Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Debunking 'GM killed trolleys', weak office mkt, I69, MetroRail

Sorry about the erratic posting recently - Internet access problems.  Just have time today to pass along a few small items:
  • One of the common stories you'll hear is that GM killed off the trolleys in the first half of the 20th century to increase the purchases of cars.  The Debunker over at BNET has looked into it and, well, debunked that myth.
"The main point of “General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars” and other critics of the conspiracy theory is that trolley systems were replaced by bus systems for economic reasons, not because of a plot. Bus lines were less expensive to operate than trolleys, and far less costly to build because there were no rails. Extending service to rapidly growing suburbs could be accomplished quickly, by simply building a few bus stops, rather than taking years to construct rail lines. So, buses replaced streetcars.
For similar reasons, with the added one of personal preference for individual transportation, private cars also played an important role in the demise of streetcars. People understandably liked driving their own cars directly to their destinations more than crowding onto trolleys that dropped them blocks from where they were going."
"For Houston landlords, the depth of this downturn is a far cry from the devastation of the 1980s, when a construction boom left the city with vacancy rates higher than 30%. The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that the city had more empty space than Philadelphia had occupied space.
This time around, new supply is more limited, and the booming oil-and-gas industry has helped keep the region's economy afloat. Houston's unemployment rate hit 8.3% in July, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, more than a point below the national rate of 9.5%. The 36 million square feet of office space in the central business district is 12.9% vacant, nearly three percentage points below the national average for downtowns, according to brokerage Cushman & Wakefield Inc. The nearly 130 million square feet of suburban office space is 17.1% vacant, almost two points below the national rate for suburban space.
But the events of the last six months have injected a new degree of uncertainty into Houston's economy—and, by extension, the office market. "The wonderful rebound spurt in the Houston economy has slowed down significantly," says Barton Smith, a University of Houston economist. Mr. Smith says the slowdown appears to have happened independent of recent events like the Continental merger and the government moratorium on deepwater drilling. That followed the explosion of the rig leased by BP PLC in the Gulf, the consequences of which are still hard to measure."
  • Book review: Interstate 69 - WSJ.com This proposed NAFTA superhighway from Mexico to Canada would run roughly along 59 in Texas, but is facing a lot of local opposition along other parts of the route.
"Texas may have found a more promising route. On the same day that Indiana broke ground for I-69 outside Indianapolis in 2008, the Texas Department of Transportation "announced that its I-69 segments would follow existing roads as much as possible," Mr. Dellinger says. If that plan for I-69 were followed elsewhere, many opponents might drop their objections. Such a move might also help address I-69's biggest pothole: a shortage of federal dollars."

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8 Comments:

At 9:00 AM, September 08, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

From Bill King's article:

" Loss of trees. I was also not prepared for the number of trees that will have to be cut down to build the light rail. Hundreds will be lost. Many are mature oak trees. Ironically, the light rail project will destroy many more trees than the Kirby reconstruction, which was vigorously protested. There are also a number of areas that have been heavily landscaped with crape myrtles and other mature vegetation that will have to go as well."


Many of the protesters are fervent supporters of LRT. I brought this up to them before and most were without a response. Some responded the trees will be replaced (albeit younger trees) and everything will be back to normal in the future. Somehow that same argument I used for Kirby was always dismissed by the pro-rail and environment types. And Kirby's Oaks were nowhere near the maturity level of the trees METRO will cut down.

 
At 10:57 AM, September 08, 2010, Anonymous !!Dean said...

I hope everyone reads the BNET link because Henricks lists the facts of GM's transgressions in the third paragraph. (Aside: Part of GM's interest in the streetcar systems was to obtain the prime real estate which was the roadway right-of-way in the most busy business districts that developed next to the rail.)

Apart from the above, I'd like to point out that buses are economical only if petroleum is cheap, the land for roadways is free and the roads are paid for by taxpayers. Streetcars were also very economical in cities where centrally-located land was available or rail was already laid and the streetcar used the existing rail.

From today's vantage point, where busy roads last 10 years before needing to be refurbished and a well-laid railroad lasts 50+ years, it's easy to see that a rail infrastructure will last well past the time of cheap petroleum.

As petroleum becomes less affordable, I expect fewer people will drive resulting in less demand for all the roads to be maintained. There will still be roads and buses, but there should also be rail in the high-capacity areas where a 50-100 year infrastructure investment makes more economic sense than paying for a road to be refurbished or expanded every 10 years (and the loss of business that occurs during roadwork).

There are very good reasons Berkshire Hathaway invested $44B in BNSF.

 
At 5:23 PM, September 08, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

The problem that street cars ran into is that people started to move further and further away and the street car lines were losing their customers. The prime customers of the street cars were not the unwashed masses, but the middle and upper middle class that were burgeoning. When they decided to move out, the street car lines couldn't build fast enough to keep servicing them. At the same time automobiles became available at a prices the middle class family could afford. The sad part is that the street cars made the first suburbs possible. Just look at the Houston Heights and Montrose. Their access to an extended Houston street car line made those development possible. People didn't move out because they were able to get cars. They moved out because the street car let them. When they got around to getting a car, they abandoned street car and bus. Buses from the get go catered to the poorer commuters who couldn't afford cars but also couldn't afford streetcars.

GM did some things here, but ultimately people choosing to live further away did the streetcars in since their business model could be supported by the poor potential riders closer into the city.

 
At 6:43 PM, September 08, 2010, Anonymous Martin said...

In United States v. National City Lines the defendants (which included GM but also others) were found guilty of conspiracy. That is a fact.

So when kjb says that they "did some things here," what he really should be saying is that criminal acts took place in connection with the dismantling of street car systems across the United States.

While it is true that it is likely that some of those systems may have disappeared due to the growth of the automobile, particularly after WWII, simply pinning this on highways and the private car doesn't explain the entire picture. For example, it does not explain the fact that in many countries (including countries that have followed similar development patterns to the US such as Canada and Australia), street car systems survived and are now seen as an important and iconic piece of the transportation landscape.

 
At 2:50 AM, September 09, 2010, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

Even if all of I-69 isn't built, just getting US-59 upgraded to interstate standards would help Houston tremendously. Houston's lack of connectivity to its northeast is a glaring hole in its transportation network. Having a limited access highway to link up with both I-20 and I-30 (in Texarkana) would help tremendously. Much of US-59 north of Houston is easily upgradeable to interstate standards. Access rights are limited and many bypasses have already been built around smaller cities.

Of all sizable cities, Houston and Memphis very obviously have the most to gain by the completion of I-69. I suspect once the Indiana portion is complete in a couple years, the only section that will be difficult to build will be the part through Arkansas.

 
At 1:12 PM, September 09, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana are much further along in the I-69 game than Texas. MDOT has already build some of its portions. MDOT and Arkansas are currently constructing the Mississippi River bridge for I-69.

The alignments in Louisiana are being finalized and land along the alignment are already being positioned as commercial tracts near planned interchanges.

As for Houston and east Texas, we are well connected to it right now. Only a few spots are choke points on US 59 and TxDOT has made many improvements in the last 10 years. US 59 is a heavily traveled truck route right now.

 
At 1:07 AM, September 10, 2010, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

It's nice to know that those states are proceeding. My point about Texas centers on the fact that most interstate mileage in Texas was built as brownfield infrastructure projects. They simply took a US highway and preserved access rights by constructing feeder roads. Much of US-59 through Texas is easily upgradeable to interstate standards if I-69 is to be constructed this way, so there's less planning involved: just simply make the upgrades as money flows in and then apply to AASHTO for interstate designation and it's done. Tennessee just needs to upgrade US-51 north of Memphis, and the route is already designated and is limited access through Kentucky except for the northern part where a new Ohio River bridge will be built to connect with what is now I-164 in Evansville. I suspect the vast majority of I-69 will be complete in the next 10 years, but constructing the Indiana portion is the major hurdle right now as well as actually putting shovels in the dirt through most of Arkansas and Louisiana.

 
At 8:17 PM, September 12, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Is there any plan for a NAFTA freight rail link?

 

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