Monday, December 29, 2008

Houston Report on Red Light Enforcement Cameras

The report on red light camera effectiveness has been released by the City of Houston. There is some interesting data amongst its pages. It really is a mixed bag of information. The intersections must be observed for a longer time to see if there is more conclusive evidence. There are people who believe some tinkering with the data by the City of Houston has corrupted the information and their conclusions. This is Houston's report based on the Rice University study. We expect similar results here in The Woodlands and Montgomery County, so the data might very well be representative of our use of cameras as well. I asked for the local information but so far, received no reply from the county.

Just today, I observed an automobile here in The Woodlands speeding up to run a light perpendicular to Woodlands Parkway. It was one of those cases where the driver put the pedal to the metal to get through the light quickly (my guess was that the car was traveling 60+ mph after passing through the light. The driver immediately entered a commercial area where cars are vulnerable to side collisions by speeding vehicles. The light was totally red before the car even entered the intersection. There is no record of that event (except of course for this article), no photograph, no fine, nothing. It was very dangerous for the car running the light and the automobiles coming down Woodlands Parkway about to enter the intersection. Why do people do that? There is a fable about rear-end collisions that justifies the means for some folks. This is one reason we need these intersections monitored. Having the data to understand driving behaviors and having a means to dissuade law breakers from breaking the law is important in this society and in this place. Some drivers are reckless, putting others in harm's way. I've seen it a hundred times over. After a while one thinks he can make his own conclusions on the matter without a lot of data, but in reality, we don't know it all and have to seek statistics that are meaningful and unbiased so we can understand if this current initiative of ours is actually doing some good. It appears so from the Houston data.

There is generally plenty of time to stop after a light turns yellow. However, if one is almost already in the intersection, then there is no need for the driver to speed up; just pass through. If there is time to stop, then commit to a stop when the signal is yellow. If you don't know if you have time, take a course in driving. It is taught everywhere. One can actually use a counting system to take the guesswork out of the decision. That method is taught in driving class 101, not exactly rocket science either. One day all autos will hopefully have a built-in detector that says whether to proceed or to stop. Instead, we have people installing warning systems in their cars so that they can break the law when there is no monitoring camera system.
(1) Channel 11 PDF document - the Houston Report
(2) Chronicle article on same subject matter

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Early 2008 Snowfall in The Woodlands

If you have children or got out in the weather yesterday, you would have seen bright smiles and sheer excitement as the fluffy flakes meandered through the air to their landing places. One youngster coming home from school just could not wait to get out of his automobile. His mama relented to his energy, so he exited when she stopped at a stop sign. He rushed down the street, mouth open, to capture every parcel of experience that he could manage. Then a few minutes later, he was on the street again on his bicycle with friends, yelling with exhilaration. Then I go to another place and watch two young ladies with their cell phones taking photos of themselves side-by-side, surrounded by flying flakes. Then they screamed as they ran around a cul-de-sac trying to eat the snow flakes with a wide open mouth, then finding some snow on automobiles, wadded it up and tried to throw a strike to hit the other or get hit. Oh yea, and some children made snow balls and put them in the freezer for the day when they might come in handy. Similar stories probably unfolded on your street as well as the white stuff glistened in the lights after dark.

Yep, this was special to many of us. Some have never seen snow before. It fell much longer than I thought it would, but it is gone now and we did not reap as much as those more lucky ones to our south.

Here in the forest, there is something more special about snow as one looks up into the sky and senses the gift that God provided to us. You can see the flakes floating down high in the trees. So here are a couple of photographs of our hometown getting a snow bath on the earliest snowfall in recorded history in the Houston area. Actually there was a snowfall back in 1944, on the same day in December, before I was even born.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Death on a pond in park in The Woodlands

Unfortunately, we had a mortality on one of our ponds this morning. This occurred very early, probably before daylight. Sadly, a man was found in the water by one of our youth. Although apparently not foul play, it brings us a reminder of the need for safety in our parks and pathways. We do not know if this was an accident, natural or intentional at this point, but our concern for each other is always of utmost importance, whether the person is walking, running, on a bike or in an automobile. My condolences to the family of this man. We saw no family at the scene, so hopefully they have been notified by now.

Update: 11-17-08. I have asked for information from the Sheriff. He has not yet responded. Apparently, they still are declining to comment. I will ask some else in the department tomorrow if we have not received any information.

Update 11-18-09. The Courier has released an article on the identification of the person. I have had observations on this that could contradict the conclusions. First, the pond would be very difficult to drown in. It is quite shallow. An accidental drowning would be a contested issue in my book. Second, a 21 year-old male would normally be very strong, even if he did not exercise, under normal conditions. I am betting that the autopsy reveals more than what has been said thus far. The good news is that it DOES look like this person was supposed to be here. Although he was not identified by family immediately, it is said that he was staying here with family. This should help calm some nerves around here. It has taken some time to identify the person and chemical analysis should reveal if he had a heart attack or was under the influence of drugs, and whatever else can help the Sheriff's department and county coroner to put together a believable cause of death. The information thus far is very inconclusive but helpful to residents. From what I know, there would be substantial water on the lungs to conclude that it was a drowning, so we will have to wait and see if the volume of water substantiates the conclusion of a drowning. One reader has noted that he was a "nice young man". This incident is surely unfortunate and regrettable but should no longer be much of a concern about foul play. That remains possible, but apparently there is no evidence to the contrary, at least yet.

Update 12-11-08: Toxicology and autopsy reports remain incomplete.
Update 01-17-09: The update is that there is no update. After seeking information for the past week or so, I am still waiting for additional information. I believe the information is available and still trying to resolve the questions.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Recognizing two efforts by Indian Springs Residents

Two efforts by Indian Springs residents are being recognized in articles of the Commentary:

  1. CISD Rezoning - the fight for what is right, led by Jennifer Reitmeyer
  2. Project for America - Let America Speak by Deverauex Macy

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Poll results of Traffic Law Enforcement by use of cameras

Our three month poll for readers resulted in a vote to use cameras at traffic lights in The Woodlands for law enforcement. There was a differing opinion for precisely what the cameras should or should not be used for. From 105 readers -

46% - No, I do not accept using the cameras for either speed or red light enforcement
14% - No I do not support using the cameras for speed but do support their use for red light enforcement
26% - Yes, use the cameras for both speed and red light management
14% - No for enforcing red traffic lights, yes for speed management

This translates to:
54% - For using the cameras in some manner for enforcement
40% - For red light enforcement
40% - For speed enforcement
46% - Against using cameras for enforcement

Post publication update 12-08-08 :
Related articles:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

My mother has passed away

Several readers have been asking where I am. Over the past three weeks, I have worked day and night to see if I could influence the recovery of my mom from a fall and its effects. Medicine, family and friends support, nor prayer provided the miracle for which we diligently sought. Her frail body just did not have the strength to overcome her illness. I will not be writing until I have this sad event behind me. It is nearly complete now that the funeral is coming next Sunday (tomorrow), so I expect to begin again very soon.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hurricane IKE, post trauma, lessons learned

We did get a direct hit! Was it as bad as I had thought? For a category 2 storm, it was worse. Now we can extrapolate to cat 5 storm. As noted before in related articles, there are two issues to address - water and wind. Many skeptics believed we had no wind issue. I can imagine that the skeptics can now envision a worse scenario than we had. This storm was relatively weak but devistating. Galveston could have been hit by 180 MPH winds from a storm landing near Freeport. This time, Galveston got a direct hit, so Galveston did not even get the full ferocity of even this storm, neither did we. We were fairly well centered, seeing the eye pass overhead. If the storm had passed further to the west and put us in the northeast quadrant, we would have experienced the worse of it.

What would a cat 5 storm look like? A disaster! My wife told me after Ike, "The Woodlands is a disaster.". Relative to potential damage, it is not a disaster. Yes, we got some trees uprooted, some houses damaged and one even destroyed. Yet this was a moderate storm, not even officially considered "dangerous". If a cat 5 had come in, nature's fury would have been unleashed on our community and many of us would be homeless. Of course one of that strength very rarely occurs. I would say, "you ain't seen nothing yet" if we want to understand what a really bad storm would be like. The bottom line is, in the future we should understand that we are definately in harm's way, given a major storm approaching us. We should not have an attitude that we live inland and are exempt from a true disaster. We are only 80 miles from the coast. That is not very far, far enough not to have a direct effect from the surge, but close enough to have the winds and torrential rains, i.e., what I call Noah's flood.

The twilight zone visited us during this storm. Our battery operated clocks all had different times after the storm. Of course we expected the electricity to fail but never the clocks. Yes, we changed the batteries in the spring. Like my wife noted, the storm came from below the ground when the clock struck 12:00, sort of demon-like.

OK, enough of the negative. I consider us lucky. We have lights again and air conditioning throughout most of our community. We learned a few things and a few things were just reminders of what we have been told over and over again. In the event of a disaster, we have the potential to help each other as well as fight each other. In the storm's wake, there was some looting and even some robberies for essential consumables like gasoline. One person I know, started carrying a weapon for protection against gasoline robbers. We learned that we needed dry milk in our pantry. We still cannot buy milk at the grocery store. We were reminded the reason why there are signs out there saying to fill up our gas tanks; it is hurricane season. We learned to have ready generators. A one week outage is an expectation now. In a stronger storm, it will likely be worse - 2-3 weeks. Some places do not have power yet. Two weeks without power is now their expectation. If anyone asks, my single most gripe is the lack of air conditioning. The humidity after a hurricane is always a problem. Here we got lucky. Just a few days after the storm hit, we had a cool front to dry out things and keep us cool. What worked the best of everything I did to prepare was to cut away all limbs close to the house early in the summer. The single most learning for next time is to test the generator and fix it if needed, at the beginning of hurricane season, not wait for a storm to come before I try to start it. We considered ourselves prepared but like always, we waited until the last moment to do some things and got burned. The reason is? I had an emergency out of town just 4 days before the storm arrived. My family had to fight the storm without me.

I see lots of people cleaning their yards. That is one of my current honey-do's. The work has begun by picking up limbs. Trees have to be trimmed; limbs and twigs tied up or bagged; leaves bagged or put into compost piles. No time to write a blog but I guess I just did!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Woodlands annual encounter with major hurricanes

OK, so The Woodlands does not have an annual encounter. It sure seems that way! Hurricane Rita caused great alarm just yesterday, or was that three years ago? For sure, these encounters raise our awareness of the potential destruction of such a storm. Here we are in the great piney woods of east Texas, away from the coast. We know we are not exempt from the power and destruction of a hurricane. The classic threat is from a dangerous hurricane approaching from the southeast and hitting the coast just south of Galveston where we would get the northeast quadrant of rain and wind. However, this year we are looking at a very different scenario in hurricane Gustav. Not only that, there is a second storm Hannah moving west and seemingly positioning itself to follow a similar path.

Gustav is heading towards Louisiana. That usually means, lower your guard, there is no problem for us. This time one model presents itself as a threat just two days before the storm is predicted to reach the continent. Observe the left-most model predicion. The left model crosses the coast just north of the Houston area and passes right over us in The Woodlands. Moving at 15 MPH, on this path, the storm would reach us in a few hours packing very strong winds. This is a very nontraditional path. The other models predict the storm to move west at some given point as well, so we can expect breezy conditions from any of them and lot of rain.

Are we threatened by flooding conditions? That threat is certainly possible. The Woodlands has two creeks to watch. Presume for a minute we get a torrential downpour of 15 inches. That is not likely with this storm now but if it stalls over us, we can get 30 inches! That will flood our area badly. How do you prepare for a flood? It is difficult, much more so when you own a one story home. There is no place to go but up after the flooding conditions start. Driving out of it is not a good idea. Often you will get into more serious trouble than by staying at home.

If you do not have flood insurance, you are out of luck per Texas legislation (last time I checked). Once a storm enters the Gulf of Mexico, new policies are not issued until the Gulf is cleared of storms and there is no imminent threat of flooding.

If a flood does occur and you are in your home, you want to arrange your belongings in such a way as to protect those that could be seriously harmed by water by carrying them to the highest places in the home. That would include all electronic devices such as TVs or computers. Place those things that are not treasures or expensive on the floor to make space for things that need to be stored higher. Remember that you may live a day or two upstairs if we get a Noah's flood fro such a storm. It takes many hours for it to subside because of the size of such a storm. Also, we can be downstream from the main watershed area of rains and still get flooded.

Where would you drive to exit The Woodlands to higher ground? I would go down Woodlands Parkway to 2978, one of the highest places near here. On I45 is also safer if you can get there. However, the Grogan's Mills area is more prone to lowland flooding than the western side of The Woodlands. Areas near Spring Creek should be avoided. In the past, the areas adjoining the creek have proven to overflow and turn into a lake, reaching into Panther Creek and Indian Springs. I would expect by looking at the topographic maps, that flooding would occur more so in the new Creekside Park Village.

Elevations in our area - You can access this information easily from Google Earth which gives the elevation of the point you are looking at. For example, I entered my address and got the elevation of my home - 165 feet.
+Spring Creek elevations - 110 feet near The Woodlands.
+Interstate 45 ground level - 130 feet, slightly higher in Grogan's Mill next to the freeway and less in Oak Ridge.
+Town Center - 145-150 ft
+Lake Woodlands 125 ft
+Woodlands Pkw/E Panther Ck - 143 ft, /Gosling - 165 ft, /Kuykendahl - 175 ft, /W Branch Crossing - 190 ft, /2978 - 204 ft
+College Park(242)/Greenbridge 142ft, /Alden Woods - 150 ft, /Gosling - 154, /Montgomery College - 140 ft, /Donwick Dr - 125 ft
+Bear Branch Creek near TWHS - 140 ft, Bear Ck Reservoir - 145 ft
This should give one an idea of how water might flow in any given Noah's flood. It will simply seek the lowest point. The creek beds are the natural collector of water, so expect them to swell and overflow causing the greatest damage.

Don't put your guard down on this particular storm until it is gone. It can come back.

Useful references
Wunderground Weather for current detailed tropical forecast information
National Hurricane Center
Related Article on the classic scenario

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Montgomery County - using cameras for traffic law enforcement

What is the public opinion of enforcing Texas speed and traffic light laws here in Montgomery County? So far, the Texas legislature has outlawed the use of cameras to enforce the speed limit. In the coming session of 2009, I expect that we will have a strong collaborated proposal to reverse this law and enable selected areas of the state to begin using the cameras for speed control in addition to the traffic signals. As you are probably aware, Montgomery County has been the leading county of Texas in utilizing the cameras for traffic light enforcement. Also, the county will greatly expand the use of cameras at traffic signals to penalize those who run the lights county-wide as deployment gets into full swing this year.

This blog will run a three month reader poll, seeking input for opinion and perceived barriers in this area. I would appreciate your comments, both negative and positive on this subject. I submit the pros and cons as I know them below.

Negative opinions

  • Invasion of privacy. A camera taking a photograph inside an automobile presents information that should not be acquired for others to view.
  • Traffic enforcement is a job for people, not technology. It takes human judgment to ascertain if a law is being violated. Minor traffic offenses are often cause to and means to discover more serious crime.
  • Traffic enforcement by fines is not effective. The fines are not harsh enough to affect a change of behavior.
  • This is just another means of taking money from the public to line pocket books with cash.
  • There is no need to emphasize traffic law enforcement. Not a threat to public safety.

Positive opinions
  • Not an invasion of privacy. Photographs taken only at a reasonable level above the speed limit (10 MPH or more) and is the equivalent of being stopped by a police officer without being stopped. Photographs not available to the public, only the processing staff and the violator.
  • Technology is now enabling the automation of traffic law enforcement. The technology is accurate, always present, and reliable. Integrated camera technology offers tax payer savings equivalent to other useful modern technologies.
  • The statistics prove that the technology is effective here in South Montgomery County. Behaviors at key intersections have changed to the good since we started issuing fines at these traffic lights.
  • Speed is excessive on our streets. Existing cameras have collected a significant amount of data showing that excessive speed is common and is a threat to the safety of our residents. On I45, the average speed is sometimes over 80 MPH. On Woodlands Parkway, the average speed is sometimes over 60 during the day and over 70 at night
  • Mobility of traffic is affected by traffic law enforcement. Every time an automobile is pulled over for a traffic violation, traffic is slowed by curious drivers. Enforcement by camera keeps the traffic moving.
  • People running lights will hold up perpendicular traffic at key intersections, causing a backup of automobiles at traffic lights. This practice has essentially been stopped at the key intersections such as Panther Creek and Woodlands Parkway where the cameras have been installed, improving the flow of traffic on Woodlands Parkway and proving the technology is doing its job.
  • Statistics reveal a higher risk of major accidents at locations where an automobile has been stopped by a law enforcement agency. There are no interruptions of traffic nor gazers slowing down the traffic when using the cameras. Data collected show that traffic movement is not negatively impacted by the cameras.
  • Financially, the county and The Woodlands will save money on law enforcement officers. In The Woodlands, we are more likely to utilize the existing officers more for crime than routine traffic enforcement. For every deputy enforcing routine traffic enforcement, it costs us about $84,000 a year, a state trooper $104,000. There is no gain nor loss financially for the county using the automated systems except for the efficiency of utilizing its deputies.
  • The primary reason for hiring additional deputies in The Woodlands was to enforce traffic laws. We had many young people being killed on our streets. As our population has grown, we have begun to experience more crime. We can expect crime to increase in the years to come. There is a need to shift the focus of traffic enforcement towards the ad hoc crimes that are on the increase, to make our neighborhoods safer without having to add more deputies.
If you know of other reasons, pro or con, please add your comments to this article. Also please place your view by responding to the poll at the upper right corner of this blog.
Related articles
  1. Montgomery County Commissioner Ed Chance
  2. Woodlands Traffic Signals
  3. Traffic Control System in Montgomery County
Postscript
Addressing the first two reader's comments to clarify:
  • The commissioner assured me that there would be no photo taken except for 5-10 MPH over the limit. He actually said 10 MPH when he was addressing the freeway issues. The idea is the same as it is for red lights. Those making minor mistakes are not the target. The target offenders are those who deliberately break the law. Slight infractions go undocumented.
  • There is a delay built into the traffic signals where the photos are taken after the light turns red, not yellow. You don't get a photo for a light turning red while you are in the intersection unless you are sitting in the intersection with the traffic stopped or nearly stopped. In that case, I don't know what happens.
  • Good point by Citizen 1001001. Every car owner in the state of Texas is responsible for what happens with that car. For example, if you permit someone to drive your car without a driver's license, you will be cited as well if that person is caught driving without a license (not sure if that happens if you are not in the car though). Since these would be essentially the same as parking tickets, the owner of the car would be responsible for the speeding and running the red light regardless who was driving.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Air Pollution Monitoring reaches out to include The Woodlands Texas


We are on the radar so to speak, to see who is regionally affected by the ozone and hazardous airborne chemicals produced by our neighbors to the South and within our own county. Today, the Texas Forest Service announced the completion of an environmental tower in Jones Forest. It is part of the Houston-Network of Environmental Towers funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the University of Houston. This forms "a network of meteorological and chemical sensors in the Houston area to fill in key gaps in the current State/Federal air pollution monitoring network study of photochemical smog episodes in the Houston Galveston Area (HGA)." Regionally, we in The Woodlands are a part of the puzzle. What is our exposure during major smog release events and how do we contribute to the problem? Looking outside on the parkway at about 5PM tells me that we are probably producing our share of Ozone. Developing a good understanding of photochemical smog episodes in our area is essential since not only do such events represent a health hazard, but unlike the situation in a number of other major US metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, where peak Ozone levels have decreased significantly, less improvement in the number of ozone exceedances has been observed in the HGA."

H-NET is currently composed of five ground-based measurement sites: University of Houston (Main Campus), Houston Coastal Center, University of Houston - Sugar Land, Texas Forest Service - W. G. Jones State Forest, and West Liberty Airport forming a virtual "box" around Houston that fills in critical gaps in the existing air quality monitoring network.

In addition to providing real-time air quality data for previously unmonitored areas, another benefit of this site configuration is for most wind directions, the network will be documenting both upwind and downwind air pollution levels. This will help the UH study team to determine how much pollution is transported into our region, and how much is produced locally. The UH Institute for Multidimensional Air Quality Studies (IMAQS) and the Texas Learning and Computation Center (TLC2) have worked together to provide a public web site for dissemination of the measured air quality data (www.hnet.uh.edu). They are using this data to evaluate and improve air quality models. It will also facilitate the assessment of health impacts of pollutants on the citizens living in the HGA. The local general public benefits directly as the web site displays in a simplified format information about wind, temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, carbon monoxide and ozone that is made available by the H-NET team on a best efforts basis.

As part of the public outreach between the University of Houston and Texas Forest Service; John Warner, urban district forester, will be conducting several Project Learning Tree (PLT) workshops for educators themed “The Air Around You”. Educators will go through a six-hour workshop to become certified in PLT. Additionally they will learn to interpret the data taken by the monitoring station so they can in-turn instruct their students.

The air quality instrumentation is located on a 300’ tower behind the Conroe office giving the camera a 360 degree view of the forest canopy and horizon. It is relayed down to the climate controlled storage container at the base of the tower where computers collect and transmit data 24 hours – 7 days a week.

Being a part of this effort not only puts The Woodlands on the map in air pollution statistics and gives us insight into our own related health issues, it also gives our forest a better chance to survive in the long term. Health is defined in several ways, not just human.

Sources

  • Dr. Berry Lefer, University of Houston – Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  • John R. Warner, CF, Texas Forest Service
Resources
  1. Texas Forest Service
  2. Gulf Star Grid - also has a weather station

Road Maintenance Technologies - Road rehabilitation in Montgomery County Texas


Montgomery County has a visionary plan to maintain our roads in a financially constrained setting. Technology offers reduced costs and improved results, so the commissioner of precinct 3 is looking at technology to provide some major assistance to reach his goals. For road maintenance and construction, there are three technologies of importance:
  1. X-ray for analysis of the pavement
  2. Low temperature asphalt for the asphalt component of the surface mixture
  3. Porous Friction Course for the surface mixture that is laid on the road
These three technologies will provide solutions to reach these goals:
  • Predict surface cracking, holes and determine road thickness on county roads
  • Develop a rehabilitation program with planning, timing of application, and optimization of the replacement area in the road and/or the complete resurfacing of the road. In other words, be more proactive instead of reactive and be smarter in planning.
  • Better optimize cost vs benefit in the road rehabilitation program
There is a need to thoroughly understand the quality and subsurface issues of the roadbed. When water is embedded within the roadbed, we have a higher risk of road surface fracture. A cavity layer with water is where the asphalt surface is the weakest. Detecting that weakness gives us insight into structural deficiencies, which will eventually lead to road failure; so by knowing this, we can prepare plans to replace the problem areas even before the failure occurs. A health check of our roads is available using x-ray technology. This method also measures the thickness of the roadbed. Data on the road is collected in a van with an x-ray system mounted on the front of the van, directionally aimed at the road surface below it. X-ray data is collected into an on-board computer and subsequently processed with computer software. Traveling at the speed of traffic, the system in the van collects the data without impeding traffic movement. Then the data is analyzed and presented in layered graphics like a seismogram to those studying the road. Montgomery county is collecting this data now in our area to assess the condition of our roads.Click here for a more in-depth explanation of the technology. Typical Scan image

In this day of higher cost petroleum-based materials, we face inflated material costs for maintaining our roads. As asphalt prices rise, the selection of materials is even more important than it was a few years ago. In the past, repair of concrete roads required asphalt to be laid at 300+ degrees. The source of the asphalt in Montgomery County is in Conroe, so the asphalt must be loaded (at 350 degrees), transported, and coordinated with the preparation of the roadbed such that is stays above 300 degrees when it touches the roadbed at the project site. Sometimes the material must be turned away, because it is too cool to put down on the roadbed. Contracts are written to assume and include this waste. To combat this issue and lower county contractor costs, the low temperature asphalt method will be utilized by the precinct. This will facilitate a lower financial risk delivery to the work site, less time that the road area is closed, lowered contractor costs, and give the work crew a healthier environment to work. For those having deeper interest of this topic, a short description of other benefits of low temperature asphalt are found at this link.

A more descriptive review of this material and case studies are found at this link.

On Rayford Road, the county has been testing a different surface technology to improve safety and provide a more durable cost effective road surface. Porous Friction Course (PFC) is an asphalt mixture with a low bitumen content (high carbon molecules which are the residues of petroleum distillation), carefully designed to provide a fast lateral water exit from the roadbed and to have strong tensile properties. The difference between a standard asphalt surface and a PFC surface is incredible. In a rainstorm, the traditional surface will require that water exit the roadway by pushing the water off, typically as a spray which hinders a driver’s vision. Combined with water, traditional surfaces also act as water slides, slippery surfaces that are a road hazards. PFC on the other hand allows the water to escape the road horizontally through porous exits pushed by both gravity and tires. This has the added benefit of combating hydroplaning issues. PFC has been known to be a weaker tensile medium with normal additives, but today’s technology has been improved to compensate for that with stronger bonding elements. I saw a video on PFC technology, demonstrating its capability. Very impressive! The video showed a road with a traditional asphalt surface. Cars and trucks were lifting the water with the resultant spray producing a foggy mist above the roadway. After the new PFC surface was laid, almost the identical conditions produced a clear road with no evidence of standing water, just an apparently wet surface. The tires were not lifting the water into a mist above the road as before. So the next time you drive down Rayford Road in the rain, you should be able to notice the difference. PFC is also a sound inhibitor. The material, also due to its porous nature, absorbs more of the noise, presumably about 3 db, not significantly detectable. Under the surface of existing roadways, I was shown the water cavities that cannot be seen with the eye. With this material, any cavities should be dry, with all the water escaping to the sides of the roadway. A well designed porous surface will therefore maintain the integrity of the road as well as provide a means for water to escape. There is a downside however. This surface is hotter in the summer and darker than concrete at night. Headlights reflect off of concrete, illuminating the road much better than with asphalt. Try this link for more information on the PFC technology.

There is some debate in the journals on what is better, rock PFC or ARFC (Asphalt Rubber Friction Course technology). ARFC has very significant noise abatement properties along with its water exit properties. ARFC lowers road noise some 13 db while the rock PFC lowers the noise by about 3db, a very significant difference. Arizona is known for its quiet highways, because they are using ARFC. I am personally hopeful that ARFC will be deployed on our roads here in The Woodlands. Related short articles to be released soon:


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Synchronization of Traffic Signals in The Woodlands Texas


Have you ever wondered why the traffic light changes from red to green, sometimes just before you get to the light? It is probably because we use traffic-actuated signals here. In The Woodlands, actuation is triggered by vehicle detection, pedestrian request, fire truck request, and timing. However the computerized decision to change the light is not as simple as it sounds.

Traffic Intersection System
Each signal location has several cameras, a control box and of course the traffic lights themselves linked to a control box. Attached electronically to the intersection control box, each camera monitors a street location consisting of one or more traffic lanes.

As you might notice, the right turn lane in one camera is not monitored and the other is monitored. That is because it is a right turn lane, assumed to not be a factor for changing the traffic signal in one, but in the other lane, an auto will affect the flow of the traffic. The boxes are imaginary boxes, nothing physical on the ground. The controller software monitors the rectangular boxes to detect an automobile. On the central control management display at headquarters and on the precinct’s web site, these boxes change color when the intersection controller detects an automobile. That color change indicates the control box has detected an automobile in the intersection. One way to check on the operation of the control system is for the traffic manager to observe these changes and see that the control system is responding properly to the movement of traffic.

The control box has a computer “brain” which is programmed to react to traffic presence situations. For example, let’s take an intersection on the Woodlands Parkway. If a car is traveling in the right hand turn lane, it is assumed to be turning to the right. If in the middle lane, the assumption is that it will pass through the intersection. For the left lane, the auto is assumed to be passing through depending on the lane configuration. And in the far left turning lane, the vehicle is assumed to be turning left. So here comes an auto in the right lane on the Woodlands Parkway and it moves to the right turn lane of the intersection. A perpendicular traveling auto is waiting for a green light at the intersection. That car now has been given priority by the computer at the intersection to receive a green light, because of these assumptions. In this case, without another automobile to consider, the computer changes the light to green for the waiting vehicle, that is, if synchronization and wait time criteria are also met. The determination by the computer to change the light is relatively simple, but is governed by several variables.

All fire trucks have priority for a green light at intersections. The truck emits an infrared light beam to tell the management system it is approaching the intersection. The system immediately responds by ensuring the light is green for the truck and red for the perpendicular traffic. A fire truck is very heavy and difficult to stop in an emergency. If it is slowed, the truck is very slow to clear the intersection because of its slow acceleration capability. It needs to proceed out of the intersection quickly so as to not impede the movement of other traffic. Police cars and ambulances are not given priority. They can move through the intersection and accelerate on by, quickly getting out of the intersection even if they have to stop.

Each intersection control box is attached to an optical fiber cable to communicate with the central control monitor and control system. Many problems with the intersection equipment can be fixed from the central location through this connection. Camera images are sent to the control center at five frames per second. In the intersection control box, the computer is able to detect automobiles in the intersection after the light changes and is able to determine the speed of a vehicle. It is able to react to these observations by signaling a photograph camera to record the event, if so programmed and the required still cameras are installed. The control system also counts vehicles moving in each direction.

Traffic Signal Synchronization
Woodlands Parkway is characterized as a “Smart Street”. All traffic is considered in optimizing vehicle flow from one point to another, and the perpendicular traffic is allowed to satisfactorily move also. This includes the pedestrian and emergency vehicles. How does the synchronization of a series of lights occur? We should know this if we are to drive through the synchronized signals without stopping.

First, the time between any given intersection and the next signal light must be programmed into the controller. The optimum velocity is utilized to time the arrival of incoming vehicles from that signal light. So typically, a velocity on Woodlands Parkway would be assumed to be the speed limit, about 45 MPH. This information usually resides in a data table. The optimum time for changing the light is programmed into the control box from that sheet. If an automobile has a reasonable acceleration from a dead stop at one traffic signal, he should arrive at the next signal light in time for a green light, at is, if he travels at 45 MPH. If he travels too fast, he arrives too early and has to stop. That may cause automobiles behind him to stop or slow down as well, so he has caused a potential bottleneck in the traffic flow.

An example of this – East Panther Creek/Woodlands Parkway intersection is considered one of the two key intersections for successfully optimizing the movement of traffic on the Woodlands Parkway. We want it to be green when we get there. We are at Six Pines heading towards East Panther Creek, passing through the light without stopping and hope to pass through the light at Panther Creek in the same fashion. That is a reasonable expectation except there may be many cars in line waiting to be released by a green light at the next intersection. Vehicles are being fed onto the parkway at Grogan’s Mill. The light will turn green in a certain number of seconds, because it is synchronized with the signal at Six Pines. If the traffic rushes to Panther Creek and stops, that traffic will not be traveling at 45 MPH for several seconds after the light turns green. The Traffic Manager has programmed this additional time into the control unit. It is assumed that a certain number of automobiles are being added to the traffic lanes from Grogan’s Mill. Now the control system at the Panther Creek intersection is told that the traffic has been released at Six Pines. The control box starts its countdown for target signal change. While it is doing that, it detects 15 cars passing through the two lanes at the intersection within the last 25 seconds. The entire situation becomes difficult to interpret, but the system has been programmed to prioritize the synchronization over the vehicle detection rate, so it goes ahead and gives the Woodlands Parkway traffic a green light after giving a red and momentarily pausing for the perpendicular traffic to clear. So the light is green for us by the time we arrive. Had a pedestrian pressed the cross walk button, we would have had to wait because the pedestrian had to be serviced within a certain time. Had a fire engine come along, we would have also had to wait. The reality of synchronization is that it may work for us sometimes and other times not. Many times, the traffic flow just cannot be predicted.

All of this becomes more complicated as we have more or less traffic entering the roadway from other locations. You can see some of the logic in the computer and how difficult it must be to get it right. The term synchronized must be regarded as a process, not an actual real thing that we can rely upon. The process only helps the traffic to flow better, not necessarily keeping every car moving from one end to the other.

If you are traveling on one of the "Smart Streets" of The Woodlands at night and wonder why you have stopped at a red light, it is likely that cross traffic triggered the signal. Synchronization is not intended for off hours. The process is intended for peak hours when traffic needs to be moved most efficiently. Soon we will add Research Forest and Lake Woodlands to the smart street inventory. Currently, only the Woodlands Parkway is synchronized.

Precinct 3 is now studying our major traffic arteries to seek better timing of the lights in the Northstar system. Lake Woodlands Drive and Research Forest will be synchronized when the traffic signals are functioning. Lake Woodlands is likely to become a 40MPH drive, higher than current limit of 35 but lower than the first predicted 45MPH, except up near the mall where it will remain 35MPH. Many thanks to both the Commissioner Ed Chance and the Traffic Control Manager Fred Koehler, for explaining how the system functions. Related short articles to be released soon:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Northstar Traffic Control System in Montgomery County Texas


Montgomery County Precinct 3 is leading the pack in managing traffic in densely populated unincorporated areas. Our county’s progressive role in the regional management of traffic has gained much momentum. We have a state-of-the-art traffic management system called Northstar. It is really slick! Click here to see the current locations of all Northstar-managed traffic lights in Montgomery County.

Each location has one or more cameras, a control box and of course the traffic lights themselves, linked to the control boxes. The way this works is each camera monitors a street location. It determines if the light should change by several factors - detecting cars within programmed rectangles, a pedestrian-requested light change, time from last change and oncoming emergency fire trucks. This process will be more detailed in the article on traffic light synchronization.

This brings us to inter-connectivity of the intersection management system. Fiber optic cables are installed for each location. We now have 150 miles of cable supporting these systems. There is a dedicated fiber required for each control box. That is how the video is streamed to the central location at the precinct headquarters and how we are able to watch the videos from our workstations. One person is located in the control room constantly monitoring the traffic flow and overseeing the operation of the equipment. Soon there will be two persons assigned to this duty as the workload will be greatly increased.

A fiber optic feed is also provided to the county's emergency control center in case of emergency evacuations or incidents. For cost efficiency, there is an agreement to share fiber cables with TxDOT. When the county must install a fiber cable to support an intersection control system, the sharing is in reverse. Precinct 3 is now developing a loop configuration so that there is a backup communication route in case of a cable outage. This entire system will be utilized county wide as it is expanded beyond the confines of precinct 3. Several cities nation-wide are looking at the deployment in our precinct, because we have used innovative techniques to utilize the best of specialized cameras but non-proprietary computer equipment. Cost efficiency is key to the success of this county’s program for management of intersections, including the ticketing of red light offenders.

What is the future of this technology? For sure the deployment here will be expanded. Within two years, there will be 500-600 units operating in the county. Additionally, the violation cameras will be expanded to key intersections. These cameras are also capable of determining the speed of individual automobiles. If there is a speeding car behind one that is not speeding, it is possible to miss the detection of the speeding car. This is the only known flaw with the camera. Otherwise, the county is positioned to issue citations for speeding if the legislature will permit the practice. Why start issuing speed tickets by the camera method? "It is much safer than a police officer issuing a citation along the roadside where traffic movement is impeded by the issuance of a traffic ticket" noted Ed Chance the commissioner. It is the the rubberneck effect. Is there an issue of privacy? If someone is speeding (usually 11 MPH over the limit), defined by criteria for the camera’s location, the camera will set off a photo. If not, there is no photo taken. Break the law; county takes a photo – no invasion of privacy. If a policeman pulls you over for speeding, it is not an invasion of privacy. See the commissioner’s comments on his who’s who page.

When accessing the Northstar website, you can watch any particular intersection you wish. The data is streamed to you at one frame/second. At headquarters, they watch it at 15 frames per second. To view an intersection, simply click on the location on the map that you wish to see. You may have to scroll on the Google map to find the intersection you wish to view. To do that, click and hold down the left button of your mouse over the map and move the map until you see the intersection that you seek.

Weather stations are also being planned for the Northstar system. Bridges sometimes ice up and other times do not, when under a freeze advisory. It would be more cost effective to monitor the bridges electronically for a near freezing temperature and then deploy surface crews, rather than deploy them each time the weather might be freezing. In other words, just in time cost effective ice prevention on each bridge. This is part of the near term planning of the precinct.

Some related statistics might help us to understand our issues and the need for automation. On some days, East Panther Creek and Woodlands Parkway has as many as 75,000 trips logged, a very heavy load. Woodlands Parkway has some 50,000 trips per day as an average. Our intersections are designed for 1900 cars per hour. We exceed that significantly at East Panther Creek and Gosling intersections with Woodlands Parkway. For every automobile running a red light, we have an additional 9 seconds delay for the perpendicular traffic. If 10 automobiles continue through an intersection after the light changes, they have caused as much as a 90-second additional bottleneck for perpendicular traffic.

Traffic speed statistics are regularly gathered in 15-minute windows. On I-45, the average speed of vehicles has been measured as high as 81 MPH in one of these 15-minute windows. Assuming some of them were traveling at 70, then some of them were also traveling at 90 or even 100! On The Woodlands Parkway, peak speed average is a little over 60. That means some traffic is likely moving at 70 MPH or more.

Also noteworthy, we have fewer automobiles on our roads this year than we had last year. This downward trend is what we are looking for. Research Forest and Lake Woodlands expansion projects should continue that load reduction trend on the Woodlands Parkway.

Related short articles to be released soon:

Many thanks to Commissioner Ed Chance and Traffic Manager Fred Koehler for their time to explain the vision of the precinct and county.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Traffic noise #2 - Grogans Mill North side


Measurements were taken on June 18th using the same methods as the first in Indian Springs. This measurement is intended to see what noise is generated from The Woodlands Parkway and what surrounding noise it may create in the area of a flyover. This is a rather complex site, not typical of The Woodlands. The flyover is the one going over Grogan's Mill Rd.

North Side On Grogan's Mill Rd near the East side apartments, the traffic is fairly tame moving in a 35MPH zone, and consisting of mostly sedans emitting an average of 75db as they pass the measuring meter. In the background, one hears a low drone of less than 70db from the parkway. There is an occasional sports car or truck which will momentarily raise the level as high as 90db, but most trucks emit noise less than 85db. Even a rattling pickup truck which I expected to be notable was measured at only 78db.

On the ramp onto Woodland's Parkway, as traffic accelerates away from Grogan's Mill towards the west, the sound level is not surprisingly higher. Surrounding traffic brings the meter to 75 db regularly but not continuously. The average observed level, mostly consisting of sedans, was about 78db. Some 6% of the traffic exceeded 80db; approximately 1% exceeded 85db. There is significantly more truck traffic coming under the parkway than from the north, and turning on to the ramp; this causes higher levels of noise at this location. I observed about a 3db increase in the average level of sedans and trucks at this location in short 10-15 second spurts as the traffic light at Grogan's Mill opened two lanes of traffic to turn on to the ramp. Typical measurements were: Concrete truck- 80, tow truck - 82, SUV with loud pipes - 87 db, sedan with loud pipes - 85 db, pickup truck with loud pipes - 90+ db. Pickup truck with loud bass audio speaker - 90db. A nearby HEB 18-wheeler transport truck registered 80 db even though it was far away and not directly passing by. A typical traffic burst would have about 12 seconds duration emitting noise at a 82-83 db volume, usually produced by two concurrently occupied lanes of traffic.

Then next measuring location was on the parkway itself on the northern side, as the traffic began to descend down the flyover. There were of course more trucks on the freeway than Grogan's Mill. The 45+ MPH speed of the traffic certainly cranked up the volume. A typical sedan emitted a 81 db level of noise. Traffic moved in bursts, controlled by the traffic light at Six Pines. Each here also burst and would last for varying times, from 20 seconds to 45 seconds. Each burst would typically range from 83-88 db 10-12 feet from the source. Here one could discern differences in tires, much more so than at lower speeds. A higher frequency pitch would be emitted by some tires. Some pickup trucks or vans with loud mufflers would ratchet up the volume into the 90's. There were several trucks that exceeded 90db and one dirt dumpster was measured at 99db. I asked myself where all of this noise was going, because below the flyover, I could hear very little of it. I concluded that the sound waves probably go up more than down because the road itself reflects the sound, and a lot of the irritating noise comes from mufflers, not the road.

South Side Measurements
I will be measuring the other side of this flyover in a few days and simply adding it here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Traffic Noise in The Woodlands Texas - Indian Springs


I have been concerned about the growing road noise level in Indian Springs for several years. This article documents my first findings after recently measuring the noise but does not provide any commentary on the results. I am holding that pending more investigations, additional thought and others' opinions. There has not been much data that I could find to indicate whether the noise here is normal or abnormal, except in the Handbook of Road Technology reference below. I decided to take a pragmatic view of the issue and measure the noise level we experience here at peak traffic times - at rush hour in the morning and in the evening to compare with observations elsewhere.
Background
Traffic noise consists of a varied number of components which affect our comfort level in different ways. Variables which affect the volume and frequencies of the noise include road surface, tire material and style, fuel of the automobile, muffler, transmission gear ratios, weight of the automobile, stereos and speakers, velocity of the automobile and the performance of the driver. Higher frequency noise is rapidly reduced by vegetation and distance, whereas low frequencies are not so easily attenuated, travel further distances and tend to bother residents more.

Typical sound volume benchmarks are easily related to traffic noise volume.
Facts:

  • Each 10 db increment doubles the volume, therefore 100 db is 16 times 60db
  • If it sounds loud, it measures loud
  • If you hear it in the house, it is dominated by low frequencies
  • Public annoyance legal threshold is 85db
  • Sustained exposure may result in hearing loss at or over 95db
  • Short term health danger begins at 105db
  • Maximum measurable noise level is 194db
  • Piano Fortissimo is 84 to 103db
  • Acceptable perceived levels are dependent on time of day or the individual's daily routine - some people work at night
  • Acceptable perceived levels are dependent on type of neighborhood and expectations in the living style of that neighborhood
  • OSHA declared a time criteria for exposure to various sound volumes
    • Maximum daily 8 hours at 90db
    • Maximum 1.0 hour at 105 db
  • If it hurts, it is usually over the legal limit in any public place
  • If house visitors ask about it, it is generally too loud
Measured benchmark reference data
  • TV at normal listening volume = 56db
  • TV at full volume = 78 db
  • Birds singing = 63 db
  • TVfull = 5 times volume of Tvnormal
  • Birds singing = 1.6 times Tvnormal
Method of measurement
  • Near source measurements 8+ feet away
  • Radio Shack Sound Level Meter mounted on tripod
  • No frequency measurements were taken
  • Visually measured instant peak volume only
  • 35 MPH speed zone
  • Three and four lane road at three nearby locations
  • Measured on concrete and asphalt surfaces
  • Equipment sensitive to wind velocity n- did not measure in high wind
  • Measurements taken at peak morning and afternoon traffic situations
Observations
  • Observations relative to the benchmarks and information above:
  • Typical sedan = TV at full volume
  • Loaded concrete truck = 1.8x sedan
  • Diesel pickup = 3x sedan
  • Pickup with loud mufflers = 5x sedan
  • 18-wheeler = 5x to 16x sedan
  • Most motorcycles = less than sedan
  • Motorcycle with loud pipes = 12x sedan
Observations in db
  • Concrete truck - 88db
  • Loud sedan - 90db
  • Most sedans - 77db
  • Heavy duty truck - 81db
  • Accelerating Sports car - 86db
  • Motorcycle with loud pipes - 90db
  • 18 wheeler moving van - 92db
  • Diesel pickup truck with loud pipes - 94db
  • Van with loud pipes - 92 db
  • Loudest vehicle observed - 97db
My estimate is that about 3% of the automobiles passing by at this location were registering above 85db at my measuring station.
References:
  1. Galen Carol Audio
  2. Handbook of Road Technology

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Woodlands Texas Alert System - emergency and residential information now including Woodlands Watch being distributed


Over the past few years, as the community has grown, so have the issues for distributing timely and pertinent information to residents. The Woodlands Association service company is now providing and supporting a new information system for this purpose. The first Woodlands Watch message was distributed this past week revealing a start up glitch which was quickly corrected and redistributed to those residents who had signed up for the service. This particular message told residents about a robbery at a home in one of the villages. It gave pertinent information for resident awareness and advice on how to deal with the situation. This new system will be very helpful to residents who want to feel that they know what is going on about them and also for anyone physically close to the actual event, so that they can take appropriate measures for their own safety. It is my opinion that this information should not be distributed outside this community by subscribers unless there is a specific requirement to do so. That could be a legal issue which might violate the privacy rights of others.

There is another issue that residents ought to know about. A legal inquiry has been issued whether the data on the server falls into public domain as prescribed by the open information act. If it is ruled open information, the email addresses would not be private. They would be available to anyone requesting the addresses. If you have a Yahoo email address, you may have an alternative email address available for phishing, and I would suggest using one of them. Mail to a phishing address is forwarded to your email address and treated by Yahoo as if it was email directed at your normal email address. There may be similar services by other internet providers. Check into your service provider for advice on how to handle such situations.

I do recommend that you subscribe to this service! A picture-gram on how to use it:

Related Article: Announcing the new communication service of The Woodlands

The system is easy to use. More than one member of the occupant of a home may register and acquire different information. You must be a resident to receive the distributed information. Go to The Woodlands Association web site to sign up and select your preferred options.


Make sure you save your changes after you have selected what you need. Then log out.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Montgomery County Sheriff Citizens Academy


For those of you who would like to understand law enforcement a little bit better or even a whole lot better, Montgomery county has an excellent program to not only inform but also encourages you to participate and support this county's law enforcement agency. It is the citizen's academy. You can find current information on the Sheriff's web page. The next class is being conducted in August '08. There is a maximum enrollment of 30 students, so you if you want to learn, get on the stick!

Here is what you get for your $35 and 42 hours of class instruction:
+ How the Sheriff Department operates: recruiting, jail, crime stoppers, DWI enforcement, firearms, auto theft, communications, internal affairs, use of force, S.W.A.T., patrols, narcotics and vice, CSI, homicides, computer crime, victim advocacy, finger printing, lie detectors
+ Lots of laughs
+ Some very serious moments
+ Jail tour
+ Hands-on sobriety testing, lie detector, issuing a traffic ticket, armaments
+ Ride-along with patrolman, full shift
+ Membership in Alumni association - participation in their events.
+ Nice shirt
+ Photo of class
+ New friends
+ Graduation certificate

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mobility Plan Woodlands Texas 2008 Update


The good news is that something is being done to improve movement of vehicles through The Woodlands without serious effects to our tree buffers. Projects for 2008-09:

FM 1488 - by now everyone knows that 1488 is under construction. We must wait a while to see the project completed. There will be four (or is it 3?)lanes all the way from I45 to Magnolia. This project will be completed in 2009. 50% traffic capacity increase?
FM 242 - Flyover construction begins in June '08 and ends in 2009. Improvements are planned to provide dual lanes for turning left to Gosling and dual turn lanes at one other intersection (I did not catch which one).
Research Blvd -traffic lights and widening by using the shoulders will improve traffic capacity by 30%. All the infrastructure has already been completed. Widening begins Nov '08. Completion in 2009. Added lane under I45 freeway to David Memorial - project starts late this year, completes 2009.
Lake Woodlands - traffic lights being installed now. Completion in 10 months. Speed limit will be increased to 45 with a 30% traffic capacity increase. There is currently a discussion underway to build a flyover onto I45. It is very early in this discussion.
Sawdust- Also a traffic light. Completion 2009.
Woodlands Pkwy - complete by October 2009. Widening to Kuykendahl. Bridge ready to re-stripe for additional lanes. 30% traffic capacity increase in widened section.
Gosling - Complete from post office to Flintridge. Higher traffic capacity. Start this year, complete 2009.
Flintridge - widen in traffic light area. Dual turning lanes from Panther Creek to ??. Complete this year.
Kuykendahl - widening plan in limbo pending financial resources.
Park and Ride (new) - expansion to 600 vehicles. Expected completion this year.

This all sounds great, right? Now the bad news. Higher capacity + same surface + speeding vehicles = noise, lots of it. There is no plan to mitigate noise. Construction is apparently guided by federal guidelines on building highways, not streets. There is no need to build any sound barriers because the federal guidelines are being followed???? Is there no one looking out for home owners? Here is where I want to stand up and be counted! Excess noise is generated by modern day tires on outdated surfaces. We need noise reducing surfaces on our roads! I feel we live on highways, not city streets. Now I think I am seeing evidence why.

How do we make decisions on selecting our leaders in The Woodlands Texas?


I know I am a bit tardy on giving this election postscript, but I believe it is better to wait for a while than comment on it immediately afterwards. So here I am.

As I was going house to house to encourage residents to vote in the coming May election, I came across a person who wanted to vote but did not feel that he could make a meaningful decision. The trouble was that the ballot was a total blank to that person. Who are these people? I ran into another who thought that we would not be electing anyone on the board until several years out. Surprised to hear that we were voting on our government officials now, she stepped back and asked how could she participate in something she did not know anything about. She was a little apathetically minded also. I could see there are many differing levels of understanding. These two residents were not going to vote, but folks, both end up saying that they would go to the polls. How many more people out there felt that they should leave the voting to others more knowledgeable than they or just did not understand the situation?

Apathy in local elections is partly our own fault. We have not yet found a good formula to get the voters to the polls in local elections except to go door to door. Even at that, there are a number of residents who disdain a stranger at their front door. Amazingly enough, I was confronted by only one of these person-to-person. Snarling, he asked "why don't we have a law against this?". "Well", I replied, "that is partly what this is all about. Why don't you read what the candidates have to say? Here is the flier." There was nothing in my blog about soliciting, but the idea that someone was trying to prevent someone else from communicating the availability of information just did not seem right to me. There was no gain to anyone except for the person being approached. He seemed a little more aware of that by the time I left.

Residents had an excellent opportunity to select five candidates from a slate of fourteen to begin governing The Woodlands Township by residents. Many residents were not prepared however. I personally delivered fliers to each doorstep in Indian Springs to help inform its residents of the availability of candidate information. Considering the number of visits to that information in the blog (I measured it daily), I believe the method used in the blog was influential, but I have no way of determining how many votes it may have actually created. I just did not get to enough households in the Woodlands as a whole, probably only about 1000-1200 homes (however many there are in Indian Springs). Candidates pushing for votes with mailers, signs etc did not generate sufficient confidence building to get people to the polls. That is the same as advertising, and we get too much of that in the mail anyway. Each voter must make a decision for selecting a candidate on his own. A piece of paper in the mail just didn't do the trick for many. A confident voter is more apt to go to the polls than one who just knows he should, but feels he is armed with insufficient information. The websites of the candidates helped considerably to generate confidence, so maybe the fliers did have a large impact after all. There is more to this than apathy.

My eyes were opened up a bit with the resident encounters above, so that now, I can more clearly see that we are not all on the same page. Therefore, I write a little more to explain what I see happening and perhaps this will give some readers more insight to future elections and the need to cast his ballot.

I provided a major part of the issues to consider for the last election, using what I read and heard. I also considered team personalities.

Now I also provide an informal checkoff list so that we can think from a list. Actually, for the next election, I plan to have a document to print, but right now we only have a frame for thought. This will be the frame from which I might launch a guide next time around.

Issues template
Foremost, we want to align our thinking with the issues at hand. Think about what is most important from the issues listed below. There could be more, so we won't assume these are all of them. I am just offering an organized methodology and starting point. Order these in the sequence of your perceived importance. There are quite a few, but I would check off 10-12 at most to look for in each candidate.

+ ( )Taxes - Lower taxes or have a maximum tax? How about special rate protection for the elderly or maimed or veteran who are on a fixed income?
+ ( )Law enforcement - Do we need additional police protection? Should we continue to use the county Sheriff to police, with county judges and courts?
+ ( )Fire protection and emergency response - Do we need additional protection?
+ ( )Merger of the associations with the Township - The Township has to assimilate the associations (not the village associations but the main four). Who can get that job done effectively?
+ ( )Enthusiasm for establishing a future efficient and permanent government
+ ( )Support for a city government structure - do we really need to he a municipality? We do not have to be one, you know. There are alternatives.

OK, enough of important issues. Let's go to another dimension to consider.

Candidate Background template

+ ( )Church - does the person need to be a member of a church?
+ ( )Family - does the person need to have a spouse and/or children?
+ ( )Age - does age make a difference?
+ ( )Experience in Government - is this a critical factor?
+ ( )Knowledge - of local governing processes, contracts, legal constraints
+ ( )Education - do we need post graduates in office? Is a High School education enough?
+ ( )Leadership credentials - others follow, follower of others, leader of leaders, able to make presentations, decisive, stand by decision, confidence
+ ( )Innovation - thinker, "yes" or "no" person, challenger, acquiesce to others
+ ( )People Networks - an adequate network of people to get things done
+ ( )Personal Motivation - Is the candidate motivated to seek this job for the right reasons?
+ ( )Time Capacity - is the candidate able to put sufficient time and effort into the job?
+ ( )Ethical behavior - fighting among peers, accusative, personal attacks, private business ethics, law abiding resident, cooperative, supportive, ... do we know how this person acts among others?
+ ( )Village affiliation - should some representation mix of candidates be selected because of their home village? (Should we be voting for certain individuals because they are from a particular village?)

One more dimension to consider. The election of the team is the first step in building a team. To get things done, projects and tasks must be distributed among the team members. To make decisions, the team must effectively communicate, delegate, negotiate resolutions, and champion progress.

Team Player template
+ ( ) Role playing - has a potential and clearly defined role on the team
+ ( ) Respectability - probably would be accepted by others on the team
+ ( ) Attendance - past performance on doing the job, exhibited even without being part of the team
+ ( ) Helpfulness - willingness to provide others on the board relative information instead of trying to surprise the board member(s) with info at the last minute to embarrass some in public. In other words, does not use position to play politics with the other board members.
+ ( ) Enthusiasm - this could end up being the most important, so consider this for your list. Try to ascertain whether the perceived enthusiasm will be enduring or just the election fervor.

Now that the the May 10th election has passed, we have a board of ten and one vacancy (until appointed) governing all villages, including the Town Center. Our hometown is growing up! How are we now represented, and will we see substantial progress towards the ultimate self-governing vision we all seem to have? Of course we have differing views, but each of us has some idea what we should grow up to be.

Who did we elect and what was the outcome? From where I sit, we did pretty good, electing officials with desired characteristics and potential roles in our future government.

My personal observations of what we get from the election:
Leader of leaders - Blair
Enthusiasm to work with others as a team - Hunter, Blair, Hausman
Tax advocate for fixed income residents and disabled - Campbell
Experience in fire department - Hausman, Tough, Campbell
Experience in The Woodlands governance - Tough, Blair, Hausman, Hunter, Campbell
Knowledge of The Woodlands service processes - Tough, Blair, Hausman, Hunter, Campbell
Attendance - Tough, Blair, Hausman, Hunter, Campbell
Networked - Tough, Blair, Hausman
Respected by Business community - Tough, Blair
Respected by Residential community - Tough, Blair, Hausman, Hunter, Campbell
Helpfulness, resident advocates - Hunter, Hausman
Police protection advocate - Hausman
By-the-people governance - Campbell, Hausman
Water district experience - Campbell, Hunter, Hausman
School district experience - Tough, Hausman

All in all, we could have done a lot worse. So did it really matter that we had such low voter turnout? Not really. The proof will be in the pudding though. I feel we were overweighted demographically by the older age group, who have been here a long time and who had more time to consider the issues and know the personalities. That is intuition and cannot be proven except being derived from the county's records. The only threat I see from the apathy is the shortage of opinion diversity and ultimately the lack of ownership of the outcome. Those who did not vote might not be so inclined to support the outcome of the board's decisions, if they disagree with those decisions.

My advice is for all of us to watch how the transition unfolds and how well each of these candidates do in their jobs, especially Campbell and Hunter whose terms end in 2010.

What can we do better next time? I believe we should have some television debates and discussions. Let people come into resident homes through the media. That is much less intrusive and fits almost all lifestyles. I would have discussed this election in a panel format. I believe many would have listened. We can use our creativity to get voters to the polls and that will occur only with efficient educational techniques. How do we get them to watch a local channel and what would it cost? I cannot answer that right now, but my idea would be to go through the other processes to get the people to the TV. Do it on the weekend when people are home, say Sunday evening, or perhaps varying days. We could even have slide shows with music background that repeated all day. My bet is that cable providers including AT&T and Comcast would be glad to provide a community channel; perhaps even the satellite providers would provide a channel.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New Community Service Available - Woodlands Alert

This long awaited electronic means of communicating to the residents of The Woodlands is now available for registration. It displaces the outdated manual cascading telephone calling process of the Woodlands Watch and adds several additional sources of information to be broadcast. The selectable services available are:

Woodlands Fire Department
Woodlands Watch Message
Neighborhood Services - General Information
Aquatics
Woodlands Recreation Center
Parks and Recreation
Environmental Services
Covenants
Assessments

You can choose which communications you wish to receive and through selectable media. You can receive direct telephone calls, email, fax and/or TTY for each subject. The services are explained on the association's website. Once subscribed to these information services, you can change your options or media at any time.

I recommend using this service! It is easy to register and the information will be valuable to keep you informed of emergency situations as well as routine. Click here to sign up at their website or make changes to your account

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Woodlands Township Directors,CISD,Lone Star College Bond Referendum , School Board Election Results May 10 2008


The CISD Bond Referendum (yes=60.45%) and the Lone Star College Referendum(yes=59.92%) both passed.

The Township Results at the county website:
Jeff Long 8.17%
Ted Stanley 3.78%
Tom Campbell 10.48% - two year term
Kenny Speight 6.52%
Bruce Tough 15.33% - three year term
George Van Horn 2.13%
Karen Booren 5.51%
Renata Tyree 1.13%
Nelda Luce Blair 12.81% - three year term
Bev Earl 6.03%
Joe Merrill 1.27%
Peggy S. Hausman 11.28% - three year term
Paul Martin 6.31%
Claude Hunter 9.25% - two year term

Lone Star Trustee Position #3
Jerry Albrecht 23.03%
Robert Gandy 14.55%
Stephanie Marquard 32.29%
Fred Blanton 30.13%

Lone Star Trustee Position #4
Robert J. Adam 48.33%
Terry Morton 51.67%

Lone Star Trustee Position #6
Bob Wolfe 39.94%
Jason Roper 35.62%
Alan Quintero 24.43%

County Results click here
Woodlands Township results click here

Friday, May 2, 2008

Crime investigation using fingerprints in Montgomery County Texas

Do you know we have a new machine at the county jail to take fingerprints? Our county took a big leap this year to improve response time on identifying criminals wanted elsewhere and building a database of local criminals. In the Sheriff's department, there is a full time employee just for taking prints and acquiring data on each person brought in. Why would we emphasize one technique of criminal investigation so strongly?

To start, are identical twins identical in every way? Genetically they are. Are there any two people in this world with the same fingerprint? Not to any one's knowledge. So you see, identical twins do not have the same fingerprints. The reason is that the development of the ridges, swirls and circles in a fingerprint are affected by environmental factors, not genetics. This applies to foot impressions, hand impressions AND fingerprints. The right hand is also different from the left. This is due to pressure points and the position the fetus when laying in the womb. The print can even be influenced by factors outside of the womb during the fetal development. The science of finger printing is amazing these days. Yet it remains tedious and time consuming. Therefore, we have more than one expert on our county's criminal investigation staff to work with fingerprints.

I had the good fortune to see the equipment and meet the operator in the county jail, and meet a CSI (Crime Scene Investigator) in a seminar recently. Caryn is one of seven CSIs who might be assigned to a case here in The Woodlands. In 2007, 2200 fingerprint enquiries were run through the AFIS state database, 13000 palm prints taken and 31000 fingerprint cards created.

Fingerprints are very important in a criminal identification. It is the quickest way to positively identify a person. There are at least five formal classes a CSI should take to become an expert in the field. Fingerprints can be taken from a straw, piece of paper, a sugar envelope in a restaurant, inside a latex glove, and extracted from many other places we would not think would be possible. Very strong evidence is often the result of acquiring reasonably good fingerprints. Can one alter or mask his fingerprint so he cannot be identified? Yes, but the techniques used will be evident on the body or fingers of the individual that the prints have been altered.

I laughed when Caryn told us that when she sees a Giraffe or a Zebra, she immediately thinks of fingerprints. Every Zebra's striped body is different, and so the analogy. Must be tough to have this profession. I prefer to see a beautiful Giraffe instead of a bunch of unique lines.

You want to know a little more, like the anatomy of a fingerprint? I can give you a fundamental technical principal. A print has three basic elements. (1) Loops - concentric U shaped lines. Think of the end of a string starting in position A and laying it in one direction then bending it at some location C and returning the other end to a parallel location with A, call that B. Now you have sort of a triangle. You looped the string. (2) Whirls - oval closed shaped concentric lines. Take a piece of string and make a circle by placing both ends on top of each other. (3) Arches - lines that intersect each other but do not return to the beginning. Take a string and just place it in a straight of curved line that looks like a highway and you have one arch.

What makes the process difficult and time consuming is that a CSI must identify at least 20 places on each print and put them into the database. For example two ridges intersecting at an (x,y) location. These 20 points help the database respond to queries finding potential matches of a fingerprint. The eyes continue to be the best analyzer tool for determining if there is a real match or not.

Over many decades of refining the process and developing tools to make the process effective, today we have a sophisticated "fast" identification capability, yet unlike the CSI show on TV, it still takes hours or even days to come up with a positive ID if that happens at all. It is just one tool for a CSI to help unravel the crime scene and provide sufficient data to detectives to find the suspect(s) or to the court for a verdict.

Another aspect not to be overlooked! Our children and ourselves should be fingerprinted. If we get passports or are immigrants, we have already been fingerprinted and the print is in the national AFIS database. If not, we can take fingerprints ourselves and store them in a safety deposit box just in case one of them disappears sometime. Just use a stamp pad and ink the prints. Use a photo of the person and print on the backside. The prints are good forever.

Another significant aspect to not be overlooked! Do you know that all county employees are finger printed? More significant than that is every single licensed tow truck driver is finger printed and has a special colored identification card. That means every deputy who might want you to get in a car must have proper photo identification and every tow truck driver who may have you accompany him must have a photo ID badge. All licensed attorneys also have such a badge. A tow truck driver must have a PINK ID badge. The color is very significant. He must also have a green sticker on his windshield in order to operate in Montgomery County. This is very important to know! Do not get in a car without the driver having the proper photo identification. ASK FOR IT! DEMAND IT!

Montgomery County has a strong Crime Scene investigation staff with excellent credentials. Hopefully we will not ever need one to be working on a case in our neighborhood or in our own family. But if we do, there are some very fine folks in Conroe able to help solve the crime, fingerprints just being one but significant tool to do so.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

May 10, 2008 Election in The Woodlands

You a registered voter who resides in The Woodlands and in Montgomery County will be asked to vote for or against:
+ CISD school bond
+ Lone Star Community College school bond

You need to be prepared to select your candidate for:
+ Four trustee positions on the Lone Star Commmunity College board. There is a total of fourteen candidates.
+ Five at-large Director positions on the Woodlands Township board. There are fourteen candidates.

This of course takes some research. You will find one information article in this commentary on two of these subjects at these links:
+ CISD Bond proposition
+ Get to know the candidates for The Woodlands Township Director positions.

Please vote!

Links:
+ Early voting locations and schedule
+ Joint Election Sample Ballot

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Earth Day in The Woodlands Texas

Of the two special days we have here in The Woodlands, Arbor and Earth, I favor Earth Day. Arbor Day is the great day for planting trees and the community does that. Earth Day is the day for appreciating and preserving the forest. From joining the Bluebird Society and putting a nesting home in your backyard, to recycling computers and paint, to learning the techniques on ridding unwanted pesky mosquitoes, to caring for an injured animal - we learn, we participate, we become better caretakers of our forest. Quite frankly, there was good entertainment and food to go along with it, making it a very nice outing on a beautiful day for the whole family. The event seems larger every year, and this one was exceptional.

This is an event done in the spirit of a hometown valuing its earthly heritage. I thought I would share this web site explaining "heritage": HERITAGE. Heritage is a basic reason for us to do many of the things we do.

Many thanks to the many folks who participated in and sponsored this event: vendors, The Woodlands Association, The Woodlands Development Company, Village associations, Montgomery Precinct 3, non-profit organizations, performing artists and volunteers and probably others who I cannot readily identify.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Wildflowers in The Woodlands Texas 2008

Creekside Village Park

Each year the development company plants wild flowers along major roads in The Woodlands. 2008 is no exception. However, early this spring, the flowers seemed not as spectacular as prior years. Perhaps the intense rains we had at critical times contributed to the more lackluster results this year. We have seen better results lately as the temperature rises and more of the blooms are opening for us to view. Locations where I looked included some of the normal intense spots on Gosling, Woodlands Parkway and 242. There was a really nice field of Bluebonnets at the new park in Creekside Park Village. I did not label many of these. I am asking for readers to try to help me identify them. Please excuse my ignorance of the names of wildflowers. I want to learn to identify them, so I am seeking help by posting them. There is also a slide show of these and last year's photos in the government section of the blog.

I made sure I passed by most of the spots marked on the map of the plantings as described by The Woodlands Association: Click here for Map. Additional information describing the process is available at the Association website by clicking here. There are a number of photographs posted below for your viewing pleasure. You can view larger versions of any photograph by clicking on its picture. The photographs are arranged by:
(1) those planted and
(2)those I believe to be indigenous to the area.
I have distinguished the two by general location - those along the roadside and others in the forest. Locations where roadside plantings cannot occur are considered indigenous in this article. This is an arbitrary distinction to isolate those growing natural and those artificially introduced to the ecology. California varieties are distributed each year at the Wildflower festival here in The Woodlands during the fall for residents to plant, so there are wildflowers not native to our area in many locations.

Let's first view the "planted", in two groups -
(a)the Oklahoma and Texas mix, and
(b)the Bluebonnet mix.
These two types of mixes are planted differently. See the map for the newly planted locations this year.

A. Planted species :

1. Oklahoma and Texas mix
The particular varieties shown are like long stemmed flowers. They are puffs of flowers on thin long stalks blown by the wind. It was difficult to get a clear camera focus because the wind blows them so much! There are many color variations as evidenced in these photos. I found concentrations of these on Gosling near Creekside Park Village and on The Woodlands Parkway in Sterling Village close to the Walmart area. You find them almost everywhere.
Indian Springs
Sterling Ridge
Blooms on this beautiful species are significantly different. Bright white wildflowers present a striking contrast to the other wildflowers.

Note the bee. I followed this little busy fellow until he finally stayed on one flower long enough to photograph. I recommend clicking this one. I also tried to get a photo of an elusive butterfly, which visited some of the flowers. It was my first sighting this year of the Monarch.

Here we have a field of colors but sparsely blooming at this time. There are many plants not yet blooming and each plant is spreading with multiple buds. It is early in the season. When looking at the number of plants yet to bloom, obviously there is considerable potential for many flowers yet to show their splendid glory! April will be a much better viewing month.

Cochran's Crossing These Bluebonnets were found on Gosling just south of Research Forest. Yes, the white one is a Bluebonnet also. They come is several colors but the mix is probably intended to be the pure blue variety. So we get a white one in the bunch. A nice change of pace.

College Park

B. Indigenous species

Sterling Ridge Panther Creek
On the water canal behind the YMCA on Shadowbend.
Some wildflowers are so small that one must literally get down on one's hands and knees to see them clearly. This is such a variety.
Dewberry is a prickly vine with really nice flowers. These are everywhere along the trails, along the creeks, along everything wild. In May, their black berries make great cobblers!
Indian Springs