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New Braunfels

The Schlitterbahn story

Texas Monthly does its thing on Schlitterbahn co-owner Jeff Henry and the criminal charges that stemmed from the death of an 11-year-old boy on the biggest ride at the park in Kansas City.

Investigators and detectives from the Kansas City Police Department, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and the Kansas attorney general’s office also arrived at Schlitterbahn. A detective interviewed 29-year-old Tyler Miles, who had been working at the park since 2013 and had advanced from construction worker to lifeguard to director of operations, responsible for all aspects of the park’s day-to-day ride operations. “Have you been aware of any complaints regarding Verrückt the ride in the last season?” the detective asked.

Miles answered, “I have not, sir,” according to the detective. His lawyers would later say he was so confident in the ride’s safety that on the very day that Caleb was killed, he had brought his wife to the park to ride Verrückt.

Investigators later learned, however, that Schlitterbahn employees were required to submit regular “ops reports” about the rides they monitored and, according to reports that the investigators read, Verrückt had problems that were never revealed to the public. For instance, eleven Schlitterbahn customers said they had been injured on Verrückt between August 31, 2014, and August 5, 2016 (two days before Caleb’s death). In five of the incidents, riders claimed they were injured while their rafts were still in the chute. (One rider reported that her head had slammed into the headrest and she sustained a concussion when her raft entered the runout pool at a high speed.) In five other incidents, riders claimed their rafts went airborne over the crest of the second hill and that they suffered head, neck, and back injuries when their rafts slammed back down onto the chute. And a man named Norris “J. J.’’ Groves reported that when his raft went airborne, his face and forehead struck the netting and a metal hoop, causing his right eye to swell shut for the rest of the day.

An investigator spoke to a seventeen-year-old lifeguard who said that Miles had ordered him to write a report that downplayed the severity of the Groves incident. Meanwhile, sifting through Verrückt’s maintenance reports, other investigators concluded that Miles had avoided or delayed making repairs that would have taken the ride out of commission. According to investigators, Miles hadn’t even ordered repairs when a Schlitterbahn manager informed him, on July 15, 2016 (three weeks before Caleb’s death), that maintenance work on Verrückt’s brake system was a priority.

What’s more, according to court documents, the investigators learned that on July 3, 2014, one week before the ride’s grand opening, an engineering firm hired by Jeff and Schooley to perform accelerometer tests on Verrückt’s rafts had issued a report suggesting that if the combined weight of the three passengers in a raft was between 400 and 550 pounds—the weight Jeff and Schooley had agreed was appropriate—there was a chance the raft would go airborne on the second hill. The ride opened anyway, with the weight range unchanged.

By 2017, attorneys for Schlitterbahn were meeting with the Schwab family’s attorneys. They eventually agreed that the water park and various companies associated with the design and construction of Verrückt would pay Caleb’s family a $20 million settlement, an astonishing sum. The two sisters who had ridden behind Caleb, both of whom suffered facial injuries, also received a settlement, of an undisclosed amount.

Still, neither Jeff nor his siblings offered any public explanation for what had happened. Had there been a problem with the distribution of the three passengers’ weight that caused the raft to lift off into the air? Had something gone wrong with the cannon nozzle that shot the raft up the second hill? Was the wind a factor? No one seemed to know, not even Jeff.

He said he wanted to return to Verrückt, which closed immediately after Caleb’s death but still loomed over the Kansas City landscape like some grisly monument, so he could find out what had gone wrong. His hope, he said, was to reconstruct the fatal ride exactly as it took place, assisted by a team of independent experts. But prosecutors for the Kansas attorney general’s office persuaded a judge to lock down the ride. They believed it was a valuable piece of evidence that should not be touched. Schlitterbahn was perhaps not the scene of a freak horrific accident, the prosecutors were saying, but the scene of a crime.

See here for the background and be sure to read the whole thing, as any story by Skip Hollandsworth is worth reading. Verrückt has since been torn down, and if there is a criminal trial it will happen next year. I’m still struggling with how I feel about this, and I hope that enough facts come out during the trial to help me sort it out. Read the story and see what you think.

New Braunfels can ban is back

A blast from the past.

New Braunfels officials plan to resume enforcement of the “can ban” and limits on coolers on rivers on Wednesday even as opponents of the controversial municipal codes continue to pursue a legal challenge to them.

The development follows the Texas Supreme Court’s refusal this month to bar the city from enforcing the ordinances, which prohibit bringing disposable containers or coolers over 16 quarts in size onto the Guadalupe and Comal rivers inside city limits.

“Everyone is still invited to enjoy their favorite beverage on our rivers. We just ask that they do so responsibly and in consideration of the health and sustainability of these important community assets,” Mayor Barron Casteel said in announcing Friday that enforcement of the measures would resume this week.

The resumption of enforcement after a lull of more than three years was called premature Monday by attorney Jim Ewbank, who brought suit in 2012 on behalf of local river outfitters and tourism-related businesses who contend the codes are an overreach of municipal authority.

Despite rejecting plaintiffs’ request to issue an immediate stay on enforcement of the contested codes, he noted the Texas Supreme Court did request a full briefing by the parties, “which is a good sign for us.”

The city’s brief is due to be filed by late November, said Ewbank, who expects the high court to decide by January whether to hear the whole case.

[…]

State District Judge Don Burgess granted the plaintiffs a summary judgment in 2014, but that decision was overturned in May by the 3rd Court of Appeals. It held that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge a penal code, therefore Burgess lacked subject matter jurisdiction on the case.

See here for my last update. I apparently missed the appellate ruling. Be that as it may, the city expects to get the ball rolling this week, with an eye on putting the ban back in place next year, assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t set them back. Adjust your tubing plans for the future accordingly.

Lone Star Rail faces Council vote in San Antonio

It’s a big step.

While there is little opposition to the idea of a commuter rail line (the LSTAR) between San Antonio and Austin, the City takes serious pause when confronted with the yearly costs of operation and maintenance.

But there are no tax or fee increases on the table, [Lone Star Rail District Director Joe] Black explained. “And we have not asked any city to make a dollar commitment.”

Instead, LSRD has been working with municipalities to form Transportation Infrastructure Zones (TIZ) unique to each city. The zone would establish a perimeter around each station – there are five proposed so far in San Antonio – and a percentage of property tax increases within the zone would go directly towards LSRD’s operation and maintenance costs.

Where are these property tax increases coming from? The stations themselves, as the property value surrounding them will, almost certainly, rise as the amenity comes to the neighborhood. Most agreements, like the one with San Marcos, also includes a sales tax revenue contribution. Austin City Council approved a 56-year agreement, with commitment stipulations, in December 2013.

LSRD is currently working with City staff on an agreement unique to San Antonio, but will likely have the same elements of agreements with other cities, Black said. The cities of Kyle, Buda, and Round Rock have yet to draft final agreements. Georgetown, New Braunfels, and Shertz city councils will likely vote on final agreements in August. Once local agreements are met, LSRD will be hunting for investment from federal, state, and private entities to foot the $2-3 billion bill for the commuter and freight lines. Once the Environmental Impact Statements are complete, and the new freight line relocation is complete, then work can begin on the commuter rail.

If all goes as planned, Black said, the LSTAR will begin trips in 2021 or 2022 – about 17 years in the making.

Interstate 35 is one of the most congested interstate segments in the U.S., most of which is because of commuter and truck traffic. About 80% of Mexico’s trade with the U.S. and Canada comes through the bottleneck on I-35. More than 9,000 accidents occur between San Antonio and Georgetown, the LSTAR’s northernmost stop, resulting in about 100 deaths per year.

“The LSTAR could provide the (transportation) equivalent of eight additional highway lanes (four lanes in each direction),” Black said. “The space implications are huge — moving more vehicles isn’t going to do it, we have to move people.”

The 118-mile commuter line would utilize existing Union Pacific lines, but not until after a new freight line is constructed in the east – a critical step for the LSTAR operation. While local freight will still use the old line through San Antonio, regional freight will be diverted to the new line, freeing up time and space for the LSTAR to provide reliable, frequent trips.

[…]

Black said there will also be consideration for bicycles on the LSTAR. Connecting the stations to transportation options that complete that “first mile/last mile” portion of travel – like bikes, bikeshare, rideshare, or bus transit to get to final destinations.

See here for the most recent update. I’ll be interested to see how this debate plays out as the vote approaches. LSRD is going to need federal money to make this happen – I suppose they could be in line for some state money, but I don’t have much belief that TxDOT will do anything – and they will have a much easier time making a case for themselves if the cities along the way have all bought in. I’ll keep an eye on this.

Lone Star Rail District update

Haven’t heard from these guys in awhile.

According to [Lone Star Rail District], the [proposed rail line] will provide essential relief from the I-35 highway congestion. The express trip from downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio would take 75 minutes.

Completing the project, however, crawls slowly forward as the approval for the train involves several different counties, including Austin, Bexar, Travis, Hays and Williamson.

In January of 2015, the LSRD hosted several informational events in both Austin and San Antonio with the intention to gain support for local and state funding of the project.

The rail system will cost taxpayers roughly $1.7 billion.

[…]

The Texas Department of Transportation has already given their consent for the project to move forward, and the LSRD has formally “kicked off the federal environmental process” according to an email sent in September of 2014 from a staff member of LSRD, Allison Schulze, to Alamo area officials and advocates of the project.

The LSRD intends to transform an existing Union Pacific rail line into the commuter line. Thus, in adhering to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the federal government will evaluate and improve the safety of the rail for transporting people.

LSRD, in an report with KVUE news, states if kept on schedule the project from now until finish will take about 5 years.

The last update I had on this was back in January of 2012. More recently, as that KVUE story from this January notes, the LSRD held a series of public information meetings, which is part of the environmental review process. Last December, the Austin City Council voted to support the funding to maintain and operate a regional passenger rail line, which is obviously a big step. That story indicates that this approval is contingent on a “legislative decision to tweak a state law” as well as an agreement from Union Pacific to share its tracks. No clue what the “legislative decision” is about – I presume it’s a bill that needs to be passed to allow for funds to be spent on a project like this. One hopes it will meet less resistance than the Texas Central Railway has met.

I should note that a travel time of 75 minutes is about what it took to drive from Austin to San Antonio 25 years ago, when much of that stretch of I-35 was farmland. I doubt one can drive it that quickly any time during the day now. Note that there would be multiple stops along the way, so we’re not talking express service. I presume this also means that several other city councils, in places like Schertz and New Braunfels and San Marcos and Buda, will have to take similar votes to approve funding for maintenance and operations. A five year timeline seems awfully optimistic given all the things that could go wrong, but I’m rooting for them to succeed.

New Braunfels can ban is now officially canned

Pending appeal, of course.

A permanent injunction issued Friday bars the city from enforcing its controversial ban on disposable containers and cooler-size limits on the Guadalupe and Comal rivers inside the city limits.

“You can start drinking from cans and bottles on the rivers, effective immediately,” said Jim Ewbank, attorney for plaintiffs who had sued to overturn the city codes.

He declared “total victory” at the close of the hours-long hearing before visiting state District Judge Don Burgess.

Burgess had previously found the disposable container ban and cooler limits unconstitutional. On Friday he denied the city’s motion to suspend his injunction if the city appeals or to require the plaintiffs to post a bond of at least $2 million if he prevented the ordinances from being enforced.

The initial ruling was made in January. And speaking of appeals:

New Braunfels will appeal a judge’s ruling that struck down its disposable container prohibition and a limit on the size of coolers used by tubers on the Guadalupe and Comal rivers.

Also Monday, council voted 4-3 to increase a river management fee charged by local outfitters to $1.50 from $1.25 per tuber.

The fee increase may be cause for further legal action, but that to me seems more like your standard issue political fight, best settled at the ballot box. For this summer at least, you can pack your brewskis as you did before on the Comal River. Happy tubing, y’all.

Oh, Buc-ee’s

Ugh.

Make your own beaver joke

Convenience-store chain Buc-ee’s Ltd. has garnered lots of attention for its clean restrooms. But this week, it’s the owners’ endorsement of tea party favorite Dan Patrick, who faces incumbent David Dewhurst in the Republican runoff for lieutenant governor, that’s drawn the spotlight.

Congressman Joaquin Castro has bashed Buc-ee’s owners over the endorsement and Monday called for a boycott of the stores.

In a tweet, the San Antonio Democrat said he wouldn’t gas up at Buc-ee’s “since they support a fear-mongering immigrant basher.”

Castro’s brother, Mayor Julián Castro, is expected to debate immigration reform with Patrick in April after the two traded barbs though social media.

But any antipathy toward Buc-ee’s puts its critics at odds with legions of Buc-ee’s fans.

They say they love the stores’ reasonable gas prices, squeaky-clean restrooms, foods from jerky to Beaver Nuggets and shelves of Texas kitsch.

[…]

Lake Jackson-based Buc-ee’s was founded in 1982 by Arch “Beaver” Aplin III and Don Wasek.

The company operates 28 stores, mostly in Southeast and Central Texas, its website says. More are planned.

Buc-ee’s Aplin and Wasek didn’t return phone calls seeking comment about the company’s long-range expansion plans or their political stance.

Campaign finance reports show the two have donated thousands of dollars to Republican candidates over the past two decades, including a combined $11,100 to Gov. Rick Perry and $50,000 to Attorney General Greg Abbott on Jan. 21.

However, reports did not reflect a donation to Patrick, likely because candidates have not filed updated reports since the March 4 primary election.

Buc-ee’s general counsel Jeff Nadalo said in an email that Aplin and Wasek have contributed to Patrick’s campaign, but “as a company, Buc-ee’s doesn’t support political candidates” and the company’s doors “are open 24/7 to everyone.”

Attorney Nadalo reiterated that distinction between the owners (Buc-ee’s is not a publicly traded company) and the company to Bud Kennedy. As Stace notes, that would make them an exception to the “corporations are people, my friend” mantra. Well, they’re free to support the candidates of their choice, and other people are free to decide what that means to them. I think you’re on solid ground if you decide you’ll just use their famous bathrooms but not spend any money there. I must note there is some nuance in all this:

In his talk in Terrell, Aplin said Buc-ee’s normally pays 40 percent to 45 percent above the area’s industry average for similar jobs.

A cashier in Terrell will start at $11 to $11.50 an hour, he said. For the Texas City store, the company is hiring cashiers, food-service workers and maintenance workers at pay that ranges from $11 to $14 an hour, its website states. When Buc-ee’s opened a 67,000-square-foot store in New Braunfels in 2012, it was a plus for that community’s economy, a local official said.

“There is no doubt that it makes a difference, but being able to quantify that is difficult,” said Rusty Brockman, director of economic development for the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce. “But I can quantify it in this way: They brought a great name and a destination to New Braunfels — a business that is clean, progressive and run by a true entrepreneur. And they brought 225 jobs paying more than $12 an hour.”

It would be easier to demonize them if they treated their employees like dirt. And if you’re not feeling conflicted now, consider this:

Buc-ee’s co-owner Arch “Beaver” Aplin gave $12,000 to Democrat Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2004.

[…]

Jeff Nadalo, general counsel for Buc-ee’s, told Lone Star Q on Wednesday he isn’t sure why Aplin, who lives in Lake Jackson, where Buc-ee’s is headquartered, would contribute money to Obama — who has become public enemy No. 1 for Patrick and other Texas Republicans.

“Your guess would be as good as mine,” Nadalo said. “I know the media is portraying them [the Buc-ee’s owners] as staunch Republicans, but I couldn’t even tell you their political affiliation. I think they’re just smart business guys.”

[…]

Likewise, people have a right not to spend money at Buc-ee’s, but Nadalo said when it comes to LGBT issues, the company is supportive. For example, he said some customers recently complained about a transgender employee at the company’s Cypress location.

“I think the LGBT community would be pleased to hear that despite protests from customers, Buc-ee’s has treated her just like we would any other employee,” Nadalo said. “We’ve embraced her into our family. We did not fall prey to that rhetoric. The corporate social philosophy of the company has clearly been driven in a direction which is conducive to the LGBT objective.”

However, Nadalo confirmed the company doesn’t have an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy. He said the company’s current policy mirrors federal law, but added he’d be willing to take up the matter with the human resources department.

“I would certainly be happy to bring it to their attention that we’re perhaps not on paper espousing the objectives that some of our customers would like to see,” Nadalo said.

Asked about domestic partner benefits, Nadalo said the company doesn’t currently offer health insurance to employees, but plans to begin doing so soon.

“If we extend coverage to straight partners, we would extend it to gay partners,” he said.

They’ll have to offer health insurance to employees who work 30 hours a week under the Affordable Care Act, right? They don’t have to offer domestic partner benefits, but I hope they do, and I hope they follow through as Nadalo expects.

Anyway. I’m in the vicinity of a Buc-ee’s maybe twice a year, so any behavioral changes I make are not going to be noticed by anyone. We’ll probably still take potty breaks there, because the kids like the place. Let’s just say my feelings about the franchise are a lot more complicated now. Campos and Texas Leftist have more.

New Braunfels can ban gets canned

Pack your coolers, y’all. The beer can flow again on the Comal River.

Opponents of New Braunfels’ prohibition of large coolers and disposable containers — loosely described as a “can ban” on rivers that can host tens of thousands of tourists on any busy summer weekend — say a judge has confirmed their lawsuit claims that the codes are unconstitutional and unenforceable.

“The effect of this ruling is the court should grant a permanent injunction barring the enforcement of these two ordinances,” Jim Ewbank, the lawyer for water recreation businesses that sued the city, said Monday.

State District Judge Don Burgess for weeks had weighed competing summary judgment motions. On Sunday, he granted the one filed by the plaintiffs, which argued that the city rules were unconstitutionally vague, arbitrary, unreasonable and an overreach of municipal authority.

“We hope that, now that the court has spoken, declaring these ordinances unconstitutional, that we can sit down with the city and try to work out a solution that addresses everybody’s goals and purposes,” Ewbank said.

The city’s attorney, Mick McKamie, said that once Burgess enters a judgment and the City Council is briefed on it, a decision will be made on whether to appeal. City staff declined comment.

The last update I had on this was from June, 2012, when the suit was moved back to Comal County. Voters had ratified the ban in 2011, but that’s out the window now. I get what New Braunfuls was trying to do, and having discussed the issue with a cousin of mine who has lived in New Braunfels for the last fifteen or twenty years, I can see why residents liked the ordinance. It’s possible that a scaled-down and more specific version of this ordinance can pass muster, and maybe won’t be too repellent to the tubing industry. I look forward to seeing what the judgment has to say.

Maybe there’s a problem with building roads where there are no drivers

The high speed toll road keeps having problems relating to not having enough paying customers.

Speed Limit 85

SH 130 has not been the immediate success story its backers had hoped. Last week, lower-than-expected traffic revenue prompted credit ratings firm Moody’s Investors Service to severely downgrade the SH 130 Concession Company’s debt and warned that a default may not be far off. The project’s stumbles are likely to draw increased scrutiny of how Texas plans to fund future infrastructure projects, though local and state officials are working to distinguish SH 130 from other toll projects in the works.

Moody’s downgraded $1.1 billion of debt tied to the project by five notches, from B1 to Caa3, considered junk status. It’s the second time the firm has downgraded the project’s debt, following an earlier downgrade in April.

“Bottom line is we believe they have enough money for their December payment, but they do not have enough money for their June 2014 payment,” Moody spokesman David Jacobson said.

The threat of a default could prompt the SH 130 Concession Company, a partnership between Spain-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure, to refinance its debt next year or inject additional money into the project. TxDOT could view an ongoing cash-flow problem as reason to terminate its toll contract with the company decades ahead of schedule, according to Moody’s.

[…]

The consortium spent $1.3 billion to build the southern portion of SH 130, known as Segments 5 and 6. Combined with the publicly funded northern portion (Segments 1-4), SH 130 connects Georgetown to Seguin, providing a 90-mile bypass around San Antonio and Austin. TxDOT officials have expressed hope that the road would someday serve as a popular alternative to congested Interstate 35 for those driving through Central Texas. Backers, noting the 50-year contract with TxDOT, also predict that future development in Lockhart and other small towns along the toll road’s route would lead to increased traffic in the future.

But the road’s location — about 30 miles east of the most congested portions of Central Texas — was viewed as a challenge from the start. Most other toll projects around the state are similar to the MoPac Express in Austin, which is adding toll lanes to the median of a congested highway. At last week’s ceremony to celebrate the start of construction, Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization chairman Will Conley said the project’s location distinguishes it from SH 130.

“I think this project is fundamentally different,” Conley said. “[SH] 130, of course, is a greenfield project and, I think, more of a longer-term-type project. Whereas, the day this opens, this is going to impact an immediate need on MoPac.”

See here for more on the April downgrade. A big part of the problem here is that there’s very few people where SH 130 is. That’s by design, of course, since it was intended to be a low-traffic option, but it means almost no one hops on it because it’s convenient. You have to plan to take it. It’s difficult enough to get people to change habits when the alternative you propose is easy to use and right in front of them. Just getting to SH 130 means going miles out of your way. It’s not quite as far out a detour as I first thought – here’s a map; I’d forgotten how much I-35 veers to the east, which makes it fairly close to I-10 for the first thirty or so miles out of San Antonio – but even in San Antonio, it’s passing through lightly populated territory. The towns it passes through between San Antonio and Austin are much smaller than their I-35 counterparts, too – Seguin has about 25,000 people and Lockhart has about 11,000, while New Braunfels has 57,000 and San Marcos has 50,000. I guess the bet that the SH 130 investors were making is that the population will grow around the highway, and I’m sure eventually it will, but eastern San Antonio – I’m talking along I-10 outside Loop 410 – doesn’t look that much different to me today than it did 25 years ago when I left SA for Houston. There’s a bit more development out there, but it’s mostly industrial, not commercial or residential. You want that, go west and north. Maybe 25 years from now it’ll be more built up. I don’t think the SH 130 Concession Company can wait that long.

Tubing along in New Braunfels

Time for another can ban update.

River tourists poured into waterways here Saturday, slathered in sunscreen and toting drinks in a variety of vessels, as the summer tubing season finally hit full stride.

“We didn’t have a (strong) spring because it was cold, and it flooded on Memorial Day weekend, so this is the first fair shot we’ve had,” said Matthew Hoyt, owner of Corner Tubes.

Despite a municipal prohibition on disposable containers, patronage was heavy on the Comal River as well as the Guadalupe River where it flows inside the city.

To comply with “the can ban,” Michael “Steezy” Stane had a pesticide sprayer loaded with vodka, cranberry juice and ice.

“I wish I could bring beer cans,” said Stane, 24, of Fort Worth.

The regulation enacted last year is being challenged in a lawsuit, but authorities say visitors are getting acclimated to carrying reusable containers.

“We’ve had very few incidents involving unauthorized containers,” Police Capt. John McDonald said. “We’ve had some really large crowds, but they’ve been very manageable.”

[…]

Lots of time was spent explaining the rules to callers at the Rockin’ R outfitters in Gruene, where tubers were lined up early Saturday.

Rockin R manager Shane Wolf said he was pleased at last week’s uptick in business, which included steady sales of reusable beverage containers for customers heading into the city.

“The rain on Memorial Day Saturday obviously hurt, as well high school graduations all the way into June,” said Wolf. He’s one of those fighting the can ban in court, but declined to discuss the case Saturday.

See here for the previous update. It’s a little early to make any judgments, but so far at least there’s no sign of radical change. According to the story, the lawsuit, which is back in Comal County after a brief sojourn to Travis, could go to trial by the end of the year. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

How’s that can ban going?

Depends who you ask.

The so-called can ban doesn’t prohibit alcohol, but that message hasn’t been sticking.

“People are calling saying, ‘You can’t drink in New Braunfels, so why am I coming?“’ said Shane Wolf, general manager of Rockin’ R River Outfitters, the city’s dominant tube rental company.

Beer and liquor are still allowed on the river if poured into reusable containers, and neon plastic Chug-a-Mugs that hold up to three beers are now ubiquitous. But while the New Braunfels Convention and Visitors Bureau has yet to release figures, director Judy Young concedes that business has been slower since the ban.

[…]

Prevailing instead was a campaign that on its face was about curbing litter and environmental stewardship of the Guadalupe and Comal rivers. But motivating a not insignificant bloc of the city’s 58,000 residents was an appetite to clamp down on what many saw as an alcohol-fueled floating frat party with public nudity, sex, fights and loud music.

Finishing a can of Bud Light in a parking lot before heading into the water where it’s verboten, Dana Austin said that at 24, he doesn’t mind the rowdiness. But he said he supports the law’s environmental aims after years of watching tubers chuck cans into the river and along the banks.

“You’d see a frat boy floating up a little bit ahead of you, and they’d sort of do a free throw into the woods,” Austin said.

[…]

As far as trash and rowdiness go, can ban backers are already claiming victory. City data show that 1,800 pounds of litter was collected in and around the river in May — about 15 percent of the amount that had to be cleaned up in May last year.

Other unruly behavior also seems to be on the downturn. New Braunfels police Capt. Michael Penshorn said that on a recent June weekend, police patrolling the river issued 26 citations and arrested four people on charges ranging from minors in possession to public intoxication. On the same weekend last year, police wrote 42 citations and made 17 arrests.

The city has engaged in a marketing campaign aimed at clearing up the confusion about the new ordinance. I suspect that one way or another the tourists will come back, though I suppose it could take a few years. I’ve said before, I have some cousins in New Braunfels, and I know from speaking to them that they would be supporters of the can ban, for the reasons cited in the story. Folks in my neighborhood, who had seen Lights in the Heights grown out of control over the years before taking steps to dial it back last year, would sympathize. The effect on the businesses is unfortunate, but these things can happen when there are competing interests. It will sort itself out.

Can ban lawsuit moves back to Comal County

From last week:

Travis County District Judge Scott Jenkins removed two state agencies from a lawsuit filed against New Braunfels by a coalition of businesses over the law banning disposable containers on the rivers — popular tubing routes.

Jenkins dismissed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas General Land Office from the suit. This kept the ban in place and transferred the case back to a district court in Comal County. The case was originally moved to Travis County because a state agency was named as a defendant.

“It’s a win for the city because the city wants the case heard in Comal County where it resides and its own citizens decide,” said Frank Onion, assistant New Braunfels city attorney. “It’s important to remember the ‘can ban’ ordinance was supported and reaffirmed by the voters in November.”

The lawsuit had been moved to Travis County in February, and as noted was easily upheld by the voters last November. We’re now officially in the high season for tubing, so one way or another we ought to get some idea of this law’s effects, both on the businesses and the amount of trash in the rivers. Check back in a few months and we’ll see how it went.

Can ban lawsuit moves to Travis County

Some new plaintiffs, too.

A group of river-related businesses has sued the City of New Braunfels, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Mark Vickery , executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, over a ban on disposable containers on rivers within New Braunfels city limits that went into effect this year.

The suit, filed [last] Monday in a Travis County District Court, seeks a permanent injunction against the ordinance, claiming it is unconstitutional and effectively bans alcohol on the river. An attempted alcohol prohibition on the rivers was tossed out in 2000, in part because of a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission letter saying the city didn’t have the authority to ban alcohol.

[…]

Patterson is among the parties in this latest suit because he is the effective trustee of state-owned public waterways, the suit said. It said Vickery is named because the so-called can ban “unlawfully seeks to regulate and control municipal solid waste management activities that are within TCEQ’s jurisdiction.”

The story says that a “nonsuit” was filed by plaintiffs on Wednesday, which I presume means that the earlier litigation is no longer active. I welcome feedback on that from the lawyers out there.

Another Lone Star Rail update

From the Statesman:

Commuter rail between San Antonio and Georgetown, at least as a legislatively sanctioned policy goal, will have its 15th birthday this spring. The tiny government agency created later to make it a reality is almost 9 years old.

The LSTAR rail line, despite millions of dollars spent already on various studies, remains mostly an aspiration. But officials with the Lone Star Rail District quietly have made progress over the past 15 months, reaching a preliminary agreement with Union Pacific that paves the way for the freight operator to cede its existing urban railroad to the passenger rail. They also narrowed to three the possible paths for an alternate freight line east of Austin.

The district has begun a $10 million federally required environmental study on the passenger line and just received a promise of $10 million from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization for a similar study on the potential new Union Pacific freight line. Over the years, the district has received or been promised almost $60 million, mostly in federal and state grants, for various studies.

Where to find the money to build and operate the line, as always, remains the great unknown, with projected initial investment for the passenger and freight lines at $1.5 billion or more and annual operating costs in the tens of millions.

But district staff members, turning to a financing model for Central Texas toll roads over the past decade, now say they will look to the private sector to design, build, finance, operate and maintain the 115-mile, 16-station line from Georgetown, through downtown Austin, to San Antonio’s south side.

[…]

[Joe Black, Lone Star rail director and operations manager] and Alison Schulze, a district senior planner, gave some details of how the line might operate, based on studies and other research.

Initial fares likely would be about 18 cents a mile, Black said, or about $20 for a trip the length of the line. But he said that, just as with most transit agencies, there would be discounted fares for month passes.

A trip between downtown Austin to downtown San Antonio likely would take about 90 minutes — not high speed but considerably faster than Amtrak. Ridership in the beginning, the district estimates, would be 12,000 to 20,000 boardings a day, most of those would be much shorter jaunts to and from downtown Austin and San Antonio to the cities’ suburbs.

See here, here, and here for some background. The travel time makes it comparable to the Austin-Houston rail line, with the main difference from my perspective being that the Austin to San Antonio corridor makes more sense from a commuter perspective. Look at the proposed map – having places like New Braunfels and San Marcos in between, not to mention Georgetown and Pflugerville to the north, just about guarantees ridership through the day, as long as there’s some way to get where you’re going at the endpoints. By contrast, I don’t see that much demand to get to and from Hempstead or Brenham or Giddings for the Austin/Houston line. The price is attractive as well; there was no mention of that in the Austin/Houston study, but if it’s the same rate then the total would be about the same, since the line that doesn’t detour through College Station has 109 miles of track. Best guesstimate at this point for how long it will take to get up and running is five to seven years. Check back in 2017 or so and see where things stand then.

One can ban backer will face recall

The can ban battle in New Braunfels is not over yet.

New Braunfels city councilman Bryan Miranda, who supported a hotly debated container ban on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers, will face a recall election in May after voters signed a petition seeking to oust him from office.

[…]

Miranda did not return phone messages Wednesday. He told the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper, which first reported the news about the successful recall petition, that it was an attempt to circumvent the will of the people.

Supporters in New Braunfels approved the container ban in November with 58 percent of the vote.

“The efforts of a few individuals to divide our town and disrupt the democratic process is discouraging to say the least,” Miranda told the newspaper.

In the paperwork they turned in Tuesday, petition organizers accused Miranda of “incompetence and misconduct.” They needed 150 signatures and turned in 279. Of that total, city officials verified 215 signatures, said Danny Batts, deputy city secretary.

Batts said the recall election would be held May 12.

When the recall supporters failed to get enough signatures to take a crack out ousting NB Mayor Gail Pospisil, I thought that was the end of it for now, but clearly not. I have no idea why the deadlines were different for each of these; you have to be a subscriber to the Herald-Zeitung to see its contents online, so that’s no help. Anyway, one more election result to watch for in May.

No recall for New Braunfels Mayor

Looks like the can ban battle is over for now.

A petition for an election to recall New Braunfels Mayor Gale Pospisil failed when organizers submitted an insufficient number of valid signatures.

City Secretary Patrick Aten said that of the 1,117 signatures submitted Friday, city staff could only verify 668, 67 signatures shy of the the 735 needed.

Many signatures were thrown out because required information, such as a voter ID number or the date, was missing, Aten said. About 35 signatures belong to people who don’t live in New Braunfels, he said.

The petition was spurred by Pospisil’s support for an ordinance banning disposable containers on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers within city limits.

That’s a pretty sloppy effort if forty percent of the signatures lacked enough basic information to verify their legitimacy. Not having the date? Either they didn’t train their volunteers well or they didn’t get their money’s worth from whoever they paid to collect the sigs. There’s still a lawsuit pending, but otherwise the opponents of the can ban ordinance will have to wait till the next regular election to vent whatever spleen they have left over this.

Election results elsewhere

Results of interest from elsewhere in Texas and the country…

– Three of the ten Constitutional amendments were defeated, with Prop 4 losing by nearly 20 points. It drew strong opposition from anti-toll road activists, and I daresay that was the reason for the lopsided loss. The other two, Props 7 and 8, were pretty innocuous, and I have no real idea for why they went down.

– There was one special legislative election, to replace Fred Brown in HD14. Republicans Bob Yancey and John Raney will advance to the runoff for that seat.

– In New Braunfels, the can ban was upheld, and it wasn’t close.

The container ban ordinance, which goes into effect Jan. 1, was approved by 58 percent of the vote.

Ban supporters hailed the win as vindication of their claim that residents want the river protected from rowdy tourists and their litter.

“This was a landslide that can be disputed by no one,” said Kathleen Krueger, spokeswoman for Support The Ban. “New Braunfels has spoken loud and clear that we want to protect our rivers for the next generation.”

The lead spokesman for the opposition said the real issue was government transparency and vowed to continue the fight.

“I’m not disappointed,” said Mark McGonigal. “I have an opinion and so do other people. I knew one side would prevail. But the legality of this has yet to be determined.”

A lawsuit challenging the ordinance as illegal under state law, filed by a group of local business owners, is pending in state district court.

Nearly 9000 votes were cast in that referendum.

– Elsewhere in the country, there were a number of good results for progressives. Voters in Maine restored same day registration, while voters in Ohio repealed a law that would have curtailed collective bargaining rights. Each was a defeat for the state’s elected-in-the-2010-landslide Republican Governor. Mississippi voters rejected a radical “personhood amendment” that could have had far-reaching negative effects on reproductive choice. And finally, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the author of the anti-immigrant SB1070 and a notorious racist, was recalled by voters there. Small steps, but in the right direction.

It’s about the referenda

This Statesman story about the can ban battle in New Braunfels illustrates something I was getting at in my post about Houston turnout rates in the 90s.

Voters have flocked to the polls in early voting, with more than 4,800, or about 14 percent of registered voters, casting a ballot by Thursday. City Secretary Patrick Aten said that’s more than double the total votes cast in the May election, which included three City Council races.

If Houston has the same number of registered voters as it did in 2009, 14% turnout would be 130,910 ballots cast, or almost exactly what I’ve projected for this year’s total. New Braunfels did that in early voting alone – you have to figure they’ll easily top 25%, and may well exceed 30% turnout, not too shabby for a year where the only other thing on the ballot is a bunch of mostly boring Constitutional amendments. My point is that the historical record strongly suggests that an issue draws people to the polls more than any politician. I’ll say again, if the red light camera referendum were happening this year instead of last year, we’d likely be seeing similar turnout numbers. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I think we’d be better served trying to understand it than by continually bemoaning the low participation rates in elections that lack high profile referenda. Last I checked, most of the candidates were talking about important issues facing the city. Whose fault is it that people aren’t responding?

The can ban battle is getting ridiculous

Meanwhile, back in New Braunfels

The two sides in the Nov. 8 container ban election are talking trash.

Or, to be more precise, they are quibbling about amounts of trash.

Along the way, the normally tranquil political landscape in the city has seen the proliferation of political action committees, paperwork mistakes, stealth recall petitions, lawsuits, stolen campaign signs, Internet shenanigans, in-fighting, a criminal investigation, and a grassroots movement that’s taking aim at City Hall and its occupants.

See here, here, here, and here for some background. Who says politics in the big cities is more dysfunctional than in the small towns? I have a feeling that this issue will remain unresolved long after the vote is held.

Can Ban lawsuit filed

Opponents of the New Braunfels disposable container ban are already seeking to overturn the ordinance via referendum, and now some of them have also filed a lawsuit against it as well.

Tourist businesses filed a lawsuit against the city Wednesday, asking a state district judge to overturn a controversial ban on disposable containers on the Comal and Guadalupe rivers.

“These businesses love the river as much as anyone else,” said Jim Ewbank, their attorney. “But there are other, better ways to control litter.”

He described the law as “an ax murder” approach to the litter issue and said the city was “criminalizing sandwiches in baggies.”

[…]

Shane Wolf, who runs Rockin’ R River Rides, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said that if the ban scares off 5 percent of the town’s tubers, local businesses could lose $20 million next year.

Meanwhile, an overlooked appellate decision last year has cleared the way for yet another lawsuit. This one, also filed by outfitters, challenges a 2007 ordinance banning large ice chests on the rivers.

That upper court ruling gave the river outfitters legal standing to pursue the lawsuit and sent it back to district court.

Ewbank said it would make sense to consolidate the two lawsuits.

Here’s more on that 2007 lawsuit, and here’s the Third Court of Appeals ruling on that 2007 lawsuit. It’s pretty legalistic, and I mostly skimmed it, but this paragraph captures the main points of interest:

In sum, the district court properly dismissed for lack of standing the Outfitter Plaintiffs’ claims challenging the Beer Bong Ordinance, the Five-Ounce Container Ordinance, the Parks Ordinance, and the portions of the Cooler & Container Ordinance other than the cooler-size limitation. However, we conclude that the Outfitter Plaintiffs did demonstrate their standing to prosecute their claims challenging the cooler-size limitation. Furthermore, it follows from this holding that the Outfitter Plaintiffs likewise have standing to prosecute their claims for a declaration that the Comal and Guadalupe are navigable streams whose waters and riverbeds are owned by the State and held in trust for the people of the State. The City dismisses this claim as a “red herring,” in the view that the question of the rivers’ navigability is a mere abstract question of law unrelated to the parties’ dispute concerning the ordinances. We disagree.

So there you have it. On a side note, the treasurer of the Can the Ban PAC has resigned over “differences of opinions with the PAC’s leadership, revolving mostly around recent discussions of a recall petition effort against sitting City Council members that are in favor of the ban”. New Braunfels has recalled a Council member in the past over river-related ordinances, so the news that there may be an effort to do so here is no surprise.

The can banners fight back

I’ve blogged before about New Braunfels’s new ordinance that bans disposable containers on the Comal River. Since then, those who oppose the ban have gotten organized and have succeeded in putting a referendum to repeal the ordinance on the November ballot. There are plenty of people who support the ban, however, and now they have gotten organized as well.

Support The Ban, a political action committee backed by civic leaders, officer holders and the local clergy, will go head-to-head in a public relations war with Can The Ban, a PAC formed by those opposed to the controversial ordinance. That group includes businesses involved in the city’s $418 million tourism industry.

[…]

The city, Support the Ban spokeswoman Kathleen Krueger said, picked up 700,000 gallons of trash this summer, and New Braunfels says another summer like this will put it $600,000 over budget.

Leaders of 35 religious congregations publicly support the ban.

“We’re meant to be stewards of this treasure,” said Scott Tjernagel, pastor of River City Vineyard Church.

Unlike the ban opponents, I couldn’t find a Facebook page for Support the Ban. Render whatever judgment you want about that after the election. I have a feeling that turnout won’t be a problem in New Braunfels this November.

Can Ban opponents get their vote

Impressive.

[New Braunfels] City Council, confronted Wednesday by a petition challenging a controversial new law, called for a Nov. 8 election to let voters decide whether disposable containers will be banned from local rivers.

The “Can the Ban” coalition gathered more than 4,300 signatures during a whirlwind, weeklong campaign after the City Council passed the law, which takes effect in 2012.

Election laws required that the petition contain the signatures of 1,666 registered New Braunfels voters, or 5 percent of the city’s total.

City Secretary Patrick Aten said he stopped counting after his staff verified 1,690 signatures.

See here, here, and here for some background. The NB City Council could have voted to rescind the law rather than put it up to a vote, but a motion to do that was not seconded. I think they’re just delaying the inevitable. Consider this:

There’s plenty of local support to repeal the ban [Shane Wolf, a river outfitter and one of the leaders of the anti-ordinance group] said.

[…]

“We had more signatures than the number of (people who) voted for the mayor or anyone else up there,” Wolf said.

He’s right. Only 1,727 voted for Mayor Gale Pospisil, the only at-large candidate on the City Council.

Whatever you think about the issue, you have to respect that. Their Facebook page has even more fans than that, though there’s no way to know how many of them are actually in New Braunfels. Be that as it may, I’d bet on the petitioners winning in November.

Petition drive to “can the ban”

The backlash against New Braunfels’ ban on disposable containers on the rivers has begun.

The New Braunfels “Can the Ban” petition drive, up and running days after the City Council banned disposable containers on the city’s rivers, slowed to a crawl Tuesday when it ran into state election laws and confusing government databases.

The citywide coalition, which has been collecting signatures for five days in an 11th hour effort to force a November referendum on the ban, could turn in only 600 names.

Backers reached out to angry residents in offices, at their homes, in bars, and at drive-by locations in shopping center parking lots. They had gathered more than 2,000 names by 5 p.m. Tuesday, the deadline for the first petitions.

But less than a third of those names could be verified as registered New Braunfels voters, said Mark McGonigal, owner of NB Media, the print shop serving as the movement’s hub.

[…]

State law gave the ban’s opponents a small window in which to operate. They’ll need the signatures of 5 percent of the town’s voters to make the ballot. The group says it has an ultimate goal of 2,500 names, which would provide a cushion in case some names are thrown out.

The law also allows organizers to accumulate more names in the next few weeks. McGonigal says they’ll turn in another 600 names early Wednesday.

Apparently, a lot of the people who have been eager to sign the petition are visitors, which is both not surprising and not helpful to the effort. This article from Tuesday has some more information about the organization.

Organized primarily via a Facebook page that drew support from 2,500 users in less than 36 hours, the group was in the middle of counting names late Monday.

Using slogans such as Can the Ban, Yes We Cans and Let Us Decide, the group is a wide-ranging coalition of people who own and work for merchants and tourist-based businesses, as well as others who say the council overstepped bounds with last week’s vote.

Organizers consulted an attorney and election officials and learned, late last week, that they need to turn some petitions in by late today to get on the November ballot.

They held petition drives at local stores and bars over the weekend. The law requires that the petition contain names of 5 percent of the town’s registered voters.

Here’s the Facebook page, and here’s the website of the petition movement. I don’t have a strong opinion about this either way, I’m just interested in seeing how this plays out. Given that there has been a successful recall effort against a New Braunfels City Council member who had previously spearheaded new river regulations, I would not bet against these guys.

New Braunfels bans disposable containers on the river

Despite some talk that they might wait awhile to take action, the New Braunfels City Council has voted to ban disposable food and beverage containers – think cans and bottles – on waterways within its city limits.

The law covers the Comal River and a small section of the Guadalupe River that passes through the city. It does not affect the lion’s share of the Guadalupe below Canyon Dam, which is outside the city limits.

The ban covers aluminum cans and plastic bottles. It also includes paper towels and disposable utensils.

[…]

Mayor Gale Pospisil directed the city’s staff to draft the ordinance two weeks ago after a long, hot summer. The drought has rendered stretches of the Guadalupe too dry for tubers to float. City officials say that as a result, crowds, citations, arrests and litter are at all-time highs on the Comal, a 2½-mile-long spring-fed river that winds through the center of town.

There was some loud opposition at the Council meeting, and some predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth elsewhere. I understand how people may be upset at this, but I liken this situation to Lights in the Heights in my own neighborhood. It’s gotten sufficiently big and rowdy that many of the people who actually live there and are directly affected by it don’t want to deal with it any more. I totally understand where they’re coming from on this.

Which is not to say that the action Council has taken will withstand challenge.

Sitting in the audience was James B. Ewbank II, an Austin attorney representing Tourist Associated Businesses of Comal County, an organization whose members sell disposable containers.

“If you pass this ordinance,” he said, “there will be a lawsuit.”

The city has passed several ordinances in recent years in efforts to modify rowdy behavior on the Comal, including a restriction on the size of ice chests and the imposition of a fee on tube rentals. Both of those laws are being challenged on appeal.

In addition, a 2000 attempt to ban alcohol on the river was disallowed by state law. That concept of superseding state law will be the basis of the new lawsuit, Ewbank said. A 1993 state law prohibits cities from banning disposable containers. It was intended, he said, to keep recycling and sanitary disposable laws consistent from town to town.

“You are about to pass an ordinance that is directly prohibited by the Texas Health and Safety Code,” he told the council.

“We would ask that you reconsider,” he said, “based on the legal consequences.”

Opponent Jay Patrick suggested that residents be allowed to vote on the ban in November.

“A vote of the people would legitimize this issue once and for all,” he said.

I’m not qualified to evaluate the threat of a lawsuit, but history suggests there could be something to it. I do know that previous Council actions against unruly tubers resulted in a successful recall effort against one of the main players. I will not be surprised if a similar effort is launched now. One way or another, this is far from over.

New Braunfels may delay new river regulations

Looks like the preliminary approval they gave to banning bottles and cans from the Comal River may be put off for awhile before implementation.

Grassroots opposition to a proposed prohibition on disposable containers on the Comal River has persuaded the law’s sponsor to consider delaying it while other methods of crowd and litter control can be considered.

A petition against the law has been circulating at river outfitters and convenience stores. And two Facebook pages that take the city to task have drawn thousands of fans.

Mayor Gale Pospisil, who pitched the ordinance, said Tuesday she wants to step back and discuss the issue.

When the council meets Monday, she’ll propose an amendment to delay implementation until January.

“We still want a vote and we still want the ban,” Pospisil said. “But I’ve heard from a lot of people in the tourism industry who say that to try to enforce it, without advance notice, would be difficult.”

She’ll also suggest creation of an ad hoc committee, consisting of tourism officials, river outfitters, city officials and other interested parties, to draft crowd management plans before next summer.

When in doubt, form a committee and study the issue. Opponents of the ban were happy with the delay, so perhaps something they can all live with will be found. In the meantime, you don’t have to look for alternate beverage transportation just yet.

UPDATE: The Statesman has a story about this today as well.

New Braunfels bans bottles and cans

On the river, that is.

City Council gave preliminary approval on Monday to a controversial rule prohibiting disposable containers — bottles and cans — from the ecologically sensitive Comal River.

The first reading of the proposal, amending an existing ordinance, passed by a 5-2 vote. Another ordinance, which would prohibit tubers from taking an extra inner tube on floats down the river, failed 4-3.

Residents who spoke against both proposals said the council was going too far.

“On a day when the Dow went down 630 points, you’re taking a shot at the economy of this community,” say Jay Patrick, who said the rules would create health problems because on days of 100-plus degrees, tubers wouldn’t be able to take enough water with them to stay hydrated for three hours. “Let’s call it what it is. It’s a backdoor alcohol ban.”

He said the city should be renamed “New Ban-fels”

[…]

The arguments came four years after the city’s last major attempt to control river behavior. State law prohibits glass and Styrofoam from rivers but doesn’t allow the city to ban alcohol. The city can control container size, however, and has limited the size of ice chests and banned large containers for beer and small containers for Jell-O shots.

It’s sort of a tradition of mine to follow all of this stuff in New Braunfels. What can I say, I find it all fascinating, and a great example of how some fun thing that started out as small and local can grow to the point where the folks who were there at the beginning don’t recognize it any more. (See all of the fuss related to Lights in the Heights for a much closer to home example.) Here’s what I’ve blogged about the bans on beer bongs and Jell-O shots; here’s what I’ve blogged on cooler size restrictions, which led to an ultimately successful recall effort against one of the architects of these ordinances, and a lawsuit in which I presume the city prevailed. Looking back at these old posts, I was pretty disdainful of what the NB City Council was doing at first, but I must say I have a lot more sympathy for them now. You can chalk that up to my advancing state of geezerhood if you want; I will freely admit that the behavior they’re trying to regulate has considerably less appeal for me now. I don’t know how you can control the growth of something that so many people want to be a part of in a way that keeps it fun for everyone. I wish them luck as they try.

San Antonio and New Braunfels

The San Antonio metro area has grown again.

New Braunfels, the second-largest city in South Central Texas, now is part of the newly expanded and renamed San Antonio-New Braunfels Metropolitan Statistical Area, which has grown from four to eight counties.

Defined by the federal government as a geographic region that shares social and economic ties, an MSA is designated by the Office of Management and Budget and used by the Census Bureau to collect data.

The changes have sparked applause in Comal County, where German settlers founded New Braunfels in 1845 and where many San Antonio commuters live.

Whether it’s entirely good for New Braunfels, however, “depends on who you ask,” said Mayor Bruce Boyer. “There’s certainly some pride in it, but we want to preserve our culture and heritage.”

More on the newly-named MSA is here. The change is mostly about regional planning, which is more of an issue now as development on each end of I-35 between the two cities creeps closer and closer together. I don’t know if they need to be thinking about regional transit – I have no idea how many people live in NB and commute to SA, and the story says that this is about more than that anyway – but if that Lone Star Rail line ever gets built, it would be nice for the two cities to coordinate their efforts.

No matter what strategies are developed, [Bexar County Judge Nelson] Wolff predicted that the two biggest cities in the revised MSA will grow closer.

“Twenty-five, maybe 50 years from now we won’t be able to tell where our city ends and where theirs begins,” he said.

Yes, just like Katy and Sugar Land and eventually the Woodlands with Houston. Which may be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it. But pretending it’s not going to happen won’t change anything.

Get those tubers out of your truck!

It’ll be summer before you know it, and if you’re contemplating a trip to New Braunfels for a ride on the river, be aware of some new changes to the law there regarding tuber transport.

Tubers who enjoy an exhilarating ride in the back of an outfitter’s pickup to reach the Guadalupe or Comal River may be disappointed this year. The open-air rides won’t be allowed.

The ban on using truck beds to shuttle tubers is just one of several new rules the New Braunfels City Council recently approved to improve regulation of river outfitters and keep tubers safe.

[…]

On March 8, council members approved 18 rules regarding water-recreation shuttle services, including the ban on their use of pickups as shuttles. Though in Texas it is legal for people 18 and older to ride in the back of a pickup, New Braunfels Mayor Bruce Boyer said the change addresses a potential safety issue for some revelers.

“People are tired. People may have, perhaps, lost their inhibitions to some extent,” Boyer said of tubers exiting the river. “We haven’t had a lot of incidents with regard to this, but it really only takes one severe incident … for it to become a huge problem.”

By 2011, the city also will require that all shuttles be designed by the manufacturer to transport passengers. The change will rule out makeshift shuttles crafted from other types of vehicles.

Word to the wise – watch out for non-standard tuber shuttles. Not that anyone should need to be told that, but there you have it.

One more thing:

Vacationers who want to rent a home in residential New Braunfels may face more limited options. The hot-button issue of short-term rentals has bobbed up during recent council meetings.

The dispute pits those who want to tap into tourist dollars by renting out their homes against those who have been appalled by what they see as disruptive carousing by some visitors. Some residents said they have seen visitors litter, strip off clothing, or urinate in bushes.

We generally like to stay at the Schlitterbahn when we visit New Braunfels. Those of you who have done one of these short-term rentals, take note. The issue is scheduled to be discussed by New Braunfels’ city council in early April.

New Schlitterbahn planned

To be built in Cedar Park, which is northwest of Austin.

The park would be built on about 95 acres on RM 1431, about halfway between U.S. 183 and Interstate 35, according to a Cedar Park Economic Development Corp. meeting agenda. The project is expected to cost about $360 million to fully develop, city documents said.

The economic impact of the project is expected to be $2.5 billion over 30 years and could create more than 1,000 jobs , according to an independent study cited in city documents.

“It is a resort destination that we’re announcing – not just a water park,” Schlitterbahn spokesman Jeffrey Siebert said.

The park would be the company’s fifth and its second largest in acreage. Other parks are on South Padre Island and Galveston Island and in Kansas City, Kan.

Siebert said the new water park might include a hotel or other features, but he did not provide details Wednesday.

The park is scheduled to be completed by 2012. This location isn’t that far from the original one in New Braunfels, so I have to wonder if it might cannibalize that site’s business a bit. On the other hand, I know from experience that the New Braunfels park can get really freaking crowded, so maybe a little of that isn’t so bad. In any event, having another Schlitterbahn option is a Good Thing as far as I’m concerned.

Lone Star Rail

We’ve talked a number of times in this space about the possibility of building a commuter rail line between Houston and Galveston, possibly connecting to another line that would run out Highway 290 to College Station. That effort is just now starting to gain some momentum, and could see construction begin relatively soon. Another place where that kind of rail would make a lot of sense is between Austin and San Antonio. They have had a government entity in place to make that happen since 1997, which perhaps should serve as a dash of cold water to anyone who might feel overly optimistic about a Houston-Galveston line happening. But as Ben Wear reports, there may be some progress happening there as well.

As of last month, the San Marcos-based government agency hoping someday soon to run passenger trains between Williamson County and San Antonio is now called the Lone Star Rail District. Agency officials have called a news conference for this morning to advertise that fact, and that the train line will be called the LSTAR.

Or perhaps would be called. Because a dozen years after the Legislature authorized it, the train service is still mostly a line on a map. As agency board chairman Sid Covington says, the main obstacles to creating a commuter line between Austin and San Antonio are now and always have been Union Pacific freights and money.

It’s a matter of too much of the first and not enough of the latter.

[…]

All is not smoke, however. The district, after existing on $7.7 million in congressional earmarks for several years, now has a commitment for $40 million over the next four years from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and its San Antonio counterpart. That money will be used for design and a study required for federal environmental clearance of the project. That study should begin early next year.

More from the Express News:

“Passenger rail is coming to San Antonio, Austin and the I-35 corridor,” said Tullos Wells, vice chairman of the district’s board of directors. “We’re going to make it happen.”

[…]

District officials estimate it would cost about $800 million to build a fully functional passenger system.

But the regional rail service can only be realized if Union Pacific relocates its freight trains to a proposed bypass line that would remove through-freight trains from urban centers. Officials estimate the cost of a bypass from the South Side of San Antonio to Taylor would be about $1.7 billion.

“The rail relocation is the key to it. If you don’t move the freight out, forget really having a good first-class passenger service,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Wells said he hopes the LSTAR could begin offering “preliminary service” as early as 2012 or 2013.

“Yes, it’s ambitious,” he said. “But it’s doable.”

It’s something, at least. This kind of line makes all kinds of sense – I-35 between Austin and San Antonio is woefully crowded, having New Braunfels and San Marcos in between would be a big boost to ridership, the corridor is growing rapidly – so perhaps this is a sign that something will finally happen. You can see a map with potential station locations at that link. The On the Move blog and the Austin Post have more.

How dry we are

Rain, rain, please don’t go away. Texas is too dry to play.

Pedernales Falls, for the most part, doesn’t.

Lake Travis is becoming a lake in name only, regressing in some areas almost to the old Colorado River channel and in others leaving hundreds of yards of dry, cracked lake bed strewn with discarded fishing rods, beer cans and golf balls, and boathouses and docks to nowhere.

“We should leave a bottle down here saying, ‘We walked here in ’09,” Austin appliance repairman Bill Cosby said, as he picked his way through what used to be the lake’s Hurst Creek section.

In New Braunfels, visitors preparing to tube down some stretches of the Comal or Guadalupe rivers — especially those of a certain size and girth — are advised to take particular caution.

“If you’re not careful, there are several places where your butt could hit the bottom,” said J.R. Perez of New Braunfels.

Across Austin and Central Texas, the great drought of 2009 and its accompanying record high temperatures are taking their toll on recreational activities. Only one public boat ramp remains open on Lake Travis, and fewer than a dozen trailers were parked Saturday morning near the Mansfield Dam.

The good news, as the story indicates, is that for the most part businesses that depend on the tourist trade have been able to ride this out and are doing well. That wasn’t the case the last time a big weather event affected lakes and rivers in Central Texas. That time, the problem was too much rain, and I’m sure some day that will be the problem again. In the meantime, the bad news is that the drought this year is affecting non-touristy places as well.

Jim Stinson, general manager of The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency which oversees 11 municipal utility districts in the community, has proposed permanently implementing a two-day weekly watering schedule in The Woodlands. He also is promoting the idea as a director of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, a county-wide group charged with managing the county’s underground water supply.

“We know the scientists have told us that we have tapped out our water supply,” Stinson said. “The environmentalists have told us we can’t build any more reservoirs. We’ve got to learn to live responsibly with the water we’ve got.”

Montgomery County relies solely on three underground aquifers for its water supply and its water providers face a deadline of 2015 to reduce the use of that water by 30 percent. The aquifer can replenish about 64,000 acre feet annually through rainfall and runoff, and the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District has issued permits to pump 78,000 acre feet annually.

A three-year study is currently under way by the U.S. Geological Survey to determine what the impact has been on the aquifers and whether water levels are declining.

Needless to say, that’s not sustainable, and it’s not going to be fixed by some El Nino-affected weather that’s expected later this year. Just something to keep in mind, because problems like that are going to become more common as our population increases.

By the way, all this drought has contributed to this being one of the hottest years on record for Texas. I’m sure that comes as no surprise.