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Roads
Pedestrian safety needs become more urgent as death toll spikes

Pedestrians are starting to get some respect in local transportation planning efforts, but the death toll from auto-pedestrian crashes suggests walking in Waco is not any getting safer.

Fourteen pedestrians died last year in McLennan County, according to statistics compiled through the Texas Department of Transportation Crash Records Information System. That is more than double the average pedestrian traffic rate from the previous seven years, and it represents almost a third of all traffic fatalities in 2017.

Local transportation planners say the reasons for the spike are not clear-cut, but the number is too high.

“It’s not going in the right direction,” said Chris Evilia, director of the Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization. “The way I’m treating it is as a canary in the coal mine. Nationwide, pedestrian deaths are increasing at an alarming rate. We may be mirroring a national trend.”

Evilia said it may be that more people are walking in Waco, which is good in itself. But parts of town built after the 1950s are often not conducive to walking.

“We already know that we don’t have a lot of pedestrian facilities outside downtown and Baylor campus and maybe McLennan Community College,” he said. “Outside of that, we know we lack facilities. It’s because we have gone through a period when that was not requested by citizens, and transportation facilities were not designed with pedestrians in mind.

“We’re transitioning now, and our new or rebuilt facilities are going to have more for pedestrians.”

Evilia the city of Waco is gradually adding sidewalks and crosswalks, along with big projects along Elm Avenue and Webster Avenue. But he said more measures, such as extra lighting, may also be needed to prevent pedestrian collisions.

Source: TxDOT Crash Records Information System

YearPedestrian deathsChangeAll crash fatalities% ped. deaths
201063617%
2011950%4819%
20127-22%3421%
20135-29%3614%
201450%4013%
2015740%3023%
20166-14%2821%
201714133%4829%

The state crash-records database, which includes some preliminary data, indicates that pedestrian deaths are increasing statewide. According to the database, 715 pedestrians died statewide in 2016 and 629 in 2017. The previous six years had an average of 494 deaths.

A study last year by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that pedestrian deaths nationwide have been on the rise since 2009, peaking at almost 6,000 deaths in 2016, up 11 percent in one year. Possible causes include more people walking, more cars on the road and the increasing distractions of smartphones for motorists and pedestrians, according to the report.

The 14 pedestrian deaths in McLennan County last year were scattered around Waco, Bellmead and Lacy Lakeview. Beyond the tendency to be on higher-speed roads at night, few obvious patterns emerge from the incidents. According to police reports:

Meanwhile, a pedestrian was severely injured at about 7:45 p.m. Dec. 10 while trying to cross traffic at 800 N. Valley Mills Drive. And just a week ago, on Jan. 28 at 7 p.m., Veronica Cabarrubia, 42, was severely injured while crossing North Valley Mills Drive in the 300 block near the former Casa Ole.

In the North Valley Mills Drive cases, authorities said the pedestrians were not crossing at an intersection. But in fact, no crossings with pedestrian markings or signals exist in the 1.5-mile stretch between Clay Avenue and Sanger Avenue, helping cement Valley Mills Drive’s reputation as a deadly barrier dividing Waco.

The road has six lanes plus a continuous turn lane, with few medians, and spans nearly 83 feet. Other roads tend to cross it at odd angles, making the crossing even longer and more difficult, Evilia said.

He said parts of Valley Mills Drive are essentially a freeway, and traffic officials have been reluctant to mark pedestrian routes across the road.

“That came up when we did a corridor study of Valley Mills,” he said. “Do we even want to encourage (walking across) given that it’s a long way to cross and you have traffic going 40 miles an hour?”

Evilia said Valley Mills Drive simply was not designed with pedestrians in mind.

Before the current Lake Waco was built in the 1960s, Valley Mills Drive was State Highway 6 and actually led to Valley Mills. But even after Highway 6 was rerouted, state and city officials continued to expand what had been a two-lane road to a six-lane urban highway. By that point, Valley Mills Drive already served “the fastest-growing commercial business strip in Central Texas,” according to a May 1968 Tribune-Herald article about the road’s dedication.

But since then, thousands of apartments have been developed just west of North Valley Mills Drive, cut off from services and retail centers across the traffic divide. The two Census tracts in that area had 6,376 renters in the 2010 Census.

“There’s apartments where people could walk to the H-E-B over there, but Valley Mills is a big, scary, raging river of cars,” said Ashley Bean Thornton, who started the pedestrian advocacy group Waco Walks. “To me that’s a dangerous place. There’s not a place where you can cross it where you can feel safe.”

She said she would urge state and local planning officials to build more pedestrian crossings on Valley Mills Drive.

“It seems like more could be done with crossing lights and an island in the middle, so you’re not crossing six full lanes of traffic,” she said.

Thornton said the bigger problem is that pedestrians are practically invisible to motorists along roads like Valley Mills Drive, New Road or Waco Drive.

“To me, that’s the most dangerous thing,” she said. “Drivers don’t expect to see pedestrians, so they don’t see pedestrians. It’s counterintuitive, but the more people walk, the safer it will be.”

Thornton said downtown and the historic neighborhoods of Waco are more pedestrian-friendly, though many of the sidewalks are in poor repair.

She said those who believe in a pedestrian-friendly city need to advocate for their needs, as Waco Walks has done with state and local planners. But it is also important to get out and walk and get motorists in the habit of seeing pedestrians.

And wear bright clothes, she said.

“What I tell pedestrians is, for goodness sake, wear something that helps people see you,” she said. “If you’re a pedestrian in Waco, you have to watch out for yourself.”


Business
spotlight
Local steel company hopes to add to role in Exxon Mobil expansion

Central Texas Iron Works already has played a part in Exxon Mobil’s grand plan to spend at least $20 billion expanding its petrochemical and refining operations on the Gulf Coast. With the oil giant announcing new plans to spend $50 billion on U.S. operations, the local steel provider hopes to land even more roles.

Exxon Mobil’s public pledge last week to pour billions of dollars into infrastructure upgrades in the wake of corporate tax cuts did not come as a surprise, said Curtis Cleveland, vice president of marketing at Central Texas Iron Works.

He said the local plant, which employs about 200 people, has been shipping steel to Baytown for more than a year, for a piece of Exxon Mobil’s previously announced $20 billion Growing the Gulf projects.

“The Baytown work involves Exxon Mobil’s chemical complex, and it has represented about 20 percent of our backlog, but we’re almost through shipping now,” Cleveland said.

The company is now bidding on a chemical-complex project in Gregory, north of Corpus Christi, that is planned for two years out.

“We’re competing against the world for that contract,” Cleveland said.

The $9.3 billion project in Gregory represents a collaboration between Exxon Mobil and a Saudi company to build a large ethane steam cracker on a 1,400-acre site.

The plant would use heat and pressure to turn natural gas into ethylene and polyethylene, which are base materials for plastic, according to Exxon Mobil press releases.

Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods wrote in a blog post Monday that the company was in a better position to earmark $50 billion for projects throughout the United States thanks to “smarter regulation” and the corporate tax rate cut that President Donald Trump signed into law.

The corporate tax rate was cut from 35 percent to 21 percent.

“These are all possible because of the resource base developed by our industry along with sound tax and regulatory policies that create a pro-growth business climate here in the U.S.,” Woods wrote.

He went on to say Exxon Mobil plans “to increase oil production in the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico, expand existing operations, improve infrastructure and build new manufacturing sites.”

About $35 billion of the $50 billion in spending is planned for new projects, an Exxon Mobil spokesman told the Houston Chronicle. The other $15 billion is tied to previously announced projects, including investments yet to come for the $20 billion, 10-year Growing the Gulf effort. Growing the Gulf includes 11 major refining and petrochemical projects expected to create 45,000 jobs, including construction jobs.

Cleveland said Central Texas Iron Works the past year has devoted resources almost exclusively to projects related to refining, chemicals and natural gas.

“I expect that to continue,” he said. “The economy is better, as is the regulatory environment. I believe every major oil and chemical company, just name a brand, will begin spending on infrastructure upgrades.”

That in mind, the company has started hiring 20 to 25 more welders, personnel director Jay Cockerham said.

“These are not people we are looking to lay off after our busy season,” Cockerham said. “These are permanent employees, keepers.”

He said Central Texas Iron Works has its own training program that allows hires to become certified in welding structural steel.

Central Texas Iron Works, located on Winchell Drive, was founded in 1910 as James T. Stubbs Foundery, making sash weights, grates and other items for the general public. It now is a subsidiary of the California-based Herrick Corp. and specializes in providing steel for major projects internationally, with demands ranging from 500 tons to 35,000 tons, according to its website.

Though Exxon Mobil officials said tax cuts influenced the company’s boost to spending plans, rising oil prices likely played a role, gasbuddy.com petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan said. The spot price for crude has climbed above $60 a barrel this year from as low as $29 a barrel in January 2016.


Law
GOP-led states testing boundaries of abortion restrictions

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Republicans who control a majority of the nation’s statehouses are considering a wide range of abortion legislation that could test the government’s legal ability to restrict a woman’s right to terminate pregnancy.

The Mississippi House passed a bill Friday that would make the state the only one to ban all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In Missouri, lawmakers heard testimony earlier in the week on a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.

The Ohio House is expected to consider bills, already passed in the Senate, that would prohibit the most common type of procedure used to end pregnancies after 13 weeks and require that fetal remains be buried or cremated.

Abortion is a perennial hot button issue in statehouses across the country. Republican-controlled states have passed hundreds of bills since 2011 restricting access to the procedure while Democratic-led states have taken steps in the other direction.

The early weeks of this year’s state legislative sessions have seen a flurry of activity around the issue. It comes as activists on both sides say they expect the U.S. Supreme Court to soon consider a question that remains unclear: How far can states go in restricting abortion in the interest of preserving and promoting fetal life?

The state bills debated since the start of the year “are all tests designed to see how far government power to legislate on behalf of a fetus can reach,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, who has been tracking legislation as the senior legal analyst for Rewire, a website that promotes views supporting abortion rights.

She said the outcome will determine whether states can legally ban abortion after a specific time period and outlaw specific medical procedures. Advocates for abortion rights say those strategies undermine the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that women have the right to terminate pregnancies until a fetus is viable.

In Utah, critics have warned that a pending bill to prevent doctors from performing abortions on the basis of a Down syndrome diagnosis is unconstitutional. But its co-sponsor, Republican state Sen. Curt Bramble, said he is willing to defend the bill in court because its goal is to protect unborn children.

“There are times if the Supreme Court got it wrong, it is appropriate to push back,” said Bramble, an accountant from Provo.

The anti-abortion bills have drawn opposition from women who say they have made the excruciating choice to terminate a pregnancy, often after discovering serious fetal abnormalities.

“A 20-week abortion ban sounds OK, but if that gets passed, what’s next — 18 weeks, 15 weeks? At what point does it make abortion truly illegal?” said Robin Utz of St. Louis, 38, who submitted testimony this week against the Missouri bill. “It’s terrifying and it’s willfully ignorant.”

Utz recounted terminating her pregnancy in its 21st week in November 2016, after learning her daughter would be born with a fatal kidney disease if she survived birth. She said doctors told her that dilation and evacuation, the most common abortion procedure in the second trimester, was the safest way to terminate the pregnancy.

Undeterred by such stories, the National Right to Life Committee and its allies have been pushing for state laws that ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and outlaw dilation and evacuation. Supporters of both measures argue that fetuses are capable of feeling pain after 20 weeks and call the procedure “dismemberment abortion.”

Several court challenges to both types of laws are underway, with federal appeals courts considering the “dismemberment abortion” bans approved last year in Texas and Arkansas. The Kansas Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on the first-in-the-nation ban passed in that state three years ago.

Ingrid Duran, director of state legislation at the National Right to Life Committee, said the model state laws drafted by her group are aimed at U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing vote who wrote the court’s 2007 opinion upholding a federal ban on a procedure critics call partial-birth abortion.

She said the court could use similar reasoning to prohibit dilation and evacuation and noted it has never considered whether states have an interest in protecting fetuses from pain.

“We did draft these laws with the bigger picture in mind,” Duran said.

The shifted focus comes after the court dealt the anti-abortion movement a blow in 2016 by ruling that strict Texas regulations on abortion clinics and doctors were an undue burden on abortion access and unconstitutional.

Anti-abortion groups hope President Donald Trump will be able to nominate one or more justices to the Supreme Court following last year’s confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, potentially making the court more conservative on the issue for decades to come.

In the meantime, some of them are cautioning their allies not to go too far.

Duran said the proposed 15-week ban in Mississippi, which now goes to the state Senate, caught her by surprise. She noted that prior state laws banning abortion after 12 weeks or once a heartbeat was detected have been found unconstitutional.

In South Carolina this past week, state senators tabled a bill that would have banned most abortions to give lawmakers more time to study the consequences. Also last week, a legislative committee in Tennessee amended a bill to remove language that would have outlawed abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which is usually around six weeks. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Micah Van Huss, said he would be back.

“I will not stop fighting for the lives of babies until abortion is abolished in this state,” he said.


Fishing

Joseph Redman (right), 70, walks around with his stuffed catfish while Samuel, with the Heart of Texas Chargers, grabs a closer look .


Business
Gas prices continue to rise, though U.S. production skyrocketing

Gas prices typically slide this time of year, pulled down by sluggish demand as the public settles into its post-holiday routine and with the conversion to pricier summer blends still a month away.

But numbers at the pump are spinning upward, breaking with convention. Motorists in Waco were spending an average of $2.34 per gallon for regular unleaded on Friday, an 8-cent jump from a week earlier, GasBuddy petroleum analyst Patrick DeHaan said.

Statewide, the story was much the same. The norm had climbed to $2.36 a gallon for regular unleaded on Friday, a 3-cent increase.

“Waco is seeing a little bit more of a jump,” DeHaan said. “I think other metropolitan areas will follow. Waco is just out front.”

Still, Texas enjoys the lowest gas prices in the nation, meaning the trend of seeing bargains prevail in January and February was being bucked from coast to coast, according to reports at GasBuddy.com.

In a GasBuddy Q-and-A, DeHaan offers several reasons why gas prices are rising even as U.S. refineries are churning out 10 million barrels of oil per day, “the highest level since 1970 and very close to an all-time record.”

First, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has held firm on its pledge to prop up prices by curtailing output, he said.

“OPEC’s production cuts have removed more than 500 million barrels, 1.8 million barrels per day, of supply since they were enacted to start 2017,” DeHaan wrote. “Second, U.S. oil exports are at record levels, further draining supply from the United States.”

Crude oil exports had been banned with very few exceptions after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, an effort to prevent supply disruptions. With domestic production soaring, a law to lift the ban passed in 2016.

“U.S. production is nearing record levels, but the rise in U.S. production can’t come close to offsetting OPEC’s production cuts, which have seen over 100 percent compliance,” DeHaan wrote. “Also, unexpected is the economic collapse in Venezuela, which saw 2017 oil exports at their lowest level since 1989.

“Oil would most certainly be much higher without the ‘shale revolution’ we’ve seen in the last decade. The United States went from producing 5-6 million barrels a decade ago to nearly 10 million today. However, we still import the remaining 10 million barrels per day that we consume. In addition, China saw imports of crude oil at record levels and are nearing the level of imports of the United States.”

The bottom line is that oil is a global commodity, and supply worldwide is down, he wrote. That exerts upward pressure on prices in the United States, even during off-peak driving seasons.

Going forward gas prices nationally may hit $2.75 to $2.90 a gallon for regular unleaded by spring, “with more areas hitting $3 than we previously anticipated just a month ago,” DeHaan wrote.

Refinery maintenance and the conversion to summer-blend gasoline that starts in mid-March send prices even higher.

The purring U.S. economy also may impact prices at the pump. The government is reporting that an estimated 200,000 new jobs were created in January, exceeding estimates, and that wages across all private sectors rose an average of 2.9 percent between January 2017 and last month, the largest year-over-year increase since June 2009.

“More people are driving to work, and they may have more disposable income, which typically increases demand for gasoline and other fuels,” DeHaan said. “So it is accepted that a strong economy is blamed, or credited, with putting upward pressure on gas prices.”

The AAA auto club reported in its Texas Weekend Gas Watch, released Thursday, that the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded had climbed to $2.59, a 3-cent increase from the previous week. It stands more than 20 cents higher than the statewide average.

Texas continues to have the least expensive gasoline in the nation, according to GasBuddy. Its average dwarfed by the $3.30-cent average in California and the $3.34 norm in Hawaii.

Even with its jump at the pumps, Waco had the fifth-lowest average among major metropolitan areas around the state, behind only San Antonio, Fort Worth, Houston and Amarillo, according to GasBuddy.

The Sam’s Club in Bellmead had the lowest price in Greater Waco, charging cardholders $2.24 a gallon for regular unleaded.