Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Houston

Amanda Edwards joins the Senate race

And then there were three, with a fourth likely to follow and a fifth out there as a possibility.

CM Amanda Edwards

Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards announced Thursday morning she is running for U.S. Senate, joining an increasingly crowded primary to challenge Republican John Cornyn.

It will be a campaign against several Democratic rivals and, possibly, a three-term incumbent whose reelection war chest tops $9 million. But should Edwards win, she would be the first African American Texan to serve in the U.S. Senate.

“As a woman, as an African American, as a millennial — and in certainly as someone who generally … believes in solutions and not just rhetoric — I think I’m going to be the candidate that can do the job,” she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune, emphasizing the need for a nominee who can persuade voters to vote Democratic but also “galvanize our base.”

Edwards, who had been considering a run since at least March, is finishing her first term as an at-large City Council member after being elected in 2015. She said she does not plan to run for a second term in November but will serve out her term, which ends in December.

Edwards launched her bid with a video, set to drum-line music, that reflected on her family’s middle-class struggles and highlighted a key part of her council tenure — the Hurricane Harvey recovery. Over images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ann Richards, Edwards appealed to “all of the people who have ever been locked out or told that they can’t wait or to wait their turn because the status quo or establishment was not ready for change.”

[…]

So far, Cornyn’s most serious Democratic challenger has been MJ Hegar, the 2018 U.S. House candidate and retired Air Force helicopter pilot. She launched her bid in late April and raised over $1 million through the second quarter.

Since then, another Democrat, Chris Bell, the former Houston congressman and 2006 gubernatorial nominee, has entered the primary, and some progressive operatives have mobilized to try to draft top Latina organizer Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez into the race.

As the story notes, State Sen. Royce West is set to make an announcement on Monday, which is widely expected to be his own entrance into the race. If Edwards’ announcement, which I at least wasn’t expecting, was intended to steal some of West’s thunder, then kudos to her for doing so. I admit I’d been skeptical about Edwards’ intentions, as there had been a lot of “Edwards is considering” mentions in other stories but very few direct reports about her, but here she is.

Edwards anticipates raising $5 million for the primary, and “potentially you’re looking at several million dollars” for the general election, she said. Over and over, she stressed that the Senate race could be nationalized.

“I think with the general, however, this will be a national phenomenon because people will recognize Texas is such a key piece” to changing the direction of the country, she said.

She told the Tribune that she has met with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — as did Hegar and West — and had “very, very positive discussions” with him and the Senate Democratic campaign arm. She suggested another heavyweight group, EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, is “very much looking at this and looking to get involved in this race.”

“I think they’re very, very excited to see Texas flip, and they’re going to spend resources” to make it happen, Edwards said of national Democrats’ interest in the race.

I imagine EMILY’s List is happy with these developments, though now they’ll either have to pick a favorite among the female candidates or wait till one of them (hopefully) wins and then get involved. As for Edwards, five million is a decent sum for the primary, but the target for November has to be a lot higher than that. John Cornyn is not going to be outraised like Ted Cruz was.

One more thing, from the Chron:

Though she began mulling a run for Senate months ago, Edwards waited to join the race until city council approved Houston’s budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Edwards serves as vice chair of the city budget committee and helmed several department budget workshops in chairman Dave Martin’s absence.

Edwards’ city campaign account had about $193,000 cash on hand through the end of June. She cannot transfer the money to her Senate campaign, though she may send unspent campaign funds back to donors and ask them to re-contribute.

That helps explain the timeline. With Edwards not running for re-election, the At Large #4 seat is now open, the eighth open seat on Council this election, joining Districts A, B, C, D (for now, at least), F, J, and At Large #5. The impact has already been felt in the field of candidates for AL4. There were four challengers at the start of the week – Christel Bastida, Tiko Reynolds-Hausman, Ericka McCrutcheon, and Jason Rowe – and now there are six, with Nick Hellyar moving over from District C and Letitia Plummer swapping out from AL5. Don’t be surprised if that field grows further, too. We live in exciting times. The DMN has more.

Mediation 3.0

Third time’s the charm, right?

The Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration will return to mediation Aug. 1 in the hopes of working out a new contract amid a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition B.

The ballot measure, which grants firefighters the same pay as police of similar rank and experience, passed last November but was struck down by a state district judge who ruled it unconstitutional and void. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association appealed the ruling, sending the case to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

Last month, the appeals court ordered the city and fire union to hold talks within 60 days. The union announced Wednesday the parties had agreed to hold the mediation session Aug. 1, which a spokesperson for the mayor confirmed. The two sides also agreed to have Houston attorney Daryl Bristow serve as mediator.

[…]

Asked Wednesday if there was any reason to expect a deal on the third mediation attempt, Turner repeated his claim that the firefighters deserve a pay raise “the city can afford” and said he would seek to reach a deal.

“The resolution has to be one that’s good for the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said.

See here for the background, and my thoughts on this process, which doesn’t seem any more likely to resolve things now than before, but you never know. They have a different mediator this time, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t know what timeline they may have, but most likely they will either come to an agreement or declare that it’s hopeless in a fairly short period of time.

July 2019 campaign finance reports: Mayoral candidates

All right, now that we are past the 15th, most of the campaign finance reports are in, so let’s start reviewing them. Because there are several thousand candidates running for office in Houston, I’m going to split them into several groups. We’ll begin with the Mayoral candidates and go from there. As a reminder, my look at the January 2019 finance reports for Houston candidates is here, and all of the finance reports that I have downloaded and reviewed are in this Google folder. I’ll be going by Erik Manning’s invaluable spreadsheet, which lists the following Mayoral hopefuls:

Sylvester Turner
Kendall Baker
Derek Broze
Dwight Boykins
Tony Buzbee
Anton Dowls
Naoufal Houjami
Bill King
Sue Lovell
Demetria Smith

And here are the totals from the reports they have filed:


Candidate     Raised      Spent     Loan     On Hand
====================================================
Turner     1,698,596  1,362,879        0   3,218,268
Baker         15,810     15,650        0         260
Broze          1,379        188        0       1,190
Boykins      140,174     93,219        0      69,783
Buzbee             0  1,814,754        0   5,140,725
King         684,842    580,062  210,000     318,320

Sue Lovell didn’t enter the race until this month, so she does not have a report yet. The others are I presume typical fringe candidates who have no idea what they’re doing. Place your bets as to how many of them actually file by the deadline.

Sylvester Turner is doing what you’d expect. Given that he’s running against someone who’s willing to set large bags of his own money on fire for this race, it’s possible he’ll step it up even further for the next report, but it’s hard to complain about what he’s done so far. As for Buzbee, who made two contributions worth $5.5 million to his campaign this cycle after dropping $2 million before January, I guess this is what you do when you have more money than brains and all your toys bore you. He’s the only contributor to his campaign, by design. I almost feel sorry for Bill King, who doesn’t have Buzbee’s moolah or Turner’s base. He’s going to have a hard time keeping up.

And then there’s Dwight Boykins. I don’t know what I expected from Boykins’ July report, but here’s a fun fact for you: Boykins reported raising $150K in his July 2013 finance report, when he was running for his first term in District D. You may note that the “Office Sought” field on Boykins’ current finance report is blank. I’m not saying that Boykins may change his mind before the filing deadline and run for another term in his current office, but I’m not not saying it, either.

Finally, out of sheer curiosity, I also looked at the report of the End Pay to Play PAC, the vehicle by which Bill King failed to put a campaign finance referendum on the ballot. End Pay to Play raised $95K, of which $20K came from King, $20K came from Nijad Fares, $10K came from Hartman Advisors LLC, $5K came from JBK Family Interests Ltd, and there were five other $5K donors. Not exactly a grassroots uprising. It spent $130K, thus leaving about $41K in “unpaid incurred obligations”, with most of the spending going to an outfit called Election Day Strategies in Corpus Christi. And now it sinks from sight, a minor footnote in this busy year.

Here’s some Chron coverage on the reports so far. I’ll start looking at the Council candidates, along with other races. There’s no shortage of these posts to do. As always, let me know what you think.

UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Naoufal Houjami filed his report on paper, which you can see here. Some other candidates have done this as well, and their reports are here. Houjami raised $1,080, spent $356, and has $154 on hand.

Here come the youths

There are a lot of younger candidates running for Houston City Council this year.

Raj Salhotra

Inspired by the recent electoral success of millennial and Generation Z-aged candidates, more young people are running for Houston city council than ever before, a trend local politicos attribute to the potent national surge of activism stemming largely from President Trump’s election in 2016.

In last year’s midterm election, many of those new, young activists ran for office and won. Since the election, 29-year-old U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the Democratic Party’s most prominent voices, while locally 28-year-old Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has led a dramatic political shift on Commissioners Court, which flipped to Democratic control for the first time in decades.

“I think we have to acknowledge the success in the 2018 cycle of millennials and very young candidates,” said education consultant Jay Aiyer, who served as former Mayor Lee Brown’s chief of staff at age 29.

A handful of candidates younger than 30, and at least a dozen more in their 30s, are seeking seats this year on Houston city council, the legislative body for the country’s fourth-largest city. Though council members have little formal power in Houston’s strong-mayor form of government, they approve an annual city budget north of $5 billion and handle constituent services for districts comprised of around 200,000 residents.

Among the youngest contenders are 18-year-old Marcel McClinton, a shooting survivor-turned-activist running for one of five at-large positions; 21-year-old Anthony Dolcefino, a candidate for District C; 24-year-old District D candidate Dennis Griffin; and 29-year-old Anthony Nelson, a Prairie View A&M University student running for District F.

[…]

Raj Salhotra, 28, is one of three candidates challenging At-Large 1 Councilman Mike Knox, a former police officer who is seeking a second four-year term. Also running are Michelle Bonton and Georgia Provost.

Salhotra is calling for the city to offer universal prekindergarten and more public transit, enforce more regulations on “pollutant-emitting plants” and require all new city vehicles be hybrid or electric.

Meanwhile, Knox repeatedly has pushed for the city to rein in what he calls “frivolous spending,” and to focus on core services — public safety, infrastructure, trash pickup — before thinking about anything else.

“The citizens of Houston want our government to spend money wisely and efficiently, and get the biggest bang for our buck,” Knox said. “My votes are designed to help the city stop its overspending habits and get back to focusing on our core responsibilities, and thereby staying within our means.”

Salhotra criticized Knox for, among other things, voting not to join a lawsuit challenging Texas’ anti-“sanctuary cities” law, and called Knox “really out of step with what the vast majority of Houstonians believe in.” Salhotra’s own policy views, he said, are rooted partly in his age.

“I think a lot about, how are the policies we put in place today affecting the next 30, 40, 50 years in Houston?” Salhotra said. “Because I’m going to be living here for the next 60 years of my life, God willing.”

[…]

The race for District C, which includes Montrose, Meyerland and Braeswood, has emerged as the most crowded contest: Thirteen people are running to succeed Cohen, who recently endorsed 32-year-old Abbie Kamin. Other candidates include Candelario Cervantez, 36, Nick Hellyar, 38, and the 21-year-old Dolcefino, son of former KTRK reporter Wayne Dolcefino.

“We’re living in a serious time, we’re at a critical juncture in this city, and certainly in the country, and it’s going to take everyone to be active and fighting — of all age groups,” Kamin said.

As is always the case, some of these candidates are more serious than others, and thus more likely to succeed than others. I’m starting to look through the campaign finance reports, which will give one indicator of how these and other candidates are doing. Turn your nose up however you like at the notion of fundraising being a proxy for candidate seriousness, the fact remains that it’s hard to get elected if no one knows who you are, and getting your name into the minds of voters doesn’t happen by magic or wishful thinking. It costs money to run a campaign, and that money has to come from somewhere.

Be that as it may, there’s another dynamic at play here that needs to be discussed. Historically speaking, at least, the voters in our city elections are old. How old? Here’s some research I did in 2015, which I’m just going to reprint here, as I think the numbers speak for themselves:


2013 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     9,786   5.6%
31-40    15,209   8.7%
41-50    23,508  13.5%
51-60    40,235  23.1%
61+      85,393  49.0%


2011 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,939   5.0%
31-40     9,488   8.1%
41-50    17,126  14.5%
51-60    28,601  24.3%
61+      56,664  48.1%


2009 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30    10,021   5.7%
31-40    16,798   9.6%
41-50    29,664  16.9%
51-60    43,814  25.0%
61+      74,730  42.7%


2007 voters

Range    Number    Pct
======================
18-30     5,791   5.0%
31-40    10,599   9.2%
41-50    21,090  18.4%
51-60    28,633  24.9%
61+      48,728  42.4%

So yeah, when between two-thirds and three-fourths of your voters are over the age of 50 (a group that includes me now), it’s going to be that much more of a challenge for 20-something and even 30-something candidates to be taken seriously. It can be done – judging by the year of her college graduation as shown on her LinkedIn page, CM Amanda Edwards was 33 when she was elected in 2015 – but it’s a hurdle that older candidates don’t face. Let me know when someone writes a story about that.

Now of course, this calculus can be changed to some extent by simply getting more young voters to the polls. I don’t have the data for 2018, but there’s plenty of evidence nationally that younger voters were a larger part of that electorate than they were in 2016, and much more so than in 2014. That only goes so far, of course – there are only so many people between the ages of 18 and 40, let alone registered voters, let alone actual voters – and turning them out at a higher rate is much, much easier said than done. Perhaps some of the 2018 energy will carry over – I’d expect it to have some effect, though not much – but the fact remains that the regular, reliable voters are the ones who largely determine these elections. That’s the task all of these candidates, of any age, have before them. Good luck.

(Is it just me, or does everyone else always hear the word “youths” spoken in the voice of Joe Pesci?)

Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

The local response (so far) to the ICE raids

This is good.

Houston’s top elected and law-enforcement officials sharply criticized federal authorities’ plans to arrest large numbers of immigrant families living without legal permission in major U.S. cities, contending that the raids targeting groups of recent arrivals would harm public safety and risk separating children from their parents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo took to nationally broadcast programs to weigh in against the raids, which are set to begin as early as Sunday in at least 10 cities, including Houston. Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement appear likely to target immigrants who recently crossed the border and have been issued a final order of deportation.

“It’s one thing if the focus of these raids is on people with criminal records, people who have committed violent crimes, people who are part of gangs,” Turner said earlier this week on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The raids should not aim to deport people “who have been here for quite some time,” Turner continued, if “their crime is only coming here to seek a better way of living or to provide a better opportunity for their families.”

[…]

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said his office would not participate in the raids, arguing that local involvement would “drive undocumented families further into the shadows” and damage community safety.

“It silences witnesses & victims & (would) further worsen the challenges law enforcement officials face,” Gonzalez, a Democrat, said in a tweet.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement containing information about the legal rights that people retain when interacting with ICE agents, such as their right to not answer the door if the agents do not present a warrant.

“These raids seek to subvert our sense of community by putting the very heart of Harris County, our diversity, in the cross-hairs of a shameful political maneuver,” said Hidalgo, a Democrat elected last year.

Turner issued a fresh statement Saturday saying the city would continue to offer services to all residents “regardless of who they are, where they are from, or their documentation status.” ICE had yet to contact the city about the raids, the mayor added.

“The president’s order for concentrated ICE raids against immigrant families in Houston and elsewhere stands against everything we represent as a welcoming city,” Turner said.

This is also good.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee met with faith leaders in Houston on Saturday to invite undocumented immigrants to seek refuge in churches, mosques and synagogues and call on religious organizations to open their doors ahead of Sunday’s anticipated deportation roundup by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

“It is to my dismay that I have to come home to find many of those who live in my jurisdiction, my constituency, are panicked, frightened and in fear of their lives,” said Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat. “I say to the federal authorities: that you are well aware and on notice that you are not able to come into a church and demand anyone that is a representative of the faith to give anyone to anyone.”

Jackson Lee gathered with faith and local leaders Saturday afternoon at the Living Water International Apolistic Ministries in Houston. The ministry, along with half a dozen other churches, announced it would shelter undocumented immigrants on Sunday who fear they are in danger of being taken by ICE.

“We want to be a beacon of light for those who may be in fear. So when I got the call, I couldn’t do anything but accept,” said Apostle Robert Stearns, leader of Living Water. “There is nothing strange to us in doing this. This is our heart and our passion.”

It’s a good start. Now we need to be ready for whatever the response to this is.

We need a coordinated strategy to fight these immoral immigration raids

I feel such despair about this.

Federal authorities are expected to try to arrest thousands of immigrant families in at least 10 cities, including Houston, beginning as early as Sunday, rattling communities across the country who faced a similar scare last month.

President Donald Trump postponed such an operation in June, partly because of conflict among his immigration enforcement officials on how to conduct the raids and out of concern for officers’ safety after the president publicized the plans on Twitter. Trump said he was giving Democrats time to come up with a solution to the immigration crisis in Congress.

This weekend’s operation would likely focus on thousands of immigrants who recently crossed the border and have been issued a final order of deportation — even if they were never informed of their court date or were unable to make the hearing. But agents also are authorized to make “collateral” arrests and detain other immigrants they encounter, even if they were not the target.

Several national news outlets reported Thursday that the raids were planned for the coming week. Tim Oberle, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to release details about any operation, citing “law-enforcement sensitivities and the safety and security” of agents.

Reports of an impending operation sparked renewed outrage and concern among immigrant communities and advocates. Nationwide protests outside immigrant detention centers are scheduled this weekend.

“People are very worried,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL Houston, an advocacy group that will be on-call for reports of any enforcement activity. “We are getting a lot of calls asking, ‘Is it true that this is actually happening now?’”

[…]

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Thursday in New York to stop the enforcement operation, arguing that affected immigrants were denied due process because they were not able to make their case for protection in court. It said many are asylum seekers who failed to appear because of “massive bureaucratic errors and, in some cases, deliberate misdirection.”

Notices to appear in court were often sent to wrong addresses or after hearings had passed, or they listed dates when the courts were not open.

“The agencies’ flagrant and widespread errors made it impossible for people to know when their hearings were being held,” the ACLU said in a statement.

[…]

A large-scale enforcement action focused on families, rather than criminals, would be unusual and difficult, said John Sandweg, a former acting director of ICE.

“There are serious operational challenges once you have that population in custody,” he said. “You need very tight plans on where you can hold families, for how long they are there, how you are going to transport them and where you can stage them.”

Remember, the cruelty is the point. The Trump administration cannot be trusted with families. It’s not just these raids, it’s also the inhumane conditions at detention centers and the continued state of fear and terror that immigrants are subject to. This is a crisis, and we don’t know how to respond to it. I know I feel paralyzed. It’s hard in part because there are so many crises, with new ones popping up each day. We all have a role to play, which we all need to figure out for ourselves, but it needs to start with leadership from all of our elected officials. Whatever part of this immoral machinery is within the jurisdiction of our city and our county, we need oversight, we need accountability, and where we can’t get these things we need resistance. Future generations are going to judge us for what we did and didn’t do.

UPDATE: Here’s a statement from Mayor Turner about the raids.

Scooters and the negative effect on disabled folks

A deep dive on the San Antonio experience.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

From the moment they appeared in cities across the country, the business model for electric scooters has depended on riders’ abandoning the machines wherever the ride ends. Users unlock scooters with a cell phone app, put $1 on their credit card plus 15 to 30 cents per minute to ride, and routinely ignore city rules against dumping the vehicles in the curb cuts that make sidewalk wheelchair use possible.

San Antonio’s new ban on riding scooters on sidewalks — if it’s enforced — will only partially restore a path to a freer life for disabled people. Scooters are still legal to park on the sidewalk itself, and the city’s “light touch” preference for warnings and education over police ticketing and confiscation leave the disabled skeptical that much will change.

Urban commentators might curse scooters as a metaphor for a hurried, narcissistic age, but disabled people generally see the glut of abandoned vehicles as a physical affront.

“We’ve spent 30 years making sidewalks accessible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network, referring to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “And then overnight we’re forced into asking cities, ‘Why have you allowed this to happen without thinking of their impact?’”

The problem is especially acute and visible in San Antonio, which U.S. Census figures show has the nation’s second highest rate of residents with “ambulatory difficulty” — 9.5 percent of San Antonians ages 35 to 64, or about 100,000 people. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia had a higher rate.

Blind people feel especially harassed by the two-wheeled whippets, said Sandy Merrill, CEO of San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which trains service dogs for the vision-impaired.

“It’s difficult enough dealing with what’s in front of you,” Merrill said. “But now our dogs and people have to deal with something almost silent zipping behind them at 15 miles an hour. I wish young people would think about how they’re using them.”

[…]

John Jacks, director of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department and the city’s de facto scooter czar, sounds sympathetic to the complaints of disabled citizens, but is loath to criticize the scooter companies or call for aggressive policing of a breezy business culture more determined to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The city won’t create the rules designed to change that culture. It has asked the companies to do it themselves, by submitting detailed proposals for bringing order to the scooter scrum. By October, the city will cut the number of permitted scooter firms from six to three and reduce their fleets of dockless vehicles from a total of 16,000 to 5,000. Jacks said the city’s request-for-proposals process offers the reward of a city contract to the three companies with the best ideas for reducing clutter and rider misbehavior.

“Our number one concern is the ability of all people to navigate the sidewalks safely,” Jacks said. Correcting the problem, he added, will be done mostly by creating incentives “for good behavior versus bad. It’s putting the burden on the companies for addressing the problem.”

Jacks said he had consulted the disabled community about the scooter roll-out and its concerns will be “embedded” in the process by having Malone, a former president of the National Federation for the Blind, on the selection committee.

The city’s scooter ordinance, thrown together last year to govern a six-month tryout of the new technology, contains rules against parking within a certain distance of curb ramps and other structures, but Jacks conceded that few, if any, riders actually know that.

“This is all still evolving,” Jacks said. “If the Council still doesn’t think it’s working, we may have to have more restrictive regulations.”

San Antonio Police confirm that they haven’t impounded any scooters in 2019, choosing instead to alert the scooter companies, call 311 or tidy up the sidewalks themselves.

“Sometimes I’ll just move them off to the side on the curb,” said SAPD Capt. Chris Benavides, the department’s head of traffic and special events.

Officers have given out 438 warnings since August, he said, but have written only 80 citations for scooter riders since last August, a period in which renters took nearly two million rides, according to city records. This month, SAPD deployed three overtime officers per day, seven days a week, to focus on downtown scooter enforcement.

“I like the ‘soft touch’ to scooter enforcement, if that’s what you want to call it,” Benavides said. “Our biggest problem is just educating people, especially the tourists.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. As noted, San Antonio has now banned scooters from sidewalks, which I think will help keep riders from menacing pedestrians, but those scooters are still going to be left on the sidewalk after being used, and that’s still going to be a problem for people with mobility issues. There’s clearly value in these “micro-mobility” options, which should reduce the number of short-hop car trips people take and may help encourage transit use, but their business models leave these problems to the cities to solve. I sure hope Houston’s plan for scooters will address this. In the meantime, there are federal lawsuits filed by people with disabilities in other states like California that allege that Lime and Bird and other scooter companies are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting their ability to navigate their cities. That’s going to take a few years to work its way through the courts, and who knows what SCOTUS will do with it. In the meantime, cities and states need to figure it out.

“Pay to play” petition drive falls short

Womp womp.

The political action committee that launched a petition drive aimed at limiting the influence of contractors and vendors at Houston City Hall failed to gather enough signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, the group’s director said Wednesday.

The drive, which ended earlier this week, was for a petition authored by a group of lawyers, including Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, to amend a city ordinance to bar people who do business with the city from contributing more than $500 to candidates for municipal office.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls from King and fellow candidate Tony Buzbee to reform Houston’s campaign finance system, suggested the effort’s failure was an indictment on the “anti-pay-to-play” message being pushed by the political action committee backing the petition. The mayor urged reporters to “focus on real issues, real needs.”

“Let me just put it this way: I have not seen any problems,” Turner said. “I think that whole movement was more political than substantive.”

[…]

Ben McPhaul, the director of the PAC, said the committee still was receiving petitions Wednesday but would fall short of the roughly 40,000 signatures it needed to gather in 30 days under city rules.

“We are grateful for the hundreds of grass-roots volunteers who helped the effort with not a single paid petitioner,” McPhaul said in a statement. “The PAC plans to continue collecting signatures to raise awareness of the issue with hopes to get it on the ballot or in front of council in the future.”

See here for the background. Just so we’re clear here, this is not City Secretary Anna Russell counting the signatures and saying they don’t have enough valid ones. This is the PAC itself saying they didn’t get enough to even submit for inspection. They fell short of their goal.

The petition drive’s failure reflects the PAC’s lack of volunteers and funds more than the public’s interest in reforming Houston’s campaign finance reform system, Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.

“You can’t read anything into this regarding the attitudes of Houstonians toward ‘pay to play,’” Jones said.

Still, the outcome represents a win for Turner, Jones said, because it means the topic of campaign finance reform may gain less media coverage and traction from political pundits near election time.

“I wouldn’t put it as a major failure for King, but certainly it’s a setback,” Jones said. “Once he got behind the petition, he owned the petition.”

King said state law separately allows a longer period for petition drives, so the PAC would continue to collect signatures. Though King’s campaign is not affiliated with the PAC, it has supported the drive, and King made a point of being the first person to sign the petition.

“We’ve been carrying it around on our campaign and we haven’t had a single person refuse to sign it,” he said.

He also noted Houston’s charter bases the number of required petition signatures on a mayoral election held within the last three years. Since the last election happened in 2015 — more than three years ago — King contended a petition drive now technically needs just one signature.

If that were challenged in court, however, the litigation would get resolved well after November, said King, indicating he had no interest in taking action in court.

I can accept that this isn’t a “major failure” for Bill King, but it should be clear to everyone that he didn’t put any real effort into this cynical ploy. He has plenty of his own money, and could have raised more, to fund a sufficient petition drive if he really wanted this to be on the ballot. We’ve seen plenty of successful petition drives in the last decade. Did King really not know what it was going to take, or did someone tell him and he was like “eh, whatever, we’ll just wing it with some volunteers”? If “cleaning up City Hall” is the foundation of your campaign, and you go through the motions to mount this effort in the first place, what does it say about you and your commitment to this idea that you just let it fail without a fight?

The bit about the charter language is interesting. I think as a legal argument it’s mostly sophistry, but I could see a judge buying a plain-text reading and agreeing that even one signature is now sufficient until and unless the city cleans up that part of the charter. Here again, though, if King actually believed what he was saying he would have acted differently. Why not file that lawsuit before now? Theoretically, he could have filed it on November 4, 2018, which is three years and a day after the 2015 Mayoral election. Even if I’m wrong about that, I don’t see anything in the charter section on legislating by referendum that limits when a petition effort is allowed to begin. Maybe there still wasn’t a path to getting the question resolved in time for the 2019 election – though if you win the first round, it’s the city that has to start worrying about deadlines, not you – but boy howdy was this a limp production. It’s easy for me to take potshots at Bill King, but if you like him as a candidate and believed in this proposed charter amendment, you should be upset. At every step of the way, he did the very least he could do.

Royce West looks ready to announce

Mark your calendars.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West is one step closer to running against Republican incumbent Sen. John Cornym.

The Dallas Democrat has announced a news conference for July 22, where he’s widely expected to launch a campaign for Senate. The longtime state senator would join a Democratic Party primary that already includes former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar of Round Rock and former U.S. Rep. Chris Bell of Houston. And Houston council member Amanda Edwards is considering mounting a campaign as well.

[…]

West, 66, has hinted at a campaign against Cornyn for months, but has not officially gotten into the race.

He’ll make an announcement at 10 a.m., July 22 and Democratic Party headquarters in Dallas, according to a sign-up link on a website he’s developed for the occasion.

West has represented Texas Senate District 23 since 1993. He’s also a prominent Dallas attorney and one of the leading Democratic Party voices in the state.

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, the field now includes Chris Bell, with Amanda Edwards still on the periphery. I don’t know what if any timetable Edwards has beyond the late August filing deadline for Houston races, but I do know that another candidate for Edwards’ Council seat has emerged (*), so perhaps the consensus opinion is that this is about to be an open seat. My guess is that with West more or less formally in, we’ll hear something one way or the other from Edwards soon. But I’ve also been guessing that for awhile now, so take it with a sufficient quantity of salt.

(*) In the spirit of disclosure, AL #4 candidate Tiko Reynolds-Hausman is a friend of mine. I’ve served on two PTA boards with her, and her daughter and our elder daughter have been classmates and friends for years.

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

Next Dem debate will be in Houston

Cool.

The third debate in the Democratic presidential primary will be in Houston, party officials announced late Tuesday.

The event, sponsored by ABC News and Univision, is scheduled for Sept. 12 and 13.

“Texas is a battleground state, period,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “We know that when Texas goes blue, the White House will follow. We are pleased that our partners at the Democratic National Committee have agreed to host the third Presidential Debate here in Texas.”

Party officials did not immediately say where in Houston the debate would be held.

[…]

The Houston debate will be the first debate to use higher standards for candidates to qualify. They must get 2% support in four polls and receive 130,000 donors. For the upcoming Detroit debate, candidates only have to crack 1% in three surveys or accrue 65,000 contributors. That lower threshold was also used for the Miami debate last month.

It remains to be seen whether the two Texans running for president will make the September debate stage. Julián Castro announced Monday he had crossed the 130,000-donor threshold, but he has hovered below 2% in most recent polls. Beto O’Rourke has likely blown past the donor requirement based on previously released statistics, though he also has work to do in the polls.

Well, I did say that the road to the White House goes through Houston. It would be a little weird if both Castro and Beto are not there – maybe they can get some kind of home team discount if they need it? – but having a smaller field is fine by me. Kudos to all for making this happen. Here’s the TDP announcement, and the Chron has more.

TxDOT wants H-GAC to commit money to the I-45 project

I don’t understand this.

To demonstrate local support for the mega-project, the Texas Department of Transportation is asking the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council, the committee that doles out state and federal money controlled by local officials, to commit $100 million to the central 3-mile portion of the freeway rebuild, from Interstate 10 to Loop 610. State officials would cover the remainder of the $1.22 billion cost, or around 91 percent of the total.

If approved this month by the transportation council, the money would not move from HGAC to TxDOT until construction begins, estimated around early 2024. The more immediate effect would be showing support for the increasingly controversial project, and would be reflected in upcoming plans. Further, it would be $100 million that local officials could not direct elsewhere in a region rife with road improvement needs.

Committing the money would have no effect on projects already planned and funded, officials said.

During a June 28 discussion about the project and about whether to commit the money, members of the transportation council were divided. Despite years of community meetings and redesigns of the project, some on the council thought the I-45 plans lack solutions for some of the problems critics identified.

“My concern is we are forced to stick our neck out and put a down payment on a house we have not seen,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.

[…]

Pass up the commitment, transportation officials said, and the state could send its money elsewhere.

“If this would not go forward,” Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT in Houston said of the state funding offer, “I don’t know when we would have the money to go forward.”

The transportation council is scheduled to meet July 26 and is poised to decide on the money then, though officials could choose to delay. The state’s long-range plan, to be unveiled during a public meeting in Austin that will be streamed online, is set for approval in August. State officials could amend it if Houston-area leaders balk at committing the region’s share.

I have questions.

1. Is this normal? Has TxDOT ever asked any other regional transportation agency to kick in local funds like this? “Local” is a bit misleading – I think what TxDOT is asking is for HGAC to commit $100 million of future grants, which come from state and federal sources, to this part of the I-45 project. My question stands, though – is this something TxDOT has ever done before? If yes, then what were the circumstances and how did it go? If no, why now?

2. What is this money for? I recognize that the I-45 project plans have not been finalized, so a high-level answer is the best we can do. My point here is about whether this money is for the actual highway construction or some ancillary things? I’m not even sure what that would mean, so any clarification would be helpful.

3. What exactly happens if HGAC says “nah, we’re good”? Clearly we can’t answer this without knowing the answer to #2, but at a high level, does this mean there would be some piece of this project that wouldn’t get done, or does it actually threaten the project as a whole? I have a hard time believing that, which brings me back to the question of why TxDOT is making this request. I can’t help but think the answer here is that the project will happen regardless, but there would be some petty repercussions down the line if we locals don’t play ball.

I’m sure there are more questions, but I think that’s a good start. My firm position on this is No until we get some answers.

San Antonio bans scooters from sidewalks

Speaking of where scooters do and do not belong:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Dockless electric scooters can’t be ridden on San Antonio sidewalks, per a new City ordinance that went into effect Monday, but many say they’re concerned about how well it will be enforced.

The new prohibition on sidewalk use comes a full year after rented e-scooters first arrived in San Antonio. It took months to arrive at the point where the City Council deemed riding on the sidewalk enough of a nuisance to move them off pedestrian rights-of-way and onto the street. But even though violating that law is a Class C misdemeanor that can carry as much as a $500 fine, some in the city are not sure that will be enough to deter violators.

[…]

Capt. Chris Benavides, with the San Antonio Police Department, said the sidewalk riding ban will begin with a 30-day grace period in which violators will be issued warnings about the new rule rather than citations. On Aug. 1, Benavides said, police officers will begin issuing citations in situations that call for them.

“The entire month of July will be used as an educational piece where we will issue written or verbal warnings for riding on the sidewalk,” he said.

“What we hope for is that the riders are mindful … that we’re able to work together to share that road and they’re aware of their surroundings.”

Gotta say, I appreciate San Antonio acting as beta testers for Houston’s eventual scooter experience. For sure, scooters – like bicycles – don’t belong on sidewalks, where they can endanger pedestrians. The enforcement issue can sort itself out; it’s my belief that plenty of scooter riders will now stay off the sidewalk just because it’s the law. As the story notes, there was a bill filed that would have banned scooters on sidewalks statewide, as well as capping their speed at 15 MPH (same as what the Houston commission recommended), and other things. This made it through the Senate but never got a hearing in the House. I feel like this should be a local issue, but at least this bill doesn’t appear to have done anything egregious. As with ridesharing, don’t be surprised to see this come up again in two years.

Biking and breweries

Actually, this makes perfect sense.

This started off in the gray area between a good idea and a bad one. Two years ago, Jason Buhlman and Brian Kondrach got about 30 of their friends together for an afternoon of two-wheel tourism, in which they aimed to bike between as many breweries as possible in one day.

“At the time, there were only eight breweries that we could do inside the Loop,” Kondrach explains to a group of prospective riders on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. “It took us 14 hours. We were way too drunk. It was a mess.”

“A mess,” echoes Buhlman, who is standing just to the right of Kondrach, wearing a baseball T-shirt with the motto, “Wheels Down, Bottoms Up,” printed across his chest.

“So we put some rules on it,” Kondrach continues. “We made it so it was only 45 minutes at each stop – just one pint each, and then we move. And we added two breweries and did it again six month later.”

The ride was still fun. But much less … sloppy. And that’s when Buhlman and Kondrach realized that a curated version of this could potentially lay the groundwork for a business that could combine two of their loves: Craft beer and bicycles.

Then last May, their business, Tour de Brewery, was born. Rather than 10 breweries in an afternoon, they offer shorter tours in distinct pockets of the city, featuring about three breweries apiece.

[…]

Across Houston, breweries are becoming more bike-friendly. At Saint Arnold, a BCycle bike-share station opened earlier this Spring; there are plans to unveil one at 8th Wonder by the time the summer is through; and hopes of opening a third in Sawyer Yard, in close proximity to three breweries. And some of the city’s breweries are forming bike teams, and hosting bike crawls of their own. But as all this happens, it raises one big question: Should people hop on bikes after drinking?

“We’ve have people approach us and ask, ‘Why would you put a station at Saint Arnold or 8th Wonder?’” says Henry Morris, a spokesman at BCycle. “And the answer is, well, they have parking spaces. People drive there and drive back and they’re expected to be responsible. So if you take a bike share to a brewery and you have too much to drink, you should call an Uber home.”

That’s why the guys at Tour de Brewery emphasize that their outings are about discovering new beers.

“If you’re going to bike and drink, it’s important to remember that it’s a tasting experience,” says Jessica Green, director of development for Bike Houston, which is on track to add 50 miles of bike lanes to the city this year, including a stretch that will help cyclists close the gap between 8th Wonder and Saint Arnold. “Have one beer, and then ride. And the riding will help you metabolize the alcohol. But don’t drink more than a beer or two an hour, which is when you get into getting drunk.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these breweries are neighborhood institutions as much as anything else, in the spirit of the old corner bar. They draw their customers mostly from their nearby surroundings, not the wider region. Also, and especially for the breweries in the inner core, parking is at a premium. That’s a combination that incentivizes biking, on both sides. For sure, as the story notes, you should imbibe carefully if you do this. Honestly, though, the same would be true if you drove. So plan your route, pick your spots, maybe give Tour de Brewery a look, and enjoy your afternoon.

Yeah, scooters are going to come to Houston

The question is when, not if.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

[E]ven though there’s a growing interest in alternate forms of transportation, you still can’t rent a scooter in Houston.

Maria Irshad, assistant director of the City of Houston’s Parking Division, said Houston’s infrastructure has had a lot to do with the lack of scooters. But with the development of new on-street bike lanes that may be starting to change.

“One thing Houston is doing, we’re taking a really cautious and deliberate approach to developing a program,” said Irshad. “So we’re watching what other cities do because this is a rapidly evolving form of transportation.”

[…]

Joe Deshotel is Texas Community Affairs Director for Lime, one of the companies hoping to do business here in Houston. He said they’re also trying to make up for past mistakes.

“When you have two or three companies that are professional and have the proper scaled operations for the city, then you really get the kind of program that you want,” said Deshotel.

As for Houston’s timetable for allowing scooter companies to operate, Irshad said there will be more public engagement later this summer. City Council will then have to draft an ordinance regulating scooters, and Irshad estimates we could see them on the streets next year.

I’m a bit embarrassed to realize that there’s been a letter to the Mayor with dockless mobility recommendations since October. It’s a fairly high level outline of proposed requirements for private operators of bikes and scooters and whatever else, and there’s an impressive list of stakeholders that helped put it together. Really, I’m just glad we’re not following the Uber/Lyft model of invade first and ask questions later, which happened in some other cities with scooters as well.

I’ve expressed doubts about how scooters would work here in Houston, as they don’t fit on sidewalks and seem to be in peril from motor vehicles on the road. That dockless mobility recommendations document partially addresses this in that they state that scooter speeds should be capped at 15 MPH. That’s basically what a pedal-powered bike does, for those of us in the non-Tour de France division, and in that case they’d be fine on the off-road bike paths. That still seems limited to me, and it occurs to me that maybe I just think there’s more danger on the streets for a scooter than for a bike. I’m sure we don’t have enough data to assess that, but maybe one of these days there will be a decent study. In the meantime, I concede that I may be overreacting. I look forward to those engagement sessions and to see what decisions Houston makes about scooters.

Two Geto Boys are better than one

Again I say, sure, why not.

Willie Dennis

William James Dennis, a rapper who goes by the stage name Willie D, has filed a campaign treasurer’s report to run for city council, becoming the second member of the Houston-based hip-hop group Geto Boys to seek a council seat.

Dennis filed a report Thursday with the city secretary’s office indicating he will run for District B, joining a field of 11 candidates.

Councilman Jerry Davis represents the district, but he has served the maximum number of terms and cannot run for reelection.

Hilton Koch, a Houston furniture dealer who is serving as campaign treasurer, confirmed Monday that Dennis is seeking the District B seat.

It is unclear, however, whether Dennis legally can be a candidate for council because he is a convicted felon.

[…]

The other candidates in the District B race are Robin Anderson, Cynthia Bailey, Patricia Bourgeois, Alvin Byrd, Karen Kossie-Chernyshev, Tarsha Jackson, James Joseph, Alyson Quintana, Renee Jefferson Smith, Ben White Jr. and Huey Wilson.

As the story notes, fellow Geto Boy Scarface is in for District D, the seat vacated by Dwight Boykins (assuming there are no backsies), where he currently faces a smaller field. I don’t know how Dennis’ past conviction will affect his candidacy, but having a conviction appears to have discouraged Booker T from running for Mayor (to be sure, there may well be other reasons why he hasn’t followed through on that). My opinion is that if you have completed your sentence you should be free and clear, but as far as I know that proposition has not been tested in the courts. So we’ll see. In the meantime, I will note that I am most familiar with District B candidates Alvin Byrd, who lost in the runoff to incumbent Jerry Davis in 2011, and Tarsha Jackson from her time with the Texas Organizing Project. Cynthia Bailey has sent out the most campaign emails, at least among candidates who have bought email lists that include mine.

CM Steve Le not running for re-election

We have another open seat, in District F.

Steve Le

Steve Le

Houston City Councilman Steve Le announced Wednesday he will not seek a second term in November, leaving an open race for his District F seat and ensuring the southwestern district will get a new representative for the fourth straight election.

Le, a physician who practices in Cleveland, narrowly defeated incumbent Richard Nguyen in 2015, winning a runoff by about 230 votes, or 3 percentage points. He had drawn five opponents — including Nguyen — before deciding not to run again.

Le was seen as one of the most vulnerable incumbent council members seeking re-election.

Citing questions and a city investigation into the work habits and time cards of his former chief of staff, Daniel Albert, constituents and neighborhood leaders had called on Le to fire Albert and resign his seat.

[…]

Le also faced residency questions upon taking office, as he had more formal links to a home in Kingwood than to the district address he listed in Alief. His business was registered at the Kingwood property, he was one of five people listed on the deed of trust for the property, and he, at the time, registered three of his four vehicles at that address.

Le did not return calls for comment Wednesday. In a statement to KPRC, he said he plans to return to his medical practice, and pointed to several accomplishments, contending the district’s infrastructure improved during his tenure.

“My goal when running for election was to work with the mayor and current council to implement changes that would benefit the residents of Houston, be fiscally responsible with our budget, improve street and drainage conditions of District F, (and) increase public safety,” the statement said.

In addition to Nguyen, candidates Anthony Nelson, John Nguyen, Tiffany Thomas and Jesus Zamora are seeking to represent the southwest Houston district that covers parts of Alief, Eldridge-West Oaks, Sharpstown and Westchase.

Van Huynh, Le’s chief of staff, said Wednesday he, too, will run for the seat, and has filed a report with the city secretary’s office designating a campaign treasurer.

See here for some background; Le did eventually fire Albert. To be sure, other District F Council members have had questions about their residency before, including MJ Khan and Al Hoang. For whatever the reason, that does not seem to be an obstacle to getting elected in F. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Le is the first member of Council to not run for re-election when able to do so since Peter Brown ran for Mayor instead of a third term in At Large #1 in 2009. Chris Bell did the same thing in 2001. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a recent Council member who stepped down without running for something else. Feel free to fill in the blank if you can.

As always, you can see an up-to-date list of candidates in Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I guess I need to get an Election 2019 page going, as June finance reports will be coming in. As for the cast in District F, I know Tiffany Thomas and former CM Richard Nguyen; I’m Facebook friends with Anthony Nelson but haven’t met him. Le’s departure may lead to more candidates entering, but if there’s one thing this election has not lacked, it’s candidates.

The Chron covers the #BoycottBoykins story

They don’t mention the hashtag, though.

CM Dwight Boykins

Houston city councilman and mayoral candidate Dwight Boykins is facing backlash for a recent incident in which he allegedly advised a group of students to “keep their legs closed,” among other comments that some attendees said made them feel uncomfortable.

The District D councilman’s remarks came Friday afternoon during a “youth advocacy summit,” where Boykins and Mayor Sylvester Turner separately addressed middle and high school students about getting civically engaged.

While talking to a roomful of teenagers, Boykins told the students to “keep their legs closed” and joked about dating one of them, according to accounts from multiple students.

In a statement issued Monday, Boykins said he was asked to offer the students “words of inspiration” and “help them understand the important role they play in our future.” He said he intended to “speak frankly about the pitfalls which I have seen derail the future of many of our youth, including teen pregnancy…an issue I have firsthand experience with in my own family.”

[…]

An invitation to Boykins, released to reporters Monday, shows he was invited to talk about his personal story, time as a council member and why he is running for office, while Turner was invited to hold an “intimate conversation” on mental health, criminal justice and other policy topics.

Many of the students were “eager to make a difference in the 2019 Mayoral election” and encouraged to volunteer on campaigns, the invitation reads.

In an audio recording of a segment of the event, a female student can be heard confronting Boykins about his comments.

“You’ve made some comments that have made me a little bit uncomfortable. You’ve joked about dating some of us,” the student said.

“Not dating you. I mean, that was an example,” Boykins interjected.

“You’ve pulled and singled out a few of the girls, you’ve told us to keep our legs closed,” the student continued, also alleging that Boykins “didn’t really answer” a question about gender equality.

Boykins responded by apologizing and insisting that he did not intend to make the group uncomfortable.

“That’s really important for me to know that you understand, it wasn’t personal,” Boykins said. “It was trying to warn you guys what’s out there.”

One female student described the room as being “tense, but people were afraid to say something.”

In a second statement Monday, Boykins said “a few seconds” of his talk “overshadowed my entire conversation which was meant to ensure that our youth have the best opportunity to succeed in life.”

See here for the background. There are a few new details but other than the second statement, which to me still sounds like weasel words, nothing substantial has happened since this first came out. But at least now more people are aware of this. KUHF has more.

Sue Lovell announces for Mayor

Sure, why not?

Sue Lovell

Former Houston city councilwoman Sue Lovell announced Monday she is running for mayor, becoming the fourth major candidate aiming to deny Mayor Sylvester Turner a second term in November.

Lovell made the announcement in a news release posted on her campaign website. She joins a field that includes District D Councilman Dwight Boykins, trial lawyer Tony Buzbee, businessman Bill King and at least five lesser-known candidates.

In her announcement, Lovell emphasized her tenure as chair of the city council transportation committee and advocacy for LGBTQ rights. She served three terms on council from 2006 to 2012, including a stint as vice mayor pro-tem.

“Now, more than ever, our citizens trust that public safety will be a priority, that the services they pay for will be delivered efficiently and on time, and that there will be an investment in the city’s infrastructure and their quality of life,” Lovell said in a statement. “I will honor that trust and deliver on those commitments.”

Speculation had abounded for months that Lovell would join the race, representing a challenge to Turner from his left. Lovell also has established herself as an ally to the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, working for a political action committee that supported Proposition B during last year’s midterm election.

That’s what this is about. It makes me wonder if the firefighters, who had previously endorsed Dwight Boykins before he stepped in it over the weekend, might reconsider their options. Or maybe the two of them will split the pool of pro-firefighter/anti-Turner Democrat voters. I don’t know.

Though Lovell’s name last appeared on the city ballot in 2009, she has remained visible in the community for the last decade and likely maintains some recognition among voters, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“She’s been out office for awhile, but there are still a lot of people that know and respect her,” Rottinghaus said.

Lovell is likely to cut into the mayor’s progressive base, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. Before Lovell joined the race, Jones said, “Turner was going to be the preferred choice of most liberal Anglos.” Those voters are more likely to support Lovell than King, Buzbee or Boykins, Jones said.

Yeah, but she was always an underperformer at the ballot box. In 2007, running for her first re-election, she failed to crack 53% against perennial candidate Griff Griffin. In 2009, she was forced into a runoff against perennial candidate Andrew Burks. I happen to think Lovell was a fine Council member and a master of policy details, but she tends to burn bridges and accumulate enemies. I’ll be very interested to see what kind of endorsements she gets, and what her fundraising is; we won’t know that till the 30 day reports, as that is the advantage of announcing one’s candidacy on July 1.

Downtown post office redevelopment update

Remember the big post office at the north end of downtown? It was sold a few years ago and slated for redevelopment, and after a few years that project is getting ready to get started.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Lovett Commercial, the Houston-based company that purchased the property in 2015, plans to keep the structure and, with the help of historic tax credits, transform it into a coworking, shopping and culinary destination with a concert venue, hotel and rooftop farm. The ambitious project, which will fill more than 550,000 square feet of space, will be called POST Houston.

“We envision a catalytic development that will create something very unique, not only from an adaptive reuse standpoint, but what POST will offer in terms of showcasing the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of Houston’s diverse population,” said Frank Liu, Lovett’s president.

The developer and architects on the project say it will reinvigorate this quieter, more industrial northern part of downtown. The site is near the corner of Franklin and Bagby, across Buffalo Bayou from the bulk of the city’s office and residential towers. The location may prove challenging in one sense, but it is also a benefit.

The site offers postcard views of the Houston skyline, which will be highlighted from a rooftop park with restaurants, shaded greenspaces and an organic farm.

“It’s a site where you feel like Houston is a really urban place. Standing on it you have a view of downtown, Houston feels so metropolitan,” said Jason Long, a partner with OMA, an international architecture partnership founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas. The company is designing POST Houston, along with local firm Powers Brown Architecture.

[…]

By repurposing the 57-year-old building, a state historical landmark, Lovett was able to earn federal and state historic tax credits.

“Many residents of Houston have some sort of memory of the Barbara Jordan Post Office while it was in operation. Combining the building’s original Cold War-era design with modern architecture will make the building stand out for generations to come,” Frank Liu said in an email. “We’re breathing new life into an already iconic building and reintroducing it as a vibrant addition to Downtown.

The building was in use as a post office until 2014, when mail processing was consolidated into a north Houston facility. It was named after Barbara Jordan, a Houston native who was the first black woman from the South elected to Congress, and Lovett intends to incorporate some sort of monument to Jordan, who died in 1996, in the new design.

Lovett bought the property in 2015, a year after the city abandoned a bid to buy it as a potential new location for HPD headquarters and the municipal courts. As noted, the site was put up for sale in 2009, as part of a nationwide divestment of properties by the USPS. There’s been a lot of talk about what this place could be, now we’ll finally get to see what it will be. The story has some of those details, but I just want to see it for myself when it’s done.

#BoycottBoykins

The headline is a hashtag started on Twitter as a result of this.

CM Dwight Boykins

Several Sugar Land families say they’re stunned and upset with how city council member and mayoral candidate Dwight Boykins addressed a room of teenagers Friday, even starting a hashtag #BoycottBoykins.

ABC13 Eyewitness News spoke with several teenagers who were attendees of a five-day Youth Advocacy Summit organized by OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates and Mi Familia Vota.

The night was billed as a meet and greet conversation for area youth to hear from Boykins.

“Initially, we were really excited because we didn’t know much about this mayoral candidate,” said 17-year-old Hajra Alvi.

But Hajra and her friends say the question-answer session with Boykins went south very quickly.

“He was telling us we should keep our legs closed, that we shouldn’t taint ourselves,” said 16-year-old Khloe. “In a way, saying that we should stay pure because otherwise, in the future, other men won’t want us.”

The attendees say Boykins grabbed another teen girl from the audience to demonstrate a relationship.

“He made a young man stand up and he was holding another girl side by side and he was like, ‘If me and her were to do something, that young man wouldn’t want you in the future,’ and that really shows that he is invalidating young girls and not putting a good message across to the youth of America,” said Khloe.

“I was actually sitting like right across from her so I could see her expression perfectly and I could see her looking at everyone else and sort of mouthing, ‘I want to leave’,” said Hajra.

This was first reported on Instagram here, with some video of the interaction with the young girl here. Hajra Alvi, who was quoted in that KTRK story, also posted to Instagram about it, and you can see her post in this Twitter thread. OCA Houston and Mi Familia Vota, who organized the event, released a statement condemning Boykins for his actions, while Boykins posted his own statement, which got a better reception on Facebook than it did on Twitter. It’s a generic apology, so if you have no idea what he’s talking about it doesn’t sound like any big deal. But it is – it’s straight up purity culture slut shaming, and it really, really has no place in today’s discourse.

Let’s talk about what Boykins should do at this point, because one of the many things that the #MeToo era has made clear is that lots and lots of people have no idea how to offer an appropriate apology.

1. Fully admit to the thing that you did that you are now apologizing for. Don’t euphemize, don’t analogize, don’t avoid the facts, and for crying out loud don’t praise yourself for your past actions or pure-hearted intentions. You don’t have to beat yourself up, just state the plain facts.

2. Make it clear that you understand why the thing that you did is wrong and why it harmed someone else. You can’t make amends if you don’t know what you’re making amends for.

3. State what you will do differently going forward, and if needed what you will do to make it up to the people who were harmed. Again, this is not the time or the place to state your credentials as One Of The Good Ones, or whatever mitigating factor you think should let you slide on this. This is about your actions.

4. Say you are sorry to those you harmed. Not to those “who may have been offended”, or “who may have misunderstood” what you said or did, because those are weasel words. You did something harmful. You are sorry you did this. Say that.

None of this is easy. I speak from the experience of having to apologize for all kids of dumb, hurtful, spiteful, mean-spirited, ignorant, and offensive behavior in my own life. I still get it wrong. But it’s the only way.

Anyway. I don’t support Boykins’ Mayoral candidacy, and he has no reason to care what I say. I hope he does make a full and sincere apology anyway, not because I care about his candidacy but because the girls who were there and experienced what he said deserve it. I’m not voting for him either way, but I’ll respect him a lot more as a person if he does the right thing.

The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

More on stadium netting

Here’s an update on that little girl who was hit by a foul ball at Minute Maid park recently.

A 25-month-old girl who suffered a fractured skull when struck by a foul ball at an Astros game last month continues to recover from her injuries, and her family has hired a prominent Houston attorney to consult with the Astros about the matter.

In a letter addressed Wednesday to Astros owner Jim Crane, attorney Richard Mithoff provided the first public details about the child who was hit in the head May 29 by a line drive off the bat of Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. during a game at Minute Maid Park.

While no legal action has been filed, attorneys say Mithoff’s letter represents the first public overture to the Astros toward conversations that could lead to a financial settlement.

It also satisfies, for now, the public’s interest in the condition of the crying child who was photographed being carried toward a ballpark exit by her grandfather as Almora slumped behind the plate in distress after seeing the ball hit the child.

“The family wanted to thank everyone for their concern, and that was first and foremost,” Mithoff said. “Secondly, we wanted to see whether any conversations can take place that can lead to a discussion of options that would make sense for the fans and the ballparks and the clubs.

“I know Jim Crane and know him to be a responsible owner, and I think he will do the right thing.”

[…]

The Astros, meanwhile, said Tuesday that they are studying options for additional netting but at this point have no plans to make any additions at Minute Maid Park during the 2019 season.

See here for the background. There’s more on the girl’s condition and what the family is asking for in the article, so read the rest. I really hope the Astros do the right thing and extend their nets to the foul poles. Three teams have already pledged to do this, with the White Sox being the first to make an announcement. The Dodgers made their move after a fan was injured at their stadium. No need to wait for that to happen at your stadium, other teams. This now slightly outdated list shows the netting status at your team’s home. Feel free to tell them that you want them to care for your safety and the safety of your fellow fans.

By the way, Commissioners Court updated the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies

Nice.

The Commissioners Court voted 3-2 along party lines to [add sexual orientation and gender identity to the county’s nondiscrimination and anti-harassment policies].

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — all Democrats — voted in favor. Republicans Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voted against. Prior to the vote, several LGBTQ advocates spoke in support of the proposal, while only one person — Dave Welch of the Houston Area Pastor Council — spoke against it.

Welch told the court that sexual orientation and gender identity are “undefinable” — and claimed the new nondiscrimination policies would “be used as a bludgeon against those who disagree.”

Commissioner Garcia responded with an emotional story about his late brother, Huberto, who died from AIDS in 1995.

“My brother was gay, and he grew up at a time when if you exhibited any tendency … you got beat up,” Garcia said. “So, here we have an opportunity to simply say, ‘People matter, and that people will be protected.’

“My brother couldn’t come home to die with his family,” Garcia said. “California at the time was the only place he could get healthcare”.

[…]

The new policies would take effect immediately and bring Harris County in line with other major Texas counties, including Bexar (San Antonio), Dallas and Travis (Austin) counties. Harris County is the third-most-populous in the nation and has more than 15,000 employees. The policies would also cover several hundred employees at the Harris County Flood Control District (think: Hurricane Harvey).

This only merited a passing mention in the Chron, which I find disappointing. Note that this policy applies only to Harris County employees; Commissioners Court doesn’t have the authority to do this for the county as a whole. Despite the failure of HERO, the city of Houston has long had a similar non-discrimination policy for its employees, which Mayor Parker updated to include transgender employees back in 2010. Elections have consequences, y’all. Kudos to Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia for getting this done.

Metro and the Mayor’s race

This went pretty much as one would expect.

Delivering his fourth State of Mobility speech to Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed previous years, noting the region needs more options than solo driving if it is to handle the deluge of new residents in the future.

“We need to find ways to move people efficiently and quickly, and that means more than just building more highways,” Turner said.

While touching on the many improvements needed in the region, including deepening the Houston Ship Channel to keep the Port of Houston an attractive call for ships and support of a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, much of the session was spent on the upcoming transit plans.

“We cannot continue to operate a transportation system as if it was 30 years ago,” Turner said.

[…]

“Given the congestion we have now… we must build out our system,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said.

Patman and others said most of the summer will be spent selling voters on the plan, though officials believe it has strong support.

“Of course, we will have some naysayers,” Patman said.

That includes some of Turner’s opponents in the mayoral race, which also will be on the November ballot. Bill King and Tony Buzbee both have said Houston has invested too much in public transit to the detriment of suburban commuters.

Asked during a June 10 Kingwood forum on transportation solutions, King said “it is not transit or light rail” while congratulating Metro on its commuter bus efforts.

Buzbee focused his remarks at the event on the need to improve neighborhood streets and synchronizing traffic lights for better efficiency. He called the Metro plan too focused on a small portion of the city.

“It is more about career politicians telling us public transit is good,” Buzbee said.

So, Bill King cares more about people driving in from The Woodlands than anything else, while Buzbee demonstrates zero grasp of the topic at hand. As for Dwight Boykins, he wasn’t quoted in the story, probably because he wasn’t at the event. Insert shrug emoji here.

Look, Metro has come a long way since the dark days of Frank Wilson and David Wolff. There are more HOV lanes, a vastly improved bus system, more light rail, good ridership numbers, and forward-thinking planning from the Board and the Chair. All that is at risk, not just with the MetroNext plan on the ballot but also Mayor’s race. All the good work being done goes right out the window if a transit-hostile or transit-ignorant Mayor gets elected. Sylvester Turner is the only choice if you care about transit. It’s not even close.

In defense of the I-45 expansion

Jeff Balke rises in opposition to the anti-I-45-expansion clamor.

We have seen comments on social media and rantings about how our city should be more bike friendly and pedestrian safe. How we need commuter rail, better bus service and rapid transit like expanded METROrail. In fact, we could not agree more. We have written time and time again that we must be open to alternate methods of transportation if we are going to grow intelligently as a city over the next two decades.

However, one area where differ quite sharply is the idea that we should do nothing. That the only way to solve the problem is to force motorists to change their habits, give up their cars, and one way to do that is to make traffic worse.

Here is our biggest issue with that: size. Houston is massive. This isn’t New York or Chicago or even Los Angeles. We are 600-square miles inside the city limits alone. Add the entire region and it’s more than double that. Our centers of commerce are all over the place from downtown skyscrapers to medical center hospitals to office towers in the Galleria to warehouses and refineries on the east end to tech companies well north.

It would be virtually impossible to entirely give up a vehicle unless you were able and willing to live close to your job, and that isn’t often possible thanks to our lack of zoning and the far flung nature of our region.

We have seen many suggest projects like these are for the benefit of suburbanites who use our city resources and then retreat to the comfort of their neighborhoods outside the city limits while we are left to deal with the fallout. That is not abnormal. Most big cities deal with the very same issues. Space comes at a premium and not everyone can afford to live inside the Loop.

More importantly, there are things like hurricane evacuations and emergency vehicle movement that must be considered. The fact is we cannot solve our traffic problems in Houston with one thing. Rail, biking, walking, urban planning, wider freeways, none of those things will save us alone. We need a massive, concerted effort with a lot of growing pains to re-build the city the way it probably should have been designed 100 years ago.

Jeff didn’t single out anyone who argued for doing nothing, but as I was one who examined that idea, I’ll give him equal time. My post was more about considering the alternate universe in which we spent the same amount of money on transit as we do on highways – spoiler alert, we could have much better and more expansive transit if we did that – but that’s not how this works. And I did suggest that doing nothing might be better than going forward with this plan, so I’ll own that. Jeff is right, we can’t improve mobility on the wildest dreams of transit alone, and I-45 is a critical evacuation route for hurricanes, so there is a critical need to improve it. (And hope like hell we don’t need that evacuation route while it’s all torn up.) For sure, we will need multiple modes of travel to improve mobility in Houston. I just wish, and I’m sure Jeff agrees with me, that we put some more emphasis on, and resources into, those other modes.

Appeals court upholds dismissal of term limits lawsuit

Score one more for the city.

A Texas appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that struck down a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a 2015 voter-approved referendum extending term limits for city officials.

At issue in the suit was Proposition 2, a ballot measure that changed Houston’s charter to limit elected officials to two four-year terms instead of the previous cap of three two-year terms.

Community activists Phillip Paul Bryant and James Scarborough alleged in their lawsuit that former mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston used “deceptive ballot language” to “selfishly expand term limits.”

Parker was term-limited out of office and did not receive a longer term due to the ballot referendum, which easily passed.

Eric Dick, an attorney for Scarborough, said he would appeal the case.

“I said from the beginning it’s going to be decided in the Supreme Court of Texas,” Dick said.

See here for the background, and here for a press release from the city. The court’s ruling is here, and the TL;dr version of it is “the district judge got it right when he ruled that the ballot language was sufficiently fine”. They rejected the plaintiffs’s argument that the ballot language was misleading. Obviously, the Supreme Court is gonna do what the Supreme Court is gonna do, but for now at least it’s all systems normal for this year’s election.

What if we didn’t expand I-45?

It’s an awful lot of money that comes with a ton of negative effects and which, if the I-10 expansion is any guide, will have short-lived positive effects. So maybe we should just, like, not do it?

A massive remake of Interstate 45 from downtown Houston north to the Sam Houston Tollway that would be among the largest road projects in the region’s history also is one of the nation’s biggest highway boondoggles, according to an updated list released Tuesday.

The North Houston Highway Improvement Project — the umbrella term for the entire $7 billion-plus plan to remake Interstate 45 — is listed in the latest installment of unnecessary projects compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group. Nine projects across the country made the 2019 list, the fifth annual report from the two groups that have argued for greater transit investment.

“We believe that to fix congestion problems we need to take cars off the road,” said Bay Scoggin, director of the TexPIRG Education Fund, a subset of the national group. “We could do far better investing $7 billion in public transit.”

The dubious distinction on the list comes days before two city-sponsored public meetings to gauge ongoing fears about the project. In the past six months, concerns have ramped up against the project as the Texas Department of Transportation and engineers seek federal approvals, following years of discussions.

The report is here, and you can see a very concise breakdown of the issues with this project here. If you want a bit more detail, Streetsblog read what TxDOT itself has to say about the project.

  • The project’s “proposed recommended” routes would displace four houses of worship, two schools, 168 single-family homes, 1,067 multifamily units and 331 businesses with 24,873 employees. “Potential impacts to community resources include displacement of residences and businesses, loss of community facilities, isolation of neighborhoods, changes in mobility and access, and increased noise and visual impacts. . . All alternatives would require new right-of-way which would displace homes, schools, places of worship, businesses, billboards, and other uses.”
  • “All [build] alternatives would result in displacements that would reduce the size of the communities and potentially affect community cohesion… Proposed alternatives that include elevated structures may create physical barriers between neighborhoods or affect the existing visual conditions of the communities.”
  • The project’s “[c]onversion of taxable property to roadway right-of-way and displacements of businesses that are significant sources of sales tax revenue would have a negative impact on the local economy.” And while at present the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods “are experiencing various degrees of redevelopment,” the state notes that “growth trends indicate redevelopment would continue independent of the proposed improvements to project facilities.”
  • The project will “cause disproportionate high and adverse impacts to minority or low-income populations.” And the project’s “[d]isplacement of bus stops could affect people who do not have access to automobiles or that are dependent on public transportation.”

Doesn’t sound good, does it? Here’s a thought to consider. What if we took that $7 billion that this project is estimated to cost, and spent it all on transit? That would be more than enough to fully build the Universities and Inner Katy light rail lines, plus the Green/Purple extension to Hobby Airport and the Red Line extension out US 90 all the way into Sugar Land. I’d estimate all that would cost three billion or so, which means there would be between three and four billion left over. We could then take that money and buy more buses and hire more drivers so that we could upgrade most if not all of the existing bus system to rapid bus service, we could create some new lines to fill in any existing gaps, we could add more commuter bus lines from outlying suburbs into the central business district and other job centers, we could build a ton more bus shelters, we could fix up a bunch of sidewalks around bus stops, and we could pilot some more autonomous shuttles to help solve last-mile problems and gaps in connectivity in the existing network. I mean, seven billion dollars is a lot of money. This would greatly improve mobility all around the greater Houston area, and it would improve many people’s lives, all without condemning hundreds of properties and displacing thousands of people. But we can’t do that, because TDOT doesn’t do that, and we haven’t gotten approval from the voters, and many other Reasons that I’m sure are Very Important. So get ready to enjoy all those years of highway construction, Houston, because that’s what we’re gonna get.

Appeals court rejects firefighters pension reform lawsuit

This is not related to Prop B. I know, it’s hard to keep all of this straight.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals on Thursday sided with the city of Houston in a lawsuit over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pension reform plan, which the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund alleged violates the state constitution.

The firefighters’ pension fund sued Turner and other city officials in May 2017, shortly after the Legislature passed — and Gov. Greg Abbott signed — Senate Bill 2190, the legislation overhauling Houston’s pension systems. Firefighters opposed the measure, while Turner and other officials said it resolved a fiscal crisis that could threaten the city’s fiscal solvency.

In the lawsuit, the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund argued the pension reform law strips its right under the Texas Constitution to “select legal counsel and an actuary and adopt sound actuarial assumptions.”

The pension fund contended the reform plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment, now codified in state law, gives the city and its actuaries a role in determining the fund’s cost projections, which the fund’s board of trustees said it alone should control.

See here and here for the background. The suit was dismissed by a district court judge, and the appeals court was basically ruling on whether that judge was correct to dismiss or not. You can read the opinion here, but it’s pretty dense and technical, and my eyes glazed over almost immediately. In short, the appellate court said the trial court judge’s decision was fine. The firefighters’ pension fund, who filed the suit and the appeal, will appeal again, to the Supreme Court. So we’re not quite finished with this yet.

By the way, City Council passed the budget

In the end, this was pretty boring. Which is a good thing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston city council approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year with little commotion Wednesday, authorizing a spending plan that was scrambled at the last minute by developments at the Legislature and a judge’s ruling that the voter-approved Proposition B is unconstitutional.

The council voted 12-4 in favor of Turner’s budget after approving a series of amendments during a nearly seven-hour session. The budget covers city spending for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

About half the spending — $2.53 billion — will come out of the city’s tax- and-fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries. The city is set to spend about 1.9 percent more than it is projected to spend during the current fiscal year.

The remaining spending will come out of “enterprise” funds, which are supported by fees, including the Houston Airport System, and city utilities, which run on residents’ water bills.

[…]

Also complicating the budget was a bill passed by the Legislature that limits the fees telecommunication and cable companies pay cities to use their rights of way. That opened a spending gap of more than $16 million, according to city budget officials.

Wednesday’s budget approval followed consideration of more than 30 amendments proposed by council members.

Among the amendments approved were proposals to create new finance transparency requirements, change how the city sets its next budget and commission studies that could change how the city’s fleet management and solid waste departments operate.

In the end, there were no layoffs thanks to Prop B getting tossed by the courts. That could still get reversed on appeal so it’s not a settled matter, but for now it’s where we are. A respite from that drama, no matter how brief, is welcome.

Happy (bike) trails to you

Trails connecting to trails. It’s a beautiful thing.

With roughly four miles of new trail in the neighborhood along Sims Bayou and a electric transmission route, officials in southern Houston’s Five Corners District as well as park advocates said they expect a lot more running.

“It really is a milestone and I think it is going to open up all kinds of possibilities for us to complete the system and demonstrate that people will use these corridors,” said Beth White, CEO of Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit spearheading the Bayou Greenways 2020 effort.

The trail runs north of Sims Bayou for about 1.5 miles, parallel to Hiram Clarke Road to West Airport. The path, open to walkers, runners and bicyclists, runs along a CenterPoint Energy utility easement. A host of destinations, including three schools, and hundreds of single family homes are within 1,500 feet of the trail, the first in the city to run along a utility easement.

Perhaps more critically than what is along the route, is the connection it provides to the trail system along Sims Bayou, recently spruced up and expanded with nearly 2.6-mile segment featuring vibrant murals. The new portion runs from Heatherbrook Drive to Buffalo Speedway. Though unconnected to the rest of the trail system, the two southwest Houston segments offer some relief from on-road riding, and greatly expand the number of people who can easily and safely travel to Townwood Park near Orem and Buffalo Speedway without a car.

[…]

Getting even this short segment of utility easement trail open, however, has been a long journey. City and CenterPoint officials celebrated an agreement in 2014 that untied some of the thorny issues related to public use of the utility right of way. The deal even became the template for state legislation passed in 2017 allowing counties and municipalities to partner with companies for combined use trails along power line routes.

“In a built-up city you have to take advantage of every corridor that you can,” White said.

Then slight delays set in for the first trail, from working out the final language of cooperative agreements to planning and design approvals. By 2017, the connection still was just a blueprint.

The slow-going hasn’t dampened expectations for more connections, more miles of bayou and utility easement trails, providing more people easy access to trails, White said. The parks board remains on pace for its 2020 goal of 150 miles of trail along seven Houston bayous, she said.

I hadn’t realized it from the story, but looking at the map made me realize this is a connection to the Sim Bayou trail, using the utility easement so it’s still off the street. The original bill that allowed for bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way was passed in 2013, and the great thing about it is that these easements generally run north-south, while the bayous go more or less east-west. That would allow for a real connected network and a whole lot more of the region that could be safely biked off-road. I hope we hear about a lot more of these getting finished up soon.

Here comes the driverless pizza delivery vehicle

Gotta admit, this has me scratching my head.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

There goes another high schooler’s job: Domino’s Pizza Inc. plans to test unmanned pizza delivery in Houston later this year.

The chain, known as a technology leader in the restaurant industry, is teaming up with Nuro, a Bay Area robotics startup run by a pair of former Google employees. To start, Domino’s will send food to customers from a single store in the Texas city using one of Nuro’s fully autonomous vehicles.

The test is scheduled to start late this year and could expand in 2020, according to the companies. Domino’s has more than 6,000 restaurants in the U.S. and, with the labor market tight, the company is experiencing a driver shortage, with as many as 10,000 open positions nationwide, according to Kevin Vasconi, the company’s chief information officer.

The Nuro partnership will help the chain determine if autonomous vehicles are a way for its restaurants to keep up with demand during busy times when drivers are in short supply, he said.

“Consumers are ready for this,” Vasconi said. “I have been surprised by the overall positive reaction people have had to an autonomous vehicle delivery experience.”

[…]

Domino’s previously tested autonomous delivery vehicles in a partnership with Ford Motor Co. The pilot began in 2017 to see how customers would react to stepping out of their homes to fetch pizza from a locked warming chamber in the vehicle. That program has ended.

Pizza Hut, a chain that made its name with sit-down dining and is now trying to catch up with rivals on delivery, teamed up with Toyota last year to work toward driverless delivery.

Nuro is the same outfit doing the Kroger autonomous grocery delivery testing. See here and here for background on that. I wish there were some information on how the earlier pilot went (I didn’t find anything in a cursory search). With groceries, you get a cheaper delivery price if you go out and lug them into your place on your own. Will that entice people to do the same for pizza? I guess you’d save the cost of a tip, if nothing else. I haven’t ordered from Domino’s in a million years, so I’m the wrong person to react to this news. How do you feel about this? TechCrunch has more.

Metro’s driverless shuttle finally debuts

Nice to have good weather.

TSU’s Tiger Walk isn’t just for pedestrians anymore.

The region’s first autonomous shuttle to carry passengers debuted Wednesday along the tree-lined walk, the center of the Texas Southern University campus. Operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority, the vehicle will ferry students and others along the Tiger Walk as part of a pilot program to gauge how driverless vehicles can solve some of the region’s travel obstacles.

“We have to plan for the future,” Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, noting some Houstonians need reliable local transit to link them to major bus and rail stops, a hurdle in transit circles referred to as “first-mile/last-mile.”

“Autonomous vehicle technology has the ability to serve those needs and many more,” Patman said, standing in front of the blue shuttle. “Once these things become commonplace, we can have these autonomous vehicles lined up.”

[…]

The vehicle for now uses an established route with three stops around campus, relying on sensors to detect when it is safe to proceed and avoid others along the Tiger Walk, which is a closed part of Wheeler Avenue across the college. The Tiger Walk intersects with the Columbia Tap Trail.

The second phase, likely in 2020, will extend the shuttle’s route to the Purple Line rail stop near TDECU Stadium and the University of Houston campus. That will be the first foray into automobile traffic for the shuttle, along a stretch of Cleburne Street. The third phase of the trial will extend the shuttle service to the Eastwood Transit Center at Interstate 45 and Lockwood.

See here, here, and here for the background. I approve of this kind of usage, with the shuttle acting as a connector between the campus and (right now) a bike trail and (eventually) a light rail stop. That’s how you make it easier for people to not use their cars for short trips. I’ll be very interested to see how many people use this thing, and how many of them come from or go to other non-car modes of travel.