Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hiking, biking and power line rights-of-way

A simple way for the Houston area to expand and connect the gaps in its hike and bike network is to use utility rights-of-way. These ROWs represent long, uninterrupted linear spaces that would be perfect for hike and bike trails. However, as I noted last year, we can't use them because the utility companies that own them want to be free of liability from injuries sustained by hikers and bikers using their property, and that's something that the ambulance-chasers at the Texas Trial Lawyers Association can't countenance.

Fortunately, an effort is afoot in Austin to rectify this impasse:
Hoping to ease the creation of local hike and bike trails, a bipartisan group of Harris County legislators have filed bills that would let local cities build trails on utility rights of way, and limiting the utilities’ liability in return.

Houston voters last fall approved a $166 million bond measure to expand the city’s trail system, to be matched by $105 million in private donations via the Houston Parks Board. About 78 miles of trails would get built, limited largely to east-west paths that run along bayous. Many of the utility easements run north-south.
Sens. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Dan Patrick (R-Houston) filed Senate Bill 633 and State Reps. Jim Murphy (R-Houston), Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston), Wayne Smith (R-Baytown) and Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed House Bill 200. Both drafts were filed Monday.
These lawmakers argue that this law would create an easy and cost-effective path (pun intended) to trail development. As somebody who wishes to see an expanded and well-connected hike-and-bike trail in the Houston area, I agree: this bill is a no-brainer and I hope it passes. However, bills such as these have been proposed in previous legislative sessions, only to be defeated by the trial lawyer lobby.

Kuff points to an article asking how much immunity CenterPoint, the company that owns most or all of the utility rights-of-way in the Houston area, actually needs. It's a fair question, but in my mind it comes down to this: CenterPoint is the owner of these rights-of-way and does not materially benefit from their recreational use (they get good publicity, but that's about it). I don't think it's unreasonable for them to want to be assured that they are protected from liability arising from routine recreational use of their property.

I feel the same way about this now as I did last year:
I'm sure there's a relatively easy solution to this. Obviously, CenterPoint should not be given blanket immunity: if they do something in their right-of-way that is clearly negligent - for example a poorly-maintained power line falls on a biker and electrocutes them - then they should be held liable. But just as obviously, CenterPoint should not be held liable if a jogger trips and falls due to their own clumsiness, or if some dumbass decides to get drunk and ride their bike and crashes into a power pole.
So get it done. Write the law such that a clear line exists between gross negligence (i.e. poorly-maintained power lines) on the part of the ROW owner and "everything else." Bring both CenterPoint and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association to the table to hammer out a compromise that will be reflected in the final version of the bill. Do whatever needs to be done. The placement of hike-and-bike trails along utility ROWs benefits the community at large, and it needs to happen.

The Houston Press has more. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ecuador's president re-elected

There are things to both like and dislike about this election result:
President Rafael Correa, a dynamic leftist who has championed Ecuador's lower classes with generous social spending but faced wide rebuke as intolerant of dissent, coasted to a second re-election on Sunday.

Correa won 56.7 percent of the vote against 24 percent for his closest challenger, former Banco de Guayaquil chief Guillermo Lasso, with 36 percent of the vote counted.
Correa was originally elected in 2006 - at the time I wondered how long he would last, given the picturesque Andean nation's political turmoil - and was re-elected following changes to the nation's constitution in 2009. How has he done so far?
Correa, 48, has brought uncharacteristic political stability and modest economic growth to this oil-exporting nation of 14.6 million people that cycled through seven presidents in the decade before him.

He has raised living standards for the poor and widened the welfare state with region-leading social spending, though human rights groups say he bullies anyone who gets in his way and civil liberties have suffered.
Among Correa's accomplishments are improvements to the nation's health care, education and transportation systems. The number of impoverished people living in Ecuador has also decreased several percentage points under his presidency, if a United Nations report is to be believed.
But Correa has also arbitrarily wielded a near-monopoly on state power, critics say, using criminal libel law against opposition news media and seizing the country's airwaves several times a week to spread his political gospel and attack opponents.
These tactics shouldn't come as a surprise; Correa is merely borrowing a page from the playbook of his "personal friend," ailing Venezuelan quasi-dictator Hugo Chavez. While it's possible that Correa's heavy-handed tactics against his opposition have contributed to Ecuador's much-needed recent economic and political stability, it's nevertheless disappointing. There's also this:
In all, 1.9 million people receive $50 a month in aid from the state. Critics complain that the popular handouts to single mothers, needy families and the elderly poor, along with other subsidies, have bloated the government.

The number of people working for the government has burgeoned from 16,000 to 90,000 during Correa's current term, Ecuador's nongovernmental Observatory of Fiscal Policy said in a December report.

Correa also has been unable to stop a growing sensation of vulnerability in a country where robberies and burglaries grew 30 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year.
That last sentence reinforces what I've said recently about Ecuador's crime rate: that is truly one of the nation's most pressing problems right now. That he's doling out money to the needy (which Correa can do, thanks to high oil prices) and massively expanding the government payroll should come as no surprise, given his leftist philosophy. I can only wonder what those new 74,000 government jobs represent: its understandable if a large number of those jobs are a result of expanded education and healthcare services, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of those jobs represent little more than bureaucratic bloat.

At any rate, the Ecuadorean people have decided that - for better or for worse - they want another four years of Correa's policies, and earlier today he outlined his plans to push through even more radical reforms, while still focusing on encouraging more foreign investment in his country. It would be nice for Correa to be able to accomplish his goals without further eroding press freedoms and civil liberties. But, now that he's been re-elected with over 55% of the vote, Ecuador can likely expect to see more of the same - again, for better or for worse - from the current inhabitant of the Carondelet Palace.

Correa will be re-inaugurated on May 24th. Provided he completes it, by the time his second term ends in 2017 he will have been president for ten consecutive years, a feat unprecedented in Ecuador's turbulent political history.

The Guardian's Mike Weisbrot explains Correa's popularity. The Economist is a bit more skeptical.

Monday, February 18, 2013

American and US Airways to merge

The long-anticipated merger between American Airlines and US Airways was finally announced last week. The deal will create the world's largest airline.

What were once the "Big Six" legacy carriers - America, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways - have now been consolidated to just three. The three, along with once-maverick, now-mainstream Southwest Airlines, now account for about 70 percent of the domestic air travel market. Welcome, fellow air travelers, to a true oligopoly of the skies.

So what can travelers expect from the merger? Most likely, the glitches that seem to accompany every airline merger in recent memory: flight delays, lost luggage and problems with reservation systems.
"You cannot find an airline merger in recent times that went well," said Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe, a business travel web site. "The bigger the merger, the more problems there are. Computer integration is very complicated. If you records go awry, your bags will probably go awry." 
Those of us here in Houston know this all too well; the merger between hometown airline Continental and Chicago-based United has not exactly been a customer-relations success story. 

There's also the matter of combining two corporate cultures into a single, cohesive entity. It's hard to do, and it often leads to friction that reduces employee morale, which in turn affects customer service. This is especially the case when layoffs are part of the equation; as with any corporate merger, there are going to be redundancies that need to be eliminated.

Will higher fares be part of the post-merger equation as well?
Surprisingly, the one unpleasant by-product of mergers that passengers fear most -- higher fares due to reduced competition -- often doesn't materialize. Industry fares have increased less than 2% a year despite a rash of mergers since 2004, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. That's less than the cost of fuel and labor rose during that time.
Eh, color me a bit skeptical on that one. That may be the case on an overall, nationwide basis, but you'll have a tough time convincing me that reduced competition resulting from previous mergers hasn't resulted in higher fares between certain airport pairs. If you fly between Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix, or between Chicago O'Hare and Philadelphia, on a frequent basis, watch out.

The Cranky Flier, who is supportive of the merger, has some advice for the process and predicts what will happen to the combined airline's hubs. Time's Brad Tuttle, on the other hand, expects "nothing good to come from this merger." ABC News weighs the merger's pros and cons, while The Economist expects this to be, mercifully, the last of the major domestic airline mergers.

The merger still needs to be approved by federal agencies before it becomes official.