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TO: Recently the Observer ran a story \(“The Emergency,” rooms. Is there anything the city can do about the crisis in health care? BW: The number one solution is to get more clinics out in the neighborhoods. Well over half the visits to our emergency rooms are for primary care by people who don’t have group health insurance or Medicare to fall back on. We need them to be able to get some diagnostic services and treatments closer, in the neighborhoods, with community health clinics. This is why, during my administration, with any help from the folks in Washington, we will at least quadruple the number of neighborhood clinics we have out there. We had six applications pending with the federal government. They are good applications for clinics that should be qualified for federal funding, but about two or three weeks ago I heard that the administration had denied all six applications, even though in Chicago there are over 50 of these health clinics and they approved applications in other states. I’d like to think that on a bipartisan basis in this county [Harris County], we can do better than that. We have to get our fair share of federal funding for neighborhood health clinics so that we can provide good services to the public and not have people crowding into the emergency room who just need to see a doctor because somebody has a 5-year-old who is sick and they don’t have money to pay. It crowds the emergency rooms. And they often wait to get the treatment until it is an emergency, until it is pneumonia instead of just bronchitis, and then it costs the taxpayers a lot more money. TO: The City of Houston has embarked on a project to build a downtown park. Why is this important? BW: If you look at the major urban areas of the world they have parks in the central area of the city that are well used, are a great common space, and people develop around those parks. We are doing it on a fast track with more private money raised than in any project we’ve ever had in the City of Houston. I’ve raised over $30 million in solid commitments in a matter of months to combine with the city funds. You will see this become an island of a green space where there are activities for families. You will see people from all walks of life come down to this area. I have always been struck by other cities with a vital urban center. Whether they are in Europe, or cities large or small in Mexico, they have a central plaza area where people of all ages get together. That is the kind of thing that we will have here in downtown Houston. Bryant Park is a good example in New York City. Where you see people watching outdoor movies, where people bring their families and have a hot date or eat snow cones that are served at the park. It will be a first-class park. TO: Houston once again this year topped the list of U.S. cities with the worst air pollution. What can be done? BW: I spend time every week working on this. In particular, we have an unacceptably high level of low-level ozone, which is often referred to as smog and which is irritating to the lungs. It can hurt the respiration of young people. We want to bring those levels down. Starting several years ago, well before I even thought about running for mayor, I was working on this problem steadily with the nonprofit, Environmental Defense, and the business community. It started before I was mayor by having a sea change in the business community where we passed a resolution supporting compliance with the EPA targets and goals. Historically, the Houston business community had fought the compliance, and there are some emitters who still do, but most people understand that economic growth and clean air go hand in hand. We can’t attract the type of skilled people and jobs for the future unless we have cleaner air. I have asked the TCEQ [Texas Council on Environmental Quality] in Austin to give us more local enforcement responsibilities. I’ve asked the city attorney to get some top-notch lawyers to [work] with our investigators to go after some of the chronic polluters. I’ve asked state regulators to tighten the regulations on chemicals such as benzene and propylene, which contribute to these emissions. We are hoping to convert our city fleet of passenger vehicles, where practical, to meet the kind of specifications [found in] the car I drive, which is a hybrid that gets 45 miles per gallon. I want to encourage Houstonians to do this. We are building over 70 miles of bike paths and we want to encourage people to take mass transit. That is one of the reasons we want a park…to encourage residential development close to the employment centers so that people can walk to work and don’t have to drive a car. These are all part of bringing the pollution down. I rarely left Houston this last year because there is so much work to do here, but at least twice I have gone to meet with the commissioners and staff of the state regulators. I told the regulators that the people of Houston support strict compliance with air quality regulations. TO: Do you get any sense that state officials are receptive to that? BW: I think it dependssome commissioners more than others. I think we have had good discussions with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] regional administrator and they sense a change. We want the City of Houston to be allies of the public and not just a handful of large emitters. TO: In the year that you’ve been mayor, what are you most proud of? BW: Really bringing the city together. Attracting some new employers to our city and creating a sense that things can change, that it doesn’t need to be the lobbyists in city hall that call the shotsthat the civic clubs and the citizens have the ear of the mayor and their elected officials. The biggest surprise that I’ve had is the fact that we’ve made dramatic changes in the way the city does business without as much controversy in the public as I would have thought. It has caused a lot of controversy in this building, sometimes. We had the fiasco on our freeways where seven or eight tow trucks would pull up to the side of the road where there was a continued on page 31 12/17/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11