Heads roll at ERCOT. Don’t fall for it.

Five members of the ERCOT board who aren’t Texas residents have resigned in response to outrage over last week’s disaster.

I will concede, it is extremely unbecoming of ERCOT to resort to out-of-staters to fill its board. This is a state of 30 million and the historic energy capital of America. Are there really not enough qualified candidates in that pool?

Our state leaders are peddling these resignations as a meaningful response to last week’s crisis. They are hoping that the crisis will be interpreted by voters as simply the result of absentee leaders being asleep at the wheel.

Don’t fall for it.

First, ERCOT does not have meaningful regulatory power. It’s the Public Utility Commission, whose board is appointed by the governor, that calls the shots. Here’s what one longtime energy insider tells me:

“Essentially the PUC gives (ERCOT) the ability to write rules. However if the rules are controversial then they can be appealed by anyone to the PUC. So practically that means they mostly write technical rules or small ball rules. Big policy items are at the PUC.”

ERCOT’s job is to prevent the grid from collapsing. Last week, it did its job. It does not have the ability to force utilities to generate or store power in anticipation of the type of major surge in demand that took place last week. When Texas deregulated its electricity market 20 years ago, it placed its faith in the market addressing that issue. Last week the market failed, and it will fail again unless significant changes to the system are made.

In many other states, utilities are paid to have additional energy capacity that may not be useful 99% of the time. In other words, when customers pay their electrical bills, they are not just paying for the energy they are using, but for the investments the utility has made in preparation for an emergency. In Texas, power generators aren’t required to prepare for major demand surges, but they are incentivized to do so; when demand skyrockets they are able to sell their power for a fortune to power distributors.

Texas’s system is supposed to result in lower prices most of the time. In practice, it may have resulted in lower prices for large commercial customers but it has not resulted in lower utility bills for your average residential customer. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

Texas’s deregulated electricity market, which was supposed to provide reliable power at a lower price, left millions in the dark last week. For two decades, its customers have paid more for electricity than state residents who are served by traditional utilities, a Wall Street Journal analysis has found…

…Those deregulated Texas residential consumers paid $28 billion more for their power since 2004 than they would have paid at the rates charged to the customers of the state’s traditional utilities, according to the Journal’s analysis of data from the federal Energy Information Administration.

Robert Cullick, who oversaw communications at Austin Energy from 2014-19 and had a similar role at the Lower Colorado River Authority from 1991-2001, described the state’s system thus:

“Power is generally cheap, except when it’s extraordinarily expensive. Power is generally reliable, except when it’s off for four days.”

The good news for Austinites is that not only are Austin Energy rates codified by city ordinance, but because AE is both a generator and a distributor, it both sold and purchased power at last week’s exorbitant rates, meaning that it did not suffer the crippling financial losses that some purely distributor utilities are now passing onto customers. (In other words, AE generates power, which it sells into the ERCOT grid at whatever the market rate is and then it buys the energy back to distribute to its customers. Yes, it’s confusing)

The bad news is that we will likely face power outages again –– just like we did in 2011 –– unless the state imposes new requirements on utilities that it is willing to enforce. For instance, it could mandate that power generators make certain investments to protect their plants from cold weather. But those requirements need to be accompanied by accountability, either in the way of inspections or major penalties in the event that a generator goes offline.

None of these changes will occur by changing who is on the board of ERCOT.

“This is going to take a thoughtful discussion about how much risk I am willing to take in exchange for the few dollars (a month in savings),” says Cullick. Scapegoating ERCOT or renewable power is a distraction from that necessary discussion, he adds.

So far Abbott is not talking about making the type of switch to that type of “capacity” system.

He is, however, talking about requiring winterization — and even providing state funding for it. Having the state pay, rather than utility customers, is a more progressive cost structure. But is this going to be a long-term commitment from the state or just a one-time injection of assistance whose usefulness will wane over time as facilities age?

Cullick’s concluding remark: “I for one am going to Lowe’s to buy a generator.”

EMS union prez describes harrowing week during storm

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In response to a newsletter from earlier this week, in which I referenced the blasé attitude expressed by some about last week’s disaster, Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association, sent me an email detailing her experience as a medic during the storm.

Here are her words, verbatim:

Early Monday, power shut down for many Austinites. I jumped on an ambulance to start responding to emergency calls at around noon. While our shift started at 10 am, the ambulance had been t-boned by a vehicle that lost control. We had heard of crews holding over for over 4 hours working over 28 hours straight, with no rest.

Our first 911 call was someone who lost power. He was reliant on his oxygen concentrator to live. His oxygen levels started dropping without it. Our ambulance got stuck going up a hill that had snow deceptively covering ice. After two hours, one of ATCEMS’s 4x4s was able to extract us. By the time we reached the patient, his oxygen levels were half of what is normal. As we rode into the hospital, I tried every form of oxygen, trying to get his levels up to a place that would be safe (or safe for intubation if necessary).

Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie.

Our second patient was a bone cancer patient who couldn’t get his pain meds refilled due to the road conditions and he was in agonizing pain. Our third patient was on hospice and expected to die in a few days at home comfortably surrounded by loved ones. When his oxygen that was making him comfortable went out, he started making awful grunting sounds. It is not acceptable to die like that, in agony. We had no other options at the time than to take the person to the hospital to keep him comfortable, but not before we let his wife cry against his chest for 5 minutes, which was all we felt comfortable sparing at the time.

Then we ran an overdose, a young woman who was brought to her limit living in her freezing vehicle that had run out of gas. Then in the evening, the carbon monoxide calls started coming in. People choosing between freezing and burning furniture to keep their families warm causing carbon monoxide poisoning.

As the next days approached, we would see our infrastructure fall like dominos – a freeze meant no power. No power meant no water, no gas, no power or water meant different type of medical emergencies to follow. Our methadone clinics and dialysis clinics closed which meant people dying or critically ill while needing dialysis. Someone asked me for help to get dialysis and the response from the hospitals was, unless you’re close to dying, you’re not eligible for dialysis.

After my shift, I slept for the whole day. On Wednesday I started thinking about how to make sure EMS crews got food (many were stranded at work or asked to work 24 on 24 off).

While getting food to crews, I got a phone call. The person’s cousin had died and 911 said there were no resources to take the body away. He didn’t know what to do. I told him his options were to wait or put the body in his vehicle and drive it to a funeral home if it was safe. I cried in my car for an hour after that. I told someone to load their loved one’s body in a car and take it to a funeral home. And honestly, that wasn’t the best advice but that was the best I could do and I couldn’t believe those words came out of my mouth in this city, in this country.

It was only Wednesday, and we would continue to see people resort to illicit drugs to stave off withdrawals from methadone clinics closing, people dying from electrolyte imbalances from lack of dialysis, our only Level 2 trauma hospital evacuating patients and closing the doors to EMS, our only Level 1 hospital almost on the same verge. It was and continues to be a humanitarian crisis and it is horrifying that there exists so much privilege that people can be blind to it.

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What about next time?

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Well, that was something, wasn’t it? The gorgeous weather this weekend was surreal. Had the frigid chaos of the previous week just been a bad dream? I was certainly tempted to think so as I sipped a margarita in a friend’s yard yesterday afternoon.

Unfortunately, there remains plenty of evidence that it was not merely a dream. Empty grocery shelves. Broken water pipes. Dead bodies.

One reader who emailed me about the issue described the power and water outages as a “minor inconvenience” for most Texans. While he conceded that some had genuinely suffered, he described the outrage expressed by the rest of us as “too much whining.” After all, he pointed out, there are millions if not billions around the world who endure similar deprivation on a daily basis.

One part of that is obviously true. Hopefully experiencing that level of hardship will raise people’s awareness of the suffering that exists around the world, including in our own neighborhoods. And hopefully that awareness will inspire greater compassion. Just think: even when there aren’t extreme weather events, there are still people sleeping outdoors when it’s either far below or far above a reasonable indoor temperature. And there are families sleeping in cars or in homes where the power and water has been cut off because they can’t pay their bills.

As I saw one person aptly comment: After last week, how could it possibly be controversial for the city to provide housing to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets?

But back to the “whining”: it was very much justified. And it should continue unabated until the state of Texas does what it needs to do to make sure this never happens again.

What happened last week is not what is supposed to occur in a developed country, let alone the richest country on Earth. Guaranteeing electricity and clean water are two of the most basic expectations people of all political stripes have of their government.

Unless state government makes changes, there is good reason to believe the next crisis will be worse. Officials at ERCOT say that we were within minutes of a complete grid collapse.

Just ponder that for a moment. Power would have gone out everywhere, including hospitals, police and fire stations, the warming centers where people were seeking refuge. Experts predict it would take weeks, perhaps months, to get the grid running again. Everything we depend on — food, water, telecommunications, gas — would suddenly disappear or become extremely scarce. During that time, Texas would become a giant refugee camp, likely prompting an unprecedented federal mobilization — FEMA, the National Guard, perhaps other branches of the military — to prevent starvation and chaos.

Apologists for the status quo — Rick Perry comes to mind — dismiss last week’s disaster as a fluke. It was a once-in-a-century storm, for God’s sake. What is a few days without power every 100 years?

There are two big problems with this logic. The first is that due to climate change, extreme weather events are going to become more frequent. The second is that, again, there’s no reason to assume the next time won’t be worse and the consequences of a grid collapse are so great that it warrants sacrifice in the good times — potentially in the form of higher electricity prices — to prevent it from occurring. Whatever good comes from the current system (and it’s not even that good) is a pretty weak justification for the misery inflicted upon millions last week, let alone the prospect of a grid collapse that could easily result in tens of thousands of deaths.

I will end this on a slightly more optimistic note. As shameful and embarrassing as it was that Greg Abbott’s initial response to the crisis was to go on Hannity to bash the Green New Deal — a bill that has zero chance of passing in the foreseeable future – it’s encouraging that he has since pivoted to requiring utilities to winterize. The cheap ideology that state leaders have used to paper over their other derelictions of duty — their refusal to expand Medicaid, for instance — isn’t going to work this time. This time, it wasn’t just poor people getting screwed. Even their campaign donors were freezing.

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A super-cheap way to improve transit

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Last week the Austin Transportation Dept announced plans to put in place “interim” transit priority lanes on a two-mile stretch of E. Riverside, between Summit St & Grove Blvd:

These aren’t full-fledged dedicated lanes, but rather painted lanes, similar to what exists currently on sections of Guad & Lavaca downtown, that are supposed to be reserved for buses and bikes. Cars should only enter to make right turns.

From ATD:

East Riverside Drive is a major transit corridor for Capital Metro, and the nine bus routes that will operate in these transit priority lanes carry almost 20% of Capital Metro’s riders. During pre-COVID normal traffic periods, the thousands of Austin residents on board these routes experienced persistent delays during peak hours while traveling to work, school, and other destinations…

…The installation of transit priority lanes on this corridor, we estimate the potential for transit travel time savings of up to 5.5 minutes during peak periods compared to pre-COVID travel times. General purpose traffic may see an increase in travel time during peak periods, but these impacts are anticipated to be minimal.

5.5 mins is huge! This is long overdue and hopefully indicates an appetite at City Hall for similar changes on other major transit corridors. One obvious example is the Drag, which is where the 803 and 801 MetroRapid buses end up getting stuck during rush-hour, resulting in major delays and “bunching,” where buses that are supposed to be 10 minutes apart end up right behind one another.

Unlike the ones on Guad & Lavaca, these lanes won’t be red. That’s because they’re “interim” and the red paint is apparently expensive. At least the good stuff is. When Cap Metro tried to use the cheap stuff it quickly faded to Aggie maroon. Sad. The project will cost an estimated $100k, ATD tells me.

This is only an “interim” project because E. Riverside will eventually be home to the Blue Line, one of Project Connect’s two light rail lines. There may still be a good argument for keeping bus priority lanes, but a big chunk of today’s bus riders will be on the train.

These types of projects are the result of an interlocal agreement between Cap Metro and the city. Cap Metro pays to build it and the city is responsible for maintaining it. The city owns the road, so it’s up to the city whether to allocate a portion of it to transit. Usually these decisions can be made administratively by city staff, but obviously City Council can intervene if it chooses.

If the city is serious about achieving the goals outlined in all of its lofty plans, such as reducing the percentage of commuters in single-occupancy vehicles to 50% by 2039, it needs to get much more aggressive in reallocating right-of-way from cars to other modes: transit, bikes, pedestrians.

Austin voters have made clear, through Prop A & Prop B, that they’re willing to pay for alternatives to cars. Those major investments are necessary, but there are also ways to significantly enhance transit service (thus making it more popular) at a fraction of the cost. All you have to do is take a little bit of space away from cars.

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Trying (and failing) to make sense of the death of Alexander Gonzales

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On Jan. 14 the Austin Police Dept submitted the “custodial death report” to the Texas Attorney General’s office about the death on Jan. 5 of Alexander Gonzales, who was killed after a bizarre, late-night confrontation with an off-duty officer.

Understandably, much of the scrutiny of this case by the media and activists has focused on the on-duty officer who showed up after the initial confrontation and fired the fatal shots. But I think it’s equally important to scrutinize the story told by the off-duty officer who admits to firing on Gonzales’ car –– apparently wounding Gonzales and his girlfriend –– before calling 911. There are many parts of the story that are hard to believe and there is one potentially significant difference between APD’s initial report and the one that it submitted to the AG yesterday.

Both the initial report and yesterday’s report say the unidentified off-duty officer was “driving in a neighborhood” and “noticed there was a car behind him” after turning onto the 2500 block of Wickersham Ln, where he was driving southbound. It doesn’t say what street he was turning from. That probably means he was turning off E. Oltorf:

Next, it says this:

“This car cut the officer off and once it pulled up along side his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him. The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Time out. He “cut the officer off”? Usually that expression refers to someone switching lanes in front of you. Wickersham has no marked lanes. Here’s what the street looks like:

Next, it says this:

“This car cut the officer off and once it pulled up along side his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him. The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Time out. He “cut the officer off”? Usually that expression refers to someone switching lanes in front of you. Wickersham has no marked lanes. Here’s what the street looks like:

If Gonzales did try to cut in front of the officer, it would almost certainly mean that he drove into the left side of the street to pass the officer on his left.

That means that if Gonzales, who was driving, was pointing a gun at the officer, he was pointing it over his girlfriend, who was in the passenger seat, and threatening to fire through the passenger window.

In the report submitted to the AG’s office, there is no longer any talk of “cutting off.” This time, it just says this:

“This car pulled up alongside his vehicle, the officer saw the driver point a gun at him.”

It’s important to note that this is taking place at 12:30 a.m. There are street lights on Wickersham; I don’t know how easy it would have been in that environment to discern a driver in another vehicle pointing a gun. It doesn’t state whether Gonzales was pointing through an open window.

Both reports follow with this description of what follows:

“The officer fired at the suspect, and the vehicle continued to travel a short distance southbound on Wickersham Lane where it finally stopped against the curb. The officer stopped behind the suspect’s vehicle and called 911 to advise of the situation.”

Neither report describes how the officer fired. Was he firing into Gonzales’ car when it was next to him? Or was he firing through the back of the car after it had pulled in front of him?

Another unanswered question: how long was Gonzales alongside the officer’s car? And how did the officer so quickly pull out his own gun and fire? Did he pull it out of a holster? The glove box?

Finally we get to the issue of motive. Why prompted Gonzales to point a gun at the off-duty officer with his girlfriend and child in the car? This was initially framed as a road rage incident, but nothing in either report hints at what might have provoked the rage. The only way I can understand the actions attributed to Gonzales is if he was having a severe mental health crisis, such as a schizophrenic episode. That’s certainly possible.

Another possible theory is that Gonzales knew who was driving the car and was intentionally threatening or attempting to kill the off-duty officer. Or that he mistook the off-duty officer for someone else who he wanted to threaten or kill. Both are possible.

If the incident actually took place the way it is presented in the reports, then there is substantial context missing for no good reason.

I am awaiting a response from APD about whether the off-duty officer was tested for drugs or alcohol after the incident. That’s one of many questions APD must answer about this story. Others include:

Did the off-duty officer know Gonzales, either personally or through prior interactions as an officer?

Where was the officer coming from that night? Was he coming from a restaurant or bar where he may have been drinking and if so, do credit card records indicate whether he had recently purchased drinks?

There is reason to believe that answers will emerge to these questions more quickly than in past officer-involved shootings. Travis County’s new district attorney, Jose Garza, has made it a priority to investigate police shootings — including the deaths of Mike Ramos and Javier Rambler — and both Gonzales’ parents and his girlfriend are being represented by experienced local attorneys.

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Will APD change its militaristic academy?

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On Dec. 29 the city of Austin released two reports prepared by two different consultants that examined the police department’s approach to race and diversity. These reports were prompted by Council actions that preceded the turmoil over police violence this year.

The first report was prepared by Raymond Weyandt, a grad student at the LBJ School of Public Policy and founder of the Peace Mill, a policy consulting group whose website could definitely benefit from a little more information about the group and the people behind it. He was tasked with assessing seven of APD’s 48 divisions on diversity and equity. The second was a report by Joyce James Consulting to “help identify racial inequities within APD and develop immediate and prolonged strategies to eliminate them.”

There’s too much go through in one day, so today I’m just going to focus on what I view as the most topical part of Weyandt’s report: his assessment of APD’s training and recruitment division, which is responsible for the 8-month cadet academy that every officer goes through before joining the force.

City Council members have been calling for reforms to the academy long before the George Floyd protests, citing claims by some former cadets that the training championed a militaristic, antagonistic approach to policing. After last year’s protests, Council, as part of its “reimagining public safety” thing, cancelled three cadet classes –– one that was scheduled for last November, one this spring and one next summer. The idea was that training shouldn’t resume until it is reformed, but in response to a wave of retirements and resignations, the mayor and Council are under increasing pressure to re-open the academy.

Some of the most notable findings by Weyandt:

Of the 70 employees of APD’s training division, only one is black

From 2015-20, only 48% of black men cadets graduated. They were much more likely to quit or leave due to injury, while 83% of Hispanic men and 82% of white men graduated. I would be wary of the stats on women due to their much smaller sample sizes, but about two-thirds of white women graduated, as did just over half of black women and Hispanic women. An oft-cited fact by those who opposed delaying the cadet classes was that the most recently-cancelled class was the most racially diverse in the city’s history.

“Multiple former cadets” in “separate” interviews said training staff denigrated the homeless and recommended the homeless as easy targets for citations on a “slow day”

”Multiple cadets stated that they and their colleagues had been screamed at or punished for checking on one another or drinking water during intense physical drills, which last for hours in sweltering summer heat”

“Data provided by APD confirms that a troubling number of cadets were treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration during the academy”

“The academy’s training staff employ dangerous training tactics that have been described by cadets with military backgrounds as ‘worse than anything I went through in [US military training].’”

Concerns that the academy promotes a Lethal Weapon mentality to policing go back many years. The Matrix Report, published in 2016, said the department’s marketing focused on “adventure, danger and the stress of a military-style academy” and that “APD staff should reconsider the image they are invoking to the public regarding police officers in Austin.”

That’s certainly the impression you get from this video of the academy done by APD. I’m not sure when it was filmed (it was uploaded by someone not affiliated with APD in 2018), but it seems to have been done in the last few years and features a lot of footage of training leaders cursing out cadets for shortcomings.

In the video, officers justify the abuse, saying that part of being a good cop is being able to cope with stress. This is definitely true, but I think a more appropriate test of dealing with stress is how you respond to abuse from non-officers. I don’t care if you can stand there while your boss heaps insults on you. Does that teach you how to resolve a tense situation as peacefully as possible? Does that teach you how to gain the trust of the people you’re serving?

Interestingly, one of the cadets undergoing training in this video is Jeremy Bohannon, who is now an APD recruiter. For what it’s worth, Bohannon’s Twitter is focused on community-minded policing. One recent tweet stressed a person’s right not to consent to a search and another lauded patrol supervisors “who question and cancel ambiguous 911 calls which lead to unneccesary profiling by proxy.”

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Traffic on I-35 is the same as it was 20 years ago. But we’re expanding anyway.

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I-35 expansion divides public opinion during economic downturn - Austin  MonitorAustin Monitor
A rendering of the planned expansion of I-35 downtown. The overhaul adds two HOV lanes in each direction.

Wanna hear something incredible? Traffic on I-35 isn’t any worse now than it was 20 years ago.

That can’t be right, you say. Austin’s most prominent traffic pundit certainly didn’t believe it:

But check out this article in the Austin Chronicle from 2002:

Each day, more than 200,000 cars and trucks cross Town Lake on I-35, making that road the busiest six-lane highway in Texas. By 2020, TxDOT consultants predict, 330,000 cars and trucks will cross Town Lake each day — the transportation equivalent of trying to shove the Colorado River through a garden hose.

This article, by the way, described the plan, which had been in the works since the late 80’s, to expand I-35. Back in 2002, the plan was for the expansion to be complete in 2020.

Twelve years later, in 2014, traffic levels were exactly the same. In a report, TxDOT conceded that traffic hadn’t grown on I-35 but attributed it to a national decline in vehicle activity from the recession as well as the opening of SH 130 and SH 45. However, the report warned that traffic had begun to pick up again and would eventually balloon to more than 300,000 by 2035.

Alas, five years later, in 2019, daily traffic was still hovering at around … 200,000. Here’s the daily traffic count at Lady Bird Lake & I-35, year by year:

Just as it did before, TxDOT has simply moved the projection up by a few years. Now instead of talking about 300k vehicles by 2035, they’re talking about 300k by 2045. This is from the Statesman article last month:

Pre-pandemic, more than 200,000 vehicles traversed the highway each day. TxDOT estimates that number will grow to more than 300,000 by 2045.

I have not been able to get in touch with someone from TxDOT to talk about this today but I feel compelled to share this ASAP because the public comment period on the proposed I-35 expansion ends on Dec. 31.

There may be some nuances I am not accounting for. It’s not clear to me, for instance, whether the projected traffic takes into account the proposed expansion or not. If it does, then it aptly illustrates why expanding will simply induce demand and not relieve congestion. However, what is clear is that the projections 20 years ago assumed that the road would roughly stay the same but that traffic would explode. That did not happen. Nor has traffic increased in the past decade –– it’s actually declined.

This is not an uncommon issue in highway planning. The U.S. Department of Transportation systematically exaggerates future highway use when justifying expansions.

It appears that U.S. DOT, which gets its data largely from local agencies, like TxDOT, always assumes that traffic will be higher than it actually is.

For instance, in 2012 Eric Sundquist, a transportation policy wonk at the University of Wisconsin, took a look at the U.S. DOT’s annual traffic projections and found that they always overestimated future traffic:

When the U.S. DOT’s most recent Conditions and Performance Report to Congress hit the streets in 2012, it forecast that national vehicle-miles traveled would reach 3.3 trillion that year. A few months later we learned that their estimate was almost 11 percent too high.

Enough time has passed by now that 61 yearly projections can be compared to the reported VMT. And in 61 cases out of 61, the C&P estimates were too high. For example, the 1999 C&P overshot 2012 reported VMT by more that 22 percent—almost 11 extra states’ worth of driving.

In fact, though the national VMT trend line began flattening in the 1990s and actually turned down in the 2000s, the slope of the C&P projections has remained nearly constant.

State and local agencies, like TxDOT, have an incentive to overestimate future traffic. The more traffic they can project, the more likely they are to convince the feds that they need more money.

As is the case with so many other highway expansions, the proposed expansion of I-35 is paved with bad data.

You’ve got two days left to tell TxDOT what you think about expanding I-35. You can tell them by submitting a comment here.

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City Council races: Win for GOP, loss for housing

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Two runoff elections in West and Northwest Austin were decided by razor-thin margins last night and ended with the defeat of City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan by Mackenzie Kelly and the reelection of Alison Alter over Jennifer Virden.

Results from KVUE.

Since both Alter and Flannigan fell well short of a majority in the general election, my initial inclination was to believe they were both in trouble heading into the runoff, since the small number of voters who show up in runoffs tend to be older and more conservative. And yet, some Dems were still confident that they’d win both runoffs, perhaps easily. They believed that although these were two of the city’s most conservative districts, both have become clearly Dem-leaning in state/national politics and they believed their advantage might be even greater among the small group of weirdos who turn out for runoffs. By highlighting Kelly and Virden’s ties to Trump and right-wing extremists, they hoped partisan polarization would deliver for both incumbents.

Mackenzie Kelly.

In the end, turnout in the runoffs were much higher than ever before. In Alter’s bougie West Austin District 10, turnout rose from 14,820 in the runoff four years ago to 24,109 last night –– an increase of 63%. As I indicated in yesterday’s analysis of early vote figures, there was a particularly big increase in the number of voters with no history of voting in primaries, which made it hard to project their party/ideology. In the early vote (which was 75% of the total vote) in D10, these no-primary history voters accounted for 15.8% of the electorate, up from 6.5% in 2016. (To be clear, few of these people were first time voters –– they simply didn’t have a history of voting in party primaries, suggesting a lower level of political engagement)

As many suspected, it appears that most of these voters with no primary history were activated by the conservative candidates or causes.

As for D6, the conservatives showed strength in last month’s general election, when Flannigan finished with only 40% of the vote, while Kelly took 33% and Jennifer Mushtaler, who ran as a moderate but embraced Kelly’s positions on the biggest issues (police/homelessness/LDC/Project Connect) got 19% and then endorsed Kelly last week.

In other words, liberals can’t just blame the loss in D6 on a low turnout runoff where nobody under 65 voted. Runoffs are still a terrible way to select public officials, but in this case it looks like the conservative message legitimately carried the day in Northwest Austin.

There are many different variables that affect the outcome of a race. In races these close, it’s almost impossible to know what could have changed it.

When Alter trounced Gallo in the runoff four years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Gallo lost because of highly motivated voters upset over Gallo’s support for two controversial developments (the Grove and Austin Oaks) and because liberals were reeling from the shocking victory of Donald Trump the month before and wanted to take it out on anyone vaguely associated with the GOP.

The most obvious analysis of last night is that a large group of voters –– including a fair number of Biden voters –– were unhappy with the handling of the homeless and policing issues. My sense is that those had a bigger impact than Project Connect taxes or the land development code, but I could be wrong. And did the outcome of the presidential election affect the runoffs? Was it Republicans this time who were out for a consolation prize? Perhaps.

Flannigan: Proud of “hard work.”
Addressing a gathering of supporters on Zoom, Flannigan said he was proud of the work he had done during his four-year term and said he believed the city would be better off because of the moves Council made on police reforms, Project Connect, homelessness and racial equity.

“This is a tough night for all of us, but it doesn’t mean that any of this work ends,” he said. “And of course none of us are going away. We didn’t go away when we lost in 2014, and we’re not going away now.”

“Just because the path to equality isn’t straight doesn’t mean we’re not on the right path,” he later said.

He said he was proud to be the first openly gay man on Council and the first Williamson County resident. He urged his supporters to continue pushing on the issues –– saying that the “hard work” will continue.

He didn’t specifically congratulate Kelly but said, “To the new Council member, I hope she does her best to represent this district with honor.

Neither victor show much love for opponent
Kelly released a statement to the press:

“From standing courageously behind our law enforcement community to demanding safer conditions for our homeless population to fighting for transparency at City Hall, the voice of Northwest Austin has been heard. Considering the stark differences between my campaign’s priorities and the platform of the incumbent, their united voice is resoundingly clear this evening. I am honored to be the next District 6 representative and will work immediately to begin healing the divisions in our community.”

The “healing” comment was Bidenesque, although the rest wasn’t particularly conciliatory. In another message she sent to media, Kelly said:

“Congratulations to Council member Jimmy Flannigan on a hard-fought campaign. I, along with my staff, will look forward to working with Austinites from all backgrounds and political persuasions to build a better future for the greatest city in Texas.”

In District 10 Alter posted a FB message with only a veiled (and unflattering) reference to her opponent:

“Thank you to the voters of District 10 who voted in favor of my integrity, policy experience, and proven leadership, and against the politics of fear. “I look forward to serving another four years representing District 10. Austin’s best days are in front of us!”

I haven’t seen anything from Virden yet.

RIP LDC? A setback for housing
Kelly’s victory over Flannigan is a setback for housing and smart growth. Project Connect is a done deal, thanks in part to Flannigan’s advocacy, but the path to a new-and-improved land development code has grown much narrower with his departure. Even piecemeal efforts to address the city’s housing crisis may be doomed.

Land use was definitely not the focus of Kelly’s campaign, but she has said that she opposes the new LDC. Her statements on housing in general have been vague: she has expressed support for reducing regs on development but says she wants to protect the character of single-family neighborhoods.

But it’s hard to know from Kelly’s statements how she’ll vote on the many zoning cases she’ll see every Council meeting. It’s definitely too early to assume she’ll be a reliable vote with the preservationist bloc. Maybe she’d even be willing to support some relatively big reforms if they weren’t accompanied by the political baggage associate with the LDC rewrite.

At the very least, however, there is NO LONGER A MAJORITY in support of the proposed land development code on Council. With Flannigan and Delia Garza on Council, there was a 7-4 majority in favor of the new LDC and in favor of the city appealing the ruling by a county judge that Council needed to approve the new code by a 9-2 vote. With Kelly replacing Flannigan and Vanessa Fuentes, who said she does not support the LDC in its current form, we now have a 6-5 majority against the LDC.

What about Vanessa Fuentes?
Or do we? A lot of that depends on Vanessa Fuentes, the new CM for Southeast Austin’s District 2. Fuentes is an across-the-board progressive who says she supports increasing housing stock in all parts of the city. Her campaign generally did not talk much about development but when I asked her about housing in October this is what she said:

We need more missing-middle and multi-family housing in all areas of this city. I do not support the current LDC. I wish the equity overlay would have come in at the beginning of the process and not the 11th hour.

The equity overlay was the policy championed by Garza and Greg Casar aimed at “protecting” certain low-income areas from gentrification/displacement. The idea was to upzone them less than the rest of the city. (I actually think that’s a recipe for more displacement, not less)

Fuentes certainly enjoyed support from both groups. She took part in the ATXcelerator, a program run by former RECA president Ward Tisdale that tries to get growth-friendly people across the political spectrum involved in city politics. Tisdale, who lives a block away from me, had a Fuentes sign in his yard. But her contribution list also showed support from a number of prominent anti-development types.

The first question is whether Fuentes would side with the five other anti-LDC folks in trying to get the city to stop appealing the court ruling, which a fair number of insiders believe has a decent chance of getting overturned. And if the ruling were overturned, and Council only needs six votes to approve a new LDC, what changes could be made to the draft to get Fuentes to support it?

And if a new LDC isn’t in the cards, can Fuentes be counted on to usually vote for more housing on zoning cases? Are there other reforms aimed at boosting housing supply and reducing sprawl that she will support?

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Statesman journalists take a stand

The staff at the Austin American-Statesman and its six community affiliates have announced plans to unionize. The newly-formed Austin NewsGuild says the “vast majority” of newsroom employees have signed union authorization cards that have been sent to the National Labor Relations Board and are asking Gannett, the media conglomerate that owns the paper, to voluntarily recognize the union and to begin bargaining with it over wages, benefits, staffing, working conditions and hiring practices. 

A press release released by the union included statements of support from a variety of reporters young and old, including 47-year sports vet Kirk Bohls, 14-year food writer Addie Broyles, 16-year editorial assistant Veronica Serrano. Over on Twitter just about every Statesman reporter/editor I follow has expressed support.

The Austin NewsGuild is an affiliate of NewsGuild, formerly the Newspaper Guild, a division of the Communication Workers of America that represents thousands of reporters at national and local publications. Unions used to be common in the news industry and many of the most prominent publications — the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal — have remained unionized. However, in the last few years a rising labor consciousness, particularly among young journalists, has led to widespread unionization in media. Recently-unionized outlets include major dailies such as the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, prestige publications such as the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and digital outlets like Buzzfeed, Salon and Slate. 

Two years ago, when I was writing about the challenges facing the Statesman in the wake of its acquisition by Gatehouse (which has since merged with Gannett), I spoke to numerous current and former Statesman employees about the prospect of unionization and encountered little interest. Some didn’t understand the benefits and some mistakenly believed that unions couldn’t really work in Texas because it is a “right to work” state. 

In fact “right to work,” a cynical misnomer concocted by anti-union Dallas Morning News editorialist William Ruggles in 1941 and embraced by businesses in the years since, only prohibits union contracts that require workers to pay dues. It is a transparent attempt to weaken unions by creating a “freeloader” effect, but unions in RTW states enjoy all of the same federally-protected rights to bargain. Nevada, for instance, is RTW but is nevertheless home to extremely powerful unions that are credited with winning middle-class wages & benefits for unskilled workers in the gaming industry. 

In the last couple years, other papers in historically union-hostile states have organized, including staff at a number of Gannett or Gatehouse-owned papers  who have grown sick of the company’s relentless gutting of newsrooms. Notable examples at Gannett/Gatehouse include the Arizona Republic, the Southwest Florida News, the Palm Beach Post, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Delaware News Journal. 

And most notably, in October staff at the Dallas Morning News voted overwhelmingly to unionize. Days later management at the Fort Worth Star Telegram didn’t bother forcing a vote and elected to voluntarily recognize their staff’s union

According to sources, the organizing drive at the Statesman kicked off in April. As is usually the case in successful union drives, a relatively small number of employees worked deliberately and quietly to gain support for the concept among others before submitting the union petition to management. Although you only need a majority of workers to vote in support of unionization, the goal is generally to have a much stronger majority. First, because you can expect management to work hard to dissuade workers from voting yes, and second because a union that only has the support of a slim majority is not particularly strong. 

Gannett has tried to fight back against union drives in the past but in many, many cases in the last few years it has failed. I should be wary of confidence projected by the union organizers but support certainly seems to be pretty high among staff. 

I wish the Statesman staff the best in this fight. Like any community institution, the local paper is frequently flawed. But we must work to make it better. Part of making it better is supporting its workers fight to earn a decent living.

You can email letters@statesman.com to tell management in less than 150 words that you support the Statesman workers’ bid to have a seat at the table. You can also follow the union on Twitter and Instagram and make your support known to management there.


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What was Adler thinking? And will Dems ever learn?

In a video posted online last night, Adler says he regrets his trip to Cabo.

You’ve probably heard the news by this point. Tony Plohetski of the Statesman/KVUE broke it:

In early November, as health officials warned of an impending COVID-19 spike, Austin Mayor Steve Adler hosted an outdoor wedding and reception with 20 guests for his daughter at a trendy hotel near downtown.

The next morning, Adler and seven other wedding attendees boarded a private jet for Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where they vacationed for a week at a family timeshare.

One night into the trip, Adler addressed Austin residents in a Facebook video: “We need to stay home if you can. This is not the time to relax. We are going to be looking really closely. … We may have to close things down if we are not careful.”

I’m as cynical as the next journalist but I was legitimately shocked. How could he make such a stupid decision? It seemed out of character –– Adler is such a square. He’s cautious to a fault.

Alas, if Adler has an even greater fault than excessive caution, it’s that he’s vulnerable to peer pressure. He doesn’t want to be the deciding vote on an issue. In instances when he has taken controversial stances –– lifting the camping ban, paid sick leave, the APD cuts –– it’s after he has been pushed to take them by much bolder pols (notably Casar). Perhaps the same dynamic is at play in Adler’s personal life: he couldn’t resist turning down an idea that friends and family assured him was fine. 

Suffice it to say, it was not fine. Sure, it was nowhere near as bad as Trump’s massive unmasked gatherings. They took precautions. The crowd was relatively small, the event was outdoors and they all apparently got Covid rapid tests. But it’s still hypocritical and certainly violates the spirit of what Adler has urged Austinites to do, even if, as he repeatedly mentioned in a lawyerly video response last night, his behavior didn’t technically violate the Stage 2 guidelines that the city was recommending at the time, which advise people to avoid gatherings greater than 25.   

The fact that he took a private jet to Cabo is icing on the cake. Similar to the revelation about the California governor and San Francisco mayor dining at an obscenely expensive restaurant with other Very Important People, it’s hard to fathom how politicians who are so used to behaving strategically could do something that they must know will be perceived so badly. It’s like they sat around thinking about the most elitist, out-of-touch thing to do and then did it.

I suppose he displayed a modicum of political caution by waiting until after the election to take the trip, although there are still two City Council runoffs that could be affected by this news. 

As Adler conceded in his video last night, the consequences of this clueless behavior are far greater than whatever direct risk the wedding/trip posed to the community. It sows distrust of government and even greater resistance to the sacrifices we’re being asked to make. It validates the belief held by a significant minority of the population that the pandemic is overblown and/or that few of the precautions we’ve been asked to take are necessary. It also fuels the even more extreme belief, held by a smaller portion of the population, that the pandemic is a complete hoax manufactured to subjugate, enslave us etc. 

Adler’s colleagues staying mum 
Late last night I emailed all 10 City Council members asking them for comment on the matter. As of noon  the only response I have gotten is from Jimmy Flannigan, who directed me to tweets criticizing his opponent, Mackenzie Kelly, who the Chronicle reported was on a family vacation recently. Flannigan’s only comment on the mayor is, “It’s a bad look for any elected — and the mayor has apologized.” Hogue, of the Kelly campaign, tells me that she was in Austin the whole time and was simply taking “time off.” 

Will Democrats ever learn? 
It’s fitting that this news came only hours after I’d been expressing frustration at some of Joe Biden’s brain-dead appointments. Neera Tanden, who he has named to lead the Office of Management and Budget, and Rahm Emanuel, rumored to be a frontrunner for the Dept of Transportation, are both cartoons of the entitled and ethically flexible political class. There are emails of Emanuel, whose professional life has been a meandering journey between Wall Street and government, bragging to a hedge fund manager about gutting health care benefits for retired government employees. Tanden, who led the Center for American Progress, used that organization to raise millions of dollars from middle eastern despots, defense contractors and other major businesses whose interests were in direct conflict with the stated values of the “progressive” group. What they all shared was a desire to crush the insurgent populist wing of the Democratic Party. 

And then of course there are the clueless decisions made by Joe Biden and the previous Dem nominee, Hillary Clinton. Hunter Biden likely didn’t do anything illegal by taking a high-paying position for which he was woefully unqualified at a Ukrainian energy company. It was still completely nuts that he did it and his dad, who was already planning a presidential run at the time, should have done everything possible to prevent him from doing it. There was nothing illegal about Hillary Clinton making gobs of money speaking to Wall Street banks as she prepared to run for president. But it was monumentally stupid and completely discredited her as somebody who is going to work for regular Americans. Years later, bitter partisans still blame her opponents and the media for highlighting this behavior, and refuse to concede that the behavior itself was a problem. 

Don’t you people get it? It’s this type of deception that completely undermines faith in our institutions. And when people lose faith in our institutions, the idea of electing someone who will destroy them entirely, like Donald Trump, doesn’t start to sound so bad. When the leaders who tell you to take Covid seriously go to fancy restaurants or fly to Mexico, why not vote for the guy who tells you there’s nothing to worry about and then holds massive rallies? If the liberal is making more money talking to a group of lobbyists for an hour than you make in five years, why not just vote for the mobster-in-chief who proudly admits to dodging taxes and ripping people off? It’s the Democrats’ hypocrisy that makes Trump, the most prolific liar in modern American political history, appear honest. Because at least there’s a certain consistency to him. 

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