Thursday, September 13, 2007

Galveston and Uline rail, Astrodome, 2nd cities, neighborhood tyrants and cheap eats

Clearing out the queue of smaller misc items. Sorry again if you got the draft notes of this post a couple days ago.
"This film tells the real story about free enterprise by following the lives of three very different entrepreneurs. We see how they risk all to make a better future for their families and fellow citizens. With premieres from Michigan to Kenya, this film has been met with enthusiastic responses as its message of liberty spreads across the globe."
  • Brian has an excellent post on "The Tyrant Next Door," showing how land use regulations spiral out of control, each set trying to address the problems created by the last set, until total stagnation and unaffordability is achieved.
  • An article that argues "second cities" are more manageable and successful mentions that cities tend to start to go downhill beyond about 6 million people, which is right about where the Houston metro's at. I think we're making the right infrastructure investments to push higher (and the lack of zoning helps us adapt), but no doubt, it will be a challenge.
  • From an email I received:

"The third edition of my guidebook Houston Dining on the Cheap – A Guide to the Best Inexpensive Restaurants has recently been published and is now available at local bookstores, selected gift stores, and I believe that it is something that your readers will enjoy learning about. Our diverse restaurant scene is one of the joys of the city.

Previous editions of Houston Dining on the Cheap have been praised as "excellent", "remarkably comprehensive", and even "a fun read". This third edition has been completely revised, updated and thoroughly researched to provide profiles of the best 300 inexpensive restaurants in the Houston area, plus restaurant-related asides, and helpful indices such as listings by cuisine and area. It is not only more current, but also more informative and probably more interesting than the previous two editions, which have each essentially sold out.

This edition is selling very well in its first couple months since its release. Thanks.
-Mike Riccetti"

I've argued before that Houston has one of the best restaurant scenes in the country. I have the second edition, and it is excellent. The third edition will definitely be on my Christmas wish list...

Finally, I'd like end with a joint plea from Christof and I to get in last comments on the Metro Universities line before they're closed on Monday the 17th. Long-time readers know I've had my reservations, but if it's going to be built, it should be on the right route with the most riders for the least money, and that's the Cummins to Elgin route. Let Metro know that's what you support.


I know I've been talking about this for a year, but METRO's finally
getting ready to chose a route for the University Line -- Richmond or
Westpark, Alabama or Elgin. Obviously, this matters; if it gets put in
the wrong place it will be in the wrong place forever.

So here's where you come in. METRO is accepting public comments. I
encourage you to submit one. This is partially a numbers game; METRO
will tally the responses they get, and that tally could shape the

Nothing fancy is required; just a paragraph or two: say why you care
about the line (if you live/work/spend time in that area, say so) and
say what alignment you think the board should chose (I'm partial to
Richmond-Cummins-Westpark and Wheeler-Ennis-Elgin). If you have
anything else you care about with regard to the line (preserve trees,
offer non-stop service to the Galleria, put a station at ___) you
should say that, too. If you want to read up, there's (a lot) more
info on my blog.

METRO has a form that you can fill out and mail in, or you can use the online comment form.

So, if you have a spare moment between now and next Monday, 9/17
(comment deadline), do your part for a better Houston...



At 9:28 AM, September 14, 2007, Blogger John said...

Tory, you have a bit of a soft spot for particularly incoherent critiques of land use regulations.

The "Tyrant Next Door" piece talks about bad land use rules (which are pretty common in a lot places with strong HOAs, because they're based in some bad assumptions about the value of extreme uniformity), and then just generalizes away. He's right about a few things, of course, but buys into the all too common and extremely silly idea that all restrictions on land use are the same and have the same effect, thus if you can find an example of it working badly, the whole idea must be tossed out.

Hurricanes are bad, therefore, all rain is bad!

The idea that Houston doesn't restrict what you can do with your property is also pretty silly. Midtown is a great victim of those restrictions.

At 9:29 AM, September 14, 2007, Blogger John said...

Oh, and not to mention the idea that suburban HOAs are the province of "left-wing do-gooders." (Just htink of how crazed lefties have taken over Kingwood and the Woodlands!) At least he shows his blind spot right up front, I guess, enabling us to see the piece as either dogma or parody rather than analysis.

At 12:19 PM, September 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Just htink of how crazed lefties have taken over Kingwood"

You'd be surprised how many there are, John. There is a pretty large liberal Democrat base there. Where do you think most of them came from? Primarily, the northeast.

At 9:03 PM, September 14, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

The HGAC is studying several different commuter rail routes.

and at:

If it is a good solution for Galveston, it is also a potentially good solution for Sugar Land and / or Katy etc. I'm not saying which lines we need to build, but I'm glad we have people studying all the options.

At 9:20 PM, September 14, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I question the cost-benefit of most of the potential lines. Galveston is a unique case, because you not only have real cities/destinations at each end (two-way traffic all day), including local transit at each end to get the "last mile", but also a major job center in the middle (NASA), and 7-day-a-week demand because of tourists to Galveston on the weekend. Even then, the huge costs to displace existing freight operations and upgrade the track make it tough to justify.

At 9:20 PM, September 14, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the link, btw. Very interesting report.

At 10:51 PM, September 14, 2007, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


I guess I had to be blasted at some point. People on my e-mail list go a little softer on me.

I agree that "Left-wing" was an unnecessary and confusing adjective. I'll try to avoid superfluous use in the future.

Obviously there are some land restrictions that are needed. Without mandatory site surveys many would solve property line disputes with less than sensible methods. It does slow down development, but it's a necessary regulation. It is one of a number of regulations that provide economic value because there is no other mechanism to prevent quantifiable loss (i.e. value in dollars).

This is not the same as those people who push for development regulations because "I don't like that." The tyranny of the majority is a problem and someone needs to stand up for the rights of unpopular development patterns. There is no logical limitation to regulation when assuming that a city can be "fixed" according to the preferences of the vocal majority. The behavior of some cities (and HOAs) is proving this as they dabble in Orwellian tactics to fix development "problems".

I have a fire and brimstone Republican relative who believes that all apartments everywhere should be banned and all lots should be at least half an acre. So I admit that both ends of the political spectrum are guilty.

At 10:28 AM, September 17, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Tory, I'd like to understand better your particular criticism that commuter rail systems will fail in corridors without heavy, two-direction traffic.

I don't dispute the fact that having major destinations on either end is desirable, but it seems to me that ANY transportation mode would benefit from such a situation. After all, we've spend billions on highways that do not principally connect two high-draw destinations.

Although today development has pushed so far out that there are sufficient destinations on many of our highways to create substantial demand and congestion in both directions, this is a relatively recent development and definitely not something that was taken into account when the roads were constructed. And even today, there are still clear distinctions between the directionality of traffic during the peak hours of travel.

It seems to me that a fair assessment of various modes of transportation would utilize identical rubrics to judge them. Why should we condemn rail systems because they don't connect major destinations when we don't expect the same from our outrageously expensive highway projects? (Case in point, the hotly debated Segment C of the Grand Parkway. . .)

At 11:35 AM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

In one respect, I agree, and have supported multi-lane one-way reversible HOT/HOV lanes for Houston's spoke freeways, which I think will get better utilization that traditional two-way HOT/HOV lanes, where half will be empty half of the day.

One difference for cars: they don't run empty in the contra-flow direction to go pick up more people.

Fundamentally, you have to look to see if the capital costs can be spread over enough trips to make financial sense. That's not a problem with most freeways. And self-supporting toll roads (like the Grand Parkway) are automatic.

Transit is never self-supporting. It always require subsidies. In Metro's case, less than 20% of expenses are covered by the farebox. But we'd like to minimize the subsidy per trip (or per passenger mile, depending on your preferred metric). To justify the gigantic capital expense of a heavy rail commuter line, you need as many passengers as possible to spread that cost over during its lifetime. All day two-way, and weekend, traffic can really help, and make a big difference on the cost per passenger trip.

At 1:31 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Well, okay, I guess that's fair. Without destination on both ends, transit will have one wasted trip for every round trip. But does that necessarily rule out commuter services as a useful, viable piece of the transportation puzzle? I don't think it necessarily does. After all, for each one-way trip that does carry passengers, many cars will be taken off the highway. Although this may not necessarily make a dent in roadway congestion, it may very well create a net savings of gas and reduction in pollution, even with that one wasted trip.

And at the very least, that one trip will save those passengers costs associated with maintaining their automobile and lost time. The lost time effect is real -- I'm currently struggling to shift my automobile commute to express bus so that my current 50 minute (roundtrip) commute will be converted into an hour of free reading time.

So with all those savings -- lost time, automobile maintenance, gas, pollution -- I think it's very possible that commuter bus and rail can create an overall net benefit to society. And rail will only serve to maximize those savings. Our express bus service is fantastic, but you have to run much more frequent service with buses (and thus many more wasted one-way trips) to match the capacity of trains.

Therefore, it seems to me that if commuter buses are a useful addition to the transportation system (I feel like they are), then commuter rail may be as well -- even without major destinations at either end.


At 2:33 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Commuter buses are far, far cheaper. More flexible routing too - and they can be redeployed from less popular to more popular routes. They can circulate among the office buildings at the end and get people to their final destination. And they don't need to slow down and stop multiple times along the route. Cheaper, faster, and more flexible - a hard combination to beat.

> Our express bus service is fantastic, but you have to run much more frequent service with buses (and thus many more wasted one-way trips) to match the capacity of trains.

Trains having high capacity doesn't mean it's full. I've heard stats thrown around that although a heavy commuter line has the *potential* to carry the equivalent of 5+ freeway lanes, the average line actually carries less than half of one freeway lane.

We should keep building up commuter bus service, and if the HOV/HOT lanes ever start to get saturated, then commuter rail starts to potentially make sense. Same logic Metro is using with the core network: start BRT, and only upgrade to LRT if the demand justifies it.

At 3:24 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Well, I agree with the analogy of using BRT and only switching to LRT when demand warrants, except that in the case of commuter rail, metro may at least need to secure right of way for this future transition to be possible, since the right-of-way will involve new tracks, not existing BRT paths. Unless we just want to wait and pay maximum dollar later... unless your proposal is to ultimately convert HOV lanes into commuter rail, in which case the right of way issue may already be taken care of.

And, I would also support building one line like Galveston as a "starter" line, much like we did with metro.

And obviously I disagree with just about everything you say about buses given high demand, other than they would be more flexible at the endpoint of rail lines (ie - Galleria area bus line, at the endpoint).

Cities like Austin and Charlotte that are far smaller than Houston are already building commuter rail - why should Houston not consider all options as well (through real studies of demand / cost/benefit, etc - not just blog entries)? Or are you so sure that commuter buses are superior? To me, that is called "jumping to conclusions".

At 4:29 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The rights-of-way already exist, and are being used by freight rail. The costs assume the necessary bypasses to move that freight traffic (or put it on parallel tracks). The corridor will not get any more expensive, since there's not much else that can be done with it other than rail.

Certainly, Metro should consider all options - and they are. I'm not arguing against studying options. But I feel quite certain the economics are not there.

My op-ed on it:

Christof, who's far more pro-rail than I, for the most part, agrees:

At 5:06 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

I don't think the right-of-way issues are completely resolved.

Here is one example:


At 7:08 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Page B2 of the Chron today quotes TxDOT spokesman as saying that commuter rail is being planned for I-10 Katy, 290, and US 90 routes. Just FYI...

At 9:11 PM, September 17, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yeah, that corridor is currently owned by govt though. It just has to be transferred among agencies.

At 8:09 AM, September 18, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Listening to Ed Emmett speak, it sure does sound like commuter rail down 290 is much farther along than anything down to Galveston. I hope that if that line fails (like Tory and even Christof seem to think it may) Houston doesn't become completely disillusioned with the idea of rail systems and fail to analyze the I-45 corridor more carefully.



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