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$2 Billion Plan To Fix City’s Sewer System Approved, Houston Leads Fight Against Human Trafficking, Activists Want To Delay Funding Vote On I-45 Expansion, And More

These are some of the stories Houston Public Media is covering.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Top afternoon stories:

$2 Billion Plan To Fix City’s Sewer System Approved

Houstonians can expect to see their water bills go up in the spring of 2020. The rate increase will come as the city looks for ways to pay to overhaul its sewer system, the largest in the country.

City Council approved a consent decree with the EPA that requires Houston to spend roughly $2 billion over 15 years to fix its leaking sewer system. Mayor Sylvester Turner said that’s a bargain compared to the $5-7 billion the federal government initially demanded in 2016.

“This is an issue that was not going to go away,” Turner said. “And the question for us is, ‘How can we address the concerns of these sanitary sewer overflows but do it in a cost-efficient manner?’”

The public works department will be conducting a rate study over the rest of 2019. The department’s proposal will then go through a public comment process, with council expected to vote on it next April. Only then will rate hikes appear in customers’ bills.

Officials from Afghanistan, Italy and Latvia are in town this week to learn how Houston is fighting human trafficking.

Houston Leads Fight Against Human Trafficking

In 2015, Houston became the first city in the nation to create a department focused solely on human trafficking. This week, officials from Afghanistan, Italy and Latvia are in town to bring Houston’s approach back to their countries. 

Minal Patel Davis, Houston’s Special Advisor to the Mayor on human trafficking, said Houston developed a unique approach that uses various city departments, not just law enforcement. 

Patel Davis said one key collaboration is with the city’s public health department. “We’ve instituted screenings with the coalition for homeless. We’ve instituted soft screenings at our county hospital through a human trafficking psychology fellow that we placed there through grant funding,” she said.

In 2017, the city began implementing a new requirement with contractors to ensure taxpayer dollars don’t go to businesses that have knowledge of or contribute to human trafficking. 

A protest sign is at a news conference about concerns over the expansion of I-45.

Activists Want To Delay Funding Vote On I-45 Expansion

The proposed $7 billion I-45 widening project would extend from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 North. TxDOT says the work is needed to support the region’s growing population, but many people along the route are worried about losing their homes and businesses because of the expansion.

One of those concerned about the impact on local communities is Oni Blair with the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston. “We see an opportunity to have real conversations that are right now led by the City of Houston in order to address that but we need time for those conversations,” said Blair.

Also asking for a delay is Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood President Joetta Stevenson, who said her community is still dealing with the impacts of previous freeway projects like I-10 and U.S. 59.

Air Alliance Houston also expressed concern about the I-45 expansion.

A federal court in San Antonio ruled on Wednesday that Texas lawmakers won’t need federal oversight when they redraw political maps in 2021.

Court Rules Texas’ 2021 Political Maps Won’t Need Federal Oversight

A U.S. district court has ruled Texas doesn’t need federal oversight of its 2021 redistricting efforts.

The decision is part of a larger lawsuit from voters who challenged the state’s 2011 political maps. Courts have found officials intentionally discriminated against racial minorities when they drew those maps and ordered parts of the maps to be redrawn.

Because the maps were redrawn in 2013, though, the U.S. District Court in San Antonio denied a request from plaintiffs to require the next round of redistricting in Texas to be supervised, or put under “preclearance.”

“The Court concludes that ordering preclearance on the current record would be inappropriate,” the judges wrote, “given the recent guidance from the Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit. It is time for this round of litigation to close.”

The case was a test of a little-known provision in the Voting Rights Act, that could require any state, county or city found to have intentionally discriminated against voters to be put under federal preclearance. That means the jurisdiction would have to clear any political maps or voting or election laws with either the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court.

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