Thursday, July 10, 2008

ULI CHF panel on Houston's future (+Metro North LRT)

I attended the ULI CHF luncheon today hoping for some new material from their panel, but, for the most part, it covered the same ground as the February event. I'm not going to rehash that material, so if you haven't seen it (or want a refresh), it's here and here. The issues and recommendations haven't changed and my agreements and criticisms haven't really either. Mike Snyder had some additional coverage in the Chronicle this morning, with a focus on the 1960 area.

A few new thoughts and observations:
  • More calls for homes closer to jobs. If you draw a 1-mile circle around every major job center in Houston, there are all sorts of housing choices around each (another benefit of no-zoning). But people still choose to live elsewhere - maybe for a better house value, neighborhood, or schools - or a spouse that works elsewhere. And then there's the fact that people are changing jobs every few years in the modern economy, but don't want to move every time they do. I'm skeptical at how realistic this goal is.
  • I was slightly annoyed by constant references to "Houston's carbon-based energy industry" in their report, which seems like a backhanded way for some resentful people with environmentalist planner leanings to say that we're just lucky and it's not gonna last. I'd like to point out Houston grew pretty well in the 90's too with $20 oil (approximately equal to 'free' by today's standards). Maybe we're doing some things right besides our industry mix?
  • I'm not a fan of public visioning processes (one of their core recommendations) because they tend to devolve into utopian wish lists and trade-offs are ignored, but I did like the idea that somebody (HGAC?) needs to get a better understanding of all the complex, systemic interdepencies so we can come up with better solutions than ones that are narrowly focused on specific problems or projects.
  • Alan Clark of HGAC has some good ideas on "fixing" Highway 6 and 1960 along the same lines as what's being done for Westheimer. He also made an amusing crack about HGAC "having a few carrots, but no sticks" to encourage good development - which is probably a wise approach. HGAC does have a funded program to encourage "livable centers."
  • They had a good insight about two sources of value creation: being close to good transportation infrastructure (well, duh), and "master developer environments across multiple parcels controlled by different owners" creating value from "adjacency predictability." With a focus on the latter, they had a graph showing how single projects have peak value around year 5 then decline, while master projects - like downtowns - start slow but build high and sustainable value over decades. We obviously know how well these work with private developers in the suburbs (very well), as well as in smaller, zoned and controlled cities like the villages (mixed) - but how to do it inside of a big city like Houston? Answer: special purpose districts (often TIRZs), like we have in Downtown, Uptown, Westchase, Greenspoint, the TMC, and others. These voluntary districts are unzoned Houston's answer to capturing the "master planned" value premium in certain areas. To a much lesser extent, strong homeowners associations do the same thing in residential neighborhoods.
  • On the problem of aging MUDs in unincorporated areas that can no longer be counted on to be annexed, and they need to be part of a larger and more efficient water-sewer system: at first I thought special-purpose annexations by Houston might be the answer, but then you have the problem of taxes and control without representation (i.e. voting). A better solution might be to spin out CoH water and sewer services into an independent county authority with directly elected reps that can integrate everything (similar to the county flood control district).
My recommendation for the first step based on this report? We clearly have regional problems that need to be addressed. HGAC doesn't have (much) direct power, but it can act as regional facilitator and reporter on issues like air and water quality, transportation, environment, and even education (particularly workforce training). To some extent it's already doing this, but I could see it taking it to the next level and issuing an annual "report card" on our top 10 regional issues - including documenting efforts to address them and their progress, along with recommendations. For each issue, that report will either show progress, or prod the right authorities to start cooperating (cities, counties, state, etc.). If we find too many important regional problems aren't getting adequately addressed through these cooperative efforts, then it might be time to start considering a stronger regional authority to make things happen.

Overall, Houston is doing very, very well. Radical changes are not needed and may even be dangerous. It's like that basic rule of health care: "First, do no harm." That calls for a careful, incremental approach, like the role I just described for HGAC.

UPDATE: GCI's take.

One last item on rail: Based on the Chronicle article on Metro's North LRT line in the FTA pipeline, we're looking at $116 million per mile (yes, that's still a Minute Maid Park every two miles) and $34K of capital investment per daily boarder ($68K per daily round trip passenger), leading one commentor to say:
So it is cheaper to buy each passenger not one but two brand new Toyota Priuses and gas them and buy their insurance than it is to build the train.
And another:
...applying FTA mandated financial amortization towards the project, it is going to cost about $3.50 per passenger-mile in order to attract a new rider to using transit over the current bus routes which have serviced the area for decades if we employ light rail as the means to do so. Note, that I did not say $3.50 per gallon of gasoline. I said $3.50 for one new rider to travel one mile. So, making an assumption that a new transit rider will be riding light rail for a five mile trip, that single trip will cost taxpayers $17.50. Making a round trip will cost taxpayers $35.00. And no, that is not fuzzy math.
I haven't been a big fan of the North line, although it would be critical to a short-term 249 commuter rail line which would increase ridership and drop per-rider costs significantly. I'm curious what my readers think. Does this sound reasonable? Looking forward to the comments.

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24 Comments:

At 8:31 PM, July 10, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems like the Northline is needed for two possible expansions/improvements (249 and connection to IAH). I'm not too big of a fan of connecting IAH to downtown either.

What improvements are being down to "fix" Westhemier that would be used for Hwy6/1960?

 
At 8:34 PM, July 10, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what was the gist of Alan Clark's good idea for 1960? Where's the beef?

Also, what does it cost to build a brand spanking new ten lane highway/driver/passenger? I'm not sure if we can directly compare the two, but I'd be interested to know.

 
At 10:41 PM, July 10, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

At least part of any improvements would include medians to limit left turns, as well as reducing curb cuts and creating more connections off 1960 to reduce the load and have it flow smoother - similar to what they did on Westheimer. He told me Westheimer has only done phase 1, and there is more to come, so I don't know the extended plan. Maybe some aesthetic standards too, esp. signage.

The freeway would be a lot cheaper where the RoW exists, but inside the city with buying RoW and reconstructing+widening existing freeways - well then they might be closer in costs. Sorry I don't know the exact numbers.

 
At 6:09 AM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Charles Kuffner said...

I don't know how accurate these figures are any more, but I found this Mothers for Clean Air press release from 2004 that said the Katy Freeway between Beltway 8 and Loop 610 had 280,000 vehicles per day (this Wikipedia entry claims 240,000 for "Katy to I-610") with a projected amount of 397,600 at the completion of construction. Using that as a basis, with the $2.7 billion construction costs, we get:

Cost per original number of drivers = $9,643
Cost per projected final number of drivers = $6,791
Cost per number of new drivers = $22,959

The latter is about what I paid for my Subaru Outback in 2003. Not that it would actually improve regional mobility to buy new cars for all these people, but if that's the metric people want to use, I thought I'd provide one.
If we prefer the New Stadium metric, $2.7 billion over ten miles means a new Minute Maid Park every mile, with room to spare - you could actually build 11 Minute Maids for that cost. So there you have it.

 
At 7:40 AM, July 11, 2008, Anonymous RedScare said...

Why comment, when you insist on using the ballpark hyperbole? Why don't you compare numbers that matter, like the freeway costs that you just told Kuff that you do not have?

 
At 8:57 AM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

When I've tried to talk to people about costs per mile in the past, their eyes glaze over. But the stadium metric they seem to get.

In Kuff's metrics, I think the $6,800 one is the valid one, since the freeway was at the end of it's life anyway and would have had to been reconstructed one or another anyway. The rail line is completely optional.

And don't forget, the average car carries more than one person (1.2, I think), which would bring the cost per person down even more ($5,600?)

So just about the most expensive urban freeway possible, requiring new rights of way, still comes out about 1/6 the price per person.

 
At 8:58 AM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, and thanks for the numbers Kuff. Much appreciated.

 
At 10:08 AM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

From the comments:

>>I calculated after reading the S-FEIS (assuming that a transit rider rides the train for 5 miles, which is about the average distance of a transit trip in the U.S.) that using Metro's own projected boardings for the rail line and comparing them to the seven main bus routes that already exist along the corridor, then taking the $616 million (in 2007 dollars, $677 million in time of project dollars), then applying FTA mandated financial amortization towards the project, it is going to cost about $3.50 per passenger-mile in order to attract a new rider to using transit over the current bus routes which have serviced the area for decades if we employ light rail as the means to do so. Note, that I did not say $3.50 per gallon of gasoline. I said $3.50 for one new rider to travel one mile. So, making an assumption that a new transit rider will be riding light rail for a five mile trip, that single trip will cost taxpayers $17.50. Making a round trip will cost taxpayers $35.00. And no, that is not fuzzy math.

You know, in math class, if the problem is sufficiently difficult, and if you put down an answer, but don't show all of your work, most teachers will give you a 0 for that answer (or very close).

Here, that answer gets quoted as gospel!

I'm not saying the $35 per round trip number is wrong. But I will say I give it close to 0 credence until somebody lays out all the number, assumptions, and $ figures. Then preferably give us the exact same detailed analysis of how a highway like I-10, built from scratch, is cheaper. Optionally, I would also like to know TOTAL costs - not just cost to government, but the cost to government + end user to actually move 1 mile. This adds in vehicle costs / gas / etc in the case of cars, and metro fares in the case of mass transit.

Until someone can adequately prove that highways / cars are actually cheaper than mass transit, I will stick with my own educated bias that mass transit is the lower cost to society (government + end user costs) of moving people around - in the comparison of cars vs. mass transit.

 
At 12:34 PM, July 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael,

I think the more relevant comparison for Houston would be compare the costs of a new light rail line with those of expanding an existing freeway. The only place I'm aware of where there will be a new freeway built from scratch is segments B, C, E, F1, F2, G, and H, however there is no competing rail proposal for any of these corridors.

It doesn't matter much arguing about what theoretical costs would have been if we had started building more light rail in 1950 instead of roads. We built roads and highways to bring us to the present day. We can only work with what we have now and determine the best alternatives.

 
At 12:36 PM, July 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess maybe the Hardy Extension to downtown would count as a new freeway, but I don't know of the North line being in competition with this. Plus, almost of all of the existing freeway there and the ROW is cleared.

 
At 2:32 PM, July 11, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it more relevant to compare a LRT from scratch to an existing/expanded freeway? We are not expanding a LRT system, we are building one from scratch.

 
At 2:46 PM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Michael: here's that analysis
http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2007/04/economics-of-transit-vs-cars.html

Follow the link through for all the details.

 
At 3:41 PM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Tory,

>>http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.com/2007/04/economics-of-transit-vs-cars.html

Can you show me a full analysis from a reputable, independent think tank or organization? What you have linked to is hardly a full analysis, and hardly an independent, neutral source. So show me something that is- Not Reason. Not Randall O'Toole. Not Wendell Cox. Not the Cato Institute. And not some document from a regular Joe that links to spreadsheet data they have cobbled together from various sites and stitched together in their Franken-argument.

If the numbers are good, then like a good scientific experiment, it should be very easy to independently verify the work. You should not always have to resort to quoting the same individual.

If your goal is to convince yourself, then no need to do that. But most people in the center or the left to not consider Randall O'Toole to be a reputable source - and I don't think it's asking for much to show me where Brookings or US DOT have come up with the same figures.

Furthermore, proving these figures at the macro level hardly proves the point at the urban level - sure cars are probably better and cheaper overall for the community in Tomball. But I want what is most cost-effective for the urban area of Houston, or even an analysis of the best modes of transportation to build based on population density. Certainly there is a general agreement that at 20k people per square mile, cars are no longer the most cost effective form of transit. And I'm guessing that in the 4-10k range as Houston is trending towards, cars are not the optimal form either.

-Mike

 
At 4:09 PM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Randal's logic is pretty straight-forward, regardless of what you think of him. A low-level DH1 Ad Hominem attack isn't really adequate (http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2008/05/22/how-do-you-argue/). He is dismissed because they can't counter-argue his facts or his analysis.

If I had ever seen such an analysis from Brookings or US DoT or really anybody else, I would certainly have passed it along.

Believe what you will.

 
At 4:13 PM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That post says USDoT says the average vehicle has 1.63 people, so I was wrong at 1.2, meaning the Katy cost is $4,171 per daily passenger - almost an order of magnitude less.

 
At 5:25 PM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>A low-level DH1 Ad Hominem attack isn't really adequate

Questioning why only 1-3 sources in the universe of transit opinion seem to concur with your opinion is hardly an ad hominem attack. It is a valid question. In science, if only 1 lab can produce a result, it is not considered a valid experiment. So, it is valid to wonder why only Randall O'Toole comes to these conclusions.

If his facts are as straight-forward as you claim then opinion should be settled and the US should not build anything but roads. It would be widely recognized as fact that transit is not cost-effective and even Beijing and Moscow would shut down their subways!

And, you fail to even mention the idea of grouping cost-benefit analysis by population density. For, like I've said before, Manhattan requires different transit solutions than Tomball - whether Randall and you would like to admit that or not.

-Mike

 
At 6:15 PM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, can you show me a comprehensive analysis from the other side that shows rail transit is cheaper? It seems the Randal side is running numbers, and the other side is just being dismissive without an analytical response (maybe because they know the numbers aren't in their favor?).

Oh, and I agree that very high density cities require subway rail transit. Houston is not such a city.

 
At 9:34 PM, July 11, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Tory,

>>Well, can you show me a comprehensive analysis from the other side that shows rail transit is cheaper? It seems the Randal side is running numbers, and the other side is just being dismissive without an analytical response (maybe because they know the numbers aren't in their favor?).

Well, there are certainly other measures out there as I have quoted in the past, but I for one will acknowledge that in the absence of some ground-breaking and widely hailed study, there is no consensus.

However, it seems to me that if we can both agree that roads are optimal (meaning most cost-effective) for a place like Lubbock, and subways are optimal for a place like NYC, and buses are optimal for some cities in between, and light rail / commuter rail are probably optimal for some cities in between - then we are essentially in agreement that there is a curve here - as density increases, heavier types of transit are economically justified. This makes sense. This also makes it pretty pointless for someone like Randal O'Toole to say that "on average" cars are cheaper than trains - it adds virtually nothing to the debate. He is not disproving what both sides already intuitively know and freely admit - as you just have:

>>Oh, and I agree that very high density cities require subway rail transit.

I'm not sure what Randall and you are hoping to accomplish when you cite another one of his posts or talk about this at the macro level (admittedly I sort of asked for it this time), or when you or others like you fan the flames by talking about the cost of one mode (rail) in terms of Minute Maid Ballparks, yet seemingly give the $2.7 billion Katy Tollroad expansion a free pass.

The real question to me is not whether one mode of transit is superior to the other - because there is not an inherently superior form - but which mode is best for particular parts of our city based on where that part of the city is in the curve. Also, as we densify, it seems like we should be investing in transit that is appropriate for the density level we expect to have in the future - thus investing in subways or elevated rail may make sense sooner than you would think.

My point is also that most people out there go through this same sort of "sanity check" when they evaluate the political flame wars that somehow seem to arise when discussing transit projects - and rail and bus investments both seem like they should be made along with investments in auto capacity. If libertarians really want to convince someone like me that rail is not right for Houston or for a given route, they will have to come up with much more compelling arguments and alternatives at the local level than they are currently doing. The burden of proof is on your side - whether you like it or not. People are voting for rail and clamoring for mass transit all over the country.

-Mike

 
At 8:46 AM, July 12, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, people vote for it, then (usually) not enough people ride it to justify the cost. I covered it before on this blog: people fantasize when they vote for rail that it will go where they want when they want, and fast. When it doesn't, they go right back to their cars. Voters want anything and everything, and they don't want to pay for it. It's up to elected officials to prioritize spending to get the best cost-benefit.

We agree on the density transportation curve. Good description.

In my mind, the North LRT is one of the weakest, if not the weakest, in the planned system. Certainly the ridership projections are extremely low. It doesn't go anywhere people want to go. And it's through neighborhoods with uncongested streets where buses work just fine for the demand.

What we should be doing instead is using LRT to connect up the major core activity centers (that means the University line and part of the Uptown line), letting the in-between areas along those lines densify, use local and signature bus everywhere else, and focus remaining money on long-distance commuter express bus options from every part of the city to every major job center. Maybe with a couple commuter lines thrown if they can be done affordably for good ridership.

 
At 9:36 AM, July 12, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>In my mind, the North LRT is one of the weakest, if not the weakest, in the planned system. Certainly the ridership projections are extremely low. It doesn't go anywhere people want to go. And it's through neighborhoods with uncongested streets where buses work just fine for the demand.

Well, I agree with you on this, at least in the short-term. As anonymous said, I think the North line is being built for 2 reasons:
1) To reward the voters who, along with the East side, heavily backed the light rail measure
2) For future connection possibilities, including to IAH

I know you aren't a fan of connecting light rail to IAH, but if express trains could be mixed in with some local runs (along with the ability to transfer and go to the west side or northwest commuter lines or the Galleria at a north station), I would be in favor. For now, I like the idea of the express bus service from IAH to downtown, but by 2030 when this is all built out, a train with some express runs to IAH may seem like a wise investment. With the North line, we at least have the option of making this future investment (along with 249 / commuter rail connection).

Admittedly, we are sort of boxing ourselves into a corner - rail will make sense to the airports because we will have already built half the line. If you aren't a fan of the connections to Hobby and IAH I can see how these lines seem unjustified.

So I guess we primarily disagree on the value of one day connecting airports along with our jobs centers (Southeast and North lines), and acknowledging that some of these lines are built at least partially as political reward for the voters. Otherwise, I think we both agree that metro is doing a good job of attempting to connect the core job centers of the Med Center, Uptown, Downtown, and Greenway with the Uptown, University, and Main St. lines.

-Mike

 
At 1:06 PM, July 12, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's a good and fair assessment. I don't like the idea of "spend a few billion now, and they'll languish for a decade+, but eventually they'll pay off in 20-30+ years when we connect the airports." Instead, I think they should move through incremental stages: airports start with express bus, and the N, SE, and E rail lines start with signature buses (possibly with signal priority). Over time, as demand and ridership grows, we revisit upgrades to LRT where appropriate. It's the same as building a new freeway: you start basic with 4 lanes (and extra RoW), and widen it to 8+ lanes in 20+ years when the demand justifies it and it needs refurbishment anyway. Building 8+ underutilized lanes up front is an unjustifiable waste of money.

I understand the political calculus rewarding voters, and it might have made sense at the old cost estimates. But with the new ones (2-3x) potentially hamstringing Metro's budget for decades and preventing far better cost-benefit transit investments (esp. for commuters suffering under $4 and rising gas), it's time to get realistic and practical.

 
At 8:34 AM, July 14, 2008, Blogger ian said...

"It's the same as building a new freeway: you start basic with 4 lanes (and extra RoW), and widen it to 8+ lanes in 20+ years when the demand justifies it"

I'd argue that it's a little bit different -- unless you're also suggesting that we buy all the necessary ROW for light rail now and wait 20+ years to build anything on it. I don't think you can really get away with that in (relatively) dense urban areas like you can with highways in lightly populated areas with low property values.

The correct analogy to me seems to be: buy the "rail ROW" (ie, build the tracks) and then add capacity by buying more trains as you need them.

 
At 8:40 AM, July 14, 2008, Blogger ian said...

I also wonder if the era of buying huge swaths of ROW and waiting for years for construction might be coming to an end. In previous decades, with relatively stable construction costs, timely ROW acquisition was absolutely critical to making sure a project could be reasonably completed at some point. I wonder if timely construction is now reaching that same level of importance -- if you wait 20+ years, who knows if you'll even be able to afford it? You could get away with waiting to build in the 60s and 70s, but that may be less of an option nowadays.

 
At 10:23 AM, July 14, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

LRT RoW is not an issue because almost all of it is down an existing city street. Where there are empty rights-of-way, they should certainly be preserved - maybe with explicit *temporary* use as a walking/cycling path. Or they could be dedicated RoW for signature bus or BRT.

Ian: I still think it's important to plan, buy RoW early while it's cheap, then build small and grow as demand needs it. It's also important so people know the long term road plans, and they don't go all NIMBY when it does eventually get built near their home or business.

 

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