Lane Closure Exposure

New Jersey traffic retribution scandal tough for Houstonians to understand.

Highlights from Hair Balls

Traffic

If you've never been to the Northeast, particularly if you've never driven on their highways, it is probably tough for you to understand the scandal facing Governor Chris Christie and his staff right now in New Jersey. How could a pair of lane closures be that significant of a problem that it would represent a form of political retribution?

A little background first. Christie, the popular and bombastic Republican governor of largely Democratic New Jersey, is widely considered to be a possible GOP candidate for President in the next election. He's ruffled feathers on both sides of the political aisle, but the people of the Garden State seem to love him. Most important, it was thought he was a guy who didn't really do political scandal. He might disagree, but he'd do so publicly.

But when the Associated Press dug up emails sent by a top Christie aide suggesting closing down a couple of lanes of freeway as payback for the mayor of Fort Lee not backing Christie for re-election, that perception rapidly changed. Now, on to the traffic problem.

Here in Houston, we have an abundance of highways and options for getting around traffic. For any given location, there are probably ten different routes that will get us there. It's why traffic is almost never a problem for Astros and Rockets games — there are so many ways in and out of downtown.

Sure, traffic during rush hour is tough, with so many people trying to either get into or leave business areas like downtown, the Galleria or the Medical Center. But imagine if there were just one business center and only a single point of access to it. Consider what would happen if the entire population of Houston lived in The Woodlands and the only access road into downtown Houston was Interstate 45. That's the problem facing New Jersey.

With the state's proximity to New York City, there are thousands of people who must pass every day through a choked artery to get to the George Washington Bridge. To make matters more complicated, virtually every road in the area is part of the New Jersey Turnpike, which is a toll road — every time I drive through that state, I am reminded how much it costs just to drive your car there.

A few years ago, I drove a car into Manhattan at 5 or 6 p.m. on a Friday evening through the Lincoln Tunnel. At the entrance of the tunnel, something like 50 lanes converged into about four (it was probably more like 12 down to six, but you get the idea). Just getting into the tunnel took probably 20 minutes. Everywhere at almost every time in and around New York City, it's the same. It's like the West Loop, only angrier and making less sense.

So the next time you're cursing our traffic and considering taking an alternate route, imagine that, in New Jersey, the closing of two lanes of traffic is so bad, it represents a scandal that could have widespread political ramifications for the governor's office. Our traffic blows, but it's not normally scandal-worthy.
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Whatever

On Hold
Obamacare is moving along, but one guy says he's paying for insurance he's not getting.

Dianna Wray

Texas Blue Cross Blue Shield has lovely hold music. Just ask Fred Rhodes. He and his wife have taken turns listening to it since they found out that, despite having enrolled and paid for their new health insurance in December, they still aren't in the system.

With the advent of the Affordable Care Act, Rhodes — a Houston lawyer who runs an independent practice and thus has to buy health insurance — went on healthcare.gov and signed up for a plan on December 21. He paid the premium on December 27 and got new insurance cards for himself and his wife right around the first of the year, he said.

Then his wife tried to get a flu shot at a Randalls pharmacy two weeks ago and was told by the pharmacist she wasn't showing up in the Blue Cross Blue Shield system. Rhodes tried to fill a prescription last week at a different pharmacy and was told the same thing. "I thought I knew how to do this, but obviously I was wrong," he said.

Fun fact: After you've been on hold for three hours, Blue Cross Blue Shield's automated system will hang up on you, according to Rhodes. We were curious about the holding experience, and on January 8 tried the same customer service line Rhodes has been using.

Jaunty yet soothing guitar music let us know we were still on hold after we were advised that the estimated wait time to speak to a real person was "in excess of 60 minutes." The automated-voice non-person informed us that Blue Cross Blue Shield is working to implement the new regulations of the Affordable Care Act as quickly as possible. The automated system might have then asked us to have patience, but we could have just been telling ourselves that to keep from throwing the phone across the room.

The automated system told us in tranquilizing tones that we could always email Blue Cross Blue Shield with our queries and the email would be answered within five business days. However, Rhodes told us he had already sent three emails in the past two weeks without receiving a reply or any acknowledgement.

This isn't exactly unexpected, when you think about it. Lots of people signing up for health insurance or changing over their plans means that health insurance companies are being inundated with new customers who all need to be put into the system according to a new set of requirements based on Obamacare, as CNN has reported.

However, it's not as if this should have taken them by surprise. The Obamacare roll-out was a mess, but it still technically happened, so the insurance company people knew a flood of new customers was on the way. But then it's not like the Obamacare roll-out was a surprise, either, so maybe everything is required to be a tangle in this new world of many people being eligible for health insurance in the United States.

Rhodes and his wife are taking turns calling in and being put on hold. They have yet to speak with a real person, he said. They're both on maintenance medications — including blood thinners for Rhodes — that will have to be filled whether their insurance is recognized or not, so Rhodes says they'll pay for it and save the receipts.

Right now he's just hoping for some contact with an actual company representative who might be able to help Rhodes get into the system. "When they give you two ways to contact them and neither of them work, either they're incredibly incompetent or they don't want to talk to you. I don't know which applies here."

Louis Adams, the director of media and public relations for the Dallas arm of Blue Cross Blue Shield, said he is looking into the issue and will get back to us with some information as quick as he can. And we will update as soon as he does.
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Environment

We're on Our Own
With money tight, the EPA is dialing down actual enforcing.

Dianna Wray

Once upon a time — and we're talking like three years ago — the Environmental Protection Agency was a force to be reckoned with. EPA regulators were throwing their weight around and pushing the issue on things like biofuels, air quality and the effect of fracking on water quality. They had the White House behind them and the budget to do it, so they did.

Well, it seems the age of the mighty EPA is a thing of the past, at least for now. With a shrinking budget, fewer resources and a dearth of political will, the EPA is being transformed from a tiger of an enforcement agency — taking on the oil industry and tilting at air-quality issues with the states — and becoming a litter-box-trained house cat. In this metaphor, it's an organization not above catching a mouse or two, but don't expect it to bring home the big game anytime soon, says Tracy Hester, professor of environmental law at the University of Houston.

"The program has been going through some changes. The pot is getting smaller and smaller, and the EPA is having to pick and choose what gets enforced and what doesn't," says Hester.

At the end of 2013, the EPA announced it was considering letting nature take its course and not pushing for clean-up efforts on the Cavalcade Street Superfund site in north Houston. If the new "cleanup" plan is approved, the agency will make sure cancer-causing contaminants don't get out of the site, but it will end efforts to try and actually clean up the Superfund site.

Officially, the agency is stepping back because cleaning up these sites is really hard, but it's not a decision the EPA of a few years ago would have made. "The EPA backing off like that is pretty unusual," says Hester.

The EPA is also expected to take a hands-off approach to fracking issues. While there are some concerns (as anyone who has lived on top of the Barnett Shale can attest) about the effect of hydraulic fracturing drilling techniques on water quality — concerns that were raised in an internal Watchdog report made public on Christmas Eve — federal regulators lack the political will and the resources to do anything about it, Reuters reports.

The internal report was focused on a case from 2011 when the EPA initially issued an emergency order asking oil and gas drilling company Range Resources to monitor some water wells in Parker County, Texas. This was a strong stance to take, but then the EPA reversed itself in 2012 and stepped away from enforcement of the order.

And there will be more decisions — though "undecisions" might be a more accurate word — like that to come. "Bottom line, the EPA has announced it is not going to have the same enforcement it has had in prior years, and that almost always means a reduced number of enforcement acts," Hester said.

On top of that, the EPA is in the middle of looking extremely foolish as John Beale, a senior policy adviser in the EPA Office of Air and Radiation, prepares to serve 32 months in prison for pretending to be a CIA operative and using his fake-CIA-operative status to not come into work for months.

Beale might have gotten away with that one, but the jig was up when he retired in 2011, had a party and everything, but continued to collect his paycheck for the next 19 months. Thus the EPA's current image is one of an agency that totally missed a top employee lying and stealing a ton of money from the government, which probably won't help get the EPA budget restored anytime soon.

But don't despair quite yet. As some elf or other said in Lord of the Rings, all is not lost. Historically, the EPA has high times and low times. During the eras when the agency is well funded, the inspectors are out there with a firm hand on all that regulating to be done.

It's a part of the mission, created when the framework of environmental law — a net formed of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Resources Recovery — was put into place beginning in the 1970s. With cuts pretty well eviscerating the EPA budget, the money simply won't be there to fund heavy-duty enforcement, but that's where people tend to step up their game, says Hester.

"All of the laws passed to protect the environment have provided an interlocking framework, and it gave the public the ability to sue, empowering the public to step in and enforce the law when the government hasn't. The EPA has waxed and waned a lot over the years," he said.

While Hair Balls admires the optimism here, we have to admit we do have some doubts that "the people" are going to be just as good as actual regulation. Beggars can't be choosers, though, so here's hoping he's right.

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1 comments
aaronssongs
aaronssongs

Excuse me, Jeff Balke? What is hard to understand about the NJ "traffic retribution scandal"???

First of all, most Houstonians are obviously "smarter than you". Second, anyone paying attention to the news, or having had watched an episode of "Law and Order", or the Sopranos, would have gotten the gist of it, by now. I've been to NJ. I've driven to NYC. I know more than you.

Aaron Coleman

 
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