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