April 4, 2008
Some kids are just trouble. My youngest boy, Cooper Watson, is 12 years old and in the 7th grade magnet program at Kealing Middle School. This past Tuesday evening, I returned a phone call to a friend who was just checking in to say hi. He told me he’d called the house looking for me and talked to Coop. My friend said it was cool how the kid is maturing and it was fun to be able to talk to him.He let it slip that Cooper was a little nervous about me coming home that night. I asked my buddy what he meant and he said, “Oh, don’t burn me on this because he’ll quit talking to me, but Cooper got in trouble at school and has been referred to detention.” I asked for more information and my friend declined, saying he probably shouldn’t have said anything.So, I went looking for Cooper’s mother. I asked her what was up. She only said, “Cooper needs to talk to you.”When I finally got home, I called up the stairs to Cooper, telling him I was there. He immediately came downstairs. He said, “Dad, I need to show you this” and handed me a piece of paper that declared Cooper Watson had been referred to detention for throwing water balloons at people from the second floor balcony. I tried not to overreact. I sternly, and with some obvious anger, asked him, “Son, what were you possibly thinking?” He looked at me, very solemn at first, and then lost it. He couldn’t hold the pose. He screamed, “April Fool!”This leads me to several thoughts. First, he’s now in far more trouble for screwing his old man than he would have been for beaning some kids with water balloons. He will pay. Second, I have one less friend. Third, the kid could be a gang leader the way he got his mom and others to play along. And, finally, I really dig a teacher that is willing to help out on a scam like that.
Other than being jerked around by your child, April is a terrific time to be in Central Texas. You get to enjoy the dozen or so mild days before the inferno of summer heats up. The bluebonnets are blooming. The Longhorn baseball and softball teams are hitting their stride. And the city, particularly around the Hike-and-Bike Trail, feels like it’s bursting with runners and walkers, bikers and kayakers and canoers and rowers, and anybody else looking for an excuse to do stuff outside.Unfortunately, there’s one thing about April that nobody looks forward to – the start of ozone season. This begins the six months of the year when temperatures most easily and frequently cook pollutants in our air to form the chemical ozone. Ozone is the biggest air quality problem that faces Central Texas. Ozone–the brown smog we see– is unhealthy at ground level, particularly threatening kids, the elderly, and anyone with asthma.Speaking only for my half-marathoning self, I know it’s hard enough to run in the middle of the summer without a weatherman telling me to stay inside because it might not be OK to breathe.Our air is going to become an even bigger problem as the region keeps growing, the federal government implements new air quality standards, and Central Texas – probably in the next couple of years – joins dozens of other urban areas that have fallen out of compliance with the Clean Air Act.I’ve written a lot lately about air quality and things that the state can and should be doing to make sure it is perfectly safe to breathe in this region.But just as we all share this problem, we all share responsibility for solving it. So, keep an eye out over the next six months for “Ozone Action Days,” when the weather and conditions are most conducive to creating ozone. Try not to drive – or, at the very least, try not to drive as much – on those days, either by car-pooling, working from home, taking the bus, or riding your bicycle to work. And do the other little things we all can do as individuals to protect our air.It makes a big difference.
This week, a number of Central Texas leaders and I gathered to announce vital, much-needed safety improvements to one of the most dangerous roads in the region – the stretch of Highway 71 through western Travis County between Oak Hill (where it breaks off from U.S. 290) and the Pedernales River. The huge growth in the Hill Country has put thousands of new cars on what used to be a little four-lane road out to Marble Falls. This traffic has created a dangerous situation for the drivers there now . . . and a tragic one for the families who have lost loved ones along that stretch of road.Most of the improvements are pretty intuitive – lower speed limits, better pavement, and a median in the most dangerous part of the road. But long-term, the road needs to be widened to include a turning lane and other safety devices, and it was far from clear when, if ever, there would ever be enough money to do that. The tragic situation was another consequence of Texas’ lack of transportation money and the state leadership’s inability to provide it . And not surprisingly, the ultimate solution is coming from the locals.On Wednesday, we announced an innovative program that will use some transportation funds allocated to Central Texas for a new, renewing “Safety Fund” that will tackle the most dangerous projects in the region. This money became available when the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization – the region’s main transportation planning group, which I chair – voted last year to fund five badly needed highway improvements in Travis County through tolls. Again, with the state leadership starving transportation funding, locals had to come up with their own solution.If the CAMPO board approves the proposal, we’ll use the Safety Fund to match contributions from cities and counties in the region to improve verifiably unsafe roads that can’t be improved any other way. Some details still need to be worked out, as you can imagine. But I’m optimistic that we’ve found a way to deal with our most pressing, most serious road problems. Highway 71 is the worst, but it’s just a start.This, like our air, is a problem we all share. And, unfortunately, it’s an issue we’ve got to solve ourselves. If we wait on the state leadership, we’ll be waiting a long time.