en español: El Innovador de Texas
RMAs need accountability
I recently released my special report, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority: A Need for a Higher Standard, which showed a potential for double taxation and a pattern of loose management practices, favoritism, self-enrichment and lax expenditure controls at CTRMA. This review was done at the request of State Rep. Terry Keel.
It is vitally important to our state’s future that we get this first regional mobility authority right. In order to build public confidence that is so necessary for the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority and other regional mobility authorities to be successful, I called for the immediate resignation of CTRMA’s chairman and one board member whose personal holdings and business interests should have prevented their appointments in the first place. Every time these board members cast a vote, there is the potential for self-enrichment.
For example, the chairman owns an 18-acre tract about 2,000 feet east of US 183-A’s right of way that has increased 612 percent, just since he was appointed to the board in 2002. The 11.6-mile US 183-A project is CTRMA’s only planned roadway.
My report found regional mobility authorities are not directly accountable to the people of Texas. No voter approval is required for their creation; no voter approval is required for the selection of their board members or staff; no voter approval is required for the selection and funding of their toll projects; and no voter approval is required for the conversion of nontolled roads to toll road status. I have repeatedly said the redesignation as toll roads of roads already constructed, under construction or funded through traditional means, such as the gasoline tax, is double taxation.
In my report, I recommended amending state law to prevent double taxation by prohibiting the conversion to toll road status of any road that construction begins without tolls identified as a funding source; prohibiting the Texas Department of Transportation from making allocations from the Texas Mobility Fund contingent upon the inclusion of toll roads in regional road plans; requiring all RMA board members to disclose all their real estate holdings, not just those in a planned project’s right of way; making RMA board members’ terms four years, the same as the county commissioners who appoint them; giving county commissioners the authority to remove RMA board members; and tightening accounting and contracting practices between RMAs, their board members, contractors and subcontractors.
Finally, as the state’s chief fiscal officer, I will review each of the regional mobility authorities that are in the process of being created across the state. Texas has embarked on a new and challenging way of funding its road construction needs, and the people deserve to know that their tax dollars are being spent wisely and efficiently.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn
Surgery with no scalpel
Surgeons in Texas have new surgical tools for treating cancer tumors—without knives. In January 2005, Brackenridge Hospital in Austin unveiled the CyberKnife, a painless, non-invasive treatment available at the hospital’s Brain and Spine Center. St. David's Medical Center in Austin has the Leksell Gamma Knife, which lets surgeons perform non-invasive brain surgery.
The CyberKnife combines an image-guidance system—similar to that used in high-tech image-guided missiles—that verifies the location of tumors. The Gamma Knife delivers a single high dose of radiation to a point, and 201 beams simultaneously intersect and dispense enough radiation to destroy tumors.
Once the CyberKnife locates and maps the tumor’s precise location, a multi-jointed robotic arm delivers multiple, highly focused beams of radiation from various positions and angles. The beams intersect within the tumor or lesion and deliver a high dose of radiation, while sparing normal tissue.
Unlike open surgery, surgeons use the CyberKnife primarily for outpatient procedures that do not require anesthesia or incisions or cause blood loss. The patient can go home the same day with virtually no recovery time.
While Brackenridge Hospital initially plans to use the CyberKnife to treat tumors of the head, neck and spine, it plans to expand the tool to treat other parts of the body, such as the prostate, lung and liver, in Spring 2005.
For more information, contact the Brain and Spine Center,
Lost and found
The city of Houston got rid of a growing pile of lost items left at its airports and police department by donating them to local nonprofits.
The city donates items like clothing and bedding to hospices and homeless shelters.
It gives used cell phones to women’s shelters, which will recycle the phones and distribute them for women to use in emergencies.
The items have little or no market value and it’s a burden to pay to store the items, which continue to accumulate, according to the city of Houston.
The Houston City Council approved the measure to allow Houston’s Finance Department to donate the items on a first-come, first-serve basis. Only authorized representatives of the organizations asking for goods may make the requests.
For more information, contact Houston Finance and
Administration Department, 713-837-9898
Sending shirts to the dry cleaners may become a thing of the past.
Researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina are developing a water-repellant coating that, when applied to suits and other clothing, offers resistance to dirt and water and requires less cleaning than conventional fabrics, said research team member Dr. Phil Brown, a textile chemist with Clemson University.
Manufacturers can integrate the patented coating—a polymer film mixed with silver nanoparticles—into any common fabric, including silk, polyester and cotton, said Brown. In the long run, it can save time and money by reducing dry cleaning bills. It is also environmentally friendly, he added.
“The coating doesn’t actually clean itself, but it does resist dirt much better than other fabric treatments,” said Brown. “The concept is based on the lotus plant, whose leaves are well-known for their ability to ‘self-clean’ by repelling water and dirt.”
Dirt sticks to the fibers of most fabrics. The water repellency of fabrics made with the new coating makes it easier to keep dirt from accumulating, because water applied to the garment will roll off, taking the dirt with it, Brown said. Suits made with the new coating could be sprayed clean or wiped with a damp cloth to remove the dirt. Garments with the new coating can still be washed or dry cleaned without harming the coating, Brown said.
The new coating could be applied to hospital garments, sportswear, military uniforms and raincoats, Brown said.
For more information, contact Michael Bernstein,
American Chemical Society, firstname.lastname@example.org
Set sail to Mars
Future voyagers may sail the solar winds to explore the planets, and a special paint may speed them on their way.
The notion of supplying thrust to spacecraft by using “solar sails”—essentially light but enormous mirrors—is a fairly old one in both science fiction and advanced astronautical studies. Such sails would reflect photons of light to achieve a gentle but steadily accelerating “push.” Physicist and science-fiction writer Gregory Benford worked with his brother James Benford, president of the California firm Microwave Sciences, to introduce an improvement on the idea.
The Benfords’ idea involves coating the solar sail with a specially formulated paint that would evaporate when bathed in microwave energy. A targeted beam from Earth would strike the sail, causing the paint to begin boiling off, throwing gas molecules from its surface. The escaping gas would supply extra motive force to the sail.
According to the Benfords, a 60-megawatt microwave beam—a larger transmission than any now in use—could accelerate a spacecraft with a coated solar sail to 60 kilometers a second in about an hour. That’s about 134,000 miles an hour, far faster than any human spacecraft has flown.
For more information, contact Dr. Gregory Benford,
University of California at Irvine, 949-824-5147
Pass the salt
Growers of floricultural crops—the kind of flowers that florists sell for weddings, vases and decorative bouquets—usually rely on high quality water, free of salts and ions, to grow their sweet-scented crops. Lower-quality water typically stunts growth or kills plants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In areas such as California, where water is a diminishing resource, agricultural users compete with urban users for high-quality water, and growers often lose the battle, according to the USDA. Growers also contend with seawater intruding into fresh groundwater.
Researchers at the USDA Agricultural Research Service have good news for floricultural growers fighting to find enough high-quality water. Plant physiologist Catherine Grieve found that a number of commercial-quality flowers could tolerate salty water. The ability to grow crops in less-expensive salinated water could help growers cut costs, conserve resources and improve efficiency.
Some flowers, such as statice and stock, are already staple flower crops. Sunflowers and celosia, a flower with velvety, crinkled blooms, also demonstrated a promising tolerance for salt. Growers of these plants could save money by using salinated water and could possibly increase efficiency and conservation efforts by using on-site recycling programs for water runoff from field and greenhouse operations, said Grieve.
For more information, contact Catherine Grieve,
Older drivers can measure their abilities behind the wheel without leaving home. In January 2005, the Automobile Association of America (AAA) released the CD-ROM, Roadwise Review: A Tool to Help Seniors Drive Safely Longer. The disc is a scientifically validated screening tool that tests drivers 65 and older on eight driving-related mental and physical abilities shown to be the strongest predictors of crash risk among elderly drivers. Abilities tested by the disc include: head and neck flexibility, general mobility, memory and visual acuity.
AAA estimates by 2020, more than 40 million licensed drivers over age 65 will hit the road, so AAA developed Roadwise Review to help seniors judge their abilities to drive. So far, response has been good, with more than 60,000 CD-ROMs ordered, said Mantill Williams of AAA’s public affairs office.
The CD-ROM retails for $15, but Williams encourages drivers to contact their local AAA office.
“They should definitely check with their local club because some are offering significant discounts and some are even offering giveaways,” he said.
Drivers can order Roadwise Review online at AAA’s public affairs Web site, www.aaapublicaffairs.com.
For more information, contact Mantill Williams,
Back in action
A new spinal treatment using a liquid polymer called polyethylene glycol (PEG) has helped get dogs with severe spinal injuries back on their paws.
When veterinarians can apply PEG within 72 hours of an accident, about 75 percent of the dogs treated are able to resume a normal life, said Richard B. Borgens, a researcher at Purdue University’s Center for Paralysis Research. The polymer helps repair the initial damage to nerve cell membranes. This is critical because damaged membranes can trigger further damage in additional membranes.
Researchers performed some of the trials with PEG at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station.
Borgens said PEG could probably be used for humans, though there are differences in the way human and canine spines work. As a result, human testing could be a long way off.
For more information, contact Richard B. Borgens,
Health officials often lament that it’s hard to persuade people to get tested for the HIV virus—and just as hard to get them to return to learn the results of the test. The Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department tackled the second problem by creating a network of rapid-test sites around the county that offer HIV test results in 20 minutes.
For information, contact Shannon Jones III,
Researchers at the University of Florida developed a method for removing salt from seawater that could cut the cost of creating potable water by a sixth. The technique uses excess heat from power plants, pulp and paper plants, refineries and chemical processing plants for desalination, said James Klausner of the University of Florida. The process also works on brackish water, Klausner said.
For more information, contact James Klausner,
University of Florida, email@example.com
Material used by NASA for years to insulate spacecraft is making its way into the clothing market. Aerogel, a silica material first discovered in 1931, is a tiny, porous network containing air pockets less than one-3,000th the diameter of a human hair. Its ability to block heat transfer makes it attractive to manufacturers like Massachusetts-based Aspen Aerogels, which makes blankets, shoe liners and other items for commercial and military use.
For more information, contact Aspen Aerogels,
Editor: Karen Hudgins
Contributing to this issue: Angela Freeman, Magdalena Hamner, Ann Holdsworth, Greg Mt.Joy, Edd Patton, Clint Shields, Suzanne Staton and Bruce Wright