Boosters of Houston, Texas, love to boast that the city is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the United States. That means that a vast number of people are moving to the Bayou City from elsewhere in the country - places that have, shall we say, "different sensibilities." Newcomers to almost any city find their new digs a little confusing, and Houston is no exception. In fact, it might be worse than others, since not only is Houston a little "different," it's in Texas - and Texas likes to think it's a whole 'nother country. So maybe these tips will help you figure out what's going on…

Not this kind of mud
Credit: Arenamontanus /

Not this kind of mud, a M.U.D. - Municipal Utility District.

What's a mud?

It's not a mud, it's a M.U.D. If you don't live within the corporate boundaries of Houston, your water and sewer are supplied by an entity called a Municipal Utility District. As you drive down local streets you may even see black and white signs announcing that you've entered such-and-such MUD (e.g., #106).


Each MUD has its own board of directors that are elected in off-year elections. Their board decisions are announced in the local newspaper from time to time, at which you note that they're pretty much a rubber stamp for someone (no one seems to know who). A MUD is a taxing district that adds an assessment to your property taxes, often in excess of 1% of the assessed value - this is in addition to your water and sewer bills. MUDs in some parts of town make improvements to parks and the like, but don't seem to talk to each other at all or to any other entities.


Inside the city limits, water and sewer bills are paid to the city, which also collects property taxes for enhancing and maintaining those systems.


Nope, not this kind of court
Credit: pdeonarain /

The Harris County Judge doesn't hold trials. In Texas, a county judge is the head of the county commissioner's court. 

Where Does the County Judge Hold Court?

Every county in Texas has a judge - Harris County's is Ed Emmett (and will be for the foreseeable future). A County Judge does not wear black robes and seat juries, however; the county judge is the head honcho of the commissioner's court. Harris County has four county commissioners (you'll see their names emblazoned all over blue signs everywhere you go). The position of judge is elected at large, so even though Houston is reliably blue, the Harris County judge is invariably a Republican as are all the rest of the 350-plus judges including the one who thinks the UN is about to invade Lubbock. [1]

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What Precinct Is This?

Good question. Harris County is divided into four commissioner's precincts, all of which spend huge amounts on blue signs with the commissioner's name. Harris County is also divided into eight Constable precincts, the boundaries of which have nothing to do with the commissioner's precincts. You can see maps of each on the county government website, [2] which is called "Harris County Tax dot Net." Yeah - other parts of the country talk about "government" in their websites, but Texas uses "taxes." Oh, and the tax assessor (head honcho of the Harris County Assessment District, HCAD)  is also an elected position - he is in charge of both taxes and voting. Interesting, eh?


If you need to call for police in an emergency, 9-1-1 is county-wide and the dispatchers will know whether to send Houston Police, Harris County Police, the Constable, the State Police, the Texas Rangers (not the baseball team), or a local police department such as Katy, Bellaire, Pearland, etc. Most school districts also have their own police departments, so law enforcement is big business in the Houston area.


The Wards
Credit: wikimedia commons

If your street is on this map, you probably already know what ward you're in. If it's not, there's no real reason to care.

What Ward Do I Live in?

Unless you live within about five miles of the county courthouse downtown, you're not in any ward. Houston was divided into six wards in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but has now grown far beyond their boundaries. A century later, print and broadcast reporters still use the ward designations, however, in the assumption that everyone knows that they're talking about the swell people that live in Montrose or the Heights or the "disadvantaged" folks in the fifth ward.


If you do live in one of the historic wards, your neighbors will tell you so. Proudly. And often.

THE Loop: I-610
Credit: wikimedia commons

THE Loop. All others are insignificant.

What Loop?

Houston has two highway loops and is busily building a third. The oldest loop, Interstate 610, is "The Loop" or "Loop 610." The 38-mile road was finished in the 1960s.  The next loop, 88-mile long Texas 8 - also known as the Sam Houston Tollway, was completed in 2011. Some sections of the tollway are free, in particular near the city's two major airports. A third beltway, Grand Parkway or Texas 99, is under construction. This roadway will be mainly toll and, unlike I-610 and TX 8, will lie mainly outside of Harris County. The proposed route will be 170 miles long, the largest beltway in the country.


When locals mention "The Loop," the refer to the innermost route, I-610. Inside the loop is the heart of Houston, also where the vast majority of the city's attention and resources seem to be directed (it includes all six of the wards…)

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A side effect of frontages and feeders: humongous flyovers
Credit: majcher /

Frontage roads and feeders have a tendency to complicate highway interchanges...

What's a Feeder Road?

Freeways in Texas are not like freeways anywhere else. Instead of cloverleaf intersections, TexDOT designs interstates and other major throughways with continuous frontage roads. These are usually one-way, though may be two-way in rural areas. Major roads may consist of four or five through lanes in each direction plus two or three lanes in each direction on the frontage roads; a barrier that can reach a quarter of a mile in width. Businesses and stores line most urban frontage roads, creating monstertraffic tie-ups when rush hour collides with shopping season.


A "feeder" road is the short ramp that connects the freeway - referred to in traffic reports as the "main lanes" - to the frontage road. Freeway exits and frontage-road entrances coalesce into a single lane that weaves from main lanes to frontage roads and back.


The insistence on continuous frontage roads creates monstrous intersections where two large highways meet and cuts broad, neatly impenetrable barriers that are crossed only by occasional major streets. Another side effect is the bizarre U-turn lanes needed to get from one side to the other.


Welcome to Houston: Hope this helps...