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DART to consider dedicated bus roads for long-languishing Cotton Belt rail corridor

by Brandon Formby

With no funding in sight for passenger train service along the Cotton Belt line in Denton and Collin counties, Dallas Area Rapid Transit is considering a road that only buses would use.

It’s not the rail service long envisioned for the corridor – and it wouldn’t necessarily preclude trains from running if funding is ever secured. But it could be the agency’s fastest option for providing an east-west connection in an area with large gaps in rail service.

“It’s less expensive initially,” said Gary Thomas, the agency’s president and chief executive officer.

Bus rapid transit is a relatively new concept in North America. It gives buses dedicated lanes that other vehicles can’t drive on. It also uses longer vehicles, has fewer stops and features more enhanced stations than traditional bus routes.

DART owns about 62 miles of Cotton Belt right-of-way, from Fort Worth to Plano. The T, which is Fort Worth’s transit agency, will operate passenger rail service on Tarrant County’s portion of the Cotton Belt beginning in 2018. Its TexRail will run from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport’s Terminal B.

The portion DART will operate in Dallas, Denton and Collin counties is seen as key to connecting Fort Worth, the airport and cities along or between DART’s Green and Red lines. The east-west connector would enhance DART’s current light-rail network, which is currently a hub-and-spoke system. That configuration leads to long trips for suburb-to-suburb passengers who are forced to go through downtown Dallas.

Addison awaits full connection into DART’s light-rail system. But officials there are against using bus rapid transit to do so.

That city has contributed more than $200 million in sales tax to DART during the 31 years it has waited for rail service along the Cotton Belt. The city has even set aside land on Festival Way for its first passenger rail station.

City Manager Lea Dunn said it’s not fiscally prudent to spend money on creating bus rapid transit only to later launch passenger rail service.

“It would be more expensive in the long run,” Dunn said.

The Dallas City Council’s transportation committee will discuss the possibility of bus rapid transit during an update on the Cotton Belt on Monday afternoon.

Fort Worth’s Spur a model

The T borrowed several bus rapid transit concepts when it launched a bus route called The Spur in downtown Fort Worth. It has enhanced stations and uses a longer bus. It also has priority at traffic signals so its green lights are longer and its red lights are shorter.

“We can get travel time advantage through the intersections because we can manipulate the lights,” said Curvie Hawkins, an assistant vice president for the agency.

The Spur carries about 7,000 passengers a day and looks different than the rest of The T’s fleet. Hawkins said it carries people farther and faster than normal bus routes. But the price tag is much lower than a rail line.

The potential on the Cotton Belt remains to be seen.

“It really depends on the corridor that’s selected,” said Yonah Freemark, a project manager for the Chicago nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council.

He said that the cheapest approach for bus rapid transit is to dedicate existing road lanes to buses. That’s not an option on the Cotton Belt because there aren’t roads in the right-of-way — there are only train tracks.

Weighing options

Thomas said DART has looked at dozens of different approaches to getting service going in the corridor. Their cost estimates range from $300 million to more than $2.5 billion. A phased bus rapid transit approach that would begin with a route from Carrollton’s Green Line to Addison would be on the least expensive end. Full rail service from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Plano or Richardson would be on the high end.

There’s currently no estimated timeframe or funding sources for any of the options. And bus rapid transit on the Cotton Belt is far from being a sure-thing.

“We haven’t made any decisions yet,” Thomas said.

Dunn said she understands that DART should explore its options. But getting rail service should be its focus.

“That’s what we need to be pushing for,” she said.

Follow Brandon Formby on Twitter at @brandonformby

Two UT regents pressed for records destruction

by Jon Cassidy

Two regents of the University of Texas System pressed for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of records maintained by President Bill Powers’ office earlier this year.

The two regents — Steve Hicks and Bobby Stillwell — have been Powers’ strongest allies on the board. On May 21, they both asked Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to allow Powers to destroy “hundreds of thousands of emails,” as well as “written notes or sticky notes” his office had been saving for more than a year.

The request came at a low point for transparency at UT — nine days after a legislative committee voted there were unspecified grounds for the impeachment of Regent Wallace Hall, and seven days after board chairman Paul Foster called on Hall to resign to end the controversy.

On May 14, Cigarroa and Foster announced the UT System wouldn’t pursue questions of admissions corruption any further, despite a preliminary investigation that found it was a “widely common practice among legislators” to ask the university’s president to intercede for certain applicants, and that “it is not unreasonable to conclude that these letters of recommendation influenced the admissions decisions for some or all of these applicants.”

A month later, after further evidence of admissions favoritism came to light, Cigarroa reversed course and ordered a complete investigation of admissions practices, then demanded Powers’ resignation.

But on May 21, when Hicks and Stillwell made their request, it looked like their side had won. So Hicks wrote Cigarroa, requesting “that the data hold that was placed on UT Austin in March of 2013 be removed…. as soon as possible.”

At Hall’s request, Cigarroa had ordered Powers to maintain his office’s records, particularly emails that would typically be deleted after a few months. Since that hold hadn’t required formal board action, Hicks and Stillwell asked that Cigarroa simply change the policy under his own authority.

It’s not known publicly whether Cigarroa took any action on the request. The board’s general counsel, Francie Frederick, asked Cigarroa on June 19 whether he did anything in response to the request, but Cigarroa hasn’t responded.

The dangerous dozen: gangs considered the greatest threat to the state prison system

by Dane Schiller

There are thousands of gangs   in Texas, but only a dozen are considered such a threat to this state’s prison system that all members, regardless of their crimes. are required to serve all their time isolated in one-man cells for 23 or more hours a day.

Unlike other prisoners, they are not allowed to walk the yard or even have a prison job picking cotton or vegetables. They are locked down nearly around the clock, aside from when they are in some instances escorted alone to a larger cage for recreation or showering.

It is just about the toughest way to do time, but the state considers them too organized, too predatory and too dangerous to other inmates as well as prison staff to even permit them among a prison’s general population.

See slide show here.

Police Chief of Small Texas Town Fatally Shot During Traffic Stop

by Dave Urbanski

The police chief of a small Texas town outside San Antonio died Saturday after he was shot during a traffic stop.

A witness told KENS-TV in San Antonio she saw Michael Pimentel, chief of the Elmendorf police force, shot three times by a man during an altercation. Pimentel suffered gunshot wounds to his stomach and shoulder during the confrontation, KSAT-TV reported.

The officer, who was in his 60s, was taken to a hospital, KENS said; Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau confirmed that Pimentel died as a result of his wounds, the station added.

Deputies arrested Joshua Manuel Lopez, 24, at the scene, KENS reported, citing sheriffs.

The shooter will be charged with capital murder of a police officer, KENS noted, citing officials said. Lopez has an outstanding graffiti warrant, Pamerleau told the station; she couldn’t confirm if that motivated the shooting, KENS added, but Lopez has only been booked on the graffiti charge.

The witness KENS interviewed told the station the suspect is a neighbor and has a history of mental illness.

See video here.

Lt. Gov. Makes Personal Donation to Put More Deputies on the Streets in Falfurrias

by Bob Price

Texas Lt. Governor David Dewhurst made a personal donation to the group of police officers from South Texas who are volunteering their time to help the financially beleaguered Brooks County Sheriff’s Office in Falfurrias, Texas. The donation will put nearly fifteen additional reserve deputies on the rolls and out on the streets and highways of Brooks County.

Governor Dewhurst made a personal donation of $4,000 to the Border Brotherhood of Texas, a group of certified peace officers mostly from the Rio Grande Valley who travel the 80 to 100 mile journey to Brooks County in order to work as non-paid reserve deputies. The donation from Dewhurst is expected to put almost fifteen deputies into the list of available deputies. Each deputy agrees to work at least two shifts per month in Brooks County. It costs about $300 per new deputy for the uniform, bond for the county and a bullet-proof vest.

Brooks County currently only has about one paid deputy per shift to cover an area of almost 1,000 square miles. There have been massive budget cuts in the county because of loss of funding. Brooks County is not considered to be a border county because it is about 80 miles from the border. However, it has most of the problems of a border county, if not more, because of the Border Patrol checkpoint located in the county.

“Only one deputy per shift is not acceptable,” Dewhurst told this writer who accepted the check on behalf of the Border Brotherhood of Texas. “To be able to put more deputies on the streets to help back up the Brooks deputies and save the lives of illegal immigrants who are dying in large numbers in the ranches in this county for only $300 is a great return on investment.”

The Lt. Governor was also responsible for helping Brooks County offset the cost of burying the illegal immigrants who have been dying in the ranchlands. Through his interaction with Governor Perry’s office, over $300,000 has been sent from the State of Texas to Brooks to defray their cost of about $2,500 per immigrant death.

In an interview with Fox 26 Houston’s Kristine Galvan, filmed this week but not yet aired, Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said repeatedly, “Only one elected official from the state has actually helped Brooks County. That official is Lt. Governor David Dewhurst.”

“The Lt. Governor has long been aware of our problems in Brooks,” Martinez told Breitbart Texas. “He doesn’t just come down here and talk about our issues. He actually gets something done.”

Donna Independent School District acting Police Chief Daniel Walden is the founder of the Border Brotherhood of Texas. He is a human trafficking law enforcement instructor and learned about Brooks’ problems during one of the classes he was teaching. He started the organization because he couldn’t bear the thought of this law enforcement brothers being out on patrol with no back-up. He was also concerned about the deaths of the illegal immigrants who are being lied to by their smugglers. He began the program whereby certified peace officers from other jurisdictions could become sworn in as reserve deputies for Brooks County.

“We are very grateful to the Lt. Governor for his extremely generous donation to help our program,” Walden said. “We have a backlog of over twenty deputies who are ready to volunteer their time to come help. This donation will go directly to putting more boots on the streets.”

“They will provide the citizens of Brooks County with more protection,” Walden continued, “and they will help save lives by interdicting the illegal immigrants in the southern part of the county before they get dumped into the fields where nearly fifty have already died this year.”

“These volunteer, non-paid deputies have already made a huge difference to both our department and to the residents we serve,” said Chief Martinez. “When there are more deputies on the streets, response times for calls for service are much lower. People are also happy to see more than one vehicle arrive at the scene of major calls.”

“As for our immigration issues in this county,” Martinez continued, “The more of the illegal immigrants we can interdict before they are dropped off, the less people will die. These volunteer reserved deputies have also made a difference in finding and rescuing many on the north half of the county who have found their way back to the road in need of water and/or medical attention.”

The deputies have also helped Brooks County increase the capture of human smugglers, the seizure of drugs and the seizure of vehicles used in the commission of these crimes according to Chief Martinez.

Facebook page has been set up for the group where readers can learn more about their activities and fund raising efforts. A PayPal account has also be set up for anyone who might to help this battle on the front lines of our illegal immigration and border security battle. While Brooks County is not a border county, the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint gives Brooks all the problems of a border county with none of the funds border counties receive to help their law enforcement efforts.

Illegal Alien Sentenced a 2nd time after being deported earlier

Jimmy Stanley Brizuela, 43, has been ordered to prison following his conviction of illegal re-entry after removal/deportation, announced United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson. A jury convicted Brizuela, a citizen of El Salvador, on May 13, 2014, following a two-day trial and approximately two hours of deliberation.

Today, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, who presided over the trial, handed Brizuela a total of 30 months in federal prison. As an illegal alien, Brizuela is expected to face deportation proceedings following his release from prison.

Brizuela entered the U.S. near the Rio Grande River area west of Brownsville. He and several others had waded across the river carrying bicycles which they then used to try to elude Border Patrol agents. Upon his arrest, Brizuela was determined to be an undocumented alien and citizen of El Salvador who had entered the U.S. illegally. It was further discovered that he had been previously removed from the country just three weeks before – April 5, 2013.

The jury also heard that he was a convicted felon who had been convicted of several felony offenses including possession of stolen property in 1998.

Brizuela testified at trial and admitted to being a former MS18-Mara Salvatucha gang member. He stated he had joined the gang here in the U.S. several years prior and that he returned to avoid other gangs in El Salvador.

Brizuela will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

This case was investigated by Customs and Border Protection. Assistant U.S. Attorney Oscar Ponce is prosecuting.

Valley Shelter seeks more donations for helping illegal aliens

A decrease in the number of illegal crossers apprehended by Border Patrol will not put a stop to the humanitarian efforts at one local church.

Leaders at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen say there is still a need to provide for those released from Border Patrol custody.

“There’s still people coming,” the Sister Norma Pimentel said.

The shelter at the church helped up to 300 people a day during the peak of the immigrant surge last month. Pimentel said fewer immigrants are searching for help.

“We have plenty of clothing, but sometimes not enough clothing for certain items,” she said.

Pimentel they have limited supplies of sweaters, undergarments, pants and bags.

“Blankets … we need those. They all want a little blanket when they travel with their kids,” Pimentel said.

“Because of the fact, that I thought the numbers were dropping, almost completely, we asked to stop the donations. In reality, soon after they drop a lot, they come back again,” Pimentel said.

The nun said every single dollar donated is being stretched.

“The funds that we’ve spent are donations given to us. We’ve spent all of that and it’s possible only because of the donations by the good-hearted people,” she said.

Experts are predicting a second major wave of illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We’re in constant dialogue with the Border Patrol, with the city officials,” Pimentel said.

Her faith has inspired pilgrimages.

“Washington, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles … you name a city in the United States and we have groups that come just to be here with us,” Pimentel said.

“It makes me rejoice that we in the United States have a heart,” she said.

See video here.

Feds Issue Guidelines to Schools on Dealing with Young Illegal Immigrants

The federal government handed down a new set of rules to Texas schools on how to deal with young illegal immigrants from Central America.

The U.S. Department of Education put together fact sheets for schools across the country. The pages detail what services schools must make available to young illegal immigrants.

The DOE says all children are entitled to equal access to an education, regardless of their actual or perceived origin, citizenship or immigration status. That includes unaccompanied children who just got here and are in immigration proceedings.

In order to be enrolled in a school, the child must be living within the community with a parent, family member or adult sponsor.

Children who are staying in shelters will not be able to enroll in school. Those children will get educational services from providers who operate shelters for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The DOE says schools can ask for proof the illegal crossers live within the boundaries of the school district. The DOE also says schools cannot ask for driver licenses or other state-issued documents which typically prove residency.

The Texas Education Agency said it has given these documents to districts across the state.

See video here.

Police chase leads to “stash house” harboring illegal aliens

A chase that ended in a bailout in Pharr eventually led authorities to a stash house in Alamo.

Border Patrol first alerted Hidalgo County precinct 1 deputy constables to a possible stash house off south Val Verde Road in Alamo. The deputies followed vehicle that was leaving the house and the chase ensued.

The driver of the Ford F-150 exited Interstate 2 in Pharr.

“On Sugar Road, (he) exited still refusing to stop and continuing into a residential area. That’s when the vehicle came to a stop and about 10 subjects, including the driver, bailed out,” Deputy Constable Diomar Galvan said.

A deputy ran to stop the truck after the driver bailout out while it was still in motion.

Deputy constables rounded up eight of the 10 people. The driver got away.

Deputies used information gathered after the chase to identify the stash house. Authorities pulled 28 illegal immigrants from the house on South Val Verde Road in Alamo.

The 24 men and four women were loaded into Border Patrol vans. The immigrants are from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

Galvan said three immigrants were injured when they jumped over a fence. They tried to escape again when they were being transported to the hospital.

“We did receive a call that they had tried to bail out of the ambulance at the hospital,” Galvan said.

Galvan said it isn’t clear if the men escaped.


See video here.

Why I welcome the National Guard to my town

By Ruben O. Villarreal

The only light was emanating from the campfire. Plumes of smoke rose through the air like birds in flight. The conversation that night at my uncle’s riverside ranch in Rio Grande City was lively.

Suddenly, out of the darkness appeared two men dressed in wet, tattered clothing. My father grabbed my shoulder and told me to stay back as he and my uncles approached the disoriented duo, offering them food and drink. After a few minutes, the ragged men retreated to a nearby tree to sit, looking more confused than ever. With the curiosity of a young boy, I asked my father to explain the encounter. He looked down at me and in a somber voice said that the two men were from Mexico and had just crossed the river. They were headed to Houston to seek work, he said. What the two men didn’t know was that they still had hundreds of miles left in their trek. With a dizzy wave, they stood up and walked away.

This incident, which occurred more than 40 years ago, is my first recollection of an encounter with immigrants crossing into the U.S. illegally in my region of South Texas along the U.S.- Mexico border. But scenes like this are still as common as thorns on a prickly pear cactus. The backdrops might be different, but the lead actors in this sometimes-tragic story have always been undocumented immigrants from Mexico and points beyond rather unremarkably making their way through a porous border in search of a life of promise in the north.

Recently, the familiar fabric of illegal immigration was given a new wrinkle — an influx of Central American women and children, many of them drawn to our border by a false promise of a permit to reside here legally and a desire to reconnect with family. The influx has further strained our hardworking, understaffed U.S Border Patrol. The burden has also been shared in no small part by local law enforcement officers, who became the temporary caretakers of these families as they waited for Border Patrol to arrive and take over.

That’s why I welcome more border security to my town and region. We need all the help we can get.

From the early stages of the crisis, it became clear that Congress and the president could not agree on a solution. Although the shores and borders of this country are the responsibility of the federal government, state leaders in June took bold action to curtail the surge of immigrants flooding into the country. Dozens of Texas Department of Public Safety troopers converged on Rio Grande City. In Starr County, there were black-and-white DPS patrol units parked every three or four miles along U.S. Highway 83. For an added element of security, helicopters gave our South Texas clouds plenty of company. The results have been impressive, but security along the border can sometimes be as solid as melting ice.

That’s what led Gov. Rick Perry to announce last month that he would deploy the National Guard to our region. Yes, Border Patrol agents may have been better suited for such a task, but that would require Congress to do the unthinkable and agree on something.

At first glance this may seem unprecedented, but it is anything but. Under President Obama, the National Guard in 2012 spent a stint working alongside Border Patrol agents in South Texas. The only time I ever saw them was when they arrived, attended community events and departed. I found them to be adaptive, diligent and always respectful. I had several conversations with the Border Patrol agents who worked alongside them, and by all accounts the troops exemplified cooperation and a commitment to excellence.

The border crisis is really two crises in one. One is a humanitarian dilemma handled admirably by the city of McAllen and local charities. The other is the troubling truth that can no longer be denied: The border is dangerously insecure and open to criminal elements looking to harm our society. The lessons of 9/11 should not be forgotten. Our nation is at its best when law enforcement operates on high alert to protect its citizens. I for one am glad Perry opted for a solution rather than an excuse.

Medicine doesn’t always taste good but when taken as prescribed leads to better health. Until the federal government provides a long-term solution, I feel confident saying that the National Guard is good medicine for the woes of a weak, ailing border.