Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Taking a Ride

I am still looking into issues with the local transit system consolidation. For background, look at the CVRTD page and the SASRC page. I found the the Multimodal Terminal study especially interesting. This study, started in November 2004, analyzes the state of transportation in the Concho Valley area, and recommends a terminal facility that is used by all the bus systems, public and private, in San Angelo. This is a roughly $4.4 million project. The 193 page report wasn't designed to study consolidation of the SASRC and CVRTD, but on page 10-13 it does recommend that if the 2 groups want greater cooperation or consolidation, the study and planning may include:

"• Clear understanding of each agency’s operations and management;
• Clear understanding of all agencies within the Concho Valley area that have transit services and/or transit needs;
• Researching and defining implementation strategies for cooperation and coordination;
• Researching and defining an implementation strategy for consolidation, including contracting transit services to a third-party service provider; and
• Calculating costs and benefits for each strategy."

I leave it to the readers to decide if that happened before the consolidation. I think you already know my opinion.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Right Bus

Back in May, the city council passed a resolution to consolidate the city transit system with the Concho Valley Council of Governments rural transit system. I had high hopes that this would be the start of many joint ventures that could provide expanded services at reduced costs. It seems I may have been a bit optimistic.

People have started coming to me about problems with the bus system. There will always be issues with any move or change, but what I am hearing makes me wonder "what are they thinking." On Sept. 1st, when control was transferred to CVCOG, they closed the Santa Fe depot. This was the central terminal for all the buses, and the place where riders could buy weekly or monthly bus passes.

There is a flyer in the depot window that says the bus depot is closed. There is another one that says "Under new ownership." It also says that all passes must now be purchased at the CVCOG offices at 2800 W Loop 306 Ste A. Seems simple enough except for a couple problems. There is no scheduled bus stop on W Loop 306. The closest scheduled stop is on E loop 306 at Sitel. A rough measurement using Google Earth shows the bus stop is about 0.2 miles across one of the busiest highways in San Angelo. If you walk the frontage roads and cross at either Knickerbocker or College Hills, you walk about one mile and the intersections are still very dangerous. This makes it impractical for most riders to stop there to get a pass.

The "managers" at the Concho Valley Transit District recognized this was a problem. One of the people I talked to actually made the walk from Sitel to the district office, only to be told that they wouldn't be selling the passes there. They said that the bus drivers would be selling the passes as soon as the procedures could be worked out and the old passes could be used until then. This still hasn't happened yet which is costing the bus system significant money every day.

I have heard that transfers run out before the end of the day. In addition, I have been told that many bus drivers think they had a pay cut, even though the agreement the city signed was supposed to guarantee the drivers would receive the same pay, with only a difference in the benefits package.

There are other problems but these seem so basic that you really have to wonder about the management. What sense does it make to close down a centrally located depot when the alternative is extremely difficult to get to by bus and at the edge of town? Why didn't they realize they needed a different way to sell passes and have it in place on the first day, or at least delay closing the depot until the new procedures were ready? They had four months to work on the transition.

I am left with a couple of concerns. First, bus riders are often among the most disadvantaged citizens in our community. Problems with the bus impact their ability to get around this community. If the bus system is broke it impacts their jobs, health care, shopping, etc.. If we don't do the bus system right, we hurt some of our most vulnerable citizens.

My other concerns are about what this tells us about our local government organizations abilities to cooperate on projects. This bus system transition should have been almost invisible. We had a mostly functional system with drivers, equipment, routes, and procedures already in place. With proper planning and coordination, the changes could have been positive with all concerned seeing it as a step forward. Instead we have a series of snafus with the bus system losing fares because of the lack of planning about passes and transfers. We have bus drivers that are confused and are becoming disillusioned. We have the opposite of what should have happened. This leaves me with this question: If we can't combine two working transportation systems how are we going to handle larger multi organization problems such as public safety communications upgrades, regional water problems, emergency preparedness, homeland security, etc.? If our local government organizations can't do the small and simple stuff right, why do we think we can do the big, complex stuff?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Constitution Day Thoughts

Here it is Constitution Day, the 219th anniversary of that great document. Our constitution has earned a prominent place in the history of governments. A quick look at the Wikipedia entry adds some important perspective.

Written codes of law are not uncommon. It appears that soon after writing was invented a code of laws was written down. For the most part these were a list of offenses and punishments. There was no hint of a limitation on government power. Until the new ideas from the reformation and the renaissance, a mandate from heaven was the only limit on a rulers power. How could you impose limits when the kings had a divine right?

Early steps at limiting government power, such as the Magna Carta, were aimed at reigning in a particularly difficult ruler or settling some regional dispute. Most legal documents and "constitutions" were governments imposing laws and limitations on subjects until we changed that in 1789.

Our Constitution is unique. It started from a radical premise that government is a man made creation that is not all powerful. The Constitution is based on the idea that governments should be limited. Everything up to the Bill of Rights is a plan for a government with limited, narrow powers with a check and balance system to help maintain the limits. The Bill of Rights was not added as a complete list of rights, but a list of examples. The ninth and tenth amendment are there to make it clear that people have rights not in the list, and the federal government is not all powerful. The idea that people have fundamental rights, and governments should only have delegated powers is still unique.

We are in trying times, where the fundamental principles of the Constitution are being challenged both at home and abroad. Our government officials and the military take an oath to "“protect and defend" the Constitution from "“all enemies, foreign and domestic"”. Lets ensure they remember that oath.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Water Planning

Tuesday evening the Texas Water Development Board hosted a meeting at San Angelo's Convention Center to present its current plans for long range water planning and to take public comment on the subject. While the Standard-Times did a front page report on the meeting, there was precious little advance notice, two Community Calendar notices, and attendance was sparse. In that this Board is considering water development proposals for the next fifty years, this was disappointing. I will say those who noticed and attended, including one gentleman all the way from Midland, were remarkably well informed. Between the books provided gratis by TWDB and the comments, this meeting was well worth the time.

This is the Texas Board responsible for the Region F Water Study Report, which I have referenced in earlier articles here. I did comment, suggesting we at least actively explore a regional water “grid”, not unlike the connectivity familiar to us in electric power distribution. The Region F study in Chapter 4.3.11. “Strategies for Hickory Aquifer Users” has been advanced by the Region F group since the 2001 edition, but has not gained traction due to the expense to the under-populated smaller users. It is not something that will generate a positive economic return in the short term, but the planning being discussed is for a fifty year term.

In my opinion as expressed earlier here, here and here. San Angelo would be remiss if we let this opportunity pass to explore seriously a regional water supply/use solution for the long term. Too often in the past we have cost ourselves money and options by waiting until the crisis was upon us.

Central to my thinking on this is recognizing that water mains, like electric lines, flow in either direction. Thanks to Representative Campbell's work in the Legislature, we have a jump start on developing a desalination/brackish water field nearby with nearly unlimited long term supply potential. At this point in time, neither that source nor a regional grid is economically competitive with current local water rates, but again, we are looking 50 years out. I make a living servicing oil wells that were were not very attractive at $30 Bbl crude prices.

San Angelo was well represented in the Region F Group, and our incoming State Representative Drew Darby has chaired our local Water Advisory Board. The issue is obviously taken seriously.
My vision here is a water grid centered on San Angelo and going west until we bump into Midland/Ector County region and going east to Eden and Brady. If that seems expansive, this is all area with economic impact on San Angelo. These people trade with us, shop here, and we contribute in both directions to one another. In many ways our water future is already inextricably bound together, like it or not. Absent a regional plan, the Region F recommendation for many of these smaller users is, and I quote, “bottled water”. In municipal terms this means central kiosks where residents would fill 5 gallon containers of water, water most likely bought and trucked from San Angelo.

Better we should plan to make lemonade from lemons than to wait until circumstances leave us fewer and poorer options. San Angelo would have to overcome its deserved image as a “water bully” and make nice with our smaller partners, bargain in good faith rather than throw our weight around.

If a water distribution system sounds unreasonably expensive for any potential return, think of the old Tennessee Valley Authority or the now renamed REA electric grid. Long before anyone saw commercial viability in extending power to these blighted areas, these quasi-governmental creations lit up the night and created economic growth beyond their own dreams. Even the federal government gets it right once in a while, and water is at least as critical to growth as electricity.

To conclude, like my idea or hate it, the public comment period on TWDB's plan is open until October 6. Comments to this Blog will be forwarded or you can send them directly to I can think of nothing more important to the future of San Angelo and our part of West Texas. Please take the time to share your thoughts on this vital issue.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11 and Public Safety Commo

I only caught the last hour of the ABC special “Path to 9/11”. As tempting as it is, I have little to add to the tons of verbiage justly honoring the almost casual heroism of both uniformed and civilian Americans who willingly, knowingly gave their lives for others on that day. Sufficient to say, I regard it as a distinction between a civilized society and barbarian tribalism that in a civilized society, the common civilian is willing to give his life to save others; in the barbarian tribe honors go to those who willingly commit suicide to murder strangers of another tribe.

The thought I wanted to pass along inspired by this dramatization came from scenes toward the end with everyone in the crowd background getting the “all circuits are busy” message on the cell phones. As has been commented on a few times by Blogmaster Turner, San Angelo, like most cities, has not yet mastered public safety communications.

In times of natural or man-made disaster, communications between different law enforcement agencies, EMTs, Fire and other “first responder” personnel is being improved, but is far from perfect. It is not hard to imagine a circumstance such that those people are falling back to cell phones to coordinate their response.

Should San Angelo be hit by a storm, a bombing, whatever, I am asking you, if you get that “all circuits are busy” message GET OFF THE CELL AND STAY OFF OF IT! Hard as it may be to sit and fret about Aunt Mabel or brother Bob, by tying up the circuits, you could actually interfere with the efforts of the professionals who may well be out there trying to save just the person you are worried about and getting the same signal.

In the movie, I noticed one license with reality they took was to let the MVP's phone calls go through while the street folk got the busy signal. In reality, phone circuits do not discriminate by priority, only random chance. Please folks, restrain your anxiety for a few hours. Officer Friendly has a better chance of doing good if he can tell Fireman Fred where the fire is instead of grinding his teeth at a phone that tells him “all circuits are busy”.

Remembering and Honoring

Today, Sept. 11th, is the appropriate day to remember victims of terror and honor those who rose to the occasion and unselfishly went beyond all expectations.

The best way to honor the victims and heroes is to get past all the partisan finger pointing, look objectively at all the information, get to the truth, and prevent a recurrence in the future. There are enough problems to go around.

A few good places to start might be
The March of Folly
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
Wikipedia Article

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Escape From Lineland

When I was in high school, I stumbled across an interesting little book called Flatland by E. A. Abbott. Not only did this little book about a two dimensional world spark my interest in higher math, but it also was a great look at rigid belief systems and prejudice. It is still a great social commentary written at the end of the Victorian age.

One of my favorite sections of the book is on Lineland, a one dimensional world. The exchange between A Square (hero of Flatland) and the king of Lineland is an example of the problems of a limited perspective. It is also highlights the problems some have accepting new, uncomfortable, ideas. These themes are expanded throughout the rest of the book. I found it quite interesting and humorous. The resistance to different ideas and perspectives seemed incredible to me. When I grew up and got into politics and issues, it was like deja vu.

Every issue, no matter how big or small, is forced into a political lineland. Issues such as immigration, crime, prisons, and welfare are forced into a one dimensional, left vs. right, liberal vs conservative lineland. Often the debates, discussions, and reporting will be limited to this one dimensional world. This ends up giving a distorted view. Look at a map of the USA (google maps is good.) If you just limit your perspective to east - west distances, we are right on top of Robert Lee and Christoval. Using only north - south distances, we are only a short distance from Paint Rock or Goldwaithe. It is only when you look at the complete map that the true distances become apparent.

The same thing applies to politics. Some groups finally recognize this. The Libertarians have had the Nolan Chart for a while and recently we have seen charts such as the Moral Matrix and the Political Compass but 2 dimensions is still not enough to describe complex problems. Still, it's a start.

It's time to escape from Lineland and bring politics into the real, multidimensional, world.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Truth and Freedom

Most people have heard John 8:32. And you will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Politics, on the other hand, seems to operate on this quote from Cats Cradle: “All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

Early in human development ambitious people discovered that controlling hearts and minds was more effective than brute force. The simplest way to do that was get control of “ the truth.” The struggle for freedom is in part a struggle for individual, direct access to the truth for all people. In the process, numerous techniques have been developed to manipulate truth in the pursuit of power and control.

The first class of techniques involve hiding the truth. What people don't know can be used to control them. The problem is that what you don't know can hurt you. One example: Agent Orange. Information hiding has a problem. People want answers and can be pests until they get what they want. Which brings us to our next class of techniques.

Misinformation often fills the voids in a search for truth. Sometimes it is unintentional, such as the primitive belief in evil spirits causing disease. It is often deliberate as in classic propaganda. Look at issues such as immigration, global warming, crime, terrorists, etc.. All the information out there can't be correct. Only study and research can get to the the truth. This leads us to our last set of techniques.

Disinformation is the set of techniques used to discredit and discourage the quest for other truths. Calls to authority, guilt by association, attacking the messenger and character assassination are all well known disinformation techniques. Most of these techniques rely on a simple observation: people most readily believe what makes them the most comfortable.

This leads me to this observation: Most people prefer a comfortable lie to an uncomfortable truth. The lies may be very comfortable, attractive chains but they deny freedom.

Lots to think about here. This could be a key to freedom, or maybe all of the true things that I told you were shameless lies.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Step One: Get the Name Right

Names are powerful. Names help us recognize and keep order in our world. They are a major part of how we communicate. Millions are spent every year so we will buy our cars and deodorants by name. This is a key idea from primitive sympathetic magic: If you know the true name of something you can control it. In advertising and politics that old magic still works.

There is a lot of activity on political strategy sites right now on a concept called framing. Simplified, a frame is a name with built in boundaries and a subconscious, emotional payload. We use the term “frame” as in “frame the debate” without thinking much about what that means. Will taxes or revenue streams draw more attention in a debate? If you get to frame the debate, give it a name, you have a significant edge. Take a look at Blaines Picnic, for example. It started out framed as “ensuring family friendly picnics.” It ended being reframed as “preventing under age drinking and drunk driving.” This happens in most issues. Look at water rates, the prison project, pay raises, or any national issue for more examples.

Next time you think about an issue, take a close look at the name. How does that name frame the issue? What is the emotional content of the name? What subconscious response does it evoke? Is the name that it has truly the right name? You don't really understand an issue until you know its right name.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Political Points

Points I try to remember when analyzing issues. I will be talking about each of these in more detail in the future. Please feel free to add your own.
  1. The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their correct names.
  2. Truth sets us free, lies are subtle and comfortable chains.
  3. Life isn't one dimensional. That includes politics and solutions.
  4. The government is not the village (or city, or county or society).
  5. The government is not your daddy (or mother or rich uncle).
  6. Government was invented by humans to solve some very specific, basic problems.
  7. Government is not the solution to every new problem.
  8. One size never fits all.
  9. When we forget why we do something, we use tradition as an excuse.
  10. Problems are solved faster, easier, cheaper and with less pain when government involvement is minimized.
  11. Government changes lag societies changes.
  12. Governments do most things poorly, so should be limited to those functions for which it was invented.
  13. All jobs are not equal.
  14. Fairness is an invented concept. It rarely occurs in nature.
  15. It is easy to confuse equality and identity. Things that are equal are seldom identical.
  16. If you keep doing what you've been doing, don't be surprised at what you get.
  17. Success is measured at the edge.
  18. Blindly adding money or technology to a problem doesn't fix it.
  19. There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.
  20. I know of nothing more destructive than good intentions.
  21. Life is not a Zero-sum game.