In a thirteen-to-one decision Houston council members voted to do away with red light cameras and break the city's contract with American Traffic Solutions, the private company responsible for operating and maintaining the cameras. The cameras have been switched off before. This time, it appears, they are off permanently.
The cameras have become a hot button political issue and the subject of a lengthy, and potentially costly legal battle for Houston. The cameras were first shut off last November following a referendum in which 52.3 percent of voters opposed the camera program. But just days later, ATS won a court ruling that found that public vote invalid and the cameras came back on.
The contract with ATS was set to run until 2014. After the referendum, the city asked a federal court to determine how much should be owed to ATS. The camera vendor is currently seeking $25 million in damages. Houston Mayor Annise Parker, however, disputes this amount and calls it completely ludicrous.
It’s not exactly clear why Houstonians were against the cameras in the November referendum, but one prominent criticism was the claim the program was merely a revenue generating exercise for the city. The cameras brought in $10 million a year. The referendum result came as something of a surprise because polling before election day showed citizen support for the cameras.
Michael Kubosh wasn't surprised. The local bail bondsman spearheaded the citizen’s campaign against the cameras. He often worked with people who received red light tickets to contest the charges and was on hand Wednesday when the final city council vote was passed. "Thank God they finally did it today. It looked like they were going to waffle, it looked like they were going to kick the can down the road some more. But I guess they just got tired of it."
Just one councilmember, Sue Lovell, voted to keep the program. She argued the city should accept a settlement offer from ATS and thus avoid the possibility of having to pay millions of dollars in damages for breaking their contract. That proposal would have kept the cameras through 2013. "We're not going to walk away with this with zero damages; we're going to have some debt. And no matter what the debt is, it's going to put us in a situation of making tough decisions." Lovell said her plan would prevent layoffs resulting from the loss of revenue. Her council members were unconvinced.
The council vote repeals the original law authorizing the cameras. Mayor Annise Parker says it is now illegal for the city to operate them and added that is not the only thing that's against the law. "For those who may be celebrating the fact that the red light cameras are now turned off, it is illegal to run a red light."
The city's legal department sent a letter to ATS instructing them to turn the cameras off. ATS officials say they'll continue to pursue litigation against the city.
Texas picks up over a billion pieces of 'road debris' annually. And while it's not just tires (sofas, mattresses, chairs and ladders have been retrieved from roadways) this summer's blistering heat has caused increased numbers of what workers call 'alligators' -- pieces of truck tire that come off when the rubber hits the hot road.
You can listen to the story over at KUHF.
Over 30,000 homes in Houston have no cars and no access to buses, trains, or park and rides, according to a study released this week by the Brookings Institution.
And that puts Houston ahead of Dallas and Atlanta, which topped the list.
"It’s over 120,000 households (that) don’t have a car… and the coverage rate for them is 73%. By that we mean, the amount of households that live within three quarters of a mile of a transit stop", says Adie Tomer, author of the study. Tomer says increasing numbers of low income families are moving from the city out to the suburbs, and he says in cities like Houston these can be quite isolated areas, almost 'transit deserts."
Houston’s METRO has been working to fill transit gaps in the city and Tomer says this shows, “If you look at the city you’ve got about 98% of no-car households with access to transit, but its Houston’s suburbs that bring the overall number down.”
The survey covered Houston, Sugar Land and Baytown. It’s those last two areas that are suffering most from lack of transit access.
Patrick Walsh, the Assistant Director of Community Development for Sugar Land, says "The zip code that has the greatest number of commuters to downtown is 77479, right here in the Sugar Land area. So we think Sugar Land is ready for some improved transit connections directly to downtown."
For the full radio story, listen to the radio version at KUHF.
(Houston, TX) Getting to work in Houston without a car? Or at least a car that has more than one passenger? The Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) is asking Houstonians to do just that throughout the month of August with their project My Solution Is. They’re also looking for input from the public on new alternatives to one-adult-per-car commuting.
CEO of METRO, George Greanias says commuters can choose from a number of their transit options: “We provide park and ride service at twenty-nine lots around the city, we do about a hundred miles of HOV lanes that people are using and that our park and ride facilities are using.”
But that may be a challenge. A recent survey by The Brookings Institution ranked the city 72 out of 100 metropolitan cities for access by any form of transit other than automobile.
Greanias acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to do, “We’re not satisfied though with what’s in place. We’re looking to build more. We’re looking at extending certain bus routes and we’re building these light rail lines all of which are designed to give people again an option besides their automobile.”
Transport Director with the H-GAC Alan Clark calculates that Houston commuters who rely on their cars spend about $1300 dollars annually getting to and from work. Clark feels that it’s really the time spent in traffic where commuters lose out. “There’s all kinds of impacts even if it’s just the fact that you’re losing the equivalent of a full week in lost time stuck in traffic (per year). That’s a week you could have either been working or with your family or just doing whatever you like to do,” says Clark.
A number of local businesses will talk to their employees about trying an alternate method of transit at least one day in the month of August. Seventeen management districts within Harris County and Fort Bend County are also playing a big part.
For the full story, listen to the radio version at KUHF.
(Houston, Texas) In Texas they call it the “One Hundred Deadliest Days for Drivers”. It’s the summer stretch where students are finished school and taking to the roads. Statistics from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety say 366 of all fatal collisions were caused by teenagers in 2009, the most recent year statistics were available.
Jeff Kaufman, Transport Safety Coordinator with the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) says the idea started with local police Assistant Chief Vicky King. “She had come up with the idea that she wanted to do a documentary about the dangers of driving while intoxicated and gear it towards younger drivers."
Erica Moriarty, a local high school senior, was one of 13 teens recruited to work on the project. Moriarty would regularly see her peers drinking too much at parties -- and think it was okay to drive home.
The documentary opens with a young girl slurring her words saying how she wanted to “get drunk and get her party on." The same teen later on admits that she plans on driving home. Some of the teen producers went to the local detox facility and the morgue to see the real side of what drinking and driving can do.
One of these stories in the documentary is told by ‘Milly’. Milly was 17 when she got drunk and drove her three friends home -- one of whom, Danny, never made it. While recording for the documentary Moriarty said Milly’s story was so powerful that the room was silent, “We were a team of 13 teenagers, we were never quiet we were always talking. I just remember that being super impactful because it really showed what the consequences are in just one person.”
Although the accident happened seven years ago, while recounting it Milly breaks down and tearfully relates how much her one mistake cost everyone, including herself. “I had everything in my world. I had amazing parents and family and I had my whole life in front of me and Danny had, Danny had her whole life ahead of her. She was smart and amazing and the center of everyone’s world…everyone loved her So I took her promising future and all the opportunities that she was gonna have away from her.”
Since its release five weeks ago the documentary has received nearly six thousand hits on YouTube.
For the full story, listen to the radio version at KUHF.
Naomi Hirsh is a 76-year-old woman living in Houston, Texas -- and, according to a report from Transportation for America, she is part of the sixty-eight percent of elderly city residents whom are underserved when it comes to public transit.
Naomi has tried many different ways to navigate car-dependent Houston. Her situation is complicated by ongoing balance issues caused by a serious car accident in 2006, and she can’t leave her apartment without help. She said there are some local organizations that help -- but her home is in the wrong part of town. “Some of the organizations ... have volunteers in various areas and the first thing they ask you is what is your zip code? Well, my zip code is too far out for any of them to come.”
David Goldberg with Transportation for America said Naomi’s case is not unique -- and he expects to see the problem worsening in the coming years. “What’s happening is that we have the largest generation in the history of the country, the baby boom generation, who also has the longest life expectancy of any previous generation," he said. "And they will have diminished capacity for driving an automobile."
Rafael Ayuso, a spokesman with AARP Texas, said this issue affects hundreds of thousands of Houston residents. “What has happened here is that about four out of every five seniors aged 65 plus, is car-dependent. So we have a perfect storm brewing here of increasing numbers of baby boomers (with) mobility options (that) are very severely limited.”
As gas prices are finally stabilizing, alternative fuel ideas may return to the back burner. But at least one professor is making strides in one of the more elusive energy sources, hydrogen. The key is trapping enough of the gas to meet Department of Energy standards, and storing the energy at temperatures that make every day use viable.
When hydrogen burns in an engine with oxygen the output is pure, clean water. This makes it one of the most carbon neutral fuels to be found, however trapping the hydrogen, as it's quite a dense gas has been the problem. Several prototypes and early model hydrogen cars have been on the roads for a couple decades now, and many automakers are slowly experimenting with the prospect of zero emissions cars, but a method for harnessing hydrogen safely and efficiently enough for mass production has still eludes automakers.
Rice University Mechanical Engineering Professor Boris Yakobson has a fuel cell model that is in the concept phase now, but it exceeds the Department of Energy's specifications. The DOE says at least 6 percent of hydrogen needs to be stored to power a car. Yakobson believes he can harness at least 8 percent using a relatively simple 'grapevine'-like structure. He proposes using a fuel cell based on "a particular form of carbon as a building element. Then in addition to this we can also introduce another element calcium," he says. "Calcium has the special property of attracting hydrogen molecules."
The most important element of this structure is its stability, allowing hydrogen to be stored at higher temperatures. Right now the only way to store hydrogen so it's usable is at sub-zero temperatures. With Yakobson's latest model, temperature would not matter, making it a longer-term viable solution for future hydrogen car manufacturers.
This is just a concept idea from Yakobson and his team but some initial tests show it's a promising option and takes us a step closer to getting longer-lasting hydrogen cars on the road.
For the full story and more on the 'grapevine' structure, listen to the radio version at KUHF.
As we've reported just last year Houston's transit authority, METRO, needed to make some tight cuts to help balance the city budget. With a deficit of $430,000 the agency wanted to come up with ways other than job cuts and fare hikes to meet that deficit. Now it seems they may have found an outlet.
Combining their needs with the city of Houston, METRO will now be able to contract for services jointly, making it a more competitive deal for both. Some of the joint services they'll be sharing with the city include:
• Gasoline and diesel fuel
• Fuel delivery
• Office supplies
• Police vehicles
• Non-revenue vehicles
METRO hopes to branch out and do a similar deal with the Houston Independent School District and local community colleges.
FULL TEXT of their press release:
For Immediate Release June 8th 2011
METRO, CITY OF HOUSTON INK COST-SAVINGS AGREEMENT
PARTNERSHIP LEVERAGES AGENCIES’ BUYING POWER, SAVES TAXPAYER DOLLARS
The new METRO and the city of Houston signed off on a first-of-a-kind inter-local purchasing agreement that will reduce costs for the two entities.
This partnering approach allows the city and METRO to buy or contract for services jointly, resulting in lower pricing, standardizing commonly-used items and allowing both to benefit from more favorable terms and conditions.
“In these tough economic times, we have to be more creative and efficient in spending taxpayer dollars,” said METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia.
Contracting opportunities include, but are not limited to:
“One of METRO’s priorities is strategic partnering. This agreement is not only a win for METRO, it’s a win for the city and most importantly, it’s a win for the taxpayers,” said METRO President & CEO George Greanias.
According a Brookings Institution report released last month, only about 45 percent of the Houston population lives within walking distance of transit.
"In the Houston metro area it's not just the Metropolitan Transit Authority but also Island Transit, Fort-Bend county public transit, the Brazos transportation district," says Robert Puentes, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Puentes thinks the ranking of 72 will come as no surprise to most Houstonians as the city is so spread out. But he did say Houston transit offers relatively good service.
“Service frequency was 7.3 minutes, that’s the median wait during rush hour. That’s actually lower, which is a good thing for the metro area average which was about ten minutes.”
Brookings spent two years on this comprehensive study. Much of the data they needed had never been looked at before, so Puentes says a lot of this was uncharted territory.
Metro is shrugging off the ranking. “We’re really not even focused on the ranking as much as the idea and the hope that this does get people talking about transit and what’s needed for the future," says Metro spokesman Jerome Gray.
Gray says Metro believes in a dialogue so much they’re running workshops thru June 30th to hear what locals have to say about transport in their communities. He describes it as a long range plan that will take at least 18 months before they can even come back to the community with suggestions.