Monday, April 06, 2009

IAH bus, LRT, alt energy, TX vs CA, Houston hooky contest

Clearing out some smaller misc items:
  • After 7 months, Metro still has pretty disappointing ridership on its IAH airport express buses: 98 total per day, or 1-2 per bus trip (!). That sparked quite a debate on HAIF here. The month-to-month growth rate is good, and I think they need to give it more time to develop (and maybe better promotion at the airport, and a price cut wouldn't hurt), but it certainly makes you pause at the wisdom of a billion$+ investment to extend the north line LRT to IAH after 2012 - which, btw, would be a slower ride than the bus if it includes stops along the way. Reasons why rail to the airport usually doesn't make sense in my older posts here (3rd bullet point) and here (last bullet point).
  • Randal O' Toole makes the case against light rail with a concise barrage of facts in a San Antonio Express-News op-ed, including:

"Do the math: Light rail costs 14 to 35 times as much to move people as highways.

The Government Accountability Office found that bus-rapid transit—frequent buses with limited stops—provided faster, better service at 2 percent of the capital cost and lower operating costs than light rail."

It backs up my assertion that light rail is not a logical transportation investment (other than to grab rail-siloed federal funds) - it's an amenity we choose to build just because we want to, just like stadiums, parks, and libraries.
  • Continuing the theme, Paul Burka, Senior Executive Editor at Texas Monthly, dismantles light rail as way too costly for the few people it moves.
  • Some more evidence that Houston is broadening its role as energy capital to include alternative technologies: Tessera Solar is headquartered right here in Houston. The talent they need to recruit is here. And an interesting side note: they felt a downtown location was better for attracting talent than in The Woodlands. Hat tip to Jenny.
  • And another item that we're doing well on energy efficiency too: the EPA just rated Houston #3 in the country for energy star qualified buildings (number, sq.ft. and $ savings), #1 when you look at emissions savings. Hat tip to Peter.
  • Check out this Rich States/Poor States report, including a full chapter on TX vs. CA. Texas does very well. Hat tip to kjb.
Finally a pass-along from Kevin:
Anyway, I wanted to let you know that we're having a contest on nextstop.com for Houston recommendations (because we believe there are other places just as interesting as San Fran!). Winner gets a $100 visa gift card. These are the details:

Let's say you decided to play hookey around Houston - you're ditching school or that 9-5 job for a single day. What would you do? Where would you go? Create a guide for your day off in and around Houston, Texas. If your guide receives the most votes from other nextstoppers, we'll send you a $100 VISA gift card to help you make that day a reality. (We won't tell your boss, we promise)
I'm sure some of my readers out there could put together a great itinerary...

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13 Comments:

At 6:58 AM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Peter said...

Frankly, I would like to see a density map of zip codes where IAH passengers originate from. They would likely come from all over, with probably no particular Downtown concentration. So if you don't live or work near Downtown, and you want to use the airport bus, how to you use it? You have to drive to the bus, since you can't take luggage on a local bus or the train. Where do you park Downtown for multiple nights? Ummm... ahhh...

I think a co-branding, co-marketing public/private partnership with the existing Airport Shuttle franchise would be more effective at getting people out of their cars and onto transit than the METRO airport bus.

I am a big fan of bus rapid transit, so long as it is on a dedicated guideway so that the vehicle cannot be impeded by cars. The level of service must be superior to that of cars at peak hours, or else why take it? They you're back to an empty transit vehicle, and roads clogged with cars with 1 person each in them.

 
At 8:09 AM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think it does use the HOV lane to bypass traffic. But I think it's more aimed at inbound travelers than locals. If your destination is close to downtown, it might save money with a cheaper taxi ride for the final leg, or even schlep the luggage on the LRT. But it's clearly a narrow set of scenarios where it makes sense. Most business travelers just expense the taxi, and leisure travelers either rent a car or have friends/family pick them up.

 
At 10:07 AM, April 07, 2009, Anonymous Jessie M said...

When I lived in Santa Clarita, CA (most northern LA suburb) I would take the Fly Away bus service. Google maps says it's a 29 minute drive but really it was more like 45mins-1hr. It was a very nice experience and always full.

Check out the price difference: $30IAH compared to $12LAX.
http://www.lawa.org/welcome_LAX.aspx?id=292

 
At 11:05 AM, April 07, 2009, Blogger jay C said...

Its pretty hilarious to cite O'Toole's piece as a "barrage of facts." Perhaps the term "truthiness" would be more appropriate.

 
At 11:27 AM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

If the light rail system ultimately connects to the airports, then there will be many more than 98 users per day (also might as well add in the local bus riders if we are looking for ultimate ridership numbers to the airports). The system is going to connect to more business centers including the Galleria and Greenway. Then it will be a question of whether someone wants to pay something like $2 but take 1 / 1.5 hrs of their time and possibly a bit of inconvenience carrying some luggage to get to Hobby / IAH, or pay more like $40 / $50 and get to Hobby and IAH, which could be much faster especially at non-peak travel times like Sunday afternoons, but might not be much faster at rush hour, or might even be - GASP! - slower.

I know personally if I was not in a rush and didn't have much luggage, I would be perfectly fine saving myself $40+ by taking the train. If I was going to expense everything I would probably cab it. Also, workers at the airports will take the rail and some bus routes can be eliminated.

As for light rail being an "illogical" amenity like parks and public libraries... well, I guess count me in as a radical supporter of all such wasteful projects! I use my neighborhood parks, public library, and public transportation, and frankly I think you've already lost the argument if your argument is that "light rail is wasteful, like public parks and libraries". Maybe that logic makes sense to libertarians and extreme fiscal conservatives, but I'd bet 70% of the public supports such endeavors. And their opinion is, after all, what matters.

 
At 2:46 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I am in no way saying parks and libraries are bad or wasteful. I'm saying they're quality-of-life amenities a city's voters and public officials choose to allocate limited budgets to build just because they want to. I believe LRT also falls in that category, as opposed to being a logical transportation investment.

A similar argument hangs over public stadiums: people argue they create economic development, but studies say they don't. Yet we still choose to build them because we want them, not because they're an economic development investment. LRT is essentially the same thing: an amenity, not a prudent transportation investment. Let's stop trying to pretend it is, and accept it for the splurge it is.

 
At 3:33 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>LRT is essentially the same thing: an amenity, not a prudent transportation investment. Let's stop trying to pretend it is, and accept it for the splurge it is.

I disagree that it's a splurge. I also don't think things like Memorial Park, Hermann Park, or my local neighborhood library is a "splurge". It is an investment in the community. Whether we might have saved some money by not building Memorial Park is, to me, missing the point - (and its also a very, very difficult question) - regardless of what one set of numbers or another may say. In the meantime, Memorial Park obviously serves a purpose to me, just as the light rail lines will.

Clearly you wouldn't build some of these things without the appropriate density levels to support and utilize them - but given those density levels, if you want to consider LRT as an amenity on the same order as public parks, schools, and libraries, I'm actually quite OK with that characterization. I don't think any city would want to be perceived as lacking in any of these areas. And whether any of these things are "amenities" or "requirements" is to me open to debate - I believe 70% of the public would call them basic requirements.

 
At 4:32 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Plenty of cities with a fine quality of life get by without light rail, big-league sports stadiums, Central Park, or the NY Public Library. Yes, you need some parks and libraries - it's a question of scale and spending. Stadiums and LRT are purely optional. In all cases, citizens express their preferences through their votes on taxes and public officials.

Where things get muddled are when stadiums get sold as economic development and LRT gets sold as a cost-efficient mobility solution or congestion reliever. That's deceptive advertising. Better to call them the splurge amenities they are, and then let voters make an informed choice on whether to spend their tax dollars on them or not.

 
At 4:52 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Better to call them the splurge amenities they are, and then let voters make an informed choice on whether to spend their tax dollars on them or not.

I don't think it is as cut and dried as you think. Even you support the Main Street line and the western portions of the expanded light rail, as well as some commuter rail lines. Presumably this is because they are receiving federal funding, but then so do highways. As Christof has shown rail often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to funding.

I don't think that saying we are going to put down some railroad track and run a train on it sounds like an exceptional extravagance or something that a priori we should know is the wrong solution to adding transportation capacity. Rather, it sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to do - using existing technologies at a much more minimal expense than some other solutions like subway or elevated rail - this is your "low cost" option to people like me. To the extent that an at-grade rail system does cost more than building an additional lane of roadway capacity, I wonder how much of that cost is due to the bureaucratic mess and red tape that we require of each rail project. How many times to we have to fly all of our local elected officials / Metro to DC to get funding for a line? How many studies do we have to complete? How many alternate routes need to be evaluated? Why is none of this required for most roadway expansion projects? And then at the end of the day, if you do not have rail, how much cost are you shifting to your end users, who must purchase and maintain cars? How much of the cost are you shifting onto the environment? Are you really saving anyone any money at the end of the day? I don't think so.

I don't think more rail is an optional thing for a city the size and density of Houston - a "medium capacity" transit option like light rail is a requirement. Subway, at this point, may be an optional investment.

 
At 5:17 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

What about LRT vs. BRT?

 
At 5:26 PM, April 07, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

I think BRT is a reasonable investment as well. That seems to be what metro is trying to provide with the Quickline service. As we have seen, getting one of those lines running is not trivial either.

However, a nice BRT line with its own ROW, decent stops, and vehicles seems like it costs on par with an LRT line (maybe less cap ex but higher op ex), and people still prefer the experience of LRT. The Quickline may be much cheaper, but it is not going to provide the level of service that Houston's LRT does. Still - what Metro is doing makes sense to me - add the BRT in places that they see as future LRT corridors like Bellaire, Westheimer, Gessner, etc, and see if the ridership justifies investment in conversion to LRT.

 
At 10:31 PM, April 08, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to agree more with Michael here. Tory how well do you think our LRT system will be perfoming, oh say, 3 years after its opening (assuming it all opens at once like planned)?

It seems in Houston's case, our LRT serves both the inner loop and outside of the loop (through park&ride) pretty well if I am interpreting the map of our future system by Christof correctly.

 
At 2:13 PM, April 09, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Our current LRT line is performing very well relative to other LRT lines in the country - although it is still hard to justify the cost-benefit on a pure transportation basis (vs. the buses already on that route, or vs. BRT). I don't think the new lines will do nearly as well. The Universities line will probably do the best, and still will likely be far less used than the Main line. They will have riders - the problem will be if you look at the full cost for each of those riders vs. what you would have paid to move them by bus.

 

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