Tuesday AM January 9th, 2007

Memorial Hermann Healthcare System purchases Houston Town & Country Hospital...BNSF Railway to use computerized system to automatically apply train brakes for hazards...HISK plans weekend job fair to attract new school bus drivers...

The Memorial Hermann Healthcare System has purchased the $50 million, 105-bed Houston Town & Country Hospital. Memorial Hermann Continuing Care Hospital-Gessner and Memorial Hermann Continuing Care Hospital-Southwest will relocate to the new campus. Town & Country, an acute-care facility which began as a doctor-dominated partnership, defaulted on its lease in October, and says it is exploring all options to relocate. The sale also includes a $20 million medical office building on 26 acres at Beltway 8 and Interstate 10 West. Vibra Health Care has been running the operation since October.


Federal regulators have given BNSF Railway the green light to start using a computerized system to warn train operators of hazards and can automatically apply the brakes. Joseph R. Boardman is administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration. He calls the system "the beginning of a new era of rail safety.'' Fort Worth-based BNSF says the electronic system would use global positioning and relay such data as speed limits and switch positions to a computer screen inside the locomotive cab. The computer will send warnings to the crew and start braking if the crew doesn't respond correctly. The freight railroad has been testing the system on a 135-mile stretch of track in Illinois since October 2004. With a waiver from the railroad agency, BNSF and Wabtec Corporation installed the system on 50 locomotives that operated between Beardstown and Centralia, Illinois. This spring, BNSF expects to begin using the system on a 300-mile corridor between Fort Worth and Arkansas City, Kansas, over track it shares with Union Pacific freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains.


The Houston Independent School District is hosting a job fair this Saturday to hire professional school bus drivers, school bus mechanics, mechanic helpers and transportation attendants to aid special education children. The job fair is set for January 13th from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at HISD's Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center on West 18th Street. The district is searching for 50 additional drivers, all of whom will be trained free of charge.


Consumer borrowing rebounded sharply in November, rising at the fastest clip since August. The Federal Reserve says borrowing was up an at annual rate of 6.2 percent, the sharpest gain since a 6.8 percent surge back in August. Borrowing had posted the biggest one-month decline in 14 years the month before. Because of strong retail sales in November, economists had been looking for a bounce, but the size of the increase exceeded expectations.


Although no final figures are yet released, the forecast for imports of foreign oil into China are expected to have risen some 10.2 percent during 2006, as the booming economy's reliance on foreign energy grew. Imports of about 980 million barrels last year are believed to have supplied some 48 percent of China's oil needs, up from 43 percent just a year earlier. Total demand in 2006 is estimated at just over two billion barrels. China's reliance on imported oil and gas has grown as development of new domestic sources lags behind soaring demand.


Katrina was a wake-up call for a lot of Americans. As homeowners saw the devastation from the hurricane in New Orleans and elsewhere--and realized that typical insurance policies didn't cover a lot of the losses--they started buying federal flood insurance. The number of federal policies sold across the country jumped more than 13 percent in the 12 months beginning in November of 2005. In coastal and other vulnerable areas, sales of those policies spiked dramatically. They were up 61 percent in Mississippi. It's welcome news for the government, which has been trying to get more people to participate in the national flood insurance program. The new increase represents about 700,000 policies, and will help spread the program's risk. It will also leave more people protected, instead of scrambling for taxpayer relief.

A new study suggests some insurance companies have dramatically increased profits while systematically overcharging customers. The Consumer Federation of America says the profits of some of the nation's home and auto insurers have risen to unprecedented heights in recent years, while more costs are being shifted to customers and taxpayers. The federation, which is an association of consumer groups, says the industry even managed a record profit in 2005, in spite of Hurricane Katrina. They want more state regulations to curb excessive rates. But the American Insurance Association takes issue with the study. They say when insurance companies make money, it helps to build capital that's used to stand behind their policies. The Association says the cost of policies like homeowners insurance in coastal areas, reflects the risks of loss. And they note auto insurance rates have largely dropped.


Another 131 corporate CEOs left their jobs last month, bring the number of departures in 2006 to 1,478. That surpasses the 2005 record of 1,322 by 12 percent. Challenger, Gray and Christmas, the outplacement consulting firm that tracks the high-level-comings and goings, says December was the fourth highest CEO turnover month in '06. It was the 11th month in which more than 100 CEO departures were announced. On average, 123 chief execs each month or six each business day, left their positions last year. The highest rate of turnover was in the healthcare field, followed by financial and computer concerns.


United Surgical Partners International is ageeding to a takeover offer from a group affiliated with buyout specialist Welsh, Carson, Anderson and Stowe. The Addison-based operator of short-term stay surgical facilities says the deal's worth about $1.4 billion. Under the agreement, United Surgical Partners shareholders will get $31.05 per share. That's a 13.4 percent premium over its closing price in Friday. The company has about 44.6 million shares outstanding. Including debt being assumed, the transaction is valued at about $1.8 billion. United Surgical Partners' board approved the deal. The companies expect the transaction to close in the second quarter following regulatory and shareholder approval. United Surgical Partners has until February 17th to consider other offers. If another offer is accepted, the company would have to pay the bidder UNCN Acquisition Corporation up to $42.5 million in termination fees.


ProLogis will bring more than one million square feet of distribution space to Houston in a master-planned industrial park, according to the Houston Business Journal. ProLogis NorthPark's 68-acre tract on Interstate 45 near Beltway 8 between Airtex Drive and Richey Road will have nine buildings. Construction on two distribution facilities begins early this year. ProLogis has nearly 100 industrial buildings in the Houston area.


Stewart REI Group has sold its GlobeXplorer subsidiary to DigitalGlobe, according to Houston Business Journal. DigitalGlobe has also acquired GlobeXplorer's subsidiary AirPhotoUSA.


RadioShack said it expects to post a bigger fourth-quarter profit than it earned a year ago because of better margins and inventory control and less overhead. However, same-store sales declined seven-point-eight percent in the past three months at the Fort Worth-based electronics retail chain--and its chief executive warns of "sales challenges'' in early 2007. RadioShack struggled in 2006 with slower sales of wireless service and saw a CEO leave after admitting fabrications on his resume. It's scheduled to report fourth-quarter earnings around February 27th--but it announced it'll earn more than the $51 million profit it reported in the fourth quarter of 2005. RadioShack said the decline in same-store sales was affected by reclassifying the sale of prepaid wireless airtime due to contract changes. Even without that factor, however, adjusted same-store sales fell about 5.5 percent.


Gaylord says its hotel properties will go smoke-free in February, following an industry trend. The Nashville, Tennessee-based hotel and resort chain says smoking will end February 12th at Gaylord resorts in Nashville as well as Lake Grapevine near Dallas; Kissimmee, Florida; Gaylord's fourth resort in Prince George's County, Maryland, will start out smoke-free when it opens next year. Gaylord also says it'll auction off 10,000 ashtrays with proceeds going to the American Lung Association. Gaylord hotels said the decision's based on guest and employee preferences, as well as keeping their massive indoor atriums clean. Two major hotel chains--Marriott International and Westin Hotels and Resorts--eliminated smoking rooms last year.


The Department of Defense has named Rice University the recipient of a $3 million award for a five-year program to develop miniaturized molecular imaging technologies for screening, diagnosis and monitoring of breast control. The program will be conducted in collaboration with the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. It will develop microendoscope and needle-compatible fiber optic systems for diagnostic and therapeutic breast cancer imaging. Rice bioengineer Rebekah Drezek is one of three U.S. scientists chosen by the DOD for this year's Era of Hope Scholar Award given annually by the department's congressionally-directed Breast Cancer Research Program.


A Dallas-based pizza chain that targets the Latino market says it'll begin accepting Mexican currency at its 59 locations nationwide--along with U.S. currency. The Pizza Patron chain says its "pizza por pesos'' program takes effect immediately and will run until the end of next month. But the chain's officials say the program may be extended depending on what a statement calls "the needs of their core Hispanic customer base.'' Ernesto Alonso Hernandez is the chain's director of restaurant operations. He says many pizza patron customers often travel back and forth to Mexico and end up with leftover pesos.


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