04/26/17 1:00pm

UBER CLAIMS IT’LL BE TESTING A FLYING TAXI NETWORK IN TEXAS BY 2020 Meanwhile, in Dallas: Uber announced yesterday that the company plans to have a set of flying taxis called the Uber Elevate Network in testing stages in both the DFW area and Dubai in about 3 years. If everything goes as planned, the network would deploy VTOLs (that’s vertical take-off and landing vehicles, which mix elements of a small helicopter and a plane) that run entirely on electricity. Uber’s set to work with Dallas-based Hillwood Properties to develop landing sites equipped with recharging stations — though the technology for VTOLs themselves still has to be developed, too. [Texas Tribune; more herepreviously on Swamplot]

04/13/17 4:30pm

REST OF THE ALAMO TO BE REMEMBERED IN GHOSTLY GLASS ECHOES Meanwhile, in San Antonio: New renderings are out of the plans for a redo of the Alamo’s streetscape, showing the missing pieces of the mission-fort’s compound’s original courtyard outlined in glass walls. The structure was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015; the under-development master plan for redoing the area around the existing structure would cede nearby street territory to pedestrians, landscaping, and the glass wall markers. The redesign would also use glass panels in the ground to showcase the buried rubble of some of the original compound walls, uncovered in last year’s digging around. [The Rivard Report]

01/09/17 5:30pm

HOUSTON AND SAN ANTONIO COMPANIES JOIN UP IN SPROUTING TEXAS POT MARKET Meanwhile, in La Vernia: Kyle Hagerty provides an update on Houston-based aeroponics company Indoor Harvest’s plan to team up with San Antonio-based Alamo CBD in an attempt to become of the medical pot dispensing organizations the state of Texas will have to license as part of the 2015 Texas Compassionate Use Act. If all goes as planned, Indoor Harvest and Alamo will merge, then set up a 10-acre property in La Vernia, TX, to provide Vermont-based Vyripharm with pot products of specific chemical profiles — most importantly, with consistent levels of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive pot compound being studied for potential treatment of certain cancers and forms of epilepsy. Vyripharm, in turn, is setting up research agreements with a bunch of medical institutions in Houston and Galveston.  Hagerty notes that legal pot is one of the fastest growing industries in the country — though as UH professor Gina Warren pointed out this summer, indoor pot farming is a hugely energy- and water-intensive industry, with little regulatory infrastructure in place yet to address potential local or regional impacts. [Houston BisNow]

12/29/16 1:00pm

PIPELINE PROTESTERS LEAVE FREEZING N. DAKOTA, HEAD TO TEXAS TO CAMP Meanwhile, in Alpine: Several groups of environmental activist-types are currently setting up a series of long-term protest camps along the planned route of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which would send natural gas to Mexico from near Ft. Stockton by crossing beneath the Rio Grande. Like the Dakota Access pipeline (which the Army Corps said earlier this month it’s gonna try to reroute),  the Trans-Pecos is another Energy Transfer Partners project — though the company was already running into opposition in the region long before the Dakota protests made the national news, from what Rachel Monroe describes as an unlikely coalition of “archaeologists, McDonald Observatory astronomers, hippies, and ranchers.” The 1st camp was to have opened yesterday near Alpine; David Hunn writes this week that a handful of the same folks from the Dakota protests have already arrived in the region, and that 2 more camps are planned to open early next year, in the ghost town of Casa Piedra (near the edge of Big Bend Ranch State Park) and Toyahvale (home to Balmorhea State Park and San Solomon Springs  and near which Houston-based Apache Corp. is currently planning major drilling operations). [Houston Chronicle, Texas Monthly]

11/30/16 5:30pm

LICENSE SUSPENSION RECOMMENDED OVER FATAL CALIFORNIAN BALCONY COLLAPSE Meanwhile, in Berkeley: The California Contractors State License Board filed a formal complaint yesterday against the company that worked on the Liberty Gardens Apartments — where a cantilevered balcony in unit 405 collapsed last year, killing 6 of the 13 people standing on it. The board says that Segue Construction (which hired contractors to frame the faulty balcony) deviated from the specified building plan for the balcony, including swapping the plywood called for in the design for multiple sheets of specifically-not-OK oriented strand board. The agency also says the balcony collapsed when it did because of water-intrusion-related dry rot, potentially related to the balcony’s questionable waterproofing — not done in the way the design called for, and completed on “unknown dates” between May 2005 and August 2006 by another contractor. No charges are being filed by the Alameda County district attorney’s office, but the regulatory board is asking that Segue’s license be suspended or revoked. [California Contractors State License Board via KCBS]

11/15/16 3:15pm

PERMITS ISSUED TO STORE TEXAS WIND ENERGY IN GIANT UNDERGROUND SALT CAVE, TOO Meanwhile, in Tennessee Colony: As Fairway works on retrofitting some of those giant salt caves south of the Astrodome to store crude oil, a company called APEX says it has the permits all lined up to outfit a cavern in Anderson County’s Bethel Salt Dome to store some of Texas’s excessive wind energy. The plan, if the company gets the rest of the necessary funding, is to buy excess electricity from the grid to run an air compressor, pumping air into a salt chamber as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. That compressed air (with a boost from some natural gas combustion) would then be used to turn a turbine when needed. Energy analyst Paul Denham tells David Fehling that only a few spots in the US along the Gulf Coast have the kind of salt dome geology being put to work by the Bethel project (and by the only other major compressed air plants in the world, currently operating in Germany and Alabama); a few other companies, however, are now working on taking underground caverns out of the equation. [Houston Public Media; previously on Swamplot]

09/16/16 4:30pm

UBER’S SELF-DRIVING CARS HIT STREETS WITH ACTUAL PASSENGERS, DRIVERS JUST IN CASE Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh: As of Wednesday, Uber is letting some of its customers opt into possible pickup by its fleet of heavily tricked-out self-driving Ford Fusions. The rollout is the company’s first testing of the autonomous cars with real passengers in the urban wild; so far, they still come equipped with a prepared-for-takeover human in the driver’s seat (as well as a data-monitoring shotgun rider). Paying passengers interact with the car from the back seat via electronic tablet, which shows them the LiDAR data the car collects and allows them to take selfies. TechCrunch’s Signe Brewster got to check out one of the cars as part of a press preview and reports that the car’s driving was “so normal it got a little bit boring” by the end; Brewster does note that he “had a flurry of butterflies the first time the car encountered an obstacle — an SUV backing into the road. You don’t notice how many unexpected incidents occur during a routine drive until you ask a robot to take the wheel.” [WTAE, TechCrunch; previously on Swamplot]

09/13/16 2:45pm

THE NEXT BIG HURRICANE REBUILD WILL GO MUCH FASTER IF YOU START ON IT NOW Meanwhile, in Brownsville: Housing advocates in Dolly-battered South Texas have since developed a disaster response program optimistically called Rapido; new legislation (similar to a bill that failed in the last Texas legislative session) is in the works to make Rapido-style “precovery” response a statewide standard. The program involves the fast deployment of permanent 1-room housing “cores” that can be quickly assembled by local workers and then added onto later; the bigger component of the program, Leah Binkovitz writes this week, is extensive pre-planning initiatives in potential disaster areas, instead of what housing advocate John Henneberger calls “reinventing disaster recovery from a blank sheet of paper every time there’s a disaster.” Binkovitz writes that the program calls for preemptive outreach “to determine what kind of disaster housing would be most appropriate, who could build it, who would be eligible to receive it and what resources would be available. That conversation should even include whether folks want to rebuild in vulnerable neighborhoods and how to offer alternatives.” [Urban Edge; previously on Swamplot]

09/09/16 2:45pm

THE CASE OF THE SPECULATIVE RUBE GOLDBERG-STYLE LONG DISTANCE HOME ARSON ATTEMPT Meanwhile, in Kerikeri: Gag orders surrounding a set of insurance fraud and blackmail investigations have recently expired, bringing to light details of New Zealand investigators’ suspicions that British expat Chris Robinson may have burned his own house down while out of town in 2013. Investigators of the fire, which destroyed Robinson’s multi-million-dollar home and Mercedes, found burn marks suggesting a flame accelerant, as well as records of a remote login to a home computer on the night of the fire. Traces of the software program used to access the home machine were found on Robinson’s travel laptop, though he deleted the program the morning after the blaze. The investigators eventually presented a proof of concept video in court demonstrating one theoretically possible method of starting a fire remotely: the investigators cued a printer to print, which pulled down a sheet of paper which was taped to a string, pulling a switch that caused a small heating element to set some matches on fire (enough to ignite the accelerant that appeared to have been splashed around the house). The case fell apart because investigators didn’t produce evidence of a sent print command; though the insurance company still won’t pay out for the house, Robinson was acquitted. He did, however, lose an associated court case over an attempt to blackmail the insurance company; during sentencing, the judge took into consideration a previous UK conviction for posing as an Irish priest to solicit-slash-extort donations to a nonexistent charity. [Stuff via The Independent]

08/25/16 2:00pm

RRC: YOUR DRINKING WATER PROBABLY HASN’T BEEN POISONED BY THOSE WELLS WE WEREN’T TRACKING Meanwhile, in Austin: The Texas Rail Road Commission is hiring a geologist to look through the 10,000-or-so permits for oilfield waste disposal wells it’s approved since 1982, in an effort to figure out which ones were drilled into potential drinking water supplies.  Kiah Colliers reports this week that the agency (which since 2005 has had nothing to do with railroads) says it’s let through a “handful” of exceptions to the don’t-pump-fracking-liquids-into-water-zones-someone-might-need-later rules, and that they probably aren’t much of a risk, but the agency doesn’t actually know how many times it’s happened (and the EPA doesn’t have records of giving the required OKs). Colliers also notes that even other Texas officials in charge of water quality in frack-heavy areas of the state aren’t necessarily aware that disposal wells are ever allowed near potentially drinkable water supplies, quoting an assistant manager at the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District’s response to a description of the policy as “Now why in the hell would they do that? [Texas Tribune]

08/15/16 5:15pm

USA GYMNASTICS TO BUY OLYMPIC TRAINING RANCH IN SAM HOUSTON NATIONAL FOREST Meanwhile, in Huntsville: Bela and Marta Karolyi are in the process of selling 36.2 acres of their remote women’s gymnastics training facilities north of Houston to USA Gymnastics itself. The Károlyis, who are retiring from more than 3 decades of US gymnastics involvement following their 1981 defection from Soviet-controlled Romania, will keep their own home and most of the rest of their 2,000-acre property, one of many private holdings intermingled with more than 163,000 acres of the federally owned land of Sam Houston National Forest. USA Gymnastics will have right of first refusal if the Károlyis decide to sell any more of the land; closing on the sale is scheduled for 3 days after this month’s Olympic closing ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro. [AP via Bisnow Houston] Image of Sam Houston National Park ranger station: US Forest Service

08/04/16 1:45pm

RESPONDING TO A FLOOD OF COMPLAINTS ABOUT FLOOD INSURANCE Meanwhile, in New York: A few months after a joint Frontline and NPR investigation noted how profits for insurance companies administering the National Flood Insurance Program regularly peak after flooding disasters, a new report issued by the office of New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman says there’s a lack of accountability in the program that is likely costing taxpayers millions and cheating the homeowners the program is designed to serve. The AG’s office “has now found flood insurance does not cover what it promises in its ads, that many engineers and others hired to evaluate damage were not qualified and that homeowners were wrongly prevented from seeing copies of their own reports,” reports NPR’s Laura Sullivan. In response, FEMA says it has adjusted its rules and will continue to do so to make sure costs of obtaining outside services are justified and documented. [Frontline; NPR]

07/15/16 1:30pm

LONGABERGER EMPTIES 7-STORY PICNIC BASKET FOR SALE OR FORECLOSURE Meanwhile, in Newark: Yesterday Ohio-based basket weaver Longaberger finished moving the last of its employees out of its former corporate headquarters, a replica of the company’s Medium Market model (albeit 160 times larger than life). The company, which saw a 90 percent drop in sales between 2000 and 2014, is currently trying to sell off the building, which consists of a 7-story office structure behind a stucco-over-steel faux-woven facade, complete with 2 enormous handles that heat up to prevent icing in the winter.  The company has accumulated more than half a million dollars in unpaid taxes on the property; if a buyer cannot be found, the city may foreclose and offer the structure up for public auction. [Columbus Dispatch via Houston Chronicle]

06/23/16 4:00pm

UK, TEXAS SECESSIONISTS NOW WATCHING BREXIT BALLOT COUNT Meanwhile, in London: The polls just closed following today’s national referendum on leaving the European Union, with official results expected some time after 7 AM local time (1 AM here). Dylan Baddour writes that a Brexit outcome could send ripples through the Texas economy, as Britain is the state’s 11th largest export market. The motion has also been followed closely by members of the Texas Nationalist Movement; the group is among those pushing a “Texit” secession agenda that fell 2 votes short of being put up for general consideration during voting on this year’s state Republican platform. [Houston Chronicle]

06/10/16 4:45pm

WHY THAT ONE HOME IN THE BRAZOS FLOOD ZONE DIDN’T FLOOD Meanwhile, in Abbeville: The giant water-filled tubes of California-based AquaDam are getting some love from a homeowner with property near last week’s mandatory evacuation zone south of Houston. Upon hearing the Brazos River Authority’s flood predictions, Randy Wagner says he drove to the company’s Louisiana headquarters to pick up the 400-ft.-long structure, and deployed it around his house in Rosharon: “I was the crazy guy,” Wagner told KHOU. “Everybody was kinda going by, laughing at me. But today they are really impressed . . . ” The dams are marketed most heavily for construction purposes, but also as a replacement for sandbag barricades in flood situations. Notable past deployments include the Ft. Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station in Blair, Nebraska where the dams successfully kept out 2 ft. of water from the nuclear plant during flooding in 2011 — until the AquaDam was accidentally popped. [KHOU, New York Times]