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The Harvey effect on fire ants

Possibly another reason to curse that storm.

Rice University ecologists are checking to see if Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented floods gave a competitive boost to fire ants and crazy ants, two of southeast Texas’ least favorite uninvited guests.

Extreme weather events like Harvey are expected to become more likely as Earth’s climate changes due to greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists don’t understand how extreme weather will impact invasive pests, pollinators and other species that affect human well-being.

With support from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, Rice ecologists Tom Miller, Sarah Bengston and Scott Solomon, along with their students, are evaluating whether Harvey increased opportunities for invasion by exotic ants.

“Hurricane Harvey was, among other things, a grand ecological experiment,” said Miller, the principal investigator on the grant and the Godwin Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Rice’s Department of BioSciences. “It offers a unique opportunity to explore whether a single extreme-weather event can re-shuffle an entire community of organisms.”

[…]

“We’re conducting monthly pitfall sampling at 19 established sites in the Big Thicket, a national preserve near Beaumont,” said [Sarah] Bengston, an ant expert, co-principal investigator on grant and Huxley Research Instructor of BioSciences. “Rice’s team has been working at these same sites for three years, and we know fire ants and tawny crazy ants, which are each invasive species, had begun to penetrate the intact native ecosystems in the park before the hurricane. We now want to know whether Harvey accelerated this invasion process.”

The RAPID funding will allow the team to document changes in ant communities and test whether changes in response to the hurricane are transient or represent new stable states.

I found the press release after seeing this Chron story based on it. All I can say is I hope the finding is negative.

No Astrodome laser light show for the Super Bowl

Alas.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Organizers have nixed a proposal to use high-tech lasers to project dazzling images of Houston’s culture and history onto and through the roof of the Astrodome during Super Bowl LI.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the NFL turned down the proposal — the brainchild of two recent Rice University graduates — over security concerns of having people enter and exit the dome around game time.

“We made all the intros and this, that and the other, but it wasn’t a great surprise,” Emmett said. “The NFL once they locked down that whole campus out there, they just don’t want people coming in and out.”

[…]

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league had looked into the light show idea “but are now considering lighting the outside of the building for the entire week and on Super Bowl Sunday.”

“We have not finalized plans, but this remains under consideration,” McCarthy said.

Emmett said officials were briefly considering holding a reception in the dome during Super Bowl festivities, but that’s not happening now, either. He said the Dome will mostly be used for storage and staging purposes during the sporting event.

A Super Bowl host committee spokeswoman said “there will be no official events at the Astrodome” during Super Bowl weekend, and said she had no information about how the Astrodome might be used during Super Bowl weekend or why the light show was nixed.

See here for the background. Too bad, this sounded like a fun idea to me, but you know how the NFL is. Maybe some of us can get together before the game, hold up lighters, and sing “Another Brick In The Wall”. It’s the thought that counts.

Kinder Institute analyzes Mayor Turner’s pension reform plan

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Rice University’s Kinder Institute has done the preliminary math on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s historic pension reform plan and determined the numbers appear to add up if all of the components are implemented as envisioned. The institute is one of several agencies to analyze the mayor’s proposal since it was unveiled last week.

“I welcome scrutiny of this plan by experts because it helps address the unfounded arguments being made by others who have no financial background,” said Mayor Turner. “There is no doubt this plan relies on a complex package of reforms. Without implementation of each piece, we will not achieve the anticipated results. Thankfully, the pension systems are sharing more data than ever before and are committed to continue working on information sharing so we can manage costs going forward.”

According to Kinder Institute Director Bill Fulton, the mandatory cost containment provision in the mayor’s plan, if executed properly and consistently over time, could provide a way for both sides to share in the upside and sacrifice when times are tough. Fulton said the plan outline seemed to show “shared sacrifice” on the part of both the city and its workers.

[…]

The Kinder Institute did the initial analysis in a blog post the day of Mayor Turner’s announcement based only on information that is publicly available. Mayor Turner did not request the analysis. A more detailed analysis is expected later.

The Kinder Institute’s analysis can be found here: Kinder Institute Pension Analysis.

Here’s that URL again, and more on the pension deal itself can be found here and here. The KI piece basically says that if everything works out as planned and envisioned, then the long-term funding gap can be erased. If you’re thinking that’s a pretty big “if”, you’re right, but the bottom line remains that the plan is plausible. Some legislation will need to be passed next year – I have no idea what Plan B is if that fails to happen – and before we get to the point of writing a bill and finding a sponsor, we need buy-in from the firefighters. That’s a non-trivial amount of work to be done, but at least there is a roadmap that may be used by all the vehicles in the procession.

Rice prof wins MacArthur grant

Awesome!

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Dr. Rebecca Richards-Kortum

Babies were dying in the Malawi hospital and there was little Rebecca Richards-Kortum could do about it.

For Richards-Kortum, a bioengineering professor at Rice University, it was a heartbreaking realization, one that haunted her as she toured the modest health care facility more than a decade ago.

But her despair was quickly replaced by hope, when she noticed a room full of broken medical equipment – donated machines rendered useless by the African country’s unreliable power supply.

“I’m an engineer,” Richards-Kortum recalled saying to herself as she surveyed the equipment. “I can do something about this. I can fix this.”

Engineers are good at fixing problems, and Richards-Kortum is an exceptional engineer, so good the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday named her a 2016 MacArthur Fellow. More commonly known as a genius grant, the prestigious MacArthur fellowship comes with $625,000 paid over five years.

The MacArthur Foundation considers the no-strings-attached grants as investments in the future of recipients, usually a hodgepodge from among the nation’s best artists, historians, scientists and activists.

For Richards-Kortum, it’s a nod to the global work she’s done to deliver low-cost medical technology to Third World countries. That includes a piece of machinery she helped develop that assists babies who struggle to breathe and has significantly decreased mortality rates in countries using it.

That piece of machinery was a CPAP machine, which I blogged about here and which contributed to a 46% reduction in the infant mortality rate in one neonatal unit. She and fellow Rice engineer Maria Oden have since developed other low-cost life-saving devices, which ultimately led to this award. Congratulations, Dr. Richards-Kortum, and may the inspiration continue to flow.

The MOB and Baylor

So you’ve probably heard about this by now.

If it’s possible for a band to steal headlines away from a football game, Rice’s Marching Owl Band found a way.

While Rice made strides but ultimately fell against No. 21 Baylor 38-10 on Friday at Rice Stadium, it was what happened at halftime that was the focus.

The MOB dedicated its halftime routine to satirizing Baylor’s sexual assault scandal. It sparked controversy throughout social media and the college football world.

Some believe the band was rightfully shining light on Baylor’s handling of the assaults. Some believe the band went too far in satirizing a serious matter.

It appears Rice officials agree with the latter. The university released a statement Saturday apologizing for the MOB’s performance.

The statement reads:

“The Marching Owl Band, or MOB, has a tradition of satirizing the Rice Owls’ football opponents. In this case, the band’s calling attention to the situation at Baylor was subject to many different interpretations. Although the band’s halftime shows are entirely the members’ projects with no prior review by the university administration, we regret any offense, particularly if Baylor fans may have felt unwelcome in our stadium. While we know that the MOB did not intend in any way to make light of the serious issue of sexual assault, we are concerned that some people may have interpreted the halftime performance in that vein. Sexual assault is a matter of serious concern on campuses across the nation, and all of us have an obligation to address the matter with all the tools at our disposal. The MOB sought to highlight the events at Baylor by satirizing the actions or inactions of the Baylor administration, but it is apparent from the comments of many spectators and Baylor fans that the MOB’s effort may have went too far.”

In the performance, the band started with Muppet Fozzie Bear on the video board and the narrator saying “some jokes can be unbearable”, a miniscule jab at Baylor’s mascot.

The announcer then said “There are nine judges on the Supreme Court or is it?” The band proceeded to align in a formation to resemble the Roman numeral nine representing Title IX – poking fun at the multiple Title IX lawsuits Baylor is facing over the school’s handling of sexual assaults.
It took another turn when the band aligned in a star formation meant to represent former Baylor president Ken Starr and his resignation, all the while playing the song “Hit The Road, Jack.”

You can see the full script for the show here; the embedded image contains the bit that this story elides over. As you may know, I play with the MOB and I was there on the field for this show on Friday night. All I’m going to say is that Rice University may feel the need to apologize for something, but I don’t. They are not speaking for me on this. Nor, apparently, are they speaking for the editor of the Rice Thresher, who is for more eloquent than I. The Trib and Deadspin have more.

UPDATE: More from the Press and Underdog Dynasty.

UPDATE: Even better commentary in this Observer piece, written by a former MOB member.

Next B-Cycle expansion announced

From the inbox:

Houston’s bike share system, Houston B-cycle, will more than triple in size over the next two years, adding 71 stations with 568 bikes. The expansion will be paid for with federal grant dollars.

“The expansion of the B-cycle system will bring bike sharing into new neighborhoods and to new users,” said Mayor Turner. “As I’ve said, we need a paradigm shift in transportation away from single-occupancy motor vehicles. Making cycling more accessible by building a strong bike sharing system is a critical component of that change.”

The City’s Planning and Development Department sponsored an application for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The grant will reimburse the City for $3.5 million of the cost of expanding the system. Houston Bike Share, a local nonprofit that administers Houston B-cycle, will provide the remaining $880,000.

Currently, the system has 31 stations with 225 bikes. The expansion will bring the total to 102 stations and 793 bikes. The grant will also pay for two new transportation vehicles.

Houston B-cycle is a membership-driven bike share system. Memberships are available by day, week or year. All members have unlimited access to the bikes for up to 60 minutes per trip. There is a charge of $2 for every additional half hour.

The expansion brings bike sharing into the Texas Medical Center with 14 stations and 107 bikes. The new stations will also serve Houston’s students, with 21 new stations and 248 bikes at the University of Houston Main Campus, Texas Southern University, UH-Downtown and Rice University.

Since January 1, cyclists have made 73,577 trips and traveled 508,044 miles. Houston Bike Share CEO Carter Stern estimates Houstonians are on track to exceed 100,000 trips by the end of 2016.

“We could not be more grateful for the Mayor and City Council’s unflagging support of the Houston B-Cycle program and our efforts to expand the program,” Stern said. “The expansion approved today will allow us to build on the immense success that B-Cycle has had in just 4 short years and bring this affordable, healthy, sustainable mobility option to more Houstonians than ever before.”

Sounds good to me. There isn’t an updated system map yet, but this does a lot to expand B-Cycle outside the borders of downtown/Midtown, in areas that are dense and proximate to light rail lines. You know how I feel about using the bike network to extend transit reach, and B-Cycle is a great fit for the rail stations because trains are often too crowded to bring a bike onto them. I can’t wait to see what the new map looks like. The Press has more.

KUHA sale completed

Say goodbye to classical music on your terrestrial radio.

Houston Public Media’s classical musical station transitions to an all-digital format starting at 9 a.m. Friday, July 15.

It’s a result of Christian radio station KSBJ agreeing to purchase the KUHA 91.7 FM signal from the University of Houston — which holds the license — in February 2016.

“We are happy that the ownership of KUHA will stay in local hands and we are excited about the future,” Houston Public Media Associate Vice President and General Manager Lisa Shumate said in a statement. “Houston Public Media’s commitment to multi-platform arts and culture content, in addition to classical music, is stronger than ever.”

[…]

KUHA 91.7 FM was purchased from Rice University for $9.5 million in 2010. Most of the classical music and arts programming produced by Houston Public Media moved to the new station, along with live broadcasts with the Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand Opera and local performing artists and groups. KUHF then adopted a 24-hour all news and information format.

See here for the background. KUHA continues to exist as an HD station, and of course there’s always streaming. But if you like to listen to classical music in your car, and you don’t have an HD receiver, you’re out of luck. And so it goes.

The Latino health insurance enrollment gap in Texas

We have made great strides in reducing the uninsured rate in Texas thanks to the Affordable Care Act, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The percentage of Hispanics in Texas without health insurance has dropped by 30 percent since the Affordable Care Act (ACA) went into effect, but almost one-third of Hispanic Texans ages 18 to 64 remain uninsured.

That’s one of the conclusions of a new report released today by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation.

The report found the uninsured rate among Hispanics ages 18 to 64 in Texas dropped from 46 percent in September 2013 to 32 percent in March 2016. But even with those gains, researchers estimate approximately 2 million Hispanics remain uninsured across the state. However, nearly half of uninsured Texas Hispanics are currently eligible to get health insurance through ACA plans or other private health insurance, the report said.

“We estimate 920,000 Hispanics are eligible for coverage now, even without Medicaid expansion or any other widespread change in coverage,” said Elena Marks, EHF’s president and CEO and a nonresident health policy fellow at the Baker Institute. “This report clearly shows the need for outreach and enrollment efforts to continue to focus on Hispanic Texans who are uninsured but eligible for coverage.”

[…]

“After three open-enrollment periods of the ACA marketplace, the uninsured rate among Hispanics is still three times that of whites,” said Vivian Ho, the chair in health economics at Rice’s Baker Institute and director of the institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences, a professor of economics at Rice and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “The disparity between the two groups remains striking. The Hispanic population is growing at a faster rate than the state average, which makes it increasingly important to the entire state that Hispanics gain affordable health insurance coverage.”

The report shows that although more Hispanic Texans remain uninsured, they enrolled in ACA health insurance plans at twice the rate of whites. Researchers found 21 percent of all insured Hispanics in Texas are covered by ACA plans, compared with only 11 percent of whites across the state.

“This shows that the ACA marketplace is an important source of affordable health insurance for Hispanics,” Ho said.

The report is only nine pages, so go take a look at it. I can tell you that the main reasons for the gap are the failure to expand Medicaid, and a still-significant number of people who have not yet enrolled in any plan. The authors recommend more outreach to the latter subgroup, but that’s easier – and a lot cheaper – said than done. There are numerous community and national organizations that have done a ton of hard work informing people about their health insurance and subsidy options, but they do so in an environment where the state government is actively hostile to them. There’s a reason why some states have lowered their uninsured rates a lot more than some others.

Another story on how Texas’ uninsured rate has fallen under Obamacare

Same book, next chapter.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

A study released Tuesday shows that the rate of Texans without insurance has dropped to its lowest point since the late 1990s because of the Affordable Care Act, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation reported.

Prior to the implementation of the ACA in September 2013, the uninsured rate in Texas was about 26 percent – more than one in four. By this March, that rate had dropped to about 18 percent, the study said.

Researchers found declines in every age group, ethnic and racial demographic, and across income levels. Texans between the ages of 50 and 64 showed the steepest decline, dropping to 10 percent from 21 percent during that time period.

Those with low to modest incomes of $16,000 and $47,000 also showed big gains in coverage. Their rate of uninsured is now about 13 percent compared to 23 percent in 2013.

“For more than a decade prior to the ACA, the uninsured rate remained above 20 percent and was rising. It’s now clear that it’s moving in the opposite direction and the ACA deserves the credit,” Elena Marks, president and CEO of Episcopal Health Foundation, said in a statement Tuesday.

Despite progress, Texas continues to lead the nation in the number and rate of the uninsured.

In fact, the new study shines a light on a gaping hole in coverage across the state. Nearly half, or 46 percent, of Texans earning less than $16,000 per year remain uninsured, the report shows.

A copy of the report is here, and a compendium of Baker Institute research on the topic of health insurance under the ACA in Texas is here. Another recent study, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had Texas’ rate of uninsured residents below 17%, somewhat lower than what this one has. That may reflect a slight difference in methodology or definitions, it’s hard to say. The trend is clear, and so is the fact that by any measure, Texas is still the worst at getting its residents covered. Even among states that did not expand Medicaid, Texas’ uninsured rate is higher than average, as you can see on that first link. And yes, you can make less than $16K a year but not qualify for Medicaid in this state. Basically, unless you’re a child or you’re disabled, you’re SOL as far as that goes. But don’t worry, you can always go to the emergency room and get some service at a much higher cost to a much smaller tax base. That’s how Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick want it to be. Forbes has more.

Remembering Buckyballs and the Nobel Prize they won

Twenty years ago, two Rice University chemists won the Nobel Prize for a revolutionary idea about carbon molecules.

The discovery of Buckyballs, a new form of carbon that ushered in the era of nanotechnology and won a Nobel Prize, happened largely by accident.

In 1985, Rice University chemists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley hosted British chemist Harry Kroto for a series of experiments in Houston. Kroto had a theory about how long carbon chains were formed in the atmospheres of carbon-rich giant stars, and Smalley had built a laser beam apparatus that could vaporize molecules and test the theory.

Over 10 days, the three professors and three graduate students conducted tests in which they vaporized carbon molecules with Smalley’s laser beam apparatus and then measured how the carbon atoms clustered together. To their surprise, in addition to the long chain molecules they were seeking, they found a high number of clusters consisting of 60 carbon atoms.

The professors tasked their graduate students with finding ways of changing the parameters of the experiment to increase the number of C60 molecules and tried to theorize what their structure would look like. They knew the structure had to be something more stable, like a sphere, that would protect the bonds between the carbon atoms from being easily broken.

“What was the chemical structure?” Curl recalled in his Rice office earlier this month. “How can you put 60 carbon atoms together and come up with something really stable?”

Kroto remembered he had built with his children a paper star dome that consisted of both pentagons and hexagons. He wanted to call his wife in England to have her find the construction.

“But it was getting late, and it seemed highly improbable that he had done this,” Curl said.

Instead, that night, Smalley fiddled with paper, scissors and scotch tape, creating a paper sphere made up of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons with 60 corners. It fit all the parameters for a stable form of carbon with 60 atoms.

The structure resembled the geodesic domes that American architect Buckminster Fuller designed for the 1967 Montreal World Exhibition. They decided to name the structure buckminsterfullerene in his honor. They called the spheres Buckyballs for short because they resembled soccer balls.

The trio was excited about what they came up with, but it was only a theory. They had no proof other than the high number of C60 molecules they were seeing in their experiments.

“That didn’t deter us,” Curl said.

Read the rest, it’s worth your time. Smalley passed away in 2005; Curl is now an emeritus professor. They didn’t have to win the Nobel for this research – there was another team that had made a similar discovery. Buckyballs themselves were never of much practical use, but the discovery led to the field of nanotechnology and the creation of nanotubes, among other things. It’s fair to say we live in a different world today because of Robert Curl and Richard Smalley.

A way to use the Astrodome while we figure out what to do with it

How does a Super Bowl light show grab you?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The future of the Astrodome still might be in the dark, but that doesn’t mean the iconic building can’t return to the spotlight for at least a few minutes.

A pair of 25-year-old Rice University graduates came up with an idea to display a light show on the building’s roof that could come to fruition for the Super Bowl in February. The technological feat would use “projection mapping” to cast images of Houston culture onto the ceiling and through the hundreds of windows of the long-vacant Astrodome in yet another effort to redefine the structure as its fate is debated.

“I was just so interested that we not tear down the Astrodome, that we find a way to repurpose it and make it exciting again,” said Phoebe Tudor, who heads a group called Friends of the Dome and has worked on the light show initiative. “There are probably other things that could potentially happen in it in the future, but this would be such a great thing for now, and relatively easy and relatively inexpensive, compared to other things that may have been considered.”

[…]

Beyond the general concept of Houston history, show specifics have yet to be determined. During the demonstration in March, projectors cast Astros and Oilers logos onto the ceiling and even a picture of an astronaut.

People could come inside to watch a show, while images also could shine through the roof to the outside as nationally televised cameras pan over NRG Stadium during the Super Bowl, [County Judge Ed] Emmett said, potentially creating advertising revenue.

If successful, it likely would be only one of several possible uses of the Astrodome during the Super Bowl festivities, including another proposal to project images onto the outside walls.

The two Rice grads, one with expertise in engineering and the other familiar with projection mapping – a technique that uses multiple projectors to cast shapes and images onto uneven surfaces – came up with the light show idea.

One of the men, Alex Weinheimer of Houston, said he’s always had an interest in baseball, architecture and history. He said he was watching a Texans game one night when the broadcast showed a blimp passing over the Astrodome with its white indoor lights on.

“It’s a very pretty, geometric design,” Weinheimer said. “It’s also fairly unique.”

Weinheimer thought that something more could be done with the stadium. He got in touch with Joshuah Jest, and they began working up a light-show concept.

Tudor took notice of their work and helped put them in touch with the county. Over the past year, they’ve been working out the particulars of the show on a scale model, Tudor said, until they tested their idea in the Dome in March.

“We’ve sort of tried to prove the concept,” Weinheimer said.

Sounds pretty interesting. I confess I’m having “Pink Floyd laser light show” flashbacks here, and the urge to make stoner jokes is strong, but I will remain steadfast. Assuming everyone involved approves this, I could see it being a cool addition to the Super Bowl spectacle. Having a useful purpose for the Dome, even for a one-time event, is a good thing. I wish everyone luck in getting this done.

Houston Area Survey 2016: Harris County becoming more Democratic

Whoa.

A majority of Harris County residents lean Democratic for the first time ever, propelled by plummeting support for Republicans among Latinos, according to a survey released Monday by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

The finding, in the midst of a particularly divisive presidential campaign, could signal an important shift in arguably the nation’s largest swing county, which narrowly went to President Barack Obama in 2012 by only about 970 votes. It might also portend that the long-sleeping giant of Latino voters will, finally perhaps, be roused from slumber in an election that has featured decidedly anti-Latino and anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly from billionaire Republican contender Donald Trump.

“Frankly I’m not all that surprised,” said Jim McGrath, a Republican political consultant in Houston and spokesman for former President George H. W. Bush. “These are the fears realized by those on the Republican side who are worried about the irresponsible rhetoric surrounding the illegal immigration issue.”

According to the annual survey, which was conducted between January and March, 52 percent of Harris County residents said they identified more with the Democratic Party compared to 46 percent in 2012. Only 30 percent of residents leaned Republican this spring, about the same as in 2012, meaning that it is the share of undecided and new potential voters whom have swung largely Democratic.

[…]

Support for the GOP has stayed steady among white and African-American residents for the past decade, with 54 percent of the county’s white population swinging Republican and 39 percent Democrat, though there was a slight increase in Democrat support among Anglo voters in the county over the past two years. Similarly 82 percent of African-American residents lean Democratic and 8 percent Republican.

Among Latinos, however, there has been a sea change.

From about 2000 to 2008, some 40 percent of the county’s Hispanic residents identified as Democratic compared to fewer than 30 percent who felt Republican, Klineberg said. That began to change around 2009 when their support for Democrats increased to nearly 50 percent and the share of those leaning Republican dropped to 25 percent.

The gap widened once more around the 2012 presidential election when Republican Mitt Romney received the lowest share of the Hispanic vote — 27 percent — than GOP nominees had tallied in the previous three election cycles in a campaign during which immigration was particularly divisive.

This spring, Harris County’s Hispanic residents registered the lowest amount of support ever for Republicans — only 18 percent — compared to 68 percent of Latinos who said they lean Democrat.

“It’s a powerful message to the Republican party, reach out to these Latino voters, don’t push them away,” Klineberg said. “And for the Democrats, get out the vote.”

The survey is conducted by land line and cell phone calls among a statistically representative sample of 808 residents, not eligible voters, in Harris County. Among 604 Harris County residents who can vote, 46 percent leaned Democrat and 41 percent Republican.

See the Urban Edge blog for more details on the poll. There’s quite a bit more to the 2016 Houston Area Survey than this, but for now we’ll just focus on this particular data point, for obvious reasons. This is not a poll in the standard sense – it doesn’t ask which candidate you will support, nor does it try to determine who is a “likely” voter – but it is consistent with what we are seeing in national data as well as swing states. Latinos were slightly more likely to vote Republican in Texas in 2012 than they were elsewhere, though that was partly a turnout function, as polling data at the time showed that lower-propensity voters were more strongly Democratic. If – the big if – Latino voters are more strongly motivated to turn out this year, it is consistent for them to be more Democratic even without taking the Trump factor into account.

What could this mean in practical terms?

Some advocacy groups, such as the William C. Velásquez Institute, a national Latino public policy research group in San Antonio, predict Hispanics in Texas this year will account for more than 3 million registered voters and cast more than 2 million votes, both of which would be records. Overall, the state has about 14.2 million registered voters.

Their expectations are largely predicated on population growth. Since 2012, Texas gained 600,000 eligible Hispanic voters, expanding to 4.8 million – second only to California, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The Latino share of Texas’ eligible voters increased 2 percentage points in that period, to 28 percent.

Bearing in mind all of the usual disclaimers, let’s do a little back-of-the-envelope math for the fun of it. Here are three statewide scenarios for this year:


Total votes    Latino  Not Latino     Pct
=========================================
  4,650,000    480,000  4,170,000  58.75%
  3,350,000  1,120,000  2,230,000  41.25%

  4,570,000    400,000  4,170,000  54.40%
  3,830,000  1,600,000  2,230,000  45.60%

  4,670,000    500,000  4,170,000  53.00%
  4,230,000  2,000,000  2,230,000  47.00%

Scenario 1 is basically what happened in 2012. No change in Latino turnout, which based on 2012 polling is 20% of the total, or Latino propensity for voting Democratic, which was about 70% that year. Scenario 2 is the “two million Latino voters” possibility that the Velasquez Institute mentioned. For that, I’m assuming 80% Democratic support, which is consistent with the polling data we have so far for matchups against Donald Trump, and with the data noted above that lower-propensity Latino voters are more heavily Democratic than Latinos overall. Sure, this may be a bit optimistic, but I’m playing a what-if game here, so stay with me. Scenario 3 is the bluer sky version of #2, where Latino turnout is 2.5 million at the same 80% Democratic rate. Note that in all cases, non-Latino turnout and propensity is the same. This is mostly to make the calculations simple; basically, I’m isolating the Latino voting variable. One could play around with the hypothesis that a Trump candidacy might also depress base Republican turnout, but I’ll leave those calculations to you. In scenario 2, Latinos make up about 24% of the voter universe, while in #3 they are 28% of total turnout, which as noted is about their share of total eligible voters.

I’m not arguing any of this is likely, or even realistic. I am showing that the ground is shifting, and even a relatively modest change could have a sizable effect. It’s not enough to turn Texas blue, but the state would be a lot less red. As noted before, that effect would surely be felt downballot, with Harris County likely being an epicenter. The bigger question would then be if any of that might carry over into a non-Presidential year, or if the same patterns we have observed in recent elections would persist. That’s beyond my scope here, and depending on how things end up may be irrelevant. But clearly something is happening. Even if it’s not enough to change the state, it’s more than enough to tilt Harris County, whether there is a concerted turnout effort (which I hope there is!) or not. Campos has more.

Former KTRU to become Christian station

Well, that’s different.

KSBJ Educational Foundation, which owns and programs noncommercial Christian music radio stations, acquired the 50,000-watt KUHA (91.7 FM). Subject to Federal Communications Commission approval, the station could switch from its current classical format to NGEN by late May or early June.

UH in 2010 acquired the station for $9.5 million from Rice University, where it was known for years as KTRU, and aired classical music on the signal before deciding last year to put the station on the market and move its classical programming to digital formats.

“It’s a good result for Houston because classical service continues and the station stays in the hands of local owners and experienced broadcasters,” said Lisa Shumate, general manager of Houston Public Media. “It enables us to continue to provide multi-platform arts and culture coverage and use our resources for continued focus in news and other local content initiatives.”

[…]

Classical music will continue on 91.7 FM until the sale is approved and also can be heard at KUHF (88.7 FM HD-2), the Houston Public Media mobile app, at HoustonPublicMedia.org, on over the air television at Channel 8.5 and through iHeartRadio and TuneIn and other free mobile applications.

We first heard about this last August. Whatever you think of the whole KTRU situation – and for what it’s worth, KTRU is back on the air, if you can find it – this now means there will no longer be a non-HD FM station devoted to classical music in Houston. That just feels wrong, but then no one asked me.

Fewer Texans having trouble paying medical bills than pre-Obamacare

What else can you say but “Thanks, Obama!”

Fewer Texans say they have problems paying their medical bills in 2015 compared to 2013, according to a new report released by EHF and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The report found that since enrollment began in the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace (ACA), the percentage of Texans who reported problems paying health care bills dropped almost 15 percent (25.8 percent in 2013 to 22 percent in 2015). The drop was consistent across income levels and health insurance status, and corresponds with national data showing the percentage of adults reporting problems paying medical bills dropped across the U.S.

Data released this week in a nationwide Kaiser Family Foundation/New York Times survey show 26 percent of U.S. adults reported having problems paying medical bills in the past year.

“The fact that Texans had fewer problems paying their medical bills in 2015 is good news,” said Vivian Ho, the chair in health economics at Rice’s Baker Institute and director of the institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences, a professor of economics at Rice and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “One reason fewer Texans are having problems paying medical bills is because more Texans now have health insurance. However, one in five Texans still has problems affording health care. And it’s no surprise our data show the uninsured and those with lower incomes continue to struggle paying those bills more than anyone else.”

The report found 30 percent of uninsured Texans reported problems paying their health care costs in 2015, down from 35 percent in 2013. Researchers found just 20 percent of those with health insurance said they had problems paying medical bills last year, down from 23 percent in 2013.

When it comes to skipping health care services because of cost, the report found uninsured Texans are more likely to skip all services (primary care, specialist care, prescription drugs, etc.) than those with insurance. However, researchers discovered fewer uninsured Texans said they skipped getting care in 2015 compared to 2013.

“On the whole, uninsured Texans reported fewer problems with affording health care in 2015,” said Elena Marks, EHF’s president and CEO, and a nonresident health policy fellow at the Baker Institute. “While our data doesn’t explain exactly why that is happening, the Texas economy improved during that time which might have helped the uninsured pay for care.”

In addition, Marks said because the number of insured patients increased across the state, more charitable care may have been available to the uninsured. New 1115 Medicaid waiver projects across Texas also may have enabled more uninsured adults to access affordable health services, Marks said.

The full report is here. Elena Marks and Vivian Ho are familiar names to anyone who’s been following health insurance news in Houston – they’ve been on this stuff since the beginning. Now just imagine how much better things could be if we’d only expand Medicaid, too.

KTRU returns

On another frequency, with different call letters, and a less powerful signal. Other than that, it’s like it never left.

After five years off the radio dial, Rice University’s popular college radio station KTRU Rice Radio will return to FM on Friday (October 2).

Listeners located within approximately a five-mile radius of the school, stretching from 610 South to the Buffalo Bayou, will be able to enjoy the university’s station on 96.1 FM. After spending four years pursuing a new FCC-approved FM license — an effort spearheaded by Rice students, alumni, staff and community volunteers — the station will be able to broadcast on FM from an antenna placed atop Rice Stadium.

“Returning to the air is truly turning the page to a new chapter in KTRU’s history,” said one of KTRU’s music librarians, George Barrow, in a statement. “We’re returning to our roots with the on-campus, low-power transmitter.

“Not only is this an important step in KTRU’s story, but it’s also extremely important for the Houston music community, since no station on the FM dial right now focuses on exposing local and emerging talent quite like KTRU does. It’s amazing to be a part of this organization during one of its most important transitions.”

The station will also continue to broadcast live on the Internet through its website, as well as apps like i-Heart Radio and Tune-In.

[…]

The official call signs for the new Rice radio station are KBLT-LP since the KTRU call signs are currently licensed to a noncommercial station in La Harpe, Kansas, but the station will continue to be referred to as KTRU.

See here for the background. What do you think, travesty or victory? Leave a comment and let us know. The Press, the Chron, and Radio Survivor have more.

The MetroLab Network

From the inbox.

Rice University and the city of Houston will join forces with 20 other cities and 25 other universities from across the country to create MetroLab Network, a network of universities and city governments charged with collaborating on solutions to the challenges confronting urban infrastructure, city services and civic engagement. The partnership was announced today at a Smart Cities event held at the White House.

The partnerships, made up of university representatives and city decision-makers, will use technology and analysis to research, develop and deploy solutions to the problems facing the systems and infrastructure on which urban citizens and regional economies depend. The network will focus on common challenges facing cities and develop shared, scalable solutions that can be deployed across the network.

The projects can be undertaken solely by a city-university partnership or by a team of city-university partnerships facing similar challenges so they can leverage network resources and expertise. The MetroLab Network will be organized and operated by a management team, initially led by Carnegie Mellon University.

“One of Rice University’s ongoing priorities is engagement with the city of Houston, and the MetroLab Network is an ideal way to build on our existing efforts,” said Rice President David Leebron.

“We’re thrilled that Rice and Houston are part of the MetroLab Network,” said Bill Fulton, director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, which will be the network’s main point of contact for the Rice and city of Houston partnership. Experts at the Kinder Institute will play a role in putting the available data into context and generating ideas about which urban problems that data can help address. “The time is right for a great research partnership that will help Houston — and other cities as well,” he said.

“Rice University is one of this nation’s finest institutions of higher learning,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is a 1978 graduate of Rice. “Some of the best research minds around are available right at our front door. This partnership will allow us to tap into that wealth of knowledge to gain answers that will help us make informed future decisions in key areas.”

During the 2015-16 academic year, each city-university partnership will focus on three research projects to be completed by the end of the year. The city of Houston-Rice University projects will be:

Impact of housing change on neighborhoods and families

Significant anecdotal evidence indicates that in Houston, as in other large cities, families of modest means are being displaced by “gentrification” in neighborhoods close to the downtown area and being pushed to locations farther away from jobs and transit. Using city and county permit data on construction, demolition and substandard housing, Rice researchers will document the characteristics of housing and housing change in particular Houston neighborhoods, and compare them with current and changing neighborhood demographics. This research will be used to inform future housing and infrastructure policy in the city.

Impact of streetlights and neighborhoods

Using geographic information systems data about the location of streetlights and billing data about streetlight usage, Rice researchers will map streetlights in Houston and also map and analyze patterns reflecting when streetlights are in use or out of service. The streetlight data will be examined against data associated with neighborhood characteristics, crime, traffic accidents and other factors. This research will be used to inform the city’s decisions about where to locate new streetlights and how to prioritize streetlight repair.

Bike-share analysis

Using data provided by B-cycle, which operates Houston’s bike-share system, Rice researchers will conduct an analysis of bike-share usage and accessibility of bike-share station locations. Houston trends will be compared with trends in Austin, Fort Worth and Denver using data provided by B-cycle. This research will be used to assist the city of Houston and B-cycle in decisions about future locations of bike-share stations as well as improved management and operation of the bike-share system.

See here for more on the MetroLab Network, and read this Urban Edge post for some examples of what this will mean. These are important quality of life issues for cities, and the promise of this effort is to use data analytics to deliver them more efficiently. I’m excited to see what comes of it.

Mayoral debate #1

Who watched?

In the first televised debate in the Houston mayor’s race, three of the candidates jockeying to replace Mayor Annise Parker took aim at former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and the agency’s allegedly low crime clearance rates.

The pointed effort marked a swift and telling segue from the candidates’ summer circuit of mostly small forums, featuring intermittent fireworks, to their biggest stage yet.

At the end of the debate, former Congressman Chris Bell, businessman Marty McVey and former mayor of Kemah Bill King all honed in on Garcia, a Democrat who many view as a frontrunner in the Nov. 3 balloting.

[…]

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said the first televised debate typically previews some of the battle lines and messaging beginning to emerge as the campaigns heat up.

Still, with the race crowded and the time limited to one hour Thursday, it was difficult for any one candidate to stand out. There was little new policy territory covered, but the candidates did find themselves on the hot seat, both with one another and the moderators, more than in previous settings.

“This (debate) rises above the clouds in terms of its prominence and its significance in that its audience is all of Houston, not just a specific interest group, and its medium is television instead of the best-case scenario a somewhat unreliable Web stream from a forum,” Jones said.

With State Rep. Sylvester Turner seemingly “close to invulnerable getting into the runoff,” Jones said, “pretty much everyone has an interest in taking a hit on Garcia.”

PDiddie was impressed by what he saw, Campos not so much. I confess I didn’t watch. I’m not a big fan of general interest candidate forums, which are especially hard to do with multiple candidates. You need to limit response times to give everyone a chance to speak, but that generally invites sound bite answers. I think forums that are focused on narrower and more specific topics can be more illuminating, partly because they often cover ground that gets very little attention overall, and partly because it gives you a chance to see who has actually thought about some of this stuff, and who is faking it.

And along those lines, there are a couple of upcoming specific-interest Mayoral forums coming up. On Thursday, September 10, Shape Up Houston and the Kinder Institute are hosting a forum on urban health and wellness. The forum goes from 8 to 9 AM with preliminaries beginning at 7 – see here for details and a list of sample questions. The event will be livestreamed here if you want to check it out. That evening at 7 PM, the Houston area Sierra Club, Citizens’ Transportation Coalition, and Citizens’ Climate Lobby with support of OilPatch Democrats will be hosting a forum on growth and climate change. That will be at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center, see here for more information and to RSVP. Finally, there’s an event this morning at Rice hosted by Emerging Latino Leaders Fellowship, Mi Familia Vota, the Hispanic Association for Cultural Enrichment at Rice (HACER), the Student Government Association at University of Houston-Downtown, and Young Invincibles on the subject of young adult and Latino community issues. It’s too late to attend if you wanted to – the venue is full – but this is one I wish I would have been able to see. I’m hoping it will be recorded, and if so I’ll post a link to the video. All of this is my longwinded way of saying that if you have an opportunity to go to an event like one of these, I recommend you take it. I think you’d learn more than you would watching a general purpose event. Just my opinion, of course, and your mileage may vary.

Voter ID may have had broader effects than we thought

Interesting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ strict voter identification requirements kept many would-be voters in a Hispanic-majority congressional district from going to the polls last November — including many who had proper IDs — a new survey shows.

And the state’s voter ID law – coupled with lackluster voter education efforts – might have shaped the outcome of a congressional race, the research suggests.

Released on Thursday, the 50th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act, the joint Rice University and University of Houston study found that 13 percent of those registered in the 23rd Congressional District and did not vote stayed home, at least partly, because they thought they lacked proper ID under a state law considered the strictest in the nation. And nearly 6 percent did not vote primarily because of the requirements.

But most of those discouraged Texans had the proper documents to vote, says the study, which came one day after a federal appeals court ruled that the four-year-old Texas law has a “discriminatory effect” on Hispanics and African-Americans.

The researchers surveyed 400 people who registered but did not vote in the 29-county district, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and along a large slice of the Texas-Mexico border. The study found that less than 3 percent lacked proper identification during November’s election.

“The voter ID law depressed turnout in the 2014 election, but it did so primarily through confusion, not through actually keeping people without IDs from voting,” said Mark Jones, a professor at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an author of the study.

[…]

“The voter ID law depressed turnout in the 2014 election, but it did so primarily through confusion, not through actually keeping people without IDs from voting,” said Mark Jones, a professor at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an author of the study.

The law requires most citizens (some, like people with disabilities, can be exempt) to show one of a handful of forms of allowable photo identification before their election ballots can be counted. Acceptable forms include a state driver’s license or ID card that is not more than 60 days expired at the time of voting, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card or a U.S citizenship certificate with a photo. The acceptable list is shorter than any other state’s.

The new study suggests that the state’s effort to educate voters about the requirement – which included postings on the secretary of state’s website – fell flat.

“It was a very limited education campaign in CD-23,” Jones said. “Most voters who are confused by the voter ID law don’t regularly go to the secretary of state’s website to see what’s new.”

The secretary of state’s office took issue with that description, saying it spent $2 million on voter education efforts statewide on radio, television and print advertising among other outreach efforts.

But Democrats and other outspoken opponents of the law may have also contributed to the problem, seeing their criticism boomerang into confusion for would-be voters, Jones added.

“If the message they received was that there’s this new strict voter ID law, but they didn’t receive the second part — of what the several forms of ID are — that may have caused part of the problem,” he said.

The voters of CD23 were picked for this study because it was one of the few truly close races in the state last year. I’d like to see the result of a similar study over a wider portion of the state, perhaps with a bigger sample. I don’t doubt that some people were confused, for all the reasons stated. But let’s not kid ourselves, this was a feature and not a bug. As we’ve discussed many times before, there were lots of things the Lege could have done to mitigate the effects of this law – allowing more forms of ID, having more DPS locations for the EICs, doing real outreach and education to voters – but this was what we got. It’s why the Fifth Circuit ruled the way it did on the voter ID appeal. The real surprise would have been if there had been no confusion at all. Hair Balls and ThinkProgress have more.

The demography of the uninsured in Texas

Another look at those who have been helped by Obamacare in Texas, and those who would be helped if the state wasn’t actively resisting.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The states’s uninsured continue to be most likely Hispanic, middle-aged, with low incomes and without a college degree, according to a continuing study tracking the implementation of the health care law in Texas by Rice University’s Baker Institute and the Episcopal Health Foundation.

But even as Hispanics still represent the majority of those without insurance in Texas, theirs was the ethnic group that also showed the biggest gains.

Between the opening of the marketplace in September 2013 and the close of the second enrollment period in March 2015, the uninsured rate among Hispanic adults in Texas dropped to 57.1 percent from 61.2 percent – a bigger drop than any other ethnicity.

“It is not really surprising since they had the farthest to go, and still do,” said Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation and co-author of the study. She added: “We’re very encouraged,” crediting the improvement among Hispanics to vigorous outreach efforts to enroll people in marketplace plans.

[…]

Still, Thursday’s report also showed the percentage of the lowest income uninsured Texans continues to climb. The percentage of the poor in the state without insurance has grown to 66.9 percent from 63.2 percent in September 2013.

The report’s co-author Vivian Ho, the Baker Institute’s chair in health economics, has said the number of uninsured among the state’s poorest residents is not likely to change or could even grow in coming years. Under the law, the poor who were not eligible for subsidies were to be covered under a widening net of Medicaid. But Texas is one of 20 states that chose not to participate.

It is estimated about 1.5 million in the state would be eligible for coverage under an expanded Medicaid.

The report is here, and more information including previous reports in this vein is here. None of this is going to change the minds of those that can do something about this, but I have to hope that some day, with enough of this information and enough people visibly being helped by it, the voters may eventually do something about it. I hope I live long enough to see it happen.

Campus student body presidents call for veto of campus carry bill

From the Rice Thresher:

In a letter signed by 12 other Texas university presidents, Student Association President Jazz Silva called for Texas Governor Greg Abbott to not sign Senate Bill 11, which would allow licensed Texans to carry concealed handguns on college campuses statewide, including at Rice. Abbott has previously said he will sign the measure into law.

“I know that it is quite atypical of a Rice SA president to behave ‘politically’,” Silva said. “However, I feel that the letter is not only reasonable, but I trust that it is something Rice students would stand for.”

The law, if signed, would take effect on Aug 1, 2016 and allow those age 21 or above to carry a concealed handgun at Rice, unless the university opts out. A provision in the bill allows private institutions to do so if they first consult their faculty, staff and students, Rice President David Leebron said in staff-wide email.

“Should the governor sign the bill, we would engage in such consultation in the near future,” Leebron said. “Rest assured that, after those consultations, our expectation is to maintain [Rice’s current no-weapons policy] … In the coming months, we will take the steps needed to maintain [our] welcoming and secure campus.”

Silva’s letter states all Texas schools, not just private institutions, should be able to opt out should they desire.

“Not all university campuses are identical; they have different cultures, needs and beliefs,” the letter reads. “We trust that our administrators, students, and elected student representatives know how to create a safe educational environment. We should not only be enabled, but empowered to make these decisions on our own based on our individual needs, as universities.”

Silva said she and University of Texas at San Antonio Student Government Association President Ileana Gonzalez drafted the opposition letter together and gathered support from other Texas university presidents, who altogether represent over 300,000 students.

“I don’t speak directly to whether or not guns should be allowed on campus; I only ask that public universities be given the right to choose for themselves – the same right that private institutions currently have,” Silva said.

[…]

The letter is also signed by the student body presidents of Angelo State University, Trinity University, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas, Texas Tech University, the UH Clear Lake, UT Austin, UH Downtown, San Jacinto College, Houston Community College and UT Dallas.

Good for them. Abbott will still sign the bill, but at least they’re making themselves heard. I’m glad to hear what Rice President Leebron has to say on the issue, and I suspect that at least the non-religiously-oriented private schools will follow that same path; I certainly expect my alma mater to do so. I hope someone follows up on this in a year or two – I’ll be very interested to see what direction the different schools take. The Chron and the Current have more.

Texas’ uninsured rate drops dramatically

Amazing what can happen when a government actually tries to solve a problem, isn’t it?

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The rate of Texans without health insurance has fallen 8 percentage points since enrollment in the federal Affordable Care Act began, according to a new study.

Texas’ sky-high rate of adults without health coverage — previously about 25 percent, the highest rate in the nation — was down to 17 percent in March, according to a report from the Episcopal Health Foundation and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

But Texas remains the state with the highest percentage of uninsured people, the study found, and for the first time, the state has the largest raw number of uninsured residents in the country.

The amount of change was unequal among income levels. The poorest Texans saw a less dramatic improvement — the uninsured rate for people earning less than $16,000 fell by 20 percent, while the uninsured rate for people earning more income fell by 45 percent.

In a statement, Vivian Ho, one of the study’s authors, said the survey showed a widening “coverage gap” among poor and middle-income Texans. Texas leaders have declined to expand the state’s Medicaid program to provide health insurance to impoverished adults — a central tenet of President Obama’s signature health care law — criticizing the public program as “inefficient.”

“Unless Texas participates in an expanded Medicaid program or develops some other mechanism for covering the lowest income Texans, the number who remain uninsured is not likely to change,” Ho said. “Right now, those at the lowest incomes must rely on health care that is highly subsidized by county and state tax dollars, or get by without needed health care.”

The 31 percent decrease in the rate of uninsured Texans was similar to drops in other states that did not expand Medicaid coverage. For expansion states, the average decrease in the rate of uninsured was 53 percent, according to the study.

We know how that goes. I’ve skipped the typically dishonest quote from the TPPF’s designated hack, who always manages to get quoted uncritically in this kind of story despite the fact that all he does is spread misinformation. The numbers are out there if you want to look. We also know that people like having health insurance, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who isn’t a professional liar. It will really suck if it all gets taken away by the Supreme Court, won’t it? The Chron has more.

One point two million Obamacare signups in Texas

Not too shabby.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

McCarter was one of nearly 1.2 million Texans who signed up or were re-enrolled in health coverage before open enrollment ended Sunday. The newly released numbers show Texas ranking behind only Florida in the number of people it signed up or re-enrolled in coverage among the 37 states that rely on the federal health insurance marketplace to sell insurance plans, federal officials said Wednesday. Florida signed up or re-enrolled about 1.6 million people.

“When was the last time this many people became insured?” asked Elena Marks, president and CEO of Houston’s Episcopal Health Foundation and a nonresident health policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “It is almost double the number who signed up last year.”

[…]

About 150,000 consumers who were waiting to buy marketplace coverage and those who had technical problems while completing their applications as open enrollment ended Sunday will have until Monday to finish enrolling. Burwell said she hasn’t decided whether to open a special enrollment period for consumers who realize they face a penalty for being uninsured as they file their 2014 federal income taxes.

Texas’ enrollment figure indicates about 500,000 residents might have bought marketplace insurance for the first time. Last year, nearly 734,000 Texans bought coverage during the marketplace’s inaugural open enrollment period.

According to the national insurance advocacy group Get Covered America, more than 317,000 Houston-area residents bought or were re-enrolled in 2015 marketplace insurance coverage.

“The fact that more than 180,000 Texans enrolled in the final nine days of the open enrollment period shows that people want and need an affordable and quality health care plan,” Mimi Garcia, Get Covered America’s Texas director, said in a written statement.

That’s over 11 million nationally, or 19 million if you count Medicaid expansion. Not too shabby for a program that the hacks at the TPPF claims is broken, or for a population that Rick Perry swears wasn’t interested in getting coverage. Imagine what these numbers could be if everyone cared about doing something about the uninsured problem.

KTRU will be back

Awesome. And unexpected.

Rice University’s popular student-run radio station, relegated to the Internet when the university sold it in 2010, is returning to the airwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday approved the construction of a low-power FM broadcast station at Rice, signaling a return of the station that long highlighted local artists and other musicians rarely heard on the radio.

[…]

“KTRU is making its return to the FM airwaves!” station manager Sal Tijerina wrote in an email to station supporters. “By the end of this year, you can expect to tune into KTRU through an FM radio.”

The signal will cover about a five mile radius around Rice, Tijerina wrote.

The station is to be broadcast on 96.1 FM, the former home of KDOL, a country radio station that also broadcasts on 105.5 FM.

The story quotes former station manager Joey Yang saying that the plan was always for KTRU to come back. After almost four years away, I’m sure some folks had lost hope. According to their Facebook page, the call letters are yet to be determined. It will be weird if KTRU comes back under some other name, but that’s still better than them not coming back at all. It will be good to hear them again, if only withing five miles of campus. Swamplot, Rocks Off, and Free Press Houston have more.

Where Texans got their Obamacare information

The Baker Institute tells us.

While most Texans used healthcare.gov earlier this year to get information or to enroll in a health insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), larger percentages of Texans found talking to the call center or a navigator was the most helpful. Those are just some of the lessons learned in a report released today by the Episcopal Health Foundation and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The report found 62 percent of Texans used the healthcare.gov website to learn about ACA Marketplace health plans during the first open-enrollment period, which concluded earlier this year. However, perhaps because of the early problems with the government website, many Texans turned to the toll-free call center or used navigators to sign up for a plan. More than 90 percent of Texans who used navigators said the personalized assistance was helpful, compared to 70 percent who said the website was helpful.

“It’s important to understand what Texans found most effective and where improvements are needed,” said Elena Marks, CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation and a nonresident fellow in health policy at the Baker Institute. “With the second enrollment period just weeks away, it’s important for each enrollment method to be at peak performance to help the hundreds of thousands of Texans who are eligible for subsidized health insurance plans, but remain uninsured.”

Marks said the Texas survey results that found personalized service most helpful are supported by national results showing people assisted by enrollment professionals were more likely to enroll in coverage.

No matter which enrollment method they tried, many Texans found it difficult to determine whether they were eligible for a subsidy under the ACA, the report showed. Without that information, consumers can’t make informed decisions on whether to purchase a plan. The difference in the price of a subsidized plan versus a nonsubsidized plan can be hundreds of dollars each month.

“This is an important step because the cost of a plan depends on the amount of subsidy available,” said Vivian Ho, the chair in health economics at Rice’s Baker Institute, a professor of economics at Rice and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “We know from previous research that many who were eligible for a subsidy didn’t purchase a plan. If clearer eligibility and financial assistance information had been available, more people might have enrolled in coverage.”

The majority of Texans who used the website said the top way to improve the process would be to have better information available to determine eligibility for financial assistance. For those who used the call center, their top suggestion was shorter wait times. Texans who visited with navigators believed having more navigators available to help would most improve the enrollment process.

The report is the ninth in a series on the implementation of the ACA in Texas co-authored by Marks and Ho.

Here’s the Chron story for this. The study can be found here, and links to previous reports are at the link above. I don’t have anything to add to this, I just like that someone is asking and trying to answer these questions.

Ike Dike versus Centennial Gate

It’s an academic storm surge mitigation smackdown!

Lawmakers on Monday told representatives of two of Texas’ most distinguished universities to stop feuding and come together on a plan for protecting the Houston region from a storm surge similar to the one spawned by Hurricane Ike six years ago.

At a hearing at Texas A&M University Galveston, members of the Joint Committee on a Coastal Barrier System expressed frustration that the universities who took the initiative to devise a storm protection plan – Texas A&M Galveston and a Rice University-based center – were still arguing over the best approach.

“The fact is that Hurricane Ike was six years ago and we are still talking about how to come to a consensus,” said Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and the co-chairman of the joint committee. “We’ve got to move forward.”

Legislators said they wanted a proposal they could turn into legislation soon. “You have to come up with a plan that can be passed,” said committee Co-Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.

If the two sides fail to come together by the time the committee reconvenes in September, legislators said, they will take steps to bring about an agreement. “We’ll do something to encourage them,” Taylor said, adding that it could include picking a person or a committee to work out a deal.

“We have ways of making you achieve consensus,” Sen. Taylor did not say, definitely not twirling his mustache while not saying it. Sorry, got carried away for a minute there. Won’t happen again, I promise.

Texas A&M is backing a storm protection barrier proposal known as the Ike Dike, which would stretch from San Luis Pass at the western end of Galveston Island to High Island on the eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. Skeptics have said the idea is too costly.

Texas A&M marine scientist William Merrell proposed the concept soon after Ike caused an estimated $25 billion in damage to the Houston area, making it the costliest storm in Texas history.

The SSPEED Center, which draws on ideas from all over Texas, originated the proposal for the Centennial Gate at the head of the Houston Ship Channel. That plan calls for a ring barrier around the populated portion of Galveston Island, and a storm levee along Texas 146 to protect the western edge of Galveston Bay.

After the hearing, Jim Blackburn, a professor at the SSPEED Center, said he was confident that an agreement could be reached. But when Merrell was asked if there was a chance of a compromise, he responded, “No.”

“We’ve got a concept, we think it’s a good one and we are going to keep doing it,” Merrell said. “The Centennial Gate never did hunt.”

Merrell said he would welcome the backing of the SSPEED Center.

“Save time, see it my way,” Merrell did not say. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do that again, but sometimes it’s just too easy.

See here and here for some background. I don’t know what the “right” answer is here. It’s a matter of how you calculate the risk and how much you’re willing to pay to mitigate that risk. There is such a thing as too much insurance, but there’s also such a thing as too little. What’s it worth to you? How will you pay for it? Answer those questions and you’ll answer the other one. Lisa Gray is right, that’s the Legislature’s call.

White return flight

Some interesting demographic trends going on.

Between 2000 and 2010, [Harris] county, like much of the U.S., saw a sharp decline of its white population, losing about 12 percent of Anglos or about 83,000 people.

The drop mirrors demographic shifts across the nation as white birthrates have slowed. But in the past three years, Harris County added about 25,000 white residents, about 11 percent of its approximately 227,800 new residents, according to U.S. Census data released Thursday.

While the greatest drivers of the county’s growth are still Hispanics, it’s the reversal of the decadelong white decline that grabs demographers.

“It’s a surprising pattern given what we saw in the last decade, and indicative of the overall pervasiveness of population growth in Texas and especially in Houston,” said Steve Murdock, a onetime state demographer and former Census Bureau director who now leads the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.

“The amount of growth, percentage-wise, is almost the same as the decline … that’s a fairly substantial change,” Murdock said.

Though Anglos remain the nation’s largest racial group, it’s the only demographic group which is shrinking rather than growing. Last year, it was the sole group to count more deaths than births.

Texas, on the other hand, saw the largest numeric increase of white residents in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, gaining about 51,000 Anglos

Within Harris County, where Anglos make up about 32 percent of the population or about 1.3 million, some 9,000 white residents were added last year.

“There’s a significant amount of Anglos moving into the region from outside of Houston,” said Patrick Jankowski, vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development organization.

“They’re coming here because of the jobs. … If you look at all the growth in the Energy Corridor and the Medical Center, and the new Exxon campus in The Woodlands, we’re attracting workers who are more skilled, and many of them are white.”

But he suggested there might be a more subtle shift as well. Because Houston is attracting more single or young workers seeking to cash in on the energy and medical booms, an increasing number, like Carey and Bowen, are choosing to live in Houston rather than more suburban, neighboring counties.

“There’s no white flight anymore,” Jankowski said. “People are more and more accepting of different races and different ethnicities. They don’t care about their next-door neighbor as long as the lawn is mowed.”

As we know, some parts of town were getting whiter long before this. There are lots of questions one could ask about this, but for me I always come to the political implications. While it’s true that the increase in Harris County’s Anglo population is a reversal of earlier trends, the overall trend of Harris County getting less white hasn’t changed, it’s just decelerated a bit. I doubt there will be much change at a macro level, but there could be some effects here and there, especially in lower-turnout environments. It would be nice to know more about where these folks are coming from and what their existing proclivities are, but without that information we’ll just have to hypothesize.

One related tidbit from a different story.

Demand for high-density living grew across the state, according to the report. San Antonio saw the biggest increase in sales at 18 percent, followed by Austin at 14 percent. In Dallas, sales were up 4 percent.

“There is little available land for housing development in Texas’ major metro areas, particularly in its urban centers where housing demand is strongest,” [Jim Gaines, an economist with the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University] said in the report. “Developers are now looking upward for opportunities to build and invest in multifamily developments both in these centers and even in some suburban areas. Condo sales will likely be a strong driver in the Texas housing market for the rest of the year.”

Developer Randall Davis said rising single-family housing prices are driving expansion in the condominium market. Builders can put multiple units on one site, he said, and “deliver a product that’s almost equivalent but at a lesser price.”

More of Houston’s big builders, too, are interested in developing in the central city, said Gary Latz of Bohlke Consulting Group, a consulting firm for the housing industry.

Over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year. That’s compared with the overall Houston area, which was up 9.3 percent.

“People love the idea of living in closer and being close to all the amenities Houston has to offer,” Latz said.

Again, that’s a trend that’s been happening for some time now. Maybe if it keeps up we can get some more infrastructure spending inside the Beltway, too? Because that would be nice.

The story from Dallas is similar but not quite the same.

“Let’s look at Dallas County,” said Steve Murdock, director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. “There was growth in the Asian population, no doubt about it. But we also see a turnaround in growth in the non-Hispanic white population.”

While Dallas County showed a loss of 1,436 non-Hispanic whites from the 2010 census through July 1, 2013, that’s minuscule compared with losses in the previous decade, Murdock said.

“If you had the same pattern going on as you had in the last decade, you would have lost a good number more,” he said. “At this rate, you might lose 5,000 over this decade, compared with the loss of 198,000 over the last decade. We’re seeing the same thing in Harris County, where it changed from a negative to a positive.”

While non-Hispanic whites continue to move to suburbs, it could be that some younger folks and empty-nesters are finding urban centers more attractive for lifestyle reasons. And, demographers say, those leaving are being replaced by others looking for jobs, either from other parts of Texas or out of state.

“When you look at the state level,” said Lloyd Potter, the Texas state demographer, “we’re seeing positive immigration of non-Hispanic whites.”

The splashy numbers, though, came from growth rates in the Asian population — up 20 percent in Denton County, 18.5 percent in Rockwall, 18.1 percent in Collin, 14.9 percent in Dallas and 10.8 percent in Tarrant — over the last three years. In many ways that’s a continuation of the trends from 2000 to 2010, when Asians and Hispanics were the two fastest-growing groups in the state.

Hispanic growth rates were still double-digit in Collin, Denton and Rockwall counties at 11.2, 13.7 and 14 percent, respectively, for the three-year period, “but the rate of growth is down in Collin” compared with the previous decade, Murdock said.

[…]

The non-Hispanic black population is growing rapidly as well — up 19.6 percent in Denton, 18.1 percent in Collin, 12.5 percent in Rockwall, 10 percent in Tarrant and 5.8 percent in Dallas.

Much of the growth across the region and the state comes from migration, Potter and Murdock agreed, and that migration is driven largely by jobs.

“Overall, I think we’re seeing that Hispanic growth rates are down, but the non-Hispanic white losses have been significantly reversed,” said Murdock, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

He used Travis County as an example.

“From 2000 to 2010, Travis County added about 59,000 non-Hispanic whites,” Murdock said. “This time, it has added 41,000 non-Hispanic whites in the first three years,” an annual rate that roughly doubles that of the previous decade.

I don’t really have anything to add to that, I just find stories like these to be fascinating. Whatever else you can say about Texas, it’s not static.

Two million Texans used healthcare.gov

Yeah, we had lots of demand for health insurance. That’s what happens when you have so many uninsured people in a state.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Almost all adult Texans knew of the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplace before its open enrollment ended March 31, new research shows.

In a report released Wednesday, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation discovered about 2 million Texans who looked for marketplace information found the healthcare.gov website helpful. Almost half of those who went to the site wanted to buy insurance or check premium subsidy eligibility.

Wednesday’s report was based on responses from 1,595 Texans in September and 1,538 in March. The poll is part of the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey, a national project on the 2010 health law’s implementation and changes in health insurance coverage and related health outcomes. The Baker Institute and the Episcopal Health Foundation are focusing on factors about Texans from an expanded survey sample of Texas residents. The report is the fifth on Texas’ health law implementation.

“In our previous report, we estimated that 746,000 Texans purchased insurance through the marketplace,” Vivian Ho, chair in health economics at the Baker Institute and a report author, said in written statement. “Given that 2 million Texans looked for coverage through the Marketplace, a strikingly high percentage of them elected to enroll in a health insurance plan.”

Here’s the report. More reports from the same group, which I’ve blogged about before, can be found here. Just imagine how many more visits and signups there could have been if our Republican state leaders weren’t so zealously committed to keeping people unhealthy.

Nearly 200,000 ACA signups in Houston area

Not too shabby.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Like the rest of the country, the Houston area appears to have benefited from a last-minute surge in people signing up for federally mandated health insurance. At least 197,650 local residents enrolled in the program, figures released Wednesday show.

The Houston sign-ups represent almost 27 percent of Texas’ 733,757 enrollees, the Houston nonprofit health organization Gateway to Care said in a written statement. The federal government announced the overall numbers last week.

Wednesday’s announcement represents the first time Houston-specific insurance enrollment information related to the Affordable Care Act has been released publicly.

Gateway to Care was among several area organizations that helped residents sign up for coverage.

“This result could only have occurred because everyone worked so well together,” executive director Ron Cookston said in a statement.

Of the Houston area’s estimated 1 million uninsured population, half were predicted to be eligible for coverage.

“That last push must have had an effect,” said Vivian Ho, James A. Baker III Institute health economics chair at Rice University.

See here for the background. At the time that the Texas enrollment numbers were released, the estimate was 177K Houston-area folks had signed up. Before that, when the Baker Institute released its report, we learned that the expected number for the region had been 138K. Still not nearly enough – if 200K signed up and 500K were eligible, that’s a lot of folks left behind – but given the constraints, it not bad and clearly better than people thought it would be. We’ve got to aim to make it better next time. Having a better Governor would go a long way towards that.

Texas insurance enrollment update

Enrollments are up and the number of uninsured are down, though both could have been a lot better.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The sky-high rate of Texans without health insurance has dropped only slightly since the launch of the federal Affordable Care Act’s online health insurance marketplace, according to a new report from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the Episcopal Health Foundation.

During the open enrollment period from September through March, the rate of uninsured adults in Texas fell to 23.5 percent from 24.8. And most of that change was attributable to an increase in employer-sponsored health coverage, the report found, rather than new signups in the federal marketplace.

Texas’ decline in the rate of its uninsured was commensurate with those in other Republican-led states that elected not to expand Medicaid to cover poor adults. But while the number of Texans applying for coverage in the online marketplace — about 746,000, according to the report — pales in comparison to the more than 5 million who lack insurance, ACA proponents may see reason for optimism, the authors wrote. The 746,000 figure represents a significant increase in Texas enrollments from the 295,000 reported by the federal government as of March 1.

“You look at the absolute numbers and say, ‘Wow! This is a good start,’” said Vivian Ho, a co-author.

The report, which draws its conclusions from survey data rather than figures that are gradually being released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers new insight into what kinds of people are signing up for insurance under the ACA.

For example, only about 30.2 percent of those seeking coverage in the online marketplace were previously uninsured, researchers found. Employer-provided health insurance seemed to be responsible for the biggest drop in the uninsured.

“If I had to guess, a large portion of that is just the upswing in the economy,” Ho said. “There are more people getting jobs.” But she added that some businesses are also preparing to comply with the upcoming coverage mandate for their employees, offering low-cost insurance options for low-wage workers, a trend that may be reflected in the data.

We also now have some specific information about Houston enrollments.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated report, the Associated Press found more than 177,000 Houston residents signed up for health coverage, exceeding expectations and indicating a last-minute enrollment push just before the March 31 deadline might have helped Texas meet projected targets despite months of lagging.

The news service, citing an email by Marjorie McColl Petty, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Dallas regional director, and obtained by the Associated Press, reported that as of April 5, some 177,825 Houston residents signed up for coverage. A previous email by Petty said that as of March 29, 149,273 Houston residents had signed up for insurance, the AP said.

The expectation had been that 138,000 Houston residents would sign up.

You can see the Baker Institute report here. This answers some of the questions raised in my earlier post, though the Kaiser numbers have not yet been updated. As noted, there’s no official tally of who does or does not have health insurance in Texas. We’ll have the healthcare.gov enrollment totals, and I presume HHSC has Medicaid and CHIP numbers, but beyond that it’s all estimates and speculation.

We all know how this has gone down in Texas, where the party line from the Republican leadership has been one of unrelenting hostility and obstacles. Not surprisingly, in states like Texas the ranks of the uninsured decreased at a lower rate than in states that are not run by heartless assholes. With the grace period for people who began but were unable to complete the enrollment process now over, the official tally for healthcare.gov enrollees is eight million. That doesn’t count state exchanges, Medicaid expansions, the under-26 set that can be on their parents’ insurance, or people who will now have insurance through their employers; the grand total is at least 14 million, and counting. And it could have been so much more.

Opponents of the ACA said the report spelled bad news for President Obama’s signature health law. John Davidson, a policy analyst for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, called the number of previously uninsured people who signed up for coverage on the exchange a “drop in the bucket” compared to Texas’ total uninsured population.

“I believe that cost is driving these numbers,” Davidson said. “Coverage on the exchange is very expensive, and it’s expensive even if you get a subsidy, in many cases.” He compared the report’s projection that 746,000 Texans had enrolled in the marketplace to a recent HHS brief that estimated that 2.2 million Texans could qualify for subsidies.

“Something’s going on there,” Davidson said. “Why so few?”

I’m going to be charitable and not assume that the oft-quoted token Davidson is sufficiently stupid as to be genuinely baffled. The organization for which he is employed is a malignant force in Texas, but they are quite clear-eyed about their goals. He knows what the truth is, and he knows what his role in relation to it is. The real question is why the Tribune, or any self-respecting news organization, thinks there is value in including his disinformation. Why do you think it’s a good idea to let someone lie to your readers, Evan Smith? I can’t think of a good reason for that. The LA Times has more.

Zipcar expands in Houston

Very cool.

A car-sharing service on Wednesday expanded from spots on the Rice University campus to other locations in Houston, providing city residents with another option for transportation.

Zipcar is making available 25 vehicles in 10 different locations in Houston including the downtown area, Mid-town, Greenway Plaza, and Upper Kirby.

“We want the locations to be five minutes walking distance from neighborhoods, so they can see it as their car,” said Kaye Ceille, president of Zipcar. “They also know that the car may be used by their neighbors, and that’s why its car-sharing.”

[…]

Zipcar was introduced to Rice University in 2008, allowing students, staff and faculty to use its services.

Of course I noted Zipcar’s arrival at the time. Here’s more from their press release.

Beginning today, 25 Zipcars are available by the hour or by the day for residents, students, businesses and visitors in the city of Houston. Zipcar’s revolutionary “wheels when you want them” service offers a wide variety of vehicles, from MINI Coopers to pickup trucks, and includes gas, a reserved parking spot, insurance, and 180 miles per day, making it a great option for those looking for convenient and cost-effective transportation. The launch, which makes Houston the company’s 27(th) major metropolitan area, will be supported by a retail office where members can interact with a local team.

Zipcars are parked in prime locations throughout Houston including the Downtown area, Midtown, and Greenway Plaza/Upper Kirby. Zipcar expects to expand the service to additional neighborhoods in the near future. The vehicles are parked in designated parking spots and can be reserved in seconds on Zipcar’s mobile app, online or over the phone. Rates start as low as $9 per hour and $73 per day. Membership information is available at www.zipcar.com/houston.

[…]

Zipcar’s consumer launch builds on its successful program with the city of Houston FleetShare program in which Zipcar technology is embedded in city-owned vehicles, increasing efficiency, accountability and lower overall fleet costs. Zipcar has also offered service to Rice University students on campus since 2009. In addition, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University will be adding Zipcars on and near campus to further provide alternative transportation options to students, faculty and staff. These programs are expected to launch in Fall 2014.

“I want to welcome Zipcar to all of Houston,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This is another major step forward in Houston’s ongoing effort to change the way we live and get around the City. Sustainable transportation options offer convenience, are less of a burden on our pocketbooks and also have a big impact on our environment.”

Here’s the map of where Houston’s Zipcars currently livel there are actually several downtown spots for them. I’m sure it will expand to more locations soon. I guarantee that being a Zipcar member is cheaper than owning a car, and having that option available will make living and working in these places a lot more attractive. Sometimes you just need a car, but unless you need one every day having Zipcar around makes a lot of sense.

What should we do about hurricane preparedness?

Or, to put the question another way: Ike Dike, Ike Floodgate, something else, or nothing?

In 2009, months after Hurricane Ike devastated the upper Texas coast, Texas A&M-Galveston professor William Merrell unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan – to much skepticism – dubbed the “Ike Dike.”

The proposal calls for extending Galveston’s seawall 15 miles to the island’s West End, building a similar barrier along Bolivar Peninsula and installing massive Dutch-like floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay.

Snubbed by some for its price tag – an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion – and potentially detrimental environmental impact, the still-evolving concept since has gained many adherents who believe it would protect coastal communities and refineries near the Houston Ship Channel.

Five-and-a-half years after Ike, though, the true feasibility of Merrell’s proposal remains unknown. The same goes for a competing plan devised by Rice University that would guard the Bayou City’s industrial base – the largest petrochemical complex in the country – by placing a 600- to 800-foot wall across the 52-mile Ship Channel near the Fred Hartman Bridge or Morgan’s Point. The architects of the so-called “Centennial Gate” say the $1.5 billion project is more environmentally friendly than the Ike Dike and cheap enough to be funded without having to ask for federal help, meaning it could be built quicker.

Which way to go? Figuring that out is the aim of a new $4 million study by a six-county coalition that will assess both proposals, gather data and determine what – if any – storm surge remedies should be pursued to protect the Houston area from future hurricanes.

[…]

In the years since Ike, a cadre of local leaders, elected officials and academics have come to the conclusion that some kind of protective measures need to be taken, for safety, economic or environmental reasons.

That, however, is where any consensus ends, said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, chairman of the district.

“Doing nothing has been the option used for the last several thousand years,” he said. “We don’t think it’s the best option.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, re-appointed to the district’s board of directors last month, remains a skeptic.

Industry has not pushed for any kind of protective structure, the county’s top elected official said at a recent Houston Chronicle editorial board meeting. He expressed doubts the state could secure federal funding for such a project under the current administration, noting President Barack Obama never made a post-Ike visit to Texas.

“For many reasons, I am skeptical of both the ‘Ike Dike’ and ‘Centennial Gate,’ ” Emmett wrote in a white paper this year, in part because “no other area has chosen to build such protective structures.”

I’ve blogged about this stuff multiple times – see here, here, and here for the Ike Dike; here and here for the Ike Floodgate. I have no idea what the right answer is. As insurance policies go, these are pretty expensive. Not nearly as expensive as a devastating storm, of course, but it’s hard to gauge the odds of a storm hitting in just the right place to do that kind of damage. I’ll be interested to see what this study says, but I doubt we’ll be any closer to deciding on a course of action, much less acting on it.

Metro reports an increase in boardings with bikes

From the inbox:

The number of people using bikes to extend their bus trips (or vice versa) increased more than 47 percent jumping from 12,111 bike bus boardings in January 2013 to 17,859 in January this year, That’s according to METRO figures which do not account for bikes taken onto light-rail trains.

At the METRO Downtown Transit Center you’ll find a bustling bike-share station, and at bus stops and train stations bikes ready to be loaded onto bike racks.

“We are preparing for and trying to cultivate, these folks as repeat customers. We’re doing that with bike racks on buses and at bike stands at bus stops. We’ve installed racks on our new trains and are working with the city to provide better infrastructure with bike lid storage at Park&Ride lots and B-Cycle facilities at our Downtown Transit Center,” says METRO’s Interim President & CEO Tom Lambert.

“The upward trend is gratifying. It’s good exercise, gets cars off the road, relieves congestion and certainly cuts emissions that impact our air quality. We work with bus drivers to be more aware of cyclist needs and the rights of the road,” Lambert continued.

METRO has encouraged bike ridership through collaboration with area agencies – advancing what was a grant for a three-station bike share start-up program to the 29 stations and 227 bikes it has today. Houston B-Cycle has registered more than 55,650 checkouts since opening – which comes to about 1,200 per week since the program expanded in March 2013. One of the most popular bike rental stations is located at METRO headquarters at 1900 Main St.

METRO is also working on a Transit-Bike Connection study as well as partnering with Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) on a Bike and Ride Access Implementation plan. Meanwhile Rice University engineering students turned to METRO to work on their first project — the design of a rack to transport three bicycles at a time via bus. Their METRO-based project won this year’s Texas Department of Transportation’s College Challenge.

That team was one of three finalists asked to develop concepts to help Texas mobility, connectivity and transportation safety issues. Students were motivated by a recent H-GAC study anticipating growth. The three-rack solution is one of several by Houston Action Research Team (HART) undergrads.

Good to hear, and another bit of positive news from Metro at the start of the year. As you know, I’m a big fan of integrating bike and transit networks as a way to extend them. The release also noted that Metro topped 22,000 bike boardings in August, so while the overall trend may be positive – they didn’t give figures for other months – there’s still room for monthly growth. I hope it continues.

Lance Berkman

Former Astro and Rice Owl Lance Berkman hung up his spikes this week.

Lance Berkman
(credit: Photo Mojo on Flickr)

Lance Berkman, who starred at Rice before becoming one of the most clutch hitters in Astros history, is retiring after a 15-year career in the major leagues.

“He’s going to go down as one of the great players in Astros history,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman during the team’s playoff runs in 2004 and 2005. “A local Texas kid, goes to Rice, makes good, comes to the big leagues. He’s been a fabulous player in the big leagues, and he’s done it all with a touch of class.”

It was at Rice where Berkman’s smooth swing first got noticed. He hit 41 homers in 63 games as a junior and was drafted in the first round (No. 16 overall) by the Astros in 1997. Just two seasons later, Berkman was in the majors to stay.

From 2000-09, Berkman hit .300 for the Astros, averaging 31 homers and 103 RBIs.

“There aren’t many better in this generation,” baseball historian/statistician Bill James said at the time.

Among switch hitters, Berkman ranks among the best of all time. His career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .943 is second only to Mickey Mantle’s .977 among switch hitters, and he ranks third among switch hitters in on-base percentage (.406, behind Mantle and Roy Cullenbine) and fourth in home runs (366, behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones).

No question Berkman was a great hitter. But is he a Hall of Fame player? There’s certainly local sentiment for that. My gut intuition was that his career was a little short and left his overall numbers, especially the kind of counting stats that tend to most impress Hall of Fame voters, a bit below the standard. Cliff Corcoran took a deeper look and agreed with that.

Berkman ranks second in baseball history among switch hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances in OPS+, behind only Mickey Mantle, and fourth among switch-hitters in home runs (behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones, though Carlos Beltran will likely pass him this year). However, he doesn’t fare quite as well in the other cumulative stats (which covers everything from hits to wins above replacement), and that reveals the soft underbelly of his Hall of Fame case. For the bulk of his career, Berkman was a tremendously productive hitter, but not only did he play just 15 seasons, he only played in 140 or more games in eight of them.

[…]

Berkman’s retirement doesn’t come as a great surprise, particularly given how close he was to hanging it up a year ago. It does leave us with the question of whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS stats say no. Berkman’s 51.8/.38.9/45.3 career/peak/JAWS scores all fall short of the standard at first base and left and rightfield, his three primary positions (he also played 166 games in center early in his career, which yielded this gem on Tal’s Hill).

It may be surprising that Berkman doesn’t at least meet the standard on peak score, but the combination of the offense-heavy era in which he played, the Astros’ move to the hitter-friendly Enron-cum-Minute Maid Park in 2000, and some brutal fielding scores undercut those impressive statistics above. That, in combination with his short career, make the Hall seem like a longshot for Berkman, though he may get some extra points from the voters for his postseason performance, being a switch-hitter, and for his personality and honesty with the press.

In terms of a comparable candidate, one player that jumps to mind is Edgar Martinez. The legendary Mariners DH was also an undeniably great hitter who also had a memorable postseason moment, made essentially no contribution on defense by virtue of having been a designated hitter for the bulk of his career and had a similarly short career (just 12 qualifying seasons). Martinez hit .312/.418/.515 (147 OPS+) in his career to Berkman’s .293/.406/.537 (144 OPS+). Berkman hit more home runs (366 to doubles-hitter Martinez’s 309), but Martinez, perhaps crucially, surpassed 2,000 hits while Berkman did not (2,247 to 1,905). Martinez also played in more games (2,055 to 1,879) made more plate appearances (8,674 to 7,814), and had superior WAR (68.3 to 51.8) and JAWS scores (55.9 to 45.3). Martinez can also stake claim to being the greatest ever at his position, even if that position was designated hitter. Despite all of that, after five years on the ballot, he has yet to surpass 36.5 percent of the vote.

Edgar Martinez is a good comp, but I think it’s fair to say that Jeff Bagwell belongs in the Hall of Fame before Berkman gets there. He’s got a case, and I’ll be interested to see who argues for him in five years’ time, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate or insulting to say that the Big Puma was a great player and a fearsome hitter who falls a bit short of Cooperstown.

One thing for which there should be no argument at all is for Berkman to retire as an Astro. The team needs to make this happen.

The Astros should sign Berkman, give him his No. 17 to wear one last time for a farewell news conference, and let him retire as one of them, at home in Houston, where he belongs.

Berkman was a clutch hitter who gave the Astros many happy endings. Now they can give him one.

“He’s really an Astro,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman in Houston for parts of four seasons, including the teams that reached the playoffs in 2004 and the World Series in ’05. “He knows it. We all know it.”

That is the mother of all no-brainers. The Yankees did this last year for Hideki Matsui, who was a popular and well-regarded player that made key contributions to the 2009 World Series win and the 2003 LCS win over the Red Sox, but is hardly a franchise cornerstone. Whatever you think about the Yankees, they do this sort of thing right. If the Stros want to ensure at least one sellout crowd this year, they need to start planning for Lance Berkman Day at Minute Maid. (They should be planning JR Richard Day, too, but that’s another story.) It’s great that the team wants to bring Nolan Ryan on board, but one way or the other they need to give Lance Berkman a proper sendoff. Make this happen, y’all.

Saving Rice Stadium

Houston has another historic stadium in it that’s seen better days, but this one is still in use and has some hope of being restored to its former glory.

Rice Stadium, 1951

As a place to watch a game, there are few better than Rice Stadium, thrown up almost overnight between the 1949 and 1950 seasons. But it also was a time before television discovered college football. And before professional sports discovered Houston. Times changed.

Today, as the Rice Owls play for their first outright conference championship since 1957, it is an apt moment to ask whether the city’s first great stadium, with seating for 70,000, has outlived its usefulness. Rice boosters say yes, reluctantly. And no, emphatically.

“Over the years it has been looked at as under-utilized asset – we don’t need it, we can’t take care of it,” said architect and Rice alum Jack McGinty. “It’s been recommended that it be demolished. I think that time has passed. They realize its architectural value. It was the most famous football stadium in America.”

“Was” is the operative term in McGinty’s assessment. Less than a generation after it was built, another Houston stadium became the most famous sporting venue of any sort. But he remains ever-loyal, in no small measure because his father was on the team of designers.

“It’s a far greater architectural treasure than the Astrodome,” McGinty said. “Not from a civic or historical point of view, of course, but architecturally speaking. It won all sorts of awards for its architecture.”

All true. Yet with the passing years it became a little too big, and a little old, and more than a little lacking in modern amenities. Now a plan is afoot to do something about that.

The school has contracted with HKS Architects, a leading national firm with the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium among its many credits, to do a study of stadium enhancement and athletic department needs. Their conclusions will result in a plan that will supplant the one approved by trustees two years ago that went nowhere. That in turn will spark a major fundraising effort to put the school’s athletic facilities on a par with those of comparable schools, including Stanford and Duke.

“The former project is dead,” said David Gibbs, an alum and major benefactor who has been devoted to refurbishing the stadium. “What I call the historic preservation and comprehensive enhancement of iconic Rice Stadium is just getting started.”

Offcite had a nice story about Rice Stadium and its historic value the other week. It’s worth clicking on just for the pictures. As someone who has been at Rice Stadium for nearly every home game since 1988, I can tell you it’s a great place to see the game. You’re close to the action, the sight lines are outstanding, there’s really not a bad seat in the house. The amenities, if you can call them that, are embarrassingly bad, and are a big impediment to the football program being seen as modern and competitive. Just having concessions and bathrooms that aren’t 1950’s vintage would go a long way. We fans have been clamoring for upgrades for years, maybe now we’ll finally get them. I sure hope so.