Sunday, June 22, 2008

Response to Peter Brown's op-ed

You may have caught Councilmember Peter Brown's op-ed on transit and planning in the Sunday Chronicle. While I've (mostly) made my peace with Metro's core LRT plan and support efforts to encourage walkable density near the stops, he made several points I feel I need to address:
Our region's sprawling highway system has not reduced congestion. Worse still, it encouraged the flight of city jobs and residents to the suburbs, diminishing the city's economic life.
Actually, it reduced congestion substantially after 1983, only rebounding to those levels in the last few years after we added more than 2 million more people. The added capacity has enabled millions of people to afford nice new homes in good school districts while still having a reasonable commute to jobs in the core. Employers demand that their employees have access to such amenities within a reasonable commute. If they don't, the employers will move to where they can. It is a fantasy to believe that limiting mobility will force people to move to the core. No - employers will move out to them. If the highway expansions had not been built, jobs would have fled to the suburbs (as they have in many other cities), leaving a hollowing-out core with a deteriorating tax base.
Major world cities are making huge "smart" investments in carefully planned, pro-growth rail systems. The transit menu includes conventional streetcars and subways, fast commuter lines, 180- mile-per-hour bullet trains and even higher speed mag-lev lines, such as the link between downtown Shanghai, China, and its airport. The European Union, with sleek, high-tech trains linking just about every major city, is a model for transportation efficiency, with one-half the per-capita energy consumption as the United States. This is a significant competitive advantage.
Hundreds of billions of dollars. Far higher taxes, unaffordable homes, and consistently lower growth in Europe than the U.S. (and especially lower than Texas). And, as I've pointed out before, European cities were built long ago during the walking age with single, dense, monolithic job cores amenable to rail transit (and without space for cars) - not to mention a non-tropical, relatively pedestrian-friendly climate. Houston is the exact polar opposite of these things.
On a recent flight abroad, I listened to a talkative business executive, who explained to me, "Houston is a great city to do business, very friendly, but if you expect to compete worldwide, you better have a high-speed train from downtown to your airports, and soon! That's what every international businessman expects, like you enjoy in Atlanta, San Francisco or Paris."
No city in America has anything resembling a "high-speed" train from their airport to downtown. Sluggish trains with stops and transfers - yes, in a few places - high-speed - no (and that goes for Metro's long-term plans too). Why build a multi-billion dollar train to connect a few business travelers to a less than 7% of our jobs downtown? Especially when most of these travelers are on expense accounts and will just grab a cab? Metro is planning frequent, high-quality, non-stop express bus service from IAH to downtown in the near future. More than adequate for our needs at a micro-fraction of the cost.
Significant increases in federal funding for rail transit are a reasonable assumption.
Really? My understanding is that the FTA cost-benefit hurdles for rail projects are getting ever-higher.
High-speed rail: It is time to think ahead and get very serious about the "Texas T-Bone" — the Bullet Train — traveling at speeds of 180 mph, connecting Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin-San Antonio.
Not just a 100+ billion tax dollars for a service that Southwest Airlines handles just fine right now, but there are plenty of other reasons this is problematic. Even California is balking, and they have far more density, population, local transit, and congestion of both highways and airports.
...the highest transportation costs in the nation (yes, that's right; it costs more to travel in Houston than in any other city).
Debunked here. All this says is that if you have a city of high wages and low housing costs (these are good things, yes?), people will spend a lot of that extra income on fancy cars, trucks, and SUVs. Surprise, surprise. People like nice things. They could just as easily buy a Toyota Prius if they so choose and spend far less. Oh, and the stat is also warped because high taxes to subsidize transit in other cities are not considered "transportation costs" in their calculations.

Houston has a history of being pragmatic when it comes to transportation infrastructure. Let's keep it that way.

Update (updated for 1Q08): The official ACCRA cost of living transportation index from 1Q08, where the national average = 100:
  • Houston 97.4
  • Atlanta 103
  • Portland 106
  • Chicago 108
  • DC 109
  • Boston 109
  • NYC 109
  • SF 113
Update 2: The PoliSci@UST blog on why Shanghai's maglev train to the airport is a bad model for Houston.

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27 Comments:

At 9:11 PM, June 22, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good job on refuting Brown's ideas which are totally out of touch with reality. Guys like him see things they like elsewhere and then sample from all over the world to dream of something which is not even suitable for Houston.

And the cost of what he proposes is astronomical, as you note. Expanding freeways with HOT lanes (or Max lanes, as you call them) is far more economical and effective for Houston.

As for his view that federal transit subsidies will increase, is he forgetting that transit funds come from the federal highway trust fund which is funded by gasoline tax? Gasoline tax revenue is in decline due to reduced consumption and the trend toward better fuel economy. In fact, the new federal CAFE (fuel economy) standards will devastate fuel tax revenue over the next decade. Unless the feds find another way to raise revenue, we're looking at a shrinking pie.

 
At 9:33 PM, June 22, 2008, Anonymous John said...

No American city has speedy train service to its downtown from its airport? Was I hallucinating when I got from National Airport to the class I was teaching near L'Enfant Plaza much faster than I could possibly have done by cab on the Metro? I guess I am misremembering all those trips from Logan Airport in Boston to Back Bay Station during which I skipped the tunnel congestion and got home really fast after business trips, too. Or that train ride to SFO last time I was there that was a whole lot faster than getting on the freeway.

No, they are not bullet trains, but they are speedy train service.

Have you ever visited Houston as a business traveler? I have, many times, before moving here. I always enjoyed coming to Houston, but found getting to and from the airports to be about the most dreadful such experience I'd had in any US city - relatively expensive and very inconvenient.

 
At 10:20 PM, June 22, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Boston airport transit is anything but speedy. My experience here:
http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2007/07/what-can-houston-learn-from-las-transit.html

To quote: "Total BRT time: 30 minutes to cover 3 miles! 45 minutes total travel time from when I walked out of the hotel. That's vs. a *seven* minute taxi ride. And I can't imagine what the travel time must have been for all the others on the bus connecting from all over the city - at least in the 1-2 hour range."

I agree better options to Houston airports would be helpful. The planned Metro express bus service will fill that need in a cost effective way while still having high quality service (special buses run at a decent frequency).

 
At 10:51 PM, June 22, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

I believe train service to IAH and HOU is included in the 2030 plan which was already approved by the voters. So, maybe it's not going to be maglev, but we will have train service to the airports within 25 years or so. 30 mph may not be speedy to you but given the option of paying something like $2 for that option and taking 30 minutes to an hour to get downtown is an option many business travelers and tourists will take, especially given a vastly expanded rail network in the Houston metro by 2030.

Also add St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland and Atlanta to the list of cities that provide basic rail service to their airports. And Dallas is soon to be on that list, I think.

>>As for his view that federal transit subsidies will increase,

Perhaps he is thinking that President Obama and the Democrat led Congress is going to do things like end the war in Iraq and fund domestic programs? Also Congress just passed with veto-proof margins a measure to grant 80 federal / 20 state funding for new intercity rail service. I imagine putting transit projects on an equal footing with highways at the intra-city level is something that should be forthcoming as well.

Or maybe Ron Paul will win and this board can rejoice? ;)

 
At 11:15 PM, June 22, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Well, we sort of approved rail to the airports - but bond approval will still be needed for Metro solutions phase 3. If I were a betting man I'd still say we'll be getting airport light rail or better to Hobby and IAH as part of the next major metro expansion.

 
At 2:47 AM, June 23, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

I don't think the Texas T-bone belongs in the same category as Councilman Brown's other "world class city" aspirations.

Every city Southwest serves subsidizes it in the form of airport facilities. These are especially significant for Houston and Dallas, which have entire airports virtually devoted to Herb's empire.

I won't knock their low fares or their business model, and I can give Herb a pass for his (largely successful) efforts to kill high-speed rail back in '94.

However, it is worth remembering that the companies who designed that system had no doubts about its ability to pay for O&M; it was the initial capital cost that derailed it.

High-speed systems are actually cheaper to maintain than FRA-compliant Amtrak-style rail, because the trains are much lighter.

 
At 7:43 AM, June 23, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Great piece Tory.

On Atlanta - For me it took 45 minutes by train to get from the airport to Buckhead. Admittedly, my company did enjoy every subsidized minute of it.

On Boston - Sure their train to DT is fast, but that's because Logan is less than two miles from their DT.

On Reagan National - Again, the airport is only 3 miles from the mall area.

Hobby is about 8 miles and IAH is over 15.

 
At 8:38 AM, June 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Blue Line to O'Hare ain't bad. The key thing about that line, however, is that it does a lot more than connect an airport to downtown. The Blue Line is a commuter rail line with an incidental rail stop, not a train to plane scheme with incidental commuter stops.

By the way, has anyone tried to take 4 kids and luggage from a home to a plane using rail? I guess it's nice that the author wants to spend billions to enable spry wealthy individuals not carrying much of anything to get to the airport, but I wonder weather that's a good use of limited subsidy money.

Also, there is right now, as we speak, huge highway constrcution projects in Europe. Really! Right now! Check out Stockholm, Paris, etc. Someone ought to tell that guy.

 
At 9:55 AM, June 23, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Yes,

Europe is currently under a massive highway expansion that will connect all parts of the EU. It rivals the original US interstate system. China and India are doing this too.

They are using a model of toll roads similar to the Trans Texas Corridor concept. The EU chose an expansive highway system to connect the union over rail because of cost effectiveness and speed.

Spain, France, Denmark, and Sweden are currently adding 100s of miles of expressways. Greece (not typically known for good roads) has already added 100s of miles of expressways and adding more to make the country compete better economically. Italy is going as far as extending an expressway across the Straights of Messina to the island of Sicily.

Europe is relegating long distance rail as a choice for travel around Europe instead of the primary mode. And what have they noticed, when people are given a choice of using a toll road that costs more along with the high cost of gas to drive for longer distance, they chose that over rail. The citizens are enjoying the added freedom of driving where they want instead of where a train will take them.

The expanded road network also allows more towns and villages to enjoy economic growth. Yes, they are still adding rail, but Europe's current rail expansion is nothing compared to their expressway expansion.

 
At 10:09 AM, June 23, 2008, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory,

Ask yourself a rhetorical question. What if Congress, instead of diverting one out of every five to six taxpayer dollars from roads to the FTA for purposes of supporting New Starts rail transit, were to instruct the FTA that no City that did not have an aggregate population density of 10,000 per square mile would be eligible for rail funding. Furthermore, cities that did not meet that criteria would be eligible for a matching block grant from the FTA to support operations for bus networks. What do you think Metro would be doing?

It really is all about capturing the money.

As for CM Brown's statement that people are flocking back to the City, I heard Mr. Brown several weeks ago make that same statement in a speech, but literally moments before he made that comment, he lamented that the City of Houston is only getting a small percentage of the new jobs and population in our area. So which one is it?

Neal

 
At 12:09 PM, June 23, 2008, Anonymous awp said...

Neal,

both, we are growing so fast that we only need a small percentage of people to be moving into downtown to make it seem like people are streaming into downtown.

 
At 4:46 PM, June 23, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> Every city Southwest serves subsidizes it in the form of airport facilities.

Not true. Airports are self-supporting with the fees they charge airlines and passengers.

Neal: what the FTA should be doing is ranking projects by $ per passenger mile, and only funding the lowest ones. Bus and BRT plans would always be on top.

 
At 12:44 AM, June 24, 2008, Blogger Marc said...

The accolades continue. This is a link to a Chicago Tribune article.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-windfall-witt_23jun23,0,4422376.story

 
At 5:47 AM, June 24, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

"Airports are self-supporting with the fees they charge airlines and passengers."

Not true. O&M, perhaps, but capital improvements are a combo of FAA AIP funds and locally-floated bonds.

Though airline-specific fees and taxes play a role, AIP funds are largely funded by ye olde U.S. taxpayer.

Likewise, locally-floated bonds only "pay for themselves" if the airlines do well. We've been lucky in Houston, since it's a booming city, but other cities have been left holding the bag when passenger numbers didn't pencil out.

Take our recent decision to revamp Terminal B. In the unlikely event that Continental goes belly-up, we'd (Houston taxpayers) be stuck with a $600 million tab.

It's also worth noting that the usage of public bonds which are self-supporting if the system does well is the *exact same business model* proposed for the 1994 system.

I'm not arguing against airport improvements. They're vital and necessary to our region's economy. Just don't call them "self-supporting."

As for the FTA, we can stop diverting gas tax money to transit just as soon as we stop funding highways through general appropriations bills, property taxes, and perhaps 30 other sources. Go ahead, you go first.

 
At 4:46 PM, June 24, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

For the most part, airports pay for themselves. Airlines certainly pay for themselves. Additionally, those airports are sunk costs. We have to have them anyway, and pay for them anyway - the marginal cost *to the airport* for adding flights to the Texas Triangle is negligible. Or, to flip it around, even if we built the Texas T-bone and eliminated all the equivalent flights (not actually possible because CAL and AA want those connecting passengers), almost no money would be saved by the airports.

Beyond the basic street grid (which is not optional and therefore legitimately paid for by property taxes), I'm all for direct user fees (tolls & fares) and usage taxes (gas & ?) being required separately for all highways and all transit. There would be plenty of highways and almost no transit.

On second thought, I agree there needs to be a *minimal* subsidy for transit to provide mobility for the poor and those unable to drive. Maybe enough for a basic bus network...

 
At 6:19 PM, June 24, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Airports are not sunk costs; they require continuous improvement. Expansion and modernization of terminals and other landside facilities represents the largest expense, but airside costs should not be discounted either, since they're largely a function of volume. More planes, more costs.

The Texas T-bone can be profitable, because it pulls customers from a variety of different city pairings and transport modes.

And any discussion of whether we'd lean towards transit or roadways in a hypothetical paleolibertarian economy is moot. It's been repeatedly shown that automobility is a key component of wealth creation, so we as a society have chosen to invest in a first-rate public road system. That's always going to be the case.

 
At 8:02 PM, June 24, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Another argument would be that, if you're going to sink a ton of capital into an airport anyway, you should maximize its utilization and spread costs over as many flights as possible, inc. among the Triangle.

If the T-bone can be profitable, let a private company build it. I'm ok if they need eminent domain to get the land (they still have to pay for it, of course), but put them on the hook for capital and operating costs.

 
At 8:58 PM, June 24, 2008, Anonymous common_sense said...

Why is it that libertarians always think that a rail system (or a road system frankly) can be built solely through private funds? This has never been the case (really in any country) so why should it be the case now?

Without federal grants to the railroads and other MASSIVE incentive programs (including in some cases giving the companies huge tracks of land along with the ROWs), we would almost certainly not have the current rail system we have today. This was a policy that our country used for over 100 years.

Unlike Europe, we largely stopped public subsidies for rail transit the past 50 years. Is it any wonder our system is aging and over capacity?

 
At 10:00 PM, June 24, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, I agree. I was just going off Abram's comment:

"The Texas T-bone can be profitable, because it pulls customers from a variety of different city pairings and transport modes."

 
At 10:58 PM, June 24, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Let the public build the facilities (tracks, stations) and then lease them to a private operator. You know, like they do with airports.

The interest rate difference between public bonds and private bond controls profitability. High-speed rail doesn't pencil out with private financing. Only if built by the public can the system be profitable.

SNCF's TGV services actually cross-subsidize the French regional rail network. Just like BW8 paid for the Hardy's bonds for a long time.

 
At 7:05 AM, June 25, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

So you believe the govt could issue public bonds to build it, and then a private operator would make enough money to make the bond payments?

 
At 8:18 AM, June 25, 2008, Anonymous abram said...

Exactly.

 
At 9:29 AM, June 25, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I would support that if it were the case, but I'm almost certain it's not. I don't think it could make anywhere near the revenue needed to service tens of billions in bonds.

 
At 11:48 AM, June 25, 2008, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Common Sense,

With regard to your comment about rail being built with private funds, the first rail lines that were ever built were those done in the UK. The original purpose was get coal out of coal mines for the Industrial Revolution. Then private entrepreneurs came up with the idea of transporting people from one town to the next. That idea proved to be one of the biggest money bonanzas in human history and rail fever hit Britain like a storm. Investors started laying track everywhere.

I have three books on the London Tube system. The first several rail lines in London were done by private companies, indeed Houston's own streetcar network was controlled privately.

What urban rail networks often fell to was a combination of rising capital and operating costs, competition from the automobile, and two political problems. First, city governments often taxed away substantial profits from rail companies and secondly, voters either pushed through initiatives to keep fares at levels that would not allow for recouping of costs, or voters would pressure politicians to do it for them. Both political acts hindered the ability of street car networks to reap their economies of scale and they happened happened everywhere.

I have to give credit to privately held railroad companies, both freight rail and former streetcar networks. The historical record clearly shows that managers often had to work under incredible pressure to survive and they usually do a far better job of holding things together than rail networks run by government transit agencies, which almost always let huge backlogs of maintenance pile up until they get bailed out by taxpayers. Indeed, freight rail companies are making good money now and are investing in upgrading track.

 
At 4:23 PM, June 25, 2008, Anonymous common_sense said...

Neal-

You are talking about systems in their infancy. There were also private police forces in London and New York before the force was socialized. These services, like public transport, require at the very least significant subsidies from government in order to reach the service levels needed by the community.

Market forces change when we such systems reach levels where massive land acquisition is required, something private companies have a huge problem completing without government subsidies. There are also network efficiencies that are required once you leave the initial one-line rail track you so admire and private companies have serious problems reaching that level without government help. Read about the Pacific Railway Act of 1862.

 
At 12:05 PM, June 27, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Have I been missing all the fun? From CM's Brown article I gather I must live in a different world. Few items to consider:
1. Traffic congestion is a sign of economic development. I am yet to see a successful city without traffic congestion even if they have extensive mass transit systems.
2. Reduce traffic capacity along city street corridors and restrict traffic flow along these corridors and traffic will move else where.
3. Gasoline at the pump has gone from $2 to $4 in the last few months. The barrel of oil has gone from $30 to $140 and continues to increase. Why gasoline at the pump not gone to $10 per gallon?
4. If gasoline goes from $2 to $10 per gallon and my care is 20MPG and I drive 20 miles to work 250 days per year. The cost has gone from $1,000 to $5,000 per year. The difference is $4,000. An additional $4,000 per year might not buy much of a mortgage in Houston's core, that is an additional $333 per month. So it is still cheaper to buy a home in the burbs and drive to Houston's core. Not to even mention the quality of HISD. So, even at $10 per gallon families will likely stick to the burbs. I do agree with Tory that likely businesses will move to the burbs as expenses increase.
5. Our lovely TOD. One of the reports conducted by the city indicates that along the Harrisburg TOD corridor the cost to develop a town home will be about $255k in contrast to existing $130k single family homes. The summary, that developers will not be able to do TOD unless it is subsidized. Neat, Houston cannot subsidized $130k homes but plans to do so $250k town homes. Point, TOD is expensive and for the "creative class" not for the common Houstonian.
6. A more fun approach. The federal and state government get transportation dollars (as well as transit) from gasoline taxes. As gasoline goes up the number of miles people drive is reduced and more people change to more fuel efficient vehicles. What this means is that the feds transportation dollars is going down down down and nothing can stop it. IS CM Brown thinking the feds are generating more taxes?
7. Lets not forget the value of the US currency is going (also) down down down down. This means that the light rail car that used to cost $1 million few years back it might just cost $2 million today. So the cost of building highways is going up. Both compounded for the increase in costs and decrease in currency value.
8. If a bus used to run at 50% capacity it might not do 80 or 100% capacity (assuming tons of people are abandoning their cars and using transit - remember less cars less revenue for transit funds). The cost of transporting a 50 or 100 percent transit load is the same but the cost of fuel and operations has gone up from $2 per gallon to $10).
9. As the cost of things increase and families have less discretionary funds to buy the nice cars (and others) they buy less. METRO's revenue is linked to sales tax thus as the economy and price of gas goes up tax revenues go down.
10. Assuming people can afford the $400k homes two blocks from Wheeler station and trains are packed the METRO has to increase headway from 6 minutes to lest say 3 minutes. That means traffic delay along the Main Street corridor is doubled due to light rail traffic. I know nothing about rail but if more light rail lines are linked to Main Street then the logistics of headways should be very interesting. So, a massive success of downtown light rail might be a massive exodus of vehicular traffic (businesses), MAYBE.
11. Lets not forget that we have a couple wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) that we have to pay plus provide services to the 20% of soldiers returning who will need assistance.
12. And put all of that together at a federal and state funding level. I think we will see some interesting changes in how we fund future transportation systems. Going back to basics might be a good option.
This high speed rail, maglev, business is for a dream land. Thus maybe our elected officials should be a bit more pragmatic vs. blah blah blah.

 
At 11:40 PM, June 27, 2008, Blogger Algosome said...

I understood that the Texas TGV failed because the speeding trains would scare the cows along the right of way. That argument didn't seem to carry any weight with the Trans-Texas Corridor crowd, though they seem to have recently had some sense pounded into them and now are planning to simply expand existing roads such as US 59.

We don't need a 500Kph TGV rail between here and Dallas, we need a drive-on, drive-off rail ferry. I would certainly pay $200 to get my car there in half the time and not have to sit behind the wheel along the way.

 

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