Thursday, March 25, 2010

Save the Alabama Theater, Metro, zoning, govt transparency, affordability, and more

Passing along some smaller misc items:
“Cleveland has 22 different zoning designations and 673 pages of zoning guidelines. By contrast, Houston has almost no zoning. This permits a mix of uses and styles that gives the city vitality. And the paperwork in Houston is so light that a business can get going in a single afternoon. In Cleveland, one politician bragged that he helped a business get though the red tape in "just 18 months."

Randall O’Toole, author of "The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future," says Houston does have rules, but they are more flexible and responsive to citizens’ needs because they are set by neighborhood associations based on protective covenants written by developers."
"To make the cut, a ‘burb had to be within 25 miles of the most populous city in the state, have a relatively high median household income, and outmuscle its competitors in terms of racial diversity, crime rates, and good weather. On the cost side, data provider OnBoard Informatics calculated each ‘burb’s living expenses, which includes home prices, taxes, and transportation costs."

BNET likes it on a national basis:

"The best big-state deal may be Texas, though, where you can move to Harris County’s Deer Park, near Houston — and the median family income is $89,348, and the average home price is $131,709. Now that’s affordable."
Finally, HAIF and Swamplot are reporting the imminent demolition of the Alabama Theater's beautiful interior for a Staples. GHPA is calling for a targeted email and phone call campaign to two specific people at Staples. Here's my old link on the petition to save the theater with over 23,000 signatures. Please consider joining the campaign, and feel free to use my template if you prefer email over calling (although I'd bet calling has more impact):
Mr. Davis and Ms. Errico,

Please do everything in your power to preserve the beautiful, historic interior of the Alabama Theater as you build your new Staples store in Houston. The building is a landmark, inside and outside, and was a favorite of Houstonians in its most recent incarnation as a bookstore. You will earn thousands of loyal local shoppers with well-preserved store.

Here are some pics of that beautiful interior:

Information on a preservation petition with over 23,000 signatures:

Forum thread saying you are the people to contact:

Thank you for your time and consideration,
-Tory Gattis blog

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The real future of transportation

Randal O' Toole has such a great essay in the Wall Street Journal this morning, I have to pass it along (with my own highlights). Its main theme is about the self-driving cars of the future, but it also brings up a lot of inconvenient facts about the alternatives, like inter- and intra-city rail - which are the emerging themes of the next federal transportation bill. This fits into my ongoing thesis that personal vehicles are now a permanent and integral part of our culture. They may change propulsion technology to be more efficient and environmentally friendly, or - as he points out below - have a revolution in navigation technology (which will radically reduce congestion), but they are here to stay - and cities that make life hard for cars by under-investing in roads and freeways (or over-fantasizing about rail and TOD) will lose out in the national and international competition for jobs, talent, and growth.

Taking the Driver Out of the Car
Why robocars, and not high-speed rail, could revolutionize transportation in the next decade

'Your grandchildren will snap across the entire continent in 24 hours on a new kind of highway and in a new kind of driverless car that is controlled by the push of a button," futurist Norman Bel Geddes promised in 1940. Mr. Bel Geddes designed Futurama, the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, which in many ways inspired the construction of the Interstate Highway System.

Driverless cars have so far remained the stuff of science fiction. Seventy years after Mr. Bel Geddes's promise, they are finally close to reality.

Consumers today can buy cars that steer themselves; accelerate and brake to maintain a safe driving distance from cars ahead; and detect and avoid collisions with other cars on all sides. Making them completely driverless will involve little more than a software upgrade.

Yet the potential for advanced personal mobility is being ignored in debates over surface transportation. These debates come to a head every six years, when Congress hashes out how to spend federal gas tax revenues. Congress has increasingly diverted the funds—$40 billion a year by last count—from highways to transit.

The Obama administration and House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D., Minn.) want to go even further in the next reauthorization, now scheduled for 2011. The administration has focused on a new national high-speed rail system, as well as streetcars, light rail and other projects, to reduce driving and congestion.

Yet driverless cars could render the hand-wringing over roads versus rail needless. Driverless technologies were demonstrated in 1997 on a California freeway when eight cars without drivers successfully operated just one car length apart at 65 miles per hour. In 2007, six cars negotiated the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Urban Challenge, following all traffic rules in an urban environment with other vehicles.

Volkswagen says enhanced global positioning systems can keep cars within two centimeters of their desired location on streets and highways. This summer, the company will demonstrate its technology by running a driverless Audi at racing speeds up the twisty Pikes Peak road.

At the 2007 event, General Motors vice president of research Lawrence Burns predicted that completely driverless cars would be on the market by 2018. He added that the primary obstacles were legal and bureaucratic, not technological.

Driverless vehicles offer huge advantages over current autos. Because computer reaction times are faster, driverless cars can safely operate more closely together, potentially tripling highway throughput. This will virtually eliminate congestion and reduce the need for new road construction.

Toyota's recent recalls naturally lead to worries that computer glitches could cause serious accidents. Since each car will be independently controlled, a failure in one would simply lead others to avoid that car. Modern cars already have numerous built-in computers that do things, such as anti-lock braking, far more reliably than humans, even those who are not texting or inebriated. Any serious problems could be quickly corrected through wireless software upgrades.

Driverless cars and trucks will be safer. They will also be greener, first by significantly reducing congestion, and eventually because vehicles will be lighter in weight due to reduced collision risks.

Perhaps most important, driverless vehicles will bring mobility to everyone, not just those able to pass a driver's test. While many people will still choose to own a car, increased numbers may rely on car sharing. Outside of ultra-high-density areas such as Manhattan, driverless cars will render urban transit and intercity passenger trains even more obsolete than they are today.

The American automobile fleet turns over every 18 years, so if Mr. Burns's prediction that driverless cars will hit the market by 2018 comes true, we could have a completely driverless system by 2036. State highway officials could accelerate this timetable by working with auto manufacturers to set standards and a transition path. State and local highway agencies could install wireless communication systems at major intersections and highways—a much less costly undertaking than building new roads, much less high-speed rail.

President Obama's so-called high-speed rail plan mostly consists of moderate-speed trains running at top speeds of 90 to 110 miles per hour, speeds attained by many railroads in the 1930s. This will attract few people out of their cars. The proposals for trains running at 160 to 220 miles per hour in California and Florida will cost at least 10 times as much to build as the 110-mph lines, but they are not likely to attract 10 times as many passengers.

As Burlington Northern Santa Fe CEO Matt Rose testified to Congress last April, building a national network of true high-speed rail lines would cost roughly $1 trillion, more than twice as much as the inflation-adjusted cost of the Interstate Highway System. While interstates paid for themselves out of gas taxes and other road user fees, all the capital and billions of dollars of annual operating costs of high-speed rail will be borne by general taxpayers, most of whom will rarely ride the trains.

America's population distribution makes passenger trains here less effective than in Europe or Japan. Yet even abroad, the average residents of France and Japan ride high-speed trains less than 400 miles per year, making up just 4% to 6% of all passenger travel.

France and Japan have each spent roughly as much per capita subsidizing their high-speed trains as we spent building our interstate highways. Yet the average American travels 10 times as many miles on the interstates as the average French or Japanese travel on high-speed trains.

Amtrak's high-speed Acela trains between Boston and Washington cover most of their operating (but not capital) costs. To do so, fares are some 10 times greater than many relatively unsubsidized bus services that carry about three times as many passengers in the northeast corridor as the Acela.

Claims that trains are environmentally friendly may apply to freight trains, but not passenger. A 50-ton railcar can carry 100 tons of cargo, making freight trains highly energy-efficient. However, a 50-ton passenger car carries only about 15 tons (170 people), and more typically carries about 2 to 3 tons (25 to 35 people), resulting in average weights per passenger that are several times greater than for cars or buses.

In January, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood eliminated Federal Transit Administration requirements that federally funded streetcars and other rail transit be "cost effective" relative to buses. The FTA then funded costly streetcar projects in Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans and Tucson despite the fact that low-cost investments in traffic signal coordination, buses or many other projects would do far more to relieve congestion and improve mobility.

A return to rails would turn the clock back to a time when only the wealthy had access to easy mobility. The 19th century witnessed several amazing transportation breakthroughs, including steamboats, steam trains and electric streetcars. Yet in 1910 most Americans enjoyed little more personal mobility than they had 100 years prior. High fares for steamboats and passenger trains mainly limited such travel to the wealthy. Streetcars served only urban areas and were popular with the upper classes.

The revolution that finally brought mobility to the masses was Henry Ford's low-cost Model T, which most factory workers could afford. Since 1910, individual travel has grown from an average of about 3,000 to well over 18,000 miles per year. Cars contributed to a seven-fold increase in personal incomes.

Automobiles continue to maintain a huge cost advantage over passenger rail. Counting both subsidies and personal costs, Americans spend less than 25 cents a passenger mile on autos, nearly 60 cents a passenger mile on Amtrak, and more than 90 cents a passenger mile on urban transit. No wonder 85% of all our passenger travel is by automobile.

The call to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to build the world's finest, 1930s-era transportation network would benefit the wealthy and those willing to live and work in expensive quarters near rail stations.

In contrast, the driverless scenario relies on new technology, not old; and will largely be self-funded by users rather than paid out of tax dollars. Most important, driverless vehicles will bring mobility to almost everyone.

—Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of "Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It."

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

The decline and fall of Metro

I wanted to do a substantial post this week on the big picture situation at Metro, but it looks like it'll have to be at least next week before I'll have everything I need. Instead, this week, I want to pass along a couple of insightful posts by Bill King on Metro. The first one describes how Metro fails to serve its most important constituency: the transit dependent. 2-3 hours for a 14-mile trip is simply not acceptable. The second one lays out such a fact-based, compelling case for radical reform that I've gotten Bill's permission to reprint it in full here:

The Metro Train Wreck
by Bill King

There could hardly be a more fitting image for the close of the current Metro administration than the recent photographs for a wrecked Metro buses in front of Metro's headquarters after having been broad-sided by Metro's Main Street light rail. The last six years are likely to be remembered as the most ruinous time for public transportation in Houston's history as Metro has pursued a single-minded obsession to build its version of an at-grade rail system regardless of the cost, both in financial terms and in the degradation of the bus system on which over 100,000 Houstonians rely daily. Fortunately, Mayor Parker has ordered top-to-bottom review of the agency. Here is what that review is likely to find.
Decline in Ridership. Since 2004, Houston population has grown by over 10% from just over 2 million to 2.25 million. At the same time gas prices rose 47% from $1.81 per gallon to $2.67 per gallon. These two factors should have virtually guaranteed an increase in transit. However, exactly the opposite has occurred as bus boardings dropped almost 24% from 88 million in 2004 to 67 million in 2009. Instead of increasing bus service by 50% as it promised the voters in the 2003 referendum, Metro has slashed bus routes and increased fares by over 50%. Today Metro actually operates 225 fewer buses than it did in 2003. An outside performance audit in 2008 found that on-time performance fell by 29% from 2004 to 2008.

Financial Disaster. Since 2003, Metro's sales tax revenues have increased by 43%, rising from $357 million to $512 million. At the same time, its fare revenue increased by 41% from $42 million to $60 million by charging an ever dwindling ridership more. Yet, Metro is in the worst financial shape in recent history. At year end 2003 Metro's current assets exceeded its current liabilities by $125 million. The budget just adopted by the Metro board projects that it will have current accounts deficit of $165 million by the end of this fiscal year, a stunning loss of nearly $300 million in just five years. Over the same period, Metro's debt has swelled by nearly 50% from $546 million to $816 million.

Less Federal Dollars. When the current administration was put in place one of the promised benefits was to be its prowess in obtaining federal funding. We have been repeatedly warned not to interfere or criticize Metro's policies because it might reduce our chance for federal funding. However, during the last six years, grants from federal and state transit assistance programs have steadily declined. In 2004, Metro received $140 million in grants. By 2008, that number had dropped to $90 million, a 35% decrease. Based on the average grants received in 2001-2003, Houston has lost nearly $100 million in grants since Wilson arrived.

LRT Stalled. Even if you are one of those that think that building an at-grade rail system that will make congestion worse is a good idea, the Wilson administration has been a disaster. After spending six years and more than $200 million on planning the LRT, we still do not have any assurance that we will ever receive the funding necessary to build any of the lines. Metro, of course, to continue to promise that we are on the verge of seeing the federal dollars pour in. However, Metro told me in April 2008 that it would have full funding agreements on the North and Southeast by the end of 2008 and the University line by 2009. As of now we have neither.

In the meantime, the cost of the LRT has risen from the $1.2 billion originally estimated to something well in excess of $3 billion. Metro is seeking to borrow $2.6 billion to build the LRT, over four times what it promised the voters would be the limit in the 2003 referendum. Originally, Metro assured voters that it could build the LRT without tapping the mobility payments that are so critical to the Houston and the other member cities. Metro's projections now show that it can only afford the LRT if those payments are terminated in 2014.

Fractured Trust. The worst sin, however, has been the dissembling manner in which Metro has been administered over the last six years. There are countless examples from stonewalling reporter's request for information to Metro's recent attempt to get Attorney General to exempt from open records status its traffic studies showing the nightmare the LRT will create at many intersections. Of course, there is no better example than the recent reports of documents being shredded and the firing of Metro lawyers reminiscent of the Nixon-Archibald Cox episode.

In 2003, after a spirited public debate, this community approved, by a narrow margin, a consensus plan to enhance public transportation with a multi-modal approach. Part of that bargain was a limited experiment with a light rail system. The voters specifically limited the resources that Metro could devote to the light rail for fear that the cost might undermine the solid, dependable bus service that existed at that time. Metro's leadership has shredded that contract with the voters in favor of its own grandiose vision of transit that has little to do actually solving Houston's mobility problems. In the meantime, traffic congestion continues to get worse and working families that rely on public transportation to get their jobs everyday find riding Metro a more difficult and more expensive proposition.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Fifth birthday retrospective: the best of the best

Houston Strategies is five years old this week, which is reasonably old by blog standards. You can find the inaugural post here, and my very first "strategy" post here: a proposed elite UH - Institute of Technology campus. And now here we are 802 posts later (!) - so much content I can't even remember most of it, and count on Google to help me find it. So I've decided to pull out the best of the best for this birthday post. Most of you know I do regular quarterly and annual highlights posts, and I decided to cull those down to the very most important posts of the last five years - roughly the top 3% - the ones that I think really form the foundation of the blog's reputation. I tried to cut the list down as much as possible, but if you still find it a bit overwhelming, you might try reading one-a-day over a month or so. Enjoy.

As always, thanks for your readership. Let's hope the next five years are even better.


Monday, March 01, 2010

Houston featured nationally, gondola transit, rankings, and more

Before I get to some smaller misc items, I wanted to mention Joel Kotkin's new book, "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050". Houston features prominently in it, and he actually launched the book at an event here. NPR has a review here (scroll down), with an audio interview here (also scroll down; hat tip to Peter). Have a read and let me know what you think.

Moving on to the smaller misc items:
In case you missed it, I was recently interviewed by local NPR affiliate KUHF for a story titled "Despite Slowdown, Downtown Houston Still Building." My clip is at the 2:09 mark in the audio. Of course, we recorded several minutes of interview to get this one ~20 second clip in. But it's still kinda cool.

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