Thursday, December 20, 2007

Houston as a land use model, our skyline and social rankings, LA rail rejects "trust, but verify", Bangkok TOD, and more

Time again for the miscellaneous small items, which I hope will give you plenty of reading material for a while. I'll be traveling over the holidays, so this may be the last post for 2007. Have a Merry Christmas, and I'll see you again in the New Year.
  • A University of Maryland professor is advocating voluntary protective covenants - like Houston's deed restrictions - as the solution to planning and zoning regulations run amok. Missouri has already passed such a law.
  • Houston is ranked as the 4th best skyline in the U.S., which is particularly impressive because we don't have the usual waterfront profile that make NYC, Chicago, and Miami (#1,2,3) so impressive. Hat tip to HAIF.
  • Continuing on rankings, we've been ranked #7 for social events, like festivals and, surprisingly, book-related activities:
"...Los Angeles had the highest number of book-related activities just ahead of Houston..."

Hmmmm. More book-related events in LA and Houston than NYC, capital of the book publishing industry? Gotta question that one. Hat tip to HAIF.
  • Check out the new Texas Triangle blog about our fast growing megapolitan, despite what some confused Yankees think. Only two months old, but already a lot of interesting stuff here.
  • L.A. has given up on the honor system for light rail tickets, and is moving to gates and turnstiles. Not a good sign for our system, which also runs on the honor system of occasional spot checks. Or maybe it's just the impact of Hollywood and celebrity moral standards on the locals?... ;-)
  • How's this for some ultra-intense transit-oriented development? Pretty freaky. Gotta assume those trains are quite infrequent. Hat tip.
And a final announcement: Houston Strategies is proud to now have its feed hosted on the newly redesigned Houston Chronicle Real Estate page. Check it out.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Houston's new air service to the world

Houston has had a banner few weeks when it comes to new international air service:
  • Emirates started their nonstop service to Dubai, a major hub between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. (archive link to the article - thanks Kevin and Dwight)
  • Qatar Airways said they will start service to Doha in mid-2008, another hub developing along the same lines as Emirates in Dubai.
  • Singapore Airlines announced nonstop service to Moscow, continuing on to Singapore. We are their fourth U.S. gateway city, after NYC, SF, and LA. It's quite surprising that we get service before Chicago, which is a major hub for their Star Alliance partner United.
  • Not wanting to be left out, Continental suggested potential new destinations once they get their 787s starting in 2009: Dubai, Madrid, and either Rome or Milan. They also announced twice/daily service to London Heathrow starting in March, which is generally considered the most important airport in the world, not just for the destination itself, but for all of the the potential connections to other cities of the world.
These flights are notable not just for their destinations, but the airlines involved are some of the highest-rated in the world for the quality of their service - certainly a bonus. Of course, most of these flights are driven by the booming global energy industry.

For what it's worth, IMHO, I have to say I'm a little disappointed with the potential Continental destinations. Emirates already has Dubai and its connections along with amazing cabins and service - why not just extend the code-share? The NYT just had a feature on the decline/malaise of Italy. Even if it is a Skyteam partner with two hubs, Alitalia is imploding. A bunch of tourist traffic and few new connections that aren't already served via Amsterdam or Paris? I can see the Spanish/Latin America connections from Madrid, but it seems American Airlines at both DFW and Miami would get most of that traffic because of the OneWorld alliance with Iberia.

As far as new service, by far the best new addition we could get would be Seoul. I know there's probably not a lot of direct business (or energy traffic), but there could be a lot of Skyteam-partner Korean Air connecting traffic from inland China to all over Latin America, where they're building all sorts of commodity business relationships (China's appetite for commodities is insatiable). And it would give Houston one-hop access into many of the major cities of China. Check out their China coverage here.

My second choice would be Continental feeding eastern U.S. Skyteam traffic on a one-hopper through Auckland, NZ to Sydney, but I know that's a thinner route. Santiago, Chile would also be nice to finish out the South America network of major cities, but I imagine that's a pretty thin route too.

I'd like to wrap up with some excerpts from the Singapore Air press release, because it's just interesting to read how the international community thinks of us:
Houston – the fourth largest city in America and economic centre of the southern state of Texas (Dallas must love reading that) – will join the Singapore Airlines network from 20 March 2008, with the commencement of a four-times-weekly service.

“We’ve observed a steadily building demand for air services between Singapore and Houston, as well as the surrounding regions. This service will open the first direct flights between Texas and Singapore, and also between Texas and Moscow. Houston will also act as a gateway for the Southern USA to Singapore and Southeast Asia,” Mr Huang said.

Houston is the city centre of a commercial region, home to around 5.5 million people. Its industries include oil and gas, aeronautical and space, medical research and healthcare, technology, manufacturing and shipping. The region includes America’s largest shipping port by international tonnage.

The economy of the Houston region is one of America’s largest; indeed, it is larger than all but 22 nations.

Its climate is subtropical, with mild winters. Summers are warm and humid, very much like Singapore, and the city’s claim is similar to Singapore’s: everything is air-conditioned!

Among its key attractions are the Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre, featuring exhibits of lunar materials and the space shuttle program. NASA’s Mission Control Centre, from which all its space operations are controlled, is in Houston.

The Texas Medical Centre contains the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and medical research institutions. The Centre includes 13 hospitals and numerous schools of medicine, nursing and dentistry. The city also has some 55 universities, colleges and academic research institutions.

The city maintains teams that compete in all major national professional sports. Its arts and culture facilities are extensive and vibrant, building on the city’s broadly international population, featuring Hispanic, Mexican (Hmmm... Hispanic doesn't include Mexican?), Chinese, Vietnamese and Pacific Islander populations.

Nice. A world-class city needs world-class connections to the world, right?

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The brilliance of freeway tunnels (part 2 of 2)

Part 1 here. Reading the paper sparked a couple of my own variant ideas. All of the conceptual cross-sections show two tunnels, but some tunnel concepts contain as many as 8-9 lanes in each one (stacked 2-3 levels high inside the tunnel cross-section). Might we get away with a single tunnel instead of two, since we're keeping I-45 on the surface? Would that roughly halve the cost?

Another variant: a tunnel allows us to think outside of the 45 corridor itself. Is that really the best place to put the new capacity? If you look at a map of Houston, you can see that big driver of the congestion on 45 is that a large swath of NW Harris County drains into it on local streets. For whatever reason, 249 inside the Beltway never became the spoke freeway it should have been. A tunnel under the 249 corridor may make more sense, connecting to the 249 freeway outside the Beltway and relieving both 290 and 45. 290 could definitely use the relief, and it would provide a more direct trip into town for the people of that heavily populated area around Willowbrook.

Combining the two ideas, it may even make sense to run a single tunnel under 45, and another single tunnel under 249, coming together at some point near 610.

I am really inspired by the potential of tunneling in Houston. If they're successful in this corridor, there are all sorts of other places around town that could certainly use the same solution: (here's a map to help you visualize)
  • How about adding capacity to the always-congested West Loop?
  • Bring the 225 Pasadena Freeway into the center of town as originally planned? (taking the load off of 45S inside the loop)
  • Connect the Ft. Bend Parkway to the southwest corner of the 610 loop?
  • Create a missing spoke freeway between 290 and I-10 outside the Beltway?
It solves so many problems, like limited rights-of-way, community and environmental impacts, and construction congestion - while providing the new capacity we need to grow, as well as the congestion-priced express lane network we need to solve our congestion and commuter transit problems.

For a long time I've wondered how we'll connect center-median express lanes (like on the new I-10) with crossing freeways without creating an insane tangle of ramps (or forcing express traffic into the congested general lanes for the exits, defeating their purpose). But if the express lanes are underground - including the connecting exit ramps - then the problem is solved!

TXDoT and HCTRA need to see this as not a one-off project, but building an expertise and capability that can be applied over decades of growth. The cost of that learning curve and that equipment has the potential to be amortized over many projects, not just 45, making the economics even more compelling than it already is.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The brilliance of freeway tunnels (part 1 of 2)

A few weeks back, Gonzalo Camacho sent me an intimidating 30-page white paper on the tunnel option for expanding the I-45N corridor using some of the newest tunnel-boring technologies from Europe and elsewhere. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but in one fell swoop it converted me from skeptic to a true believer.

The essence of what makes it so compelling is that all of the money spent is for completely new capacity, since the existing surface 45 stays right where it is. Compare that to the current alternative being proposed, which, at the end of the day after $2+ billion is spent, only adds a net of 3 new lanes of capacity between downtown and Beltway 8 (from 8 + HOV to 8 + 4 managed lanes) - and that's after 5+ years of nightmare construction (vs. disruption-free underground tunneling).

On top of that, the tunnel can also solve several problems not addressed in the current plans, by continuing through downtown to 45S, 288, and 59 - bypassing the downtown bottlenecks at the Pierce Elevated and the 59-288 junction. Talk about killing several birds with one stone.

What we're talking about here is a congestion-priced, tolled set of express through-lanes that only have a few exits at major junctions. Local traffic stays on the surface freeway, which may evolve into a more sedate parkway over time, like Memorial or Allen Parkway (although I'm more skeptical of that ever happening - given the high demand and powerful commercial interests along that freeway).

The paper details how safety and flooding are handled, as well as a myriad of additional benefits: far faster construction, a substantially longer roadway life expectancy, and air, noise, and visual pollution reduction.

Raw cost is 50% more - about $3 billion instead of $2B - but when complete lifecycle costs are considered, it only works out to about 10% more per mile. And I don't think that considers any of the value in terms of time saved by drivers in both the construction and finished stages (the surface option is expected to get re-congested relatively sooner). The financials are well detailed, and summed up in a great table on p.26.

Tip to Gonzalo: re-calculate your costs in terms of $ per lane-mile of capacity - rather than per mile. Since your option adds so much additional capacity, it has to look much better that way (and be sure to include both the surface 45 and the new tunnels in the total lane-miles capacity denominator).

Gonzalo should be commended for his passion and dedication for a cause too many - myself included - have been too quick to dismiss. You can read the paper yourself here, or browse his web site here. And if you know any of the decision-makers involved, please voice your support or pass this along. It's just too good an opportunity for Houston to ignore.

In my next post, part 2, I'll discuss my own tunnel variant ideas and the long-term potential for tunneling in Houston.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Is Metro's budget train about to derail?

This post is actually not about Metro's FTA problems. Instead, it's about this ominous Dallas Morning News article on DART rail budgets spiraling out of control. A new line from downtown through Irving to DFW airport has a new cost estimate that is almost double the original: from $988 million to $1.8 billion.
DART officials said that project could be delayed and others could be deleted, as the higher costs force it to re-evaluate the scope of its long-range plans.

But the impact on the Orange Line may be the least of the changes wrought by its huge cost increase. Other projects – including a second rail alignment in downtown Dallas – could be delayed for years, as DART looks to free up money to pay for the Orange Line.

Mr. Thomas said DART will begin immediately re-evaluating nearly all of its other major projects in the 2030 plan for possible savings.


DART officials realized only recently that the cost projections for the Orange Line were badly flawed, Mr. Thomas said.

The Green Line, now under construction, will cost between $60 million and $65 million per mile, more than anticipated. With Orange Line construction still several years away, officials at DART began to worry that its cost estimates were flawed.

Rising costs are nothing new in construction, however. The Texas Department of Transportation has been sounding the alarm for years about soaring costs of raw materials. Costs for highway projects – which use many of the same raw materials as transit projects – have jumped 62 percent over the past five years.

Experts put the blame on a seemingly insatiable demand for new infrastructure in India and China, which together are spending trillions of dollars on roads, rail and bridges.

"This is not a DART problem. It's not a Dallas problem or a Texas problem," Mr. Thomas said. "It's a global issue."

DART estimated Orange Line costs years ago, and used a 4 percent rate of inflation. Mr. Thomas said Tuesday the agency has only just now begun designing the project in detail.


Some changes may be necessary to save money, however. Those steps could mean a lower maximum speed – 45 mph – for the trains, and a single track, rather than a double track.

Map and schedule of the DART plan here
Is it possible that the estimates for Metro's new lines are similarly out of date? These lines have the same target dates we do around 2012. One thing in our favor is that our lines are much shorter than Dallas - meaning fewer raw materials to drive up costs. Nevertheless, it doesn't look good. Could they be forced back to BRT? In light of the DART announcement, it would be good to hear some sort of official statement from Metro reaffirming their confidence in their cost estimates.

Later in the article, it talks about privatization options similar to toll roads. Of course, a key difference is that toll roads are profitable, and rail lines are far from it, so it just means a steady stream of subsidy payments to a private builder/operator. Not really sure where the value would be there. My understanding is that Metro is not allowed to issue debt, so this would be a way of getting around that, by having the private operator take on the debt and Metro commits to regular payments. Of course, that liability is just as big a constraint going forward as debt would be, with the taxpayers ultimately on the hook.
"Rail is very different from highways," Mr. Reinhardt said. "The success that we've seen in the highway side is impressive, but it doesn't easily translate in the rail side. Rail is a lot more complicated in every way."
No doubt. One issue immediately comes to mind: it would be no problem to have several different operators operating several different toll roads in a region (just have to have an EZ tag standard), but I would think an interconnected rail network would really need a single operator of both track and vehicles. Sure, you can have competitive bidding for the first phase, but aren't you then stuck with them for all future extensions too? Monopoly lock-in. In which case, you might as well kept it all within the public transit agency all along.

(to clarify: talking about operations and maintenance here. Obviously private contractors should always competitively bid for the actual construction projects.)

Hat tip to Erik for the heads up on the DMN story.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

The last-mile problem with high-speed rail

In a Sunday Chronicle op-ed, Paul Mangelsdorf of Texas Rail Advocates laid out the case for high-speed rail in the Texas Triangle. I have to admit it sounds pretty cool, being whisked between cities at a comfortable 200-mph without most of the hassles of air travel or driving. But Texas has some key differences from Europe and Japan that make it a far riskier bet here - and we're talking about wagering many, many billions of dollars on this bet.

In telecom, they talk about the intractable "last mile" problem. It's relatively easy to run fiber optic trunk lines all over the country or even across a region, but connecting that "last mile" to every home is a very, very costly and difficult logistical problem - which is why we're still using our old cable and phone wire with relatively limited bandwidth. High-speed rail has the same issue: it can get you to the city, but what will get you that last 10-20 miles to your real final destination?

European cities were built at high-density in the walking age, and later had high-density transit systems grafted on top. Most of their key destinations - especially job centers - are usually in a relatively compact core. Using transit - or maybe taxis - for that last leg is not much of a problem.

Urban Texas was almost completely developed in the car age. Low density. Destinations spread out all over a large land area. Multiple job centers, many outside the core - not to mention long strings of offices and retail along freeways. It's simply not transit friendly. Yes, cities like Houston and Dallas are developing some rail transit, but they are very limited in the quantity of key destinations they can hit. The cities are just too distributed.

Even then, there's the cost of trying to bring that high-speed rail all the way into the core hub of the local rail network. I can't imagine what that will cost.

I know from a personal perspective, as cool as it would be, I would have trouble choosing high-speed rail to Austin for business and personal trips. I need to be able to get around Austin to multiple destinations . Taxis are unaffordable and a hassle, as is renting a car. Considering that an ultra-cheap one-way Greyhound bus ticket is at least $25, I can't imagine the rail ticket being less than 2-3x that. Pretty quickly, the math argues that I should just drive my own car there.

Lastly, not only does Europe have more population crammed into more cities that are closer together (perfect for rail), the airports in Europe are small and often overloaded - so trip shifting to rail becomes more attractive. All of the Texas Triangle cities have an overabundance of airport capacity for the foreseeable future.

The net is that Texas is not the ideal first candidate (also known as the "guinea pig") for high-speed rail in the U.S. Both California and the Boston-DC corridor have far stronger cases: more population, more density, more mature local transit, and more congested airports (and no, the Amtrak Acela does not count by this guy's definition of high-speed rail, averaging only 70-80 mph). The wise path for Texas in this case is to be a "fast follower" behind those two areas once they prove it can work, both technically and financially as well as ridership.

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