The Austin Bulldog’s 11th anniversary

“I know of no human being who has a better time  than an eager, energetic young reporter.” -- H. L. Mencken. “Or a not-so-young reporter,” I...

I’m still an idealist

"I still believe that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon." — Tom Stoppard “You’re an idealist,”...

Broadband Access Sure Way to Spur Economic Growth

Posted Wednesday June 30, 2010 8:31am

Broadband Internet Is a Sure Way
to Help Spur Economic Growth

But Do All Texans Have Access?
Commentary by Luisa Handem Piette

Luisa Handem PietteThe long-awaited broadband map of Texas was released to the public on June 16—well over a year since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Stimulus Package) was signed into law, with $7.2 billion in funds earmarked for broadband expansion. The map boasts the use of new interactive broadband mapping platform, BroadbandStat, which allows a street-level view of broadband availability. It also provides the ability to continually enhance and upgrade the data, and gives users the ability to search by address and see the type of technologies used in their service areas, as well as their choice of providers and costs.

The Texas broadband map was created by Connected Texas, a subsidiary of Connected Nation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that was hired a year ago by the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Public Utility Commission of Texas.

A fundamental requirement for the distribution of stimulus funds has been the determination of need and the geographical location of those who lack broadband access, particularly in rural and remote communities. Connected Texas says that the Texas broadband map—which includes data from 123 state providers—indicates that 3.5 percent of Texas households, approximately 257,000 residences, mostly in rural regions, do not have access to home broadband service. This, says Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, hinders opportunities for business development and access to telemedicine, higher education and e-government.

Broadband mapping errors

The much-anticipated findings are, at best, inaccurate and, in the worst case scenario, may be deceptive, due to multiple errors. One of the problems the map presents is that, in some instances, it shows coverage where there is none, and lack of coverage where there has been broadband presence for quite some time. Another difficulty the map presents is that it indicates wireless presence where there has never been any known provider, as is the case in Hood and Somervell counties.

Perfect Storm for Austin Transportation?

Posted Tuesday June 1, 2010 2:47pm
A Perfect Storm for Austin Transportation?
Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger BakerThe announcement that Capital Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) Executive Director Joe Cantalupo is leaving to go back to his old private consulting firm after only two years may be a telling sign. This comes only a few months after Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a smart and persuasive politician who supported many toll roads, stepped down as chairman of CAMPO and was succeeded by Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe.

Depending on how you might define a perfect storm, when you look over the recent news and transportation funding situation, it is getting hard to find grounds for optimism. It seems wherever you look—federal, state or local—the Austin area is facing worsening transportation funding troubles. Let us count the ways.

TxDOT is almost broke
Funding prospects look bleak for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). State Senator John Carona (R-Dallas), chairman of the Texas Senate Transportation Committee, and

Bad Planning or Magnificent Deceit?

Posted Thursday May 27, 2010 1:25pm
Bad Planning or Magnificent Deceit?
Commentary by Bruce Melton

Bruce MeltonCAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization that coordinates regional transportation planning for Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson Counties, has committed our region to a transportation development plan that, for the second time in ten years, assumes excessively aggressive traffic growth.

How do we know that CAMPO was overly optimistic with its projections for the 2030 and 2035 plans? The 2035 Plan projects future growth in traffic almost identically to the 2030 Plan. But actual traffic counts and total miles traveled, on average, are flat or actually falling. (See accompanying chart, “TxDOT Traffic Counts.”)

Why have trends changed?
Data from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), indicates that traffic volume has not increased since the turn of the 21st century. This has occurred even in the face of significant

Are Boom-Bust Cycles In Austin’s DNA?

In just three decades Austin has enjoyed three giddy economic peaks followed by three economic hangovers. Is this any way to build lasting prosperity?

A quick history lesson: A large room was packed with lawyers, real estate investors, and bankers, and all eyes were on U.S. Representative J.J. "Jake" Pickle. It was early 1990. Austin's economy had been brought to its knees

Austin’s Road Building Plan

Posted Monday April 5, 2010 10:26am

Austin’s Road Building Plan
Costs Too Much, Does Too Little

Commentary by Roger Baker

Roger BakerThe Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) recently unveiled its new 2035 long-range draft transportation plan, “People, Planning and Preparing for the Future: Your 25 Year Transportation Plan,” plus a separate appendix with important details. The comment form to accept your feedback on the plan will be open until 5pm April 13.

This long range plan is the result of a federally mandated planning process required of all large U.S. metropolitan areas. The federal rules mandate that CAMPO's long range plan must be updated every five years.

On the federal funding level, the fate of the big new federal transportation funding bill, the successor to the current “SAFETEA-LU” legislation, is bogged down in Congress. The current legislation is being kept in force with periodic emergency extensions. Federal Rescissions, or take-backs of previously promised funds, has stalled many state projects, even while a roughly equal amount of federal stimulus funding has been added.

In the absence of more fuel-tax revenues, the current federal stimulus spending for roads is unlikely to be sustainable for long because it is based on a troubling level of debt in competition with entitlements. Further, the U.S. Treasury at some point will face higher interest rates as the price for continuing deficit spending. 

Nobody can accurately predict federal transportation funding, and how that might affect the CAMPO plan. The long-range vision of the CAMPO plan is based on speculation about federal funding decades from now, whereas the reality is that we can't even predict it for next year.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is claiming it will be broke in a year or so, its options are limited to building no more new big roads at all. State Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, explains why. Carona said, “Today, the state's transportation revenue is almost equal to the maintenance costs for our current system. Texas can barely maintain the roads it has, let alone build new ones.”

TxDOT is running out of money because its motor-fuels tax revenue—which netted the agency more than $2.2 billion in the fiscal year that ended August 31, 2009—is declining rapidly with overall driving. This mirrors the sharp drop in national driving over the last few years. As if this were not enough, the Texas

Extreme Heat, Irreversible Ecosystem Demise

Posted Wednesday April 3, 2010 9:48am
Extreme Summer Heat and
Irreversible Ecosystem Demise

Commentary by Bruce Melton

Bruce MeltonThe U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) coordinates federal research on environmental changes and their implications for society. The program began as a presidential initiative in 1989 during the Reagan–Bush era and called for “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program that will assist the nation and the world in the understanding, assessment, prediction and response to human-induced and natural processes of global change.”

The implications of this report are beyond extreme. Austin (Central Texas) normally has 12 days of 100-degree-plus heat per summer based on temperature records that go back to 1854. In the next 80 to 90 years, Austin is projected to average between 90 and 120 days of 100-degree plus heat every year. (See accompanying chart, Number of Days Over 1000F.) The Sonoran Desert Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, only averages 87 days over 100 degrees.

The Sonoran Desert is a traditional thorn and gravel desert with little to no water, blistering temperatures and, except for the natural inhabitants of the desert, is totally inhospitable to life. Austin's summers will be a third more extreme than those of the Sonoran Desert and about ten times more extreme than the normal Texas Hill Country summers.

Most life, as we know it in the Hill Country, will be dead by mid century. The transition to a thorn and gravel desert will be well underway. Today the changes have already begun.

Two things complicate the issue. There is a simple scientific concept that says scientists are conservative in their work. This is the “publish or perish” concept. Simply put, a scientist must be absolutely certain about the results of his or her discoveries or they will not be able to publish their papers in the academic journals. If a scientist is found to be wrong after their results are published, the journals will be much more cautious about publishing that scientist’s work in the future. A scientist’s work is therefore conservative to minimize the risk of being wrong.

The second complicating factor is that the rate of change has increased. Not long after the turn of the century, impacts of warming started increasing faster. A quote from the USGCRP Report states the obvious “Some of the changes have been faster than previous assessments have projected.”

The next graphic shows the atmospheric load of carbon dioxide (as carbon) in gigatons, from the USGCRP Report. The colored lines are the computer model’s projections. The black line with the circles shows actual