Sunday, June 08, 2014

Rebutting the pro-rail op-eds and how to fix Houston's top issues

I wanted to focus this week's post on the GHP's new "No Limits" branding campaign for Houston, but multiple op-eds in today's Chronicle need an immediate response, so it'll have to wait a week.  I'm referring to both of the pro-rail ones (here and here) as well as the board editorial calling out Houston's leadership on multiple issues.

First, based on the responses, it's very clear to me that Bill King struck a very sensitive nerve with his well-researched and devastating case against rail for Houston (my discussion of it here) - they obviously see it as a serious threat.  But I find the responding arguments pretty weak:
  • "It's got strong public support" - The 2003 referendum passed by 52% to 48% and that was when the budget estimates were one-half or less of what the spending has actually turned out to be.  If you're so confident in public support, run the referendum again (or heck just take an unbiased poll with real cost effectiveness numbers).  It will get slaughtered, and they know it.
  • "Millennials/knowledge workers/surveyed Houstonians love transit and density" - That's great - when the existing and newly opening lines are absolutely packed with high-density transit-oriented development around the stops and we need to build more rail to accommodate demand, get back to me and we'll look at building some more.  Given trends around the well-routed Main St. line, I'm guessing we might have that conversation in the 2030's or 2040's, if we're lucky.  In fact, I really hope that development does happen, because the only way I see these new lines adding enough value to justify their insane cost is if they spark a massive new housing supply on the north and east sides to reduce the relentless upward pricing pressure on Houston housing, which is putting our much-vaunted affordability advantage at risk.
  • "We can do everything, including light rail" - Let me introduce you to the concept of opportunity cost: if we spend $150+ million per mile (!!!) for light rail, we lose the ability to spend that money on other things.  What other things might we spend it on?  Certainly better local bus service would be great, and I applaud Metro's re-imagining plan designed to fit within the existing budget.  Imagine how much better it could be if it had that rail money available, with more frequency on more routes to more places connecting more people?  But even more critical for Houston is expanding our suburban express bus transit network to all of the job centers in the city with a much more comprehensive express lane network.  I agree we can't build enough freeway capacity to keep up with growth - we can't afford it and there isn't the right-of-way available even if we could.  But if we don't make it easier for suburban employees (who are out there for nice affordable houses in good neighborhoods with good schools) to get to their employers in the core, more and more of those employers are going to give up on the city, pull an Exxon, and head out the 'burbs with a nice campus in The Woodlands, Katy, Sugar Land, or Pearland..  And that will leave Houston with a deteriorating core and tax base.  A great core light rail network does no good if all the employers move to the outer rim.  They'll let the young single 20% of their employees that live in the core reverse-commute while the 80% families have a much easier local suburb commute.  This *will* happen if we don't address the suburban commuter problem, which we can't do right now because massively expensive light rail is sucking all of the air out of Metro's budget.
You heard it here first, note it for posterity: when Google's little driverless taxis are running around all over the place a decade from now, whisking people from anywhere to anywhere at the touch of a smart phone button for 50 cents/mile, we will look at all the white elephant rail lines we built and wonder what the heck we were thinking given that the technology trends were so utterly obvious at the time, yet we still thought sinking $150+ million a mile into light rail was a good idea?!

Finally, my thoughts on some of the issues brought up in the board editorial that I didn't address above:
  • Pensions busting the budget: the Mayor needs to go nuclear on this.  By that I mean stop all city contributions to the pension plans until the legislature gives her the authority to fix them. It will generate massive much-needed media attention and legislators will have to explain why they won't give the city the power to fix its own budget. In her last term with no higher-office aspirations (that I know of - but unlike her successor, I'm sure), she is our last hope to stand up to the police, firefighters, and city employees and get this fixed.  If she doesn't, then I foresee an epic failure of an attempt to raise tax revenue followed by massive cuts to city services followed by a long, slow, Detroit-like decline.  All of the city's public and private leadership needs to be focused on this, and most especially you, Madam Mayor, backed up by the GHP lobbying machine.
  • Fixing HPD and its budget: Total agreement with Bill King's op-ed today calling for a detailed investigation into how the department is run.  The numbers simply don't add up and imply massive mismanagement.  Note to Bob Harvey at the GHP: get a McKinsey team on it! ;-)
  • Hurricane risk and the stalled Ike Dike plan: Think creatively on funding it: it should reduce home insurance rates dramatically, so why not just tax those insurance plans equal to the savings to pay off the dike and come out ahead?  Nobody pays any more than they already are, and we go ahead and skip all the death and destruction. 
End venting.  Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.  I'll be back next week to discuss the city branding campaign.

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48 Comments:

At 8:53 PM, June 08, 2014, Anonymous Steven Stone said...

Excellent as always.

 
At 1:56 PM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Dom said...

Tory,

You mistake this as a black and white issue when it isn't at all. This isn't a rail vs bus or rail vs car issue, it's a system issue. We need a University and Uptown line-type LRT to finish connecting our densest and largest employment centers and educational institutions.

The energy corridor, westchase, greenspoint, etc are not dense, are not connected by good transit, and are not walkable and won't be these things in the near future. These places do need express bus/P&R service but DT, Uptown, Greenway Plaza, and TMC are areas that represent the best opportunity at building a decent public transit system.

You build LRT where the most people live and work, you connect it to the reimagined bus system and you connect LRT to the newly reimagined P&R system. Bam you have a great point to which to add on to the system as places like Sugar Land and The Woodlands and Katy-lands decide to want in on the action.

 
At 2:42 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, the Uptown line is going to be BRT and is getting built, which I approve. If I could go into the light rail pawn store and swap the 3 new lines for the Universities line I absolutely would - you're right that it's a far more important line that connects up many job centers and gives us an east-west backbone. But we didn't do that, and now the money is gone, and I would definitely prioritize any new money that becomes available on the P&R network. If that really gets fixed, then we look at money for a U-line. If it doesn't get fixed, and instead we take another decade of Metro's money to build the U-line first, then it might be too late - the employers may have given up en masse by then. In the meantime, maybe Metro could put some sort of high frequency signature bus line on the U-line route?

 
At 3:05 PM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Tory, I think you are overlooking a couple of things in your points, or rather, one very big thing. You write that the 2003 referendum only passed by 52% to 48%. I'm not sure what you're getting at - the referendum passed. Story over. It doesn't matter how much it passed by - that's not how democratic voting works. A decision was made to build a 78 mile light rail system, and that's what we will build.

You suggest having another referendum. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just redo votes whenever they don't go our way? You say, when x y and z happen, "get back to me and we'll look at building some more." Get back to you? Has this blog made your opinion more important than 52% of Metro service area voters?

This is part of what separates sound democracies from corrupt ones - when the voters make a decision, it is followed through. It still astounds me that freeway expansion and similar projects that cost billions of dollars never get voted on, but rail transit in Houston must pass not only one referendum, but apparently multiple ones, plus win the blessing of every cranky suburban congressman. Slowly these wrongs will be righted; in the meantime, we will build what we have decided to build.

 
At 3:24 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Technically, the referendum gave Metro the option - but *not* the obligation - to build that rail network. They can choose not to build it if they decide it is no longer the right strategic direction for the agency or the city. As an example of that, the referendum also mentioned a 50% increase in bus service, which Metro chose not to implement.

 
At 4:31 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I am an insurance man and the Ike Dike is designed to reduce the risk of flood from tidal surge. This will have zero impact on Homeowners rates since the windstorm risk isis driving Homeowner's rates ever upward. The Ike Dike will not stop the wind. The Ike Dike may have a negligible impact on flood rates since tidal surge is one of only several factors affecting flood rates and the vast majority of Houston homeowners already obtain preferred flood rates. The Ike Dike is a solution in search of a problem.

A better solution to flooding from storm surge would be actuarially sound flood rates that reflect the risk of flood from storm surge in coastal areas and a building code that requires homes to be built still higher along with low interest loans or grants to enable the elevating of existing construction.

 
At 5:18 PM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Clever counterpoint, but the ballot language actually stated:

"approval of such plan and construction of all segments of the metrorail and commuter line components"

Hence the 52% were "For" both approval and construction. This isn't Ukraine; time to do what the people voted to be done.

 
At 6:56 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If you read the whole language of the referendum, you'll see that they left everything to their discretion, including routing (that's what they used to justify the jump to Richmond from Westpark). They are not obligated to build anything. It's just a plan, and plans can change.

 
At 7:00 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree with those flood suggestions, but there's no way to raise every house in Galveston county or southeast Harris county, including all around Clear Lake. I would imagine the rates for them would drop dramatically, especially from market rates, which legislation is pushing towards. It wouldn't save much for those farther inland, but that's as it should be - the people at the highest risk should pay the most.

 
At 7:17 PM, June 09, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

Can you imagine how cluttered our roadways would be with autonomously driven taxis everywhere? The amount of roadspace that a rail car takes up to haul a certain quantity of folks (in environmentally friendly ways), compared to the amount of space required by a corresponding quantity of cars is noteworthy when viewed photographically.

The cost of rail expansion needs to be as reasonable as possible, and we need to make the best use of our rail assets too. Here's a question that's worth asking:

When might we be able to ride the rail out to the U. of H.'s new football stadium? It opens in August of 2014:

http://houstonfootballstadium.com/home/

But Metro's relevant expansion rail line doesn't open until late October of 2014. Maybe leading up to the rail line's grand opening, there can be test ride days held during football game days?

http://www.gometrorail.org/go/doc/2491/1323787/System-Map

 
At 8:47 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

They don't have to be small - they could be autonomous shuttle buses that are always picking people up and dropping them off optimally, including picking up new people and dropping them off along your route. It's not just about minimizing road space, but also about the value of these peoples' time, and point-to-point direct is much better than the very indirect routes people are usually forced to take to ride a rail line (walking, buses, transfers, out of the way routings, etc.)

 
At 9:31 PM, June 09, 2014, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Flood rates are established by the Federal Flood Insurance Program. As I said before, most of the homeowners in Metro Houston already enjoy preferred rates which are already at an actuarially unsound level, so an Ike Dike would not change those rates. There are probably only 10 to 20 thousand homes that need to be elevated in Galveston and southern Harris Counties. Better to loan money to homeowners for mitigation which will be paid back than to tax everyone on a multi-billion dollar Ike Dike which may or may not help. Remeber that a dike will hold water in just as well as it keep water out.

 
At 4:34 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

Walking to rail stations could admittedly jeopardize the USA's global leadership in obesity. But with Obamacare being imposed on us, I'd like to see more folks get in shape and stop forcing me to pay for the consequences of their not doing so.

As for autonomous jitney shuttles: Why aren't the human-driven ones catching on here as well as rail has? Perhaps they're not authorized to operate here yet? I sincerely don't know (and I wouldn't ask it sarcastically if I did, as I always value your thoughtful analysis Tory). Even if allowed to roam the roadways, jitneys can be victims of traffic jams, delay-inducing handicapped boarding and a tendency to pollute. Rail does none of that.




 
At 7:45 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

There is a strict jitney ordinance in the city. Washington Wave is the only operating one I know. Make them run on natural gas and they don't pollute any more than rail (which gets power from coal and gas plants). Light rail nets out at about 17mph with stops, so even if the roads are a bit congested, they can probably get people point-to-point to their destination faster, especially once you take out all of the transfers and waits.

 
At 9:49 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Can you show me what you're talking about in the ballot language?

"For/Against

Authorization of Metro to issue bonds, notes, and other obligations payable, in whole or in part, from 75% of Metro's sales and use tax revenues in an aggregate principal amount not to exceed $640,000,000 for Metro's transit authority system, including the Metro Solutions transit system plan (as described...), which includes bus service expansions (including...) and construction of extensions and new segments of Metro's rail system known as "Metrorail," approval of such plan and construction of all segments of the Metrorail and commuter line components (including approximately 64.8 miles of light rail and 8 miles of commuter line, as described...), and dedication of 25% of Metro's sales and use tax revenues through September 30, 2014, to street improvements and related projects as authorized by law, and with no increase in the current rate of Metro's sales and use tax. [description of rail segments follows]"

 
At 9:59 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

"Authorization" = option but not obligation.

 
At 10:32 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

The word "authorization" is in the clause to issue bonds (first clause). The clause beginning "approval of such a plan and construction of all segments..." is part of a different clause (second clause). The phrase "authorization of Metro" does not connect grammatically with "approval of such a plan;" they are separate clauses. Just as "dedication" is another separate clause (third clause) - nobody interpreted that clause as being optional as you say the authorization clause is; rather it was considered binding and Metro was forced by the ballot language to continue the 25% subsidy.

The voters said "For" to three things:
1. Authorization to issue bonds
2. Approval of the Metro Solutions plan and construction of all segments of Metrorail and the commuter line
3. Extension of the 25% subsidy

 
At 10:59 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

"Approval" also equals option without obligation. It is the approval of a plan, and plans can be changed, as they did with the Richmond vs. Westpark routing.

 
At 11:10 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

"Approval of such a plan and construction of all segments" is what the second clause says. I pasted the language above - did you read it?

Also, there was no "Richmond to Westpark rerouting." If you read the plan description on the ballot (under Exhibit D here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/100253658/Metro-Referendum-2003), when it identifies the different segments, it says

4. Westpark - Wheeler Station to Hillcroft Transit Center

As with the other segments, the name before the hyphen ("Westpark") is a name given to an entire segment, not a street name. The end nodes of this segment are identified - Wheeler Station and Hillcroft Transit Center - and Metro has not "jumped" away from these end nodes.

You also misrepresented the referendum above when you said "the referendum also mentioned a 50% increase in bus service;" it actually mentioned no such thing.

 
At 11:10 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous awp said...

I think most of the benefit of the Ike Dike is actually in the protection of the petrochemical and manufacture facilities of the Houston Ship Channel.

 
At 11:14 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Just to be clear, it would be quite a stretch to read "approval of such a plan and construction of all segments" as saying that "construction of all segments" is merely "approved." What is being approved is "such a plan." "Construction of all segments" is a separate phrase.

 
At 11:39 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You can debate the language all you like, but there is no time frame given, and at the end of the day the METRO Board sets spending priorities. If they decide there are other priorities and they can't fund more of "the plan" until the 2030s or 2050s or later, they're perfectly within their rights to do so.

 
At 11:41 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Google the 50% increase in bus service along with the 2003 referendum - tons of references, everybody acknowledges it. It was promised to voters as part of the campaign, whether or not it was in the ballot language.

 
At 11:48 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

From your own document link "WHICH INCLUDES BUS SERVICE EXPANSIONS"

WHEREAS, in addition to the Prior Plans, METRO has developed a comprehensive plan that provides
for increased bus routes, expanded Park & Ride service, buses, new Park & Ride lots, transit centers,
shelters and other bus-related facilities and extensions

See Exhibit A for details.

They themselves campaigned on it as a 50% increase.

 
At 11:49 AM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

awp: you are correct - the largest concern is the Ship Channel, and there is a possible plan that would just protect the Ship Channel, but my understanding is that the Ike Dike plan would only be marginally more expensive and protect something like an extra million people and their homes.

 
At 11:52 AM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

I will agree that there is no time frame. But the decision was made to build.

The 50% bus service increase may have been projected, but Metro did not bind themselves by putting it on the ballot. The ballot is what matters.

 
At 12:00 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

See Exhibit A. They did lay out specific bus improvements that were not made. If they can choose not to make those, they can choose not to build rail lines.

 
At 1:46 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Exhibit A was not part of the ballot language. This document is merely a resolution calling for the referendum (whereas Exhibit D gives the actual ballot language for the referendum itself). And Exhibit A explicitly states, "Final details and implementation schedule for the Bus Component will be based upon demand and completion of the project development process, including community input." It does not say this about the rail lines, and at any rate, the language voted on is what is important.

 
At 1:50 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The ballot language is necessarily trimmed to fit on the ballot - it cannot have all the details. But it does reference back to this resolution, so it is binding.

Still, I find it amusing that you're basically saying it's ok for METRO to lie in public as long as it's not in the official ballot language.

Regardless, they can choose to build the rail lines in any time frame they want, including decades from now.

 
At 1:57 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

So, I did google the 50% bus increase. I found mostly conservative bloggers, including you, complaining that "the 2003 referendum also promised a 50% increase in bus service." But as I've just shown, the "50% increase" was not in the 2003 referendum. It looks like this is a lie that keeps being repeated until somebody gets around to checking the facts.

 
At 2:01 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

This resolution, as I've just pointed out, explicitly says that the bus expansion is subject to change and community input!

And saying the referendum is "necessarily trimmed" is baloney; what's voted on is what's voted on.

I find it silly that you want to hold every word a Metro spokesman may have said that year on the same level as the ballot language, since you've obviously lost the argument on that. I find it silly you are still carrying on this argument when you should be quite embarrassed, as a public figure on a recognized blog, at the misinformation you have been giving (e.g. saying above that if I read through the ballot language, Metro makes it optional, etc.).

 
At 2:02 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

"silly" should read "amusing" above

 
At 2:09 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wikipedia references a MetroSolutions document (footnote 35) which Metro has conveniently removed.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Transit_Authority_of_Harris_County#cite_note-autogenerated2-35

Note that METRO has never disputed this promised bus service increase when it has been raised in the past. They know what they promised.

It is obviously METRO's option when they build the lines, and therefore it's optional if they build them at all. I don't understand how you can't see that. Without a hard date deadline written into law, they can push it off into the future as long as they like.

 
At 2:14 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

This was directly in the ballot language, explicitly referencing Exhibit A.

INCLUDING THE METRO SOLUTIONS TRANSIT SYSTEM PLAN (AS DESCRIBED IN EXHIBITS A AND A-1 OF METRO
RESOLUTION NO. 2003-77 AND THE OFFICIAL NOTICE OF ELECTION, WHICH ARE INCORPORATED HEREIN), WHICH INCLUDES BUS SERVICE
EXPANSIONS (INCLUDING NEW BUSES, BUS ROUTES, TRANSIT CENTERS AND PARK & RIDE FACILITIES)

 
At 2:15 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

And how's this for an nice escape clause?

"Final scope, length of rail segments or lines and other details, together with implementation schedule, will be based upon demand and completion of the
project development process, including community input."

 
At 2:16 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think what I'm officially doing here is providing community input... as is Bill King ;-)

 
At 2:17 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

There is nothing in ballot language calling for a 50% increase in bus service. Even the resolution for the ballot said, "Final details and implementation schedule for the Bus Component will be based upon demand and completion of the project development process, including community input."

This is a far cry from what you said above:

"the referendum also mentioned a 50% increase in bus service"

The only weakness for rail here is that a timetable was not laid out. But voters did call for "construction of all segments." If we have a responsible democracy, we need to prioritize what the voters called for over other things.

 
At 2:21 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

The plan is cited from Exhibit A. This does not elevate every word in Exhibit A to the level of ballot language. And it does not override "construction of all segments."

 
At 2:22 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Metro took the proposed bus improvements and summed them up as a "50% increase".

The METRO Board is the voice of our elected representatives, and is actually a far more current representation than the voters of 2003. They have to determine priorities, and that includes weighting up an authorization from 2003 vs. current needs.

Would you gut local bus service to pay for faster rail? How about handicapped/disabled service? How about P&R service?

 
At 2:24 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm pretty sure under our legal system if you cite an exhibit, that language is just as binding as the actual words on the paper. Otherwise why even include those citations if they're not to be held as relevant and binding?

 
At 2:24 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

lol, all the ballot says is that the segments are described in Exhibit A. It then says that the summary of segments "is a part of the Ballot and Proposition being submitted to voters." It does not say that all of Exhibit A is a part of the Ballot (which it frankly couldn't, because referendums cannot cite things that are not stated in the ballot - that would never fly).

 
At 2:26 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

But I do accept that they left wiggle room both for the rail and the bus plan.

 
At 2:28 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

" referendums cannot cite things that are not stated in the ballot - that would never fly"

Oh, they do all the time. There's only so much room on a ballot, and complex things get passed all the time with shortened language and references to more detailed public documents. The public has access to those documents, as do judges if a court case dispute is ever filed.

 
At 2:29 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

Citing Exhibit A is only done to help voters reference the summary they see with the descriptions they saw on Exhibit A. It does not elevate Exhibit A to the level of ballot language.

"The METRO Board is the voice of our elected representatives, and is actually a far more current representation than the voters of 2003. They have to determine priorities, and that includes weighting up an authorization from 2003 vs. current needs."

Now you're putting whatever a Metro board member says above what the voters decided in a legal referendum. I'm surprised at you, Tory! Such reverence for Metro board members as to place them above the democratic process!

Can't wait until this is turned around and blogosphere sophists try to rewrite an issue that you hold dear, that legally passed a referendum.

 
At 2:30 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

They can cite it as added description, but it does not hold binding weight as do the words on a referendum. Nor does it override those words, e.g. "construction of all segments."

 
At 2:35 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It is really very simple: the Metro board runs Metro (legally written into their charter), and they have authorization (option not obligation) from the voters for a bus and rail network plan, as required by federal law (for rail). Now the board has to prioritize implementation of the plan, subject to "Final scope, length of rail segments or lines and other details, together with implementation schedule, will be based upon demand and completion of the project development process, including community input." which means they can choose which segments to implement or not and when.

 
At 2:36 PM, June 10, 2014, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

"Citing Exhibit A is only done to help voters reference the summary they see with the descriptions they saw on Exhibit A. It does not elevate Exhibit A to the level of ballot language."

I'm pretty sure it does, but it's not up to you or me - it would be up to a judge to decide.

 
At 2:51 PM, June 10, 2014, Anonymous Mike said...

The referendum states, "The following summary lists the components and segments of Metrorail and Commuter Line, as described in Exhibits A and A-3 through A-9 of such Resolution and the Official Notice of the Electrion, and is a part of the Ballot and the Proposition being submitted to the voters at the Election."

It says that the "following summary" is a part of the Ballot; and that what is stated in the summary is also what was described in Exhibit A of the Resolution. It does not say that the Resolution is part of the ballot.

 

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