Sunday, September 20, 2020

Dangerous HCTRA toll revenue diversions, Ike Dike, rail vs road forecasts, LA transit may go fareless, HTX and the energy transition, and more

A lot of smaller items to catch up on this week after our little diversion into aviation last week.

My lead this week is on Harris County playing games with HCTRA toll road revenue to spend it on things other than transportation, which is super dicey. The state is already in trouble with transportation because they diverted the gas tax to nontransportation needs. Now the county is making the same mistake... trading long-term prudence for short-term pet projects.  "For flood control" is PR spin, since they won't have any obligation to spend it on that. Toll money moves into the general fund where they can spend it on anything they like.  Oscar made a nice chart to show why HCTRA's money pot is such a tempting target, although he expects it may drop up to a third this year with the pandemic.


On to other items:
"Texas: Number 2 in Net Domestic Migration (just behind FL)
Texas, the nation’s second most populous state had the second largest gain in net domestic migration, at just below 2 million. During the two decades, the two largest Texas metropolitan areas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston moved from below the top five to positions four and five respectively."
"And it makes no difference if the analysis includes other potential explanatory factors such as population density, age, ethnicity, prevalence of nursing homes, general health or temperature. The only factor that seems to make a demonstrable difference is the intensity of mass-transit use."
"The article’s real bias is shown in a paragraph about Bent Flyvbjerg’s well-known study on transportation megaprojects. The 2007 study (of a large global database of highway and transit megaprojects) found that average traffic on highway megaprojects was 9.5% more than forecast, while the average rail megaproject ridership was overestimated by 106%. In other words, for every 100 drivers forecast to use a given highway project, 110 did, and for every 100 rail passengers forecast to use a rail megaproject, only 47 did. If anything, the forecasting problem seems to be far worse with rail than with highways but the piece only mentions highways:

And here the problem is partly political; in order to receive federal funding, transit proponents have learned to game their forecasts, inflating ridership by one-third and deflating cost estimates by one-third. This is a well-known trick, and, unfortunately, the article fails to mention it or provide any way to solve this problem."
"The problem with light rail (and the reason it is popular with government officials) is that it is an upper middle class boondoggle.  There can be no higher use of transit than to provide mobility to poorer people who can't afford reliable automobiles.  Buses fulfill this goal better than any mode of transit.  They are flexible and can reach into many corners of the city.  The problem with buses, from the perspective of government officials, is that upper middle class people don't like to ride on them.  They like trains.  So the government builds hugely expensive trains for these influential, wealthier voters. Since the trains are so expensive, the government can only build a few routes, so those routes end up being down upper middle class commuting corridors.  As the costs mount for the trains, the bus routes that serve the poor and their dispersed commuting destinations are steadily cut."

Finally, ending with a fun short video with the "top ten" places to visit in Houston. I've never even heard of #1 before, lol, so see if you agree. Hat tip to George.


Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Where United Airlines should establish a new hub...

This week's post has nothing to do with Houston other than United has its second-largest hub here, and what's healthy for United tends to be healthy for Houston (barring a monopoly ;-).  I'm a bit of an amateur aviation nerd going back to my McKinsey days, and I had a random crazy thought this week: United has a ton of planes and crews sitting around doing nothing right now during the pandemic - they could literally create an instant hub somewhere if they wanted to (assuming they could get the gates). But where?

United actually has well-positioned hubs covering most major domestic and international regions. But they do lack good coverage in the southeastern US like Delta does from Atlanta (world's largest hub) and American does from Charlotte. Additionally, Houston serves as a great United hub to Latin America for the central and western US, but is not geographically well-positioned for serving the eastern US the way American is with its hub in Miami.  Is there somewhere United could establish a hub that does some combination of what Charlotte and Miami do for American?

The pandemic has made this even more important, as the rise of remote work is driving a huge migration from the north to Florida and even the Caribbean.  United sensed this migration early and quickly established a wide range of non-hub flights to better serve Florida.  And no matter what you think about the future of the pandemic, remote work has now been absolutely normalized.


But where should they go if they want to take this first step to the next level and actually establish a new hub?  A few options can be quickly eliminated:
  • Atlanta and Charlotte are already taken by Delta and American respectively
  • Raleigh-Durham is too close to IAD Washington DC Dulles (already a United hub)
  • Miami is already an AA hub facing increasing competition from Delta and Southwest
  • Fort Lauderdale and Orlando have incredible amounts of low-fare competition from Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier, and others.
  • Fort Myers is too small to support a hub (679,000 MSA population) as is Jacksonville (1.5m)
The really intriguing alternative that remains: Tampa.  The Tampa Bay metro area has a population of 3.2 million, the 18th-largest metro in the country - larger than Denver, Charlotte, or Salt Lake City which all support substantial hubs.  It's also one of the fastest-growing (nearby Lakeland as well), and has manageable low-fare competition.  The housing is far more affordable than the Miami area.  It's also about an hour from Walt Disney World, the largest tourist attraction in the country (soon to be connected by the Brightline train).  And it's not just tourists - there are plenty of business travelers as well (United's core market).  Tampa has been steadily growing its corporate presence - especially financial - and it's the center of Florida's High Tech Corridor.

A friend of mine threw together some potential United route maps from a Tampa hub (hat tip to Daniel!).

Potential Domestic

Potential International

Potential United Latin America coverage IAH+TPA

As you can see, it's much better geographically from the eastern US to the Caribbean and Latin America than Houston is.  Would it cannibalize traffic from IAH?  Based on American's service to the same region from DFW and Miami (the equivalent of United's IAH and Tampa), we don't think so.  DFW has Latin service nearly as comprehensive as IAH despite American's Miami hub. The two hubs actually reinforce and support each other and give American a dominant position in Latin America.  United could challenge that dominance with a combination of Houston, Tampa, and Newark/NYC.

Florida is the third-largest state in the country at 22 million and growing fast. United needs a strong presence there to match its strength in other top five states like California (38m), Texas (28m), New York (20m), and Illinois (13m).  A hub (or at least a strong focus city) in Tampa is the best strategic option for them to tap that market. This pandemic will reshuffle the airline pecking order - why play defense when they can seize the initiative and fill a long-standing and growing gap in their route network while also putting more planes and crews to work?

UPDATE: discussion in the Airliners.net forums

Labels: