uber

Just days after the City Council passed an ordinance designed to regulate transportation networks, Uber has shut down its service in Galveston.

Monday evening, people in Galveston who tried to use the phone app to order a ride received a message that Uber is no longer available in Galveston

“Due to new regulations passed by Galveston City Council, Uber is no longer available in the city,” the message says. “We hope to resume operations in Galveston under modern ridesharing regulations in the future.”

The council passed those regulations on Thursday.

The rules require that ride-hailing companies apply for operators’ licenses from the city, and require the company’s drivers to apply for chauffeurs’ licenses.

As part of the licensing procedure, drivers have to go through a background check that includes a federal fingerprint analysis.

Uber has objected to cities, including Austin and Houston, who require fingerprint checks from its drivers. In other cities, the company claims that its business model does not allow for the time required to conduct such background checks.

“These new regulations will make it difficult for partners to earn extra money on a flexible schedule and create barriers to entry instead of improving access to reliable transportation options such as ridesharing,” Sharraz Maredia, the general manager of Uber Houston said in an message to drivers sent on Monday evening.

KHOU and the Chron have more coverage on this. I had seen a blurb on this a few days ago when Galveston City Council passed their ordinance, but it was behind a paywall so I didn’t know any of the back story. I did not expect this reaction to the ordinance, but all things considered I should have.

See ya later, Midland.

The rider-sharing sic company Uber has told potential customers it will no longer provide service in Midland County.

[…]

“Uber gives municipalities an ordinance and says pass this or we will leave,” said District 4 Councilman J.Ross Lacy on Monday night. “It is becoming an ongoing battle with cities in state of Texas that they don’t want to follow same rules as someone else.”

Lacy expressed disappointment with the result. He said he personally worked hours on negotiations with Uber. In December, City Council passed the second reading of an ordinance that Lacy said featured work from those negotiations.

[…]

“They (Uber) will not agree to terms of the ordinance because they don’t want to set a precedent,” Lacy said. “I worked a long time and had a handshake agreement, and for them to come back after the fact is disappointing. I negotiated in good faith. They didn’t.”

The Midland ordinance included allowing transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber to conduct their own background checks, which last I looked was a big deal for them. I don’t know if there was more to this story than what this report has, but if these rules were unacceptable them, I don’t know what they would accept. They’re really making the case for statewide regulations for TNCs, which is not a position I ever expected to support.

And here’s another reason to want to get this fight out of the local arena.

A group shrouded in mystery failed to deliver on its promise of a political blockbuster on Monday, in the process digging up new questions to pile upon a tall stack of older unanswered ones. After teasing a big announcement late last week, the group – known as Austin4All – declared that it had gathered enough signatures to force City Council Member Ann Kitchen into a recall election. However, as of Monday evening, the group hadn’t submitted its petition to the city clerk.

Austin4All’s co-directors, Rachel Kania and Tori Moreland, did not respond to an email from the Austin Monitor asking when – or, indeed, if – they plan on turning the petition in. In earlier messages, they explained that they were both in Iowa for the presidential nominating caucuses on Monday night.

The recall effort is purportedly a reaction to Kitchen’s attempts to tighten regulations imposed on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft. Austin4All’s petition is a separate venture from another petition that aims to bring the regulations to a voter referendum. After announcing that they had collected enough signatures, the organizers of that effort quicklydelivered the petition to the Office of the City Clerk.

If Austin4All’s boasts prove to be true, Kitchen will have five days after verification of the signatures to resign or to face a recall referendum as early as May.

[…]

Austin4All’s existence may predate the city’s new system of geographical representation. In 2014, a group with the same name conducted a petition drive whose aim and organizers raised questions.

The Monitor found documents from January of that year showing that an Austin4All incorporated in Hays County as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit – which are forbidden from participating“in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” When asked on Monday whether that was the same group, Moreland said, “We had no involvement and cannot speak to any affiliation.”

There are no other records of another Austin4All, let alone one that is filed as a political action committee, as the group appears to claim to be. According to campaign finance rules, any group that spends more than $500 must report the expenditures. As of the most recent filing deadline, no such records exist.

Kitchen said that she views the recall effort as an attack on her constituents, who made Kitchen one of only two Council members who were elected without having to face a runoff. “Now they’ve got someone from the outside,” Kitchen told the gaggle of press outside City Hall. “They don’t know who’s funding it, they’re telling lies throughout the neighborhood, they’re not identifying themselves. So it’s really a threat to the people of District 5 who have the representative that they chose. And I think it is a horrible precedent for this new system that we have and a threat for the entire city.”

Yeah, who doesn’t love a faux-“grassroots” organization with secret donors led by a couple of political pros (Moreland and Kania have ties to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul) coming in to try to overturn an election? Spare me. I’ll say again, I believe that there is an needs to be room for innovation in the vehicles for hire market, and that cities should find a reasonable way to allow such companies to operate. But by the same token, those companies need to actually abide by the legally enacted ordinances, and they need to accept that some oversight is necessary for the process of doing background checks on their drivers. Fingerprint checks aren’t the be-all and end-all, but they’re perfectly sensible in a way that “take our word for it” isn’t. I still don’t want to see a one-size-fits-all approach from the Legislature, but a law mandating some minimal requirements that includes fingerprints or the equivalent is something I do support.

In any event, the Travis County Clerk has certified the petitions to overturn the Austin ridesharing law on the ballot. City Council there will vote on that next week – they could simply ratify the alternate ordinance put forth by the petitioners or possibly some “compromise” ordinance that everyone can agree on, or it goes to the voters. That will make the month of May a lot more interesting around here. The Trib has more.

Another floodgate proposed

Third time’s the charm, right?

Academic leaders have long beseeched government officials to learn from the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and harden the upper Texas coast against future threats.

Finally, on Monday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of projects to limit flood and storm surge damage.

“It is time to take action,” said Bush, who came into office in January. “This has been a priority of mine since the campaign.”

That effort will build upon several previous studies, including one to be released Tuesday, which have found that a gate system in Galveston Bay, costing less than $3 billion, could provide protection from future hurricanes for $37 billion in chemical and other facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, as well as$9 billion in residential property.

These academic studies, funded by the Houston Endowment and managed by academic leaders from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University at Galveston and other institutions, have presented a range of options to protect the coast.

The latest possibility calls for building a floodgate across the Ship Channel near San Leon.

This “mid-bay” gate would be tied to an extensive network of man-made reefs and island berms, most of which already exist, to safeguard not only industry along the Ship Channel but also homes in rapidly developing areas such as League City along the west side of Galveston Bay.

See here, here, and here for the background. Credit where credit is due, Bush is the first public official to get behind this idea, and if he can take it somewhere it will be a good thing. Cost has always been the main obstacle, but as the Trib reminds us, it’s not the only one.

Everything about the $2.8 billion plan from the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, screams compromise.

The proposed location is roughly halfway between the upper-bay Centennial Gate and the lower-bay Ike Dike — and borrows certain features from the latter, including some new levees and elevated roadways. Its estimated price tag also falls somewhere in the middle, but closer to the $1.5 billion Centennial Gate than the $4 billion to $8 billion estimate for the Ike Dike.

The “mid-bay” plan — contained in the first of three annual reports from the center, and so far lacking a catchy moniker — calls for installing a storm surge-deterring gate as tall as 25 feet across the nearly 700-foot-wide Houston Ship Channel near the community of San Leon. The manmade channel connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Houston, the busiest seaport in the U.S. by some measurements.

SSPEED Center officials say sophisticated storm modeling shows the structure would — in a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds about 15 percent higher than those during Ike — “significantly reduce storm-surge flooding in both the Houston Ship Channel and in the heavily populated west Galveston Bay communities that are difficult to evacuate.”

That’s a direct response to the main criticism levied against the Centennial Gate, which coastal residents argued shielded the refineries along the ship channel at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods. (As for the Ike Dike, it has been criticized for its high cost and potential environmental impact.)

The mid-bay plan “is a much superior alternative in my mind at least than what we had previously looked at,” said Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, noting that “the consensus was that the Centennial Gate did not offer sufficient protection to the public and so we went back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes compromises satisfy everyone, and sometimes they piss everyone off. If this is more the former than the latter, then there ought to be some consensus to move forward, however slowly, towards a funding mechanism. If not, I figure we’ll see another story about another floodgate being proposed sometime next year. We’ll see how it goes.

More on voting centers

I’ll be interested to see how this goes in Galveston.

vote-button

Just in time for the November election, Galveston County has launched the first mobile app of its kind in the state, called “Galveston Votes.” It uses GPS to direct people with lightning speed to the closest voting center.

Fort Bend County in November will make its first foray into using “voting centers” that are open to all voters county-wide, rather than restricting them to their neighborhood precinct.

Montgomery and Harris counties are studying whether to do the same thing.

These efforts are part of a growing trend to counter Texas’ low voter turnout – ranked nationally in 2014 third from the bottom. More and more counties across the state are moving toward using these voting centers. They are looking for any way they can to make voting more accessible and entice voters to the polls.

The centers, which can be located anywhere from grocery stores to shopping malls, may be used by any eligible voter within a county. Voters will no longer be restricted to one precinct site.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says the possible advantages include convenience, financial savings and increase in turnout. Possible drawbacks include a loss of the tradition of neighborhood voting, confusion if the scheme isn’t properly explained to voters and the cost of new equipment and technology.

[…]

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart plans to test new infrastructure at a few polling locations during the primary next March that could be used for future voting centers.

But Stanart warns that converting a county as large as Harris, with its 4.3 million people and 769 polling stations, would be logistically challenging and costly. Each polling station has to be electronically linked to update in “real time” the names of those who are voting at various stations.

“We do that now in early voting with 41 stations, but don’t have the ability to do 769 yet,” he said.

About 13 percent of all Texas counties are now using county-wide voting centers and the number keeps rising, said Alicia Pierce, spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State, who said many voters enjoy the convenience it affords.

“I live in Travis County, where they have adopted this system, and was able to cast my vote at a Fiesta store while getting groceries,” she said.

While the centers have proven convenient, the state is continuing to assess their impact on turnout.

See here, here, and here for some background. Fort Bend (as noted in the last link) is implementing voting centers for this election, which will have some effect on the Mayor’s race since there are a few thousand Houston voters in Fort Bend. Voting centers basically replicate the early voting experience on Election Day – there are a smaller number of locations, but you can use any of them – though this story makes it sound like there could be a lot more of them than the traditional early voting places, at locations that aren’t currently used. It would be nice to have a better idea of how many voting centers there are compared to EV locations and traditional polling places. Enough counties in Texas are doing this already, that data ought to be readily available.

As for claims that voting centers will help increase turnout, I’m skeptical. There is concern (again, in that last link above) that it could have the opposite effect, partly due to voter confusion, and partly due to vote centers not being as close to or as convenient for voters with mobility issues. I’ve said before that I believe these obstacles can be overcome, with sufficient outreach and care in the selection of vote center sites – perhaps some existing precinct voting locations can be used as vote centers – but the concerns need to be taken seriously. It’s not out of the question that if done poorly, vote centers could increase turnout in affluent areas while depressing it in lower income and minority neighborhoods, which would be completely unacceptable. Vote centers have existed in Texas since 2005, with 23 counties currently employing them and nine more piloting them this fall. We really should have some hard data by now to show the effect of this idea. Again, it would be nice to know more. I support the idea behind voting centers, but I’d like to know that we’ve been doing them right.

Houston’s transit deserts

From the Kinder Institute’s Urban Edge blog:

HoustonMetro

A new study suggests that despite METRO’s launch of several highly-touted and publicized improvements, the agency is still struggling to address the needs of some communities that depend heavily on transit.

With operations beginning on METRO’s two new light rail lines and the reimagined bus system set to begin service in August 2015, the Houston region’s transit system is undergoing drastic changes.

There is no denying the merits of these new elements. On the whole, the new rail lines and the streamlined bus system will benefit many riders. The agency said that its bus system changes will double the number of potential riders who live within a half-mile of a frequent bus route to 1 million people. Meanwhile, the new light rails are providing faster, consistent service to two areas of town with high transit demand.

But, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin who have mapped what the changes mean for Houstonians’ access to transit, the results of the new systems offer more of a mixed bag.

Junfeng Jiao, an assistant professor of community and regional planning at UT-Austin, and Aaron Nichols, a graduate student in the same department, have studied and mapped the “transit deserts” of major Texas cities.

Their concept is adapted from the more widely-known idea of food deserts, or areas where residents lack access to fresh, nutritious food. By tracking transit deserts,

Jiao and Nichols can highlight the parts of cities that have greater demand for transit than supply.

The researchers released their findings for Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio in January.

To find out where the gaps in transit service exist, Jiao and Nichols collected two types of information about every census block group in a city: the transit demand and transit supply.

Transit demand is based on the percentage of people in an area that depend on public transit. Researchers arrived at that figure by subtracting the number of cars at a household from the number of eligible drivers living there and extrapolating it across the wider area. From that, the researchers determined the percentage of transit dependent people per acre.

They calculated transit supply by determining the number of transit stops and routes within each block group, as well as the frequency of transit service. They also considered the length of sidewalks, bike routes and low-speed roads as well as the density of intersections. The numbers were aggregated into a transit-supply per acre measurement.

Transit demand was then subtracted from transit supply. If the number is negative, the area is considered a transit desert.

The researchers acknowledge that the approach isn’t perfect. The number of cars per household is certainly not the sole factor that determines use of transit. For example, a household of five in which all members are over the age of 16 is unlikely to own five cars. By the study’s mechanisms, such a household would be considered transit dependent. In reality, though, this car-to-person gap does not automatically make a household transit dependent. Indeed a household might get along fine with three or even two family vehicles.

Despite this shortcoming, as a basic measure, the transit gap analysis offers a baseline for isolating transit-needy areas, evaluating existing service and helping planners and policymakers direct future transit investment to places that desperately need it.

The study is here. It was done using the existing bus map, not the new one that is coming in August, and only counts on rail line for Houston. The Urban Edge blog notes that the authors did produce an updated map for the (still being tweaked) reimagined bus lines, though for some reason they still didn’t account for the Harrisburg and Southeast rail lines. I’m not sure where they got that map, but it’s included in the blog post, and it does clearly show the effect of the new bus lines in that there’s far less oversupply of transit in the downtown area.

One key factor of this study is that it wasn’t just about where transit stops are. From their “Conclusions and Limitations” section at the end:

This main difference between this study and previous studies is that more emphasis was placed on access to public transportation, and not just the actual transit service. Factors that are typically associated with walkable landscapes, such as small block lengths and low speed roads were taken into consideration for transit supply. Essentially every transit trip is going to begin and end with walking. If someone is not willing, or unable to walk to or from a transit stop, then a transit trip will not likely be made. This is why the physical characteristics of the built environment that might contribute to or discourage walkability are vitally important when considering access to or from a transit stop at the beginning or end of a transit trip.

Total sidewalk length for each Texas city studied was one of the data points they used. That figure is apparently unknown for Houston, which may add some uncertainty to the results for our fair city. Better and more ubiquitous sidewalks – a point made by some at the latest system reimagining public meetings – would make transit more available, with an accompanying boost to ridership.

A few other thoughts…

– The maps for Houston are literally for Houston – there are big blank spaces where Bellaire and West U would be. I find that odd, since they (and many other small cities withing Houston’s borders) are also served by Metro. I doubt there are any transit-deficient areas within them, but still. It would have been nice to see a more filled-in map.

– Another improvement I’d like to see would be more detail in the data itself, so that one can tell which factor or factors led a particular area to be transit-deficient. Was it a lower rate of auto ownership for over-16 household residents, a lack of sidewalks, distance from the nearest bus stop, something else? Just looking at these maps, I have no idea what policy prescription if any might improve matters.

– Comparing the present and future gap maps for Houston, you can see how system reimagining will benefit outlying areas in the west, southeast, and northeast. The bulk of the areas with the largest deficiencies are in the southwest in both maps, though it’s a little better with the new bus routes. Again, it would be nice to know more about the specifics. I will note that one place named on the list of five most deficient areas is Gulfton, which would be on the western end of the Universities Line, if we ever do build it. Another reason to hope that the Culberson peace accord bears fruit.

– If these researchers would like to be more ambitious, I suggest expanding the study to something more like the Houston metro area. You don’t need to go full ten-county HGAC region, but including Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Galveston Counties in addition to all of Harris would give a much more complete picture of how people in greater Houston can get around. I would recommend including household income as a factor, as the authors have suggested they might in the future, as otherwise there would likely be a large transit gap in and around the Woodlands, when in reality you have a bunch of people who only ever drive. Doing this might also help pinpoint holes in connectivity between disparate transit systems and how many people are affected by them. May as well get a regional planning benefit out of this, right?

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What are yours? Link via Gray Matters.

How would you get from Houston to Galveston without a car?

It’s both easier and harder than you might think. Raj Mankad tells the story.

I reached the sea without getting in a car. Over the course of my journey, which began at Rice University and ended at Stewart Beach, I took one light rail train, four buses, and walked about three miles. Every three or four minutes, I took a photograph with my phone and I compiled a video embedded below.

If the various local and federal pots of money that paid for the two major legs of the trip had been used in a coordinated manner, as part of a regional system, the $7.50 trip would have taken about an hour and a half instead of four.

A few Houstonians remember a time when an electric rail line ran to the island. Occasional attempts have been made to revive train service to Galveston. Until late 2012, the Kerrville Bus Company ran a bus between the Greyhound Station in Houston and Galveston. Megabus bought Kerrville and operated the Galveston route briefly before cancelling the service. I spoke with representatives of Greyhound and Megabus. Both explained to me that, at this time, their companies have found insufficient passenger volume and demand to support a privately operated service to Galveston.

Now, the only way to get from the island of Galveston to Houston, or from Houston to Galveston, is by private automobile, or by booking private airport and cruise shuttles for about $90 … unless you go to the lengths that I did.

Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time. Basically, he took a park-and-ride Metro bus from downtown to the Clear Lake area, then took an Island Transit commuter bus the rest of the way to Galveston. Unfortunately, the stations for each bus are about two and a half miles apart, and he had to walk from one to the other, which took over an hour and involved crossing I-45 and not always being on a sidewalk. With better coordination between the two agencies – Tory Gattis wrote about this a few years ago – Mankad or anyone else could have made that trip in a lot less time and with a lot less effort. How many might travel that way? Probably not a lot, but certainly more than the occasional adventurer like Raj Mankad, and for essentially no extra cost. Why not make it happen? Link via Gray Matters.

A better year for seaweed

Good news for Galveston beachgoers.

In a lucky break for Galveston beachgoers and the Gulf Coast’s tourism industry, the masses of seaweed that plagued the area last summer seem to be turning toward the Caribbean and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

The mats of Sargassum, now carefully tracked by a NASA app unveiled Thursday, drift in from the Atlantic on Gulf currents. At a crossroads near the Yucatan Peninsula, the seaweed either turns toward the Texas Coast or is swept back to the Atlantic Ocean, Robert Webster, a marine science researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston, said at the 2015 Gulf Coast Sargassum Symposium.

“Most of the Sargassum has made that right turn,” Webster said. “They are getting killed in the Yucatan.”

Last year the seaweed took the Texas route, landing in volumes believed to be the largest inundation in history, possibly because massive flooding from Venezuela’s Orinoco River swept so many nutrients from floodwaters into the Gulf that it caused the Sargassum to flourish. The Orinoco is one of South America’s largest rivers and its mouth, although flowing into the Atlantic, is close to the Caribbean.

[…]

Although it may have its good attributes, cities want to get as much warning as possible to prepare for Sargassum landings. A new app developed by NASA, also unveiled at the symposium, uses satellites to spot seaweed and predict where and when it will land. Anybody who wants to know how much seaweed is on its way to Galveston beaches and when it will arrive can go to sargassum.tamug.edu to see orange dots representing seaweed floating across a satellite map of the Gulf of Mexico.

The automated system will replace a manual system, called the Sargassum Early Advisory System, developed by Texas A&M University at Galveston and maintained by students, said Duane Armstrong, chief of the applied science and technology products office at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center.

The original SEAS website is here. It points to a new website here, which is where I found that embedded image. The sargassum.tamug.edu didn’t have anything on it but a license agreement when I looked at it, but it may not be fully ready yet. In any event, I just thought this was cool.

Improving infections disease response

This is an Ebola-inspired bill, but not an Ebola bill. So say the stakeholders, anyway.

Months after three people in Texas were diagnosed with Ebola, several key state lawmakers on Wednesday proposed ways to prepare the state for the next disease-related emergency.

The proposal, Senate Bill 538, would allow the governor to declare a state of infectious disease emergency, create stockpiles of protective equipment, and grant health officials greater power to stop public transportation vehicles and detain individuals who may be infected.

“We’d have a clear line of authority,” state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, said at a Capitol press conference. “There would be stockpiles of personal protective equipment. First responders would be able to know when they were going to have to be around individuals with potentially infectious disease, a deadly infectious disease.”

The legislation stems from recommendations by a task force established by then-Gov. Rick Perry in October after a man in Dallas became the first person in the United States diagnosed with Ebola. The bill is designed to fix problems — highlighted by the Ebola scare — with the state’s ability to respond to an outbreak.

“This bill, although based on the Ebola emergency, is not an Ebola bill,” said Dr. Brett Giroir, director of the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response. “This is preparation for any infectious disease emergency in the future.”

[…]

Based on the task force’s recommendations, two Ebola treatment facilities were established in Galveston and North Texas in October. A more detailed report released in December by the task force recommended establishing a treatment facility for children, training health workers to identify new diseases and expanding state executive power in disease-related emergencies.

“This emergency highlighted needs for profound changes in our training, in our preparedness, our protocols,” said Giroir, who is also CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

The bill would implement several of those changes, including new authority to quarantine infected people.

Under current law, the head of the Department of State Health Services can order a potentially exposed or infectious person to remain in his or her home, Giroir said. But the state cannot enforce that order until after the person has already broken the order and left the home, a redundancy that the new bill would eliminate.

See here and here for some background. I’m okay with this. I agree with Dr. Giroir that this is unlikely to be an “Ebola bill” in the sense that there are other infectious diseases that are much more likely to need containment in Texas. Measles, for example. We’ve got another bill that would help with that, and I hope it gets at least as much attention as this one does.

Connecting the high-speed rail line to Fort Worth

This is encouraging.

State transportation officials this week are unveiling early plans for a high-speed train line from Dallas to Fort Worth. Like Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s plans to expand transit service in downtown, the project is an attempt to take advantage of plans for a high-speed rail line from Dallas to Houston.

The Texas Department of Transportation for years has looked at possible high-speed rail lines across the state. None of those lines, including the Dallas-to-Fort Worth one, have funding. But officials have studied the possibilities and potential routes, which ideally would connect the state’s biggest cities and could eventually run from South Texas to Oklahoma City.

“These projects are part of a larger statewide network,” said Erik Steavens, TxDOT’s rail director. “You obviously want to see the network built out in a manner where it can be built out logically.”

[…]

The route and funding aren’t all the state has to figure out. There’s also the question of what type of train will run on the track. The state could have its own trains, or it could pay the Texas Central Railway to run its trains on TxDOT tracks so passengers from Houston could have a one-seat trip to Fort Worth.

Another key decision is picking and securing a station on the Dallas end of the line. The state wants to tie the line into a private developer’s planned line to Houston.

“It should be something where we have those tied together,” Steavens said.

For sure. It’s good to see that the Texas Central plan has already gotten people to think beyond it, because as with any transportation system a network is much better than a single route. Robert Eckels, the president of Texas Central High-Speed Railway, has already expressed his wish to see the Houston end of that line go on to Galveston. As for the South-Texas-to-Oklahoma-City idea, I haven’t heard much about that project since February but it’s nice to see someone is still talking about it. What else would be nice would be for something to emerge from the next Legislature to move the idea forward in some fashion. That’s clearly not a priority for Greg Abbott, but perhaps as long as there’s no formal opposition a bill or two could move forward. It’ll be worth keeping an eye on this spring.

2014 Day Three EV totals

But first, a little angst.

EarlyVoting

I feel a bit uncomfortable after Day Two of Early Voting in Person. Here are a couple of concerning tweets from yesterday:

Scott Braddock ‏@scottbraddock 2h2 hours ago
Those Harris County early vote totals are not good for Democrats. *If* Texas is a battleground, #Houston is ground zero #TxLege

And:

Teddy Schleifer @teddyschleifer • 5h 5 hours ago
Dems excited by big vote-by-mail numbers here in Harris County, but in-person down 25%. Not good for them. #HOUNews | http://blog.chron.com/houstonpolitics/2014/10/in-person-early-vote-turnout-still-down-in-harris-county/ …

Here is from Chron.com:

The number of voters showing up at Harris County’s 41 early-vote locations was down by 25 percent for the second straight day on Tuesday, according to tallies released by the County Clerk.

A total of 20,380 registered voters cast a ballot on Tuesday, more than 7,000 fewer voters than cast one on the first Tuesday of early voting during the last midterm election in 2010. While Monday’s results revealed a massive increase in the number of mail ballots received this fall, the number received on Tuesday slightly trailed those seen on the corresponding Tuesday in 2010. A majority of the vote-by-mail ballots typically arrive on the first day.

A total of 21,612 votes were cast Tuesday, 1,232 of them mail ballots. On Monday, the first day of the two-week early-voting period, 61,735 total votes were cast.

A Commentary review of Early Voting locations likely frequented by African American and Latino voters shows a slight decrease in voter turnout as compared to the 2010 numbers after Day Two. Sure Dems are doing better with the mail ballots but we have to increase the Early Voting in Person numbers – or else. What is happening out there?

Here are your Day Three totals, and here are the full 2010 EV totals. As was the case with Day Two, in person totals are below what they were in 2010, though there were more absentee ballots received. The grand total so far for 2014 is 107,433, while the comparable total for 2010 was 107,782, so we are now officially a smidgen behind 2010. Does that mean we’re doomed?

Well, that depends on who is turning out. We’ve been through this before, but let’s remember, “turnout” doesn’t just mean Democrats. Republican voters count towards “turnout” too, and as you may recall they turned out like gangbusters in 2010. One of the prerequisites for Democrats doing well, or at least doing better, this year was for Republican turnout to come back down to earth. If what we’re got here is a Democratic increase combined with a Republican decrease, that would be pretty good, no?

Now bear in mind, the early vote gap – both in person and mail ballot – from 2010 in Harris County was pretty massive. A review of the 2010 numbers suggests it was about 59-39 in favor of the GOP, with mail ballots going 68-31 and in person early votes being 58-40. There’s a lot of room for Ds to go up and Rs to go down without the leader changing.

There are two indicators to suggest that the gap has narrowed considerably, though not all the way. One is that while Campos’ observation about Latino EV locations is accurate, it’s not the whole story. Here are the three day totals for the heaviest EV locations in GOP districts, then and now:

Location name SRD 2010 2014 ===================================================== Champion Forest Baptist Church 126 4,110 3,206 Kingwood Branch Library 127 4,075 2,823 Freeman Branch Library 129 4,190 3,044 Cypress Top Park, Cypress 130 3,548 3,052 Trini Mendenhall Community Center 138 3,839 3,048

Those are some pretty steep declines. Some of this I would attribute to the large increase in absentee votes, as I believe some of that represents people changing their behavior from voting early in person to voting by mail. Some of it I would (hopefully) attribute to the surge of 2010 Republican voters abating. Greg’s Day Two analysis, which suggests mail ballots are running about 50-50 and overall turnout being about 46% Dem, supports that. No question, we’d like to see Dem in person performance improve, but those mail ballots count, too, and they’re clearly making a difference. The usual pattern is that Dems turn out big on Saturday and generally participate more in Week 2, so we’ll see if that holds. Right now, all signs clearly point to Dems doing considerably better than they did in 2010. Doing better than 2010 is not that high a bar to clear, of course, so there’s still room to go up. Just don’t fixate on the “total turnout” number without at least considering where that turnout is coming from.

At the state level, the picture is interesting. The two day EV results for 2014 on the SOS webpage show an overall increase over 2010, fueled entirely by the massive uptick in mail ballots. Democratic counties like Dallas, Travis, El Paso, Hidalgo, and Cameron are up a bit. So are Republican counties like Montgomery, Collin, Williamson, and Denton, but Galveston is down and Fort Bend is flat. Tarrant is way up, but that’s Wendy Davis’ home turf. Again, it’s a function of who is showing up. I don’t have enough information to make any guesses.

Bottom line, keep calm and keep working to turn out our voters. There’s a Walk2Vote event at UH-Downtown tomorrow, to turn students out there. If you really want to make a difference, consider helping out with Drive for Democracy, which aims to help people who need a ride to the polls get them. I’m told they have identified around 1000 voters who need a ride to the polls and are recruiting volunteers to help with those rides. I can’t think of a better way to get involved. Check ’em out, and sign up to help if you can.

UTMB continues to do well post-Ike

Good to see.

Ashbel Smith building at UTMB

The morning after Hurricane Ike crashed into Galveston Island six years ago, David Callender surveyed the sea of mud coating the 84-acre University of Texas Medical Branch campus.

The UTMB president saw oak tree limbs blocking the doors to John Sealy Hospital, which would be knocked out of service for the rest of the year. The 13-foot storm surge caused $1 billion in damage, plunging UTMB’s finances into the red and prompting the layoffs of nearly 3,000 workers. A consultant even recommended that the hospital be moved off the island, an idea that found favor with the University of Texas Board of Regents and a few legislators.

Six years later, UTMB is not only off life support, it appears to have made a full recovery.

The university is close to completing more than $1 billion in improvements and repairs to protect against future hurricanes, ranging from moving essential functions to a higher level to adding protective walls that can rise around certain buildings.

It is building a 13-story hospital in Galveston and a smaller medical center in League City. Last week, UTMB officially announced its takeover of the Angleton-Danbury Medical Center in Brazoria County.

[…]

While struggling to operate after the storm, UTMB officials made a discovery that would fuel eventual expansion, said Donna K. Sollenberger, CEO of UTMB Health Systems. With UTMB’s hospital shut down, patients were sent to Texas Medical Center and other hospitals. Meanwhile, UTMB rented offices in Texas City and other mainland cities to treat outpatients.

“In doing that” Sollenberger said, “we found we had a whole subset of patients who preferred or liked being seen closer to home.”

Galveston County, especially the League City area, was growing rapidly and suffered a doctor shortage. Within the next six years, Sollenberger said, the area will be short by about 1,000 doctors of what it needs.

UTMB opened clinics that were close to people who were going without primary care either because doctors were too far away or because they faced waits of as long as six months for an appointment. Patients normally will forgo primary care if they have to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes, Sollenberger said.

“If you have primary care services within that radius, they will come to you,” she said.

UTMB now operates 40 clinics at 30 sites in Galveston and Brazoria counties and 34 regional child and maternal clinics, including clinics outside the Galveston-Brazoria region in Orange, New Caney and McAllen.

Read the whole thing, it’s a good overview of what’s happened with UTMB and its environs over the past 6 years. I’ve had a few things to say about it as well, not all of it positive. More recently, UTMB was in the news for its Ebola-related work. Hurricane Ike was a tremendous disaster for Galveston, and recovery from it would have been a lot tougher had the island lost UTMB and all the services and jobs it provides. It’s good to see them thrive.