Monday, March 31, 2008

Time to go back to BRT, Metro?

Hope you caught Rad's story this morning on exploding cost estimates for the Metro Solutions rail plan. "Exploding" seems inadequate in this case. A 50% increase from estimates is "exploding" to me. I don't know what to call it when they triple from previous estimates.

The Federal Transit Administration, using data provided by Metro, said in its letters that the estimated cost of the North line, which would run 5.5 miles from north of downtown to Northline Mall, has risen to $677 million, from $276 million. The Southeast Line, 6.8 miles from downtown to Palm Center, has risen to $664 million, from $158 million, the FTA said.

By comparison, the 7.5-mile Main Street line cost $324 million and needs $104 million in new rail cars and improvements.


Numbers released by Metro varied. In February, the agency said that "by an order of magnitude," not exactly, all five planned light rail lines would cost about $2 billion, shared equally between Metro and the FTA, with the North and Southeast lines accounting for $500 million of that.

A month earlier, King says, Metro told him that the two lines would cost $854 million out of a $2.2 billion total. "A million here, a million there ... ," he quipped.

And now the FTA-Metro estimates say the two lines will cost $1.34 billion.

People should note that "an order of magnitude" (10x) qualifier is not helpful, implying a real range from $200 million to $20 billion. That's quite the spread.

BlogHouston and Neal Meyer have jumped all over this. I expect Christof and Tom to weigh in soon enough (Kuff here). Neal says we're now talking $4 billion for 30 miles - a cool $133 million a mile (yes, that's a new Minute Maid Park every 2 miles). That's a major ouch. But on a daily rider basis, it gets even scarier (thanks to Neal for the numbers):
  • Baseline: Main St. line = $324 million for 45,000 daily riders = $7,200 per rider. People can argue if that's reasonable or not, but no doubt, it's far more reasonable than the next two.
  • North line: $677 million for 14,000 riders/day = $48,357 per rider
  • Southeast line: $664 million for 13,900 riders/day = $47,770 per rider
Yes, that's right: that old rail transit saw applies that it would be cheaper to buy every rider a Lexus. And remember, these riders already have pretty good bus service. Service that could be made a whole lot better for a lot less money. Neal adds:
Either way, we are looking at two rail alignments whose capital costs approach 50 percent of the entire cost of the Katy Freeway refurbishment and expansion, but will probably only carry about the equivalent of two lanes of passengers and do nothing to expedite the movement of freight or goods. Transit ridership is up about 10 percent over 2007, but transit still carries only 4-5 percent of work trips and only 1-2 percent of overall trips. Moreover, transit patronage is up for both bus and rail.

Mobility is what matters, not mode. There is a very strong argument to be made that patronage would also improve if Metro simply installed dedicated bus lanes, decreased the frequency of stops to improve bus travel speeds, and increased headway frequencies to cut down on catastrophic wait times. This could all be done at a fraction of the cost of $130 million per mile light rail lines.
There is a silver lining here. It's standard procedure for costs to spiral far beyond estimates with rail transit, but usually construction is already well along when those new estimates come to light, so it's too late to do anything about it. Taxpayers just have to bite the bullet and "rescue" the transit agency, or face drastic service cuts. But we're learning this early enough we can still make modifications and head off a financial catastrophe.

What I'm wondering is will Metro - or Mayor White - step in aggressively now to fix the mess while they still can? Or will this get buried under the rug for the next administration to deal with? (and will the issue be blowing up again when Bill White is running for governor in 2010?) Will the Chronicle elevate this story/investigation to the front page, or at least the front of the Metro section, or is Rad's column the last we're going to hear? Let's hope, for the sake of the city, the light gets shined now and we work out a fiscally realistic and prudent transit solutions plan before it's too late.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Population vs. job growth and Houston vs. DFW

A lot of stories recently about population and job growth nationwide. You may remember from a couple weeks ago that Houston was the #1 metro in the country for job growth in 2007. Now we have two new sets of Census numbers. One shows that Harris County was 3rd for population growth in 2006-07 behind Maricopa/Phoenix and Riverside, adding almost 60,000. Looking at 2000-07, we're 2nd:
Maricopa County, Ariz., had the largest numeric increase from 2000 to 2007, adding 808,000 residents. Harris, Texas (535,000); Riverside, Calif. (528,000); Clark, Nev. (461,000); and Los Angeles, Calif. (359,000) followed. Texas was the home to nine of the top 25 numeric gainers, and California to six.
The other Census release focused on metros, where we had the 4th-largest gain last year behind DFW, Atlanta, and Phoenix. Texas had 4 in the top 10, including Austin and San Antonio. The AP article has some great excerpts:

Experts credit much of the growth in the South to relatively strong local economies and housing prices that are among the most affordable in the U.S.

"People are running away from unaffordable housing, from the economic slowdown," said Karl Eschbach, a state demographer in Texas. "I would expect Texas to stay at the top of a slowing game."

According to figures compiled by Eschbach, 16 percent of Americans who moved to other states between July 2006 and July 2007 came to Texas, which led the nation for the second straight year in that category.

Home prices continue to be a big factor. A report earlier this month by Global Insight found that housing prices in the Dallas area were undervalued by as much as 30 percent.

Ann Sekesan, a pharmacy technician, moved her family from Pennsylvania to suburban Fort Worth last June after seeing spacious homes in Texas for under $200,000 on a television show.

"After we saw that on TV, my husband and I looked at each other and said, 'Have you ever been to Texas?" Sekesan said. "It's amazing the size of a home you can get down here. It's just incredible."

Mike asks why those cities were able to draw more population than us even though we had more job growth. One factor may be calendar 2007 job growth vs. July-to-July census numbers. But yeah, I still find that confusing too. Usually the rule of thumb is 1 job for every 2 new people. Kids and retirees could be a big piece of it. Retirees especially: I think a lot are trying to sell their expensive east/west coast house at the peak and move somewhere cheaper, but stay within an easy/cheap flight of their old home for visits (esp. grandkids): Phoenix and Vegas for the west coast, Atlanta and Charlotte for the east. And a lot of people could move and then struggle to find a job - or they displace a native already holding that job.

I found a chart of Atlanta job and population growth over the last decade. They had several years in the last slowdown with very low and even negative job growth - even while still adding tens of thousands of new people each year. Their unemployment rate did move up, but not as much as you'd expect.

Focusing on DFW, I can think of three good reasons why their population growth stays higher than us:

1) DFW and Atlanta have larger "draw zones" than Houston for domestic migration trying to stay within a day's drive of home. Quoting a previous comment of mine:

"One growth factor people tend to overlook is simple geography. Young people tend to move from smaller towns and more rural areas to the nearest major city to make their life and career (trying to stay within a day's drive of their parents). DFW's "draw zone" is huge, stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions before running into potential major-metro competitors like Denver, Chicago, and Atlanta. Houston, because we're on the Gulf Coast, as well as having DFW to the north and Austin-SA to the west, has a more constrained "draw zone"."

2) There is a "sweet spot" city size in the 1 to 3 million range which has most big city advantages with fewer of the drawbacks, like traffic. Most of the fastest growing cities (on a % basis) are around that size, like Vegas, Austin, San Antonio, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham etc. Ft. Worth offers that size town while still providing access to megapolitan amenities within a short drive, esp. DFW airport with its tremendous number of nonstop flights. In a lot of ways, it's a best of both worlds.

3) High humidity makes summer heat much more unpleasant. People want to cool off when they sweat, and then have that sweat evaporate. DFW, Atlanta, and Phoenix offer that dry heat alternative (not to mention Austin and San Antonio), while having just about as mild a winters as Houston.

In a lot of ways, it's amazing that we even keep up with cities like DFW, Atlanta, and Phoenix given the many "genetic"/geographic/climate disadvantages we start out with (i.e. nothing we can do about them). Energy and the Port certainly help make up a big part of the difference, but I think our aggressive infrastructure investments (esp. freeways) and our relatively unregulated dynamic/vibrant development environment are key success factors as well.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Academic study of land-use regs increasing housing prices

An academic study was recently released quantifying how much land-use restrictions increase the cost of housing in various cities. The researcher is based in Seattle, and this article from the Seattle Times focuses on that city:

UW study: Rules add $200,000 to Seattle house price

An intriguing new analysis by a University of Washington economics professor argues that home prices have, perhaps inadvertently, been driven up $200,000 by good intentions.

Between 1989 and 2006, the median inflation-adjusted price of a Seattle house rose from $221,000 to $447,800. Fully $200,000 of that increase (90%!) was the result of land-use regulations, says Theo Eicher — twice the financial impact that regulation has had on other major U.S. cities.

"In a nationwide study, it can be shown that Seattle is one of the most regulated cities and a city whose housing prices are profoundly influenced by regulations," he says.


But Eicher argues that "demand does not need to drive up housing prices."

Cities such as Houston and Atlanta, which have few growth restrictions, have shown that. They've been able to add enough housing to meet demand, so their home prices have risen more moderately than heavily regulated San Francisco and Boston, which have a harder time increasing housing.


Building in Seattle can be very time-consuming compared with nearby cities, because of Seattle's neighborhood-based design-review process, says Linda Stalzer, project development director for the Dwelling Company, an Eastside homebuilder.

Design-review committees, composed of citizens interested in architecture and development, are located throughout Seattle; their job is to review commercial and multifamily housing designs before they're approved.

"Depending on how complicated your project is, it might take you three or four times to get through it," Stalzer says.

Add together all the various review and comment periods, and it can take 12 to 18 months to get to the point of applying for a building permit, she says.

On a 25-unit Capitol Hill town-house project now under way, Stalzer estimated the various fees (including consulting and mitigation costs, but not building permits or land prices) have totaled about $650,000.


"We all love parks and green spaces. But we must also be informed about the costs. It's very easy to vote for a park if you think the cost is free."

I actually discovered the study and article via the Antiplanner blog, which has an extensive analysis here, including this note on Houston:

Eicher says that regulation has increased housing prices in every city he examined. The smallest increase is about $21,000. By comparison, the Antiplanner found that growth management has boosted housing prices in only a little more than a third of the urban areas in the U.S.

I have to wonder if, for some places, Eicher is relying too much on his regressions. His numbers say that regulation in Houston has boosted housing prices by $49,000. But the median home in the Houston urbanized area is worth only $122,000. Taking out the cost of regulation leaves only $73,000. (Unlike most urbanized areas, which are mostly suburbs, the Houston urbanized area is mostly Houston, so these numbers are comparable.) That seems pretty low, but maybe it makes sense.

It's good that these costs are finally being acknowledged and quantified as the City Council debates new development ordinances. Hopefully they will take them into account and weigh any additional regulations very, very carefully.

Thanks to Brian for the link.

Update: Demographia's take on the study.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

County strategy, national tolerance model, #4 tech city, sky race, population

Passing along the smaller items again:
"Harris County enjoys diversity, low cost of living and exceptional medical facilities, but must overcome education and transportation deficiencies to attract more businesses and qualified workers, according to a study released today."

I may post on this again in the future if I get time to read the whole report.
  • Houston is a national model for tolerance, according to Jill Carroll, executive director of Rice University's Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, based on a low and declining hate crime rate:
"...she suggests that being "spread out" and not getting "in each other's way" contributes to the climate of tolerance.

Others say the dramatic cultural and demographic change that has occurred in Houston in the last two decades has created -- even demanded -- a climate of tolerance throughout the city. Houston is no longer a traditional "Southern city dominated by white men" but is a culturally, religiously, racially diverse city in which no one group holds a majority.

In other words, everyone is a "minority."

I like this about Houston, and it's a big reason I'm so proud to live in this city."
  • NASA in Houston will be one of 16 stops for the World Sky Race (hat tip to Jessie), which is kinda cool.
"The World Sky Race will be a series of sixteen races for lighter-than-air craft that will compete for the fastest time around the world for their class of craft. Starting the race series at the Greenwich Prime Meridian in London, the World Sky Race will include stops at the Roman Coliseum, the Great Pyramids, Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Golden Gate Bridge and NASA Johnson Space Center."
More here in the Houston press release or HAIF discussion.
  • Forbes Magazine ranks Houston as “Top 5 Up & Coming” Tech City in U.S. (hat tip to everybody who emailed this to me). The Forbes rankings were based on looking at specific areas of science that most experts consider today's most promising frontiers of innovation. The research looked at the number of the most valuable patents filed in each technical area for each city.
Finally, I want to end with another missive from Skip at GHP on local population trends:

The Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) gained 912,694 residents between the 2000 census and July 1, 2007, an increase of 19.4 percent, according to population estimates released today by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. That gain puts the total population of the 10-county region at 5,628,101, ranking sixth among U.S. metropolitan areas. Were the Houston MSA a state, it would rank 19th, having surpassed both Wisconsin and Maryland in the past year.

Harris County, the nation's third most populous county, gained 535,277 people, up 15.7 percent from the census. Fort Bend County, up 43.8 percent, and Montgomery County, up 40.5 percent, were respectively the seventh and 11th fastest growing among the nation's 247 counties with populations greater than 250,000. Among all counties nationwide, Harris County's increase was second only to 808,032 in Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix). If recent trends continue
(given the housing crash in Phoenix right now, I kinda doubt it), Maricopa will surpass Harris by the 2010 census.

From mid-'06 to mid-'07, the Houston MSA gained 120,544 residents. (Fans of trivia and quirky numbers, please note: that figure translates almost exactly to one person per square mile per month.) Nearly half of the growth--59,549--was in Harris County. Fort Bend accounted for 24,340, Montgomery gained 19,405, and Brazoria picked up 9,990.

Houston's population growth continues to be composed of roughly one-half natural increase (resident births less resident deaths), one-third international migration and one-sixth domestic migration.

2000 Census

July 1, 2007

.Austin County
.Brazoria County
.Chambers County
.Fort Bend County
.Galveston County
.Harris County
.Liberty County
.Montgomery County
.San Jacinto County
.Waller County

Houston MSA

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census

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Monday, March 17, 2008

America's next great world city (+ tourism proposal)

A while back, The American magazine asked urban historian Joel Kotkin to write a piece on America's next great world city. It took a little work, but he convinced the editors that Houston was the place, and now the article is out and available online. I highly encourage reading the whole thing, but here are my favorite excerpts:
Lone Star Rising

How a combination of ambition, entrepreneurship, trade, and tolerance made Houston America’s booming opportunity city.

None of this, however, adequately explains Houston’s ascendancy. Other cities enjoy better locations for shipping, richer agricultural resources, or similar proximity to oil fields. The answer, I have come to understand as I have worked in Houston as a reporter and consultant, echoes something that the late Soichiro Honda once told me: “More important than gold and diamonds are people.” This critical resource, more than anything, accounts for Houston’s headlong drive toward becoming not only the leading city of Texas and the South, but also a player on the global scene: it is emerging as one of the world’s great cities.
As Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg notes, roughly 80 percent of Houstonians, according to his annual local surveys, consistently agree with the proposition that “if they work hard, they can succeed here.”
In 1960, Houston was the home of hardly any major energy companies, ranking behind New York, Los Angeles, and even Tulsa; today, 16 large companies make their headquarters there, more than all those cities combined.

Rather than lapsing into a tailspin in the 1980s, Houston continued its rapid growth. A place with fewer than 300,000 people in 1930 is now a mega-region with a population nearing five million (actually 5.5+). The population of the metropolitan area itself, which did not even rank in the U.S. top 20 in 1940, is today the fourth largest in the country (not quite yet: 4th-largest city, but 6th-largest metro - probably 5th by the 2010 Census). The 2006 census estimate pegged Houston’s population at 2,144,491, only 700,000 behind third-place Chicago. In 1960, Houston was the home of just one Fortune 500 company; as of 2007, the area has 23. And the city is well positioned to benefit from its important place in the energy industry, a sector of the global economy that is only going to grow in strategic importance in the early 21st century.


Lauding Houston to urban planners is not much different than extolling red meat at a convention of vegans.

Ultimately, it’s a question of defining what makes a city great. Many city planners today focus largely on aesthetics, the arts, and the perception of being “cool.” Academics and many economic-development experts link urban success to cities’ appeal to the “creative class” of college-educated young people. In this calculus, the traditional practice of gauging a city’s success by studying patterns of population or employment growth, or noting the opportunities available for working-class or middle-class families to flourish, rarely registers as important.


Over the past decade, Houston, Phoenix, and Dallas each have matched the employment growth of New York, Boston, San Francisco, and the Silicon Valley area combined. One of the most powerful weapons of opportunity cities in this contest is the growing divergence in costs between them and “superstar” cities. The latter clearly provide somewhat higher wages to professional, financial, and engineering workers. Yet for most people, the vast differences in the cost of living and real estate prices allows professionals working in Phoenix, Charlotte, or Houston to enjoy a considerably higher standard of living.

Over time, these cost differences, as well as the associated continuing shift in employment opportunities, has begun to alter one of the most critical indicators of future economic growth: the flow of educated labor. Indeed, since the late 1990s there has been a rising outflow of workers with postsecondary education from increasingly expensive cities like Boston, New York, and San Francisco and a parallel shift toward more family-friendly, modestly priced metropolitan areas.

The Next Great World City?

Given these trends, it seems likely that the next great American city will emerge from the ranks of the opportunity cities. The ultimate winner will come from those that keep up with the infrastructure needed to accommodate their growth. They also will have to deal with issues of education, crime, and creating a skilled workforce— issues that are important anywhere, of course, but can be particularly challenging in a rapidly growing metropolis.

Perhaps the key factor that will influence the rise of the next great American city is the ability to fit into the global economy. An opportunity city with only modest links overseas can certainly grow rapidly, but only an urban center with powerful ties to global commerce is likely to achieve greatness.

This may be where the case for Houston’s emergence is strongest. From its inception, Houston has been oriented to markets outside the country, first through its exports of timber and cotton and later as a major oil port. Trade and the global connections of the energy industry have also paced the development of internationally minded banks, business-service firms, hotels, and specialized shopping areas. An indicator of Houston’s international reach: it now ranks third among U.S. cities, behind Los Angeles and New York, in the number of consulates located there. Another of Houston’s advantages is its history of tolerance. ...

Of course, I agree with Joel's case, but our key missing ingredient is tourism. Huge numbers of people visit NYC, LA, SF, and Chicago (not to mention Paris and London) - and those tourists' experiences create their global reputations. Certainly most of the country - and the world - have heard of Houston (usually regarding NASA, oil, or the med center), but very few have actually visited our city, and until that happens, our world city reputation will be frustratingly limited. Should we care? That's a whole 'nother debate. But if we do, my proposed solution would be a mammoth billion+ dollar Global Museum of Engineering and Technology that would eclipse, in its own way, DC's National Air and Space Museum, Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, LA's Getty Museum, London's British Museum, and Paris' Louvre. Combined with NASA, it would make us a compelling national and even global tourist destination, even if only for a 3-4 day "long weekend" type of trip. And, you know, the Astrodome plus the old Astroworld site would be a fantastic location. A billion dollars is certainly a lot of money, but, to put it in context, our recent stadium building spree cost more, and the Getty in LA cost $1.2 billion, so it's not unprecedented. 10 of the Forbes 400 billionaires live in Houston. Who wants to step up to the plate and have their name immortalized in the same pantheon with Getty and Smithsonian?...

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Houston #1 metro for 2007 job growth?

In case you missed it, the Rockets aren't the only thing in Texas on a tear. Houston and Texas are anchoring the majority of the job growth in the country too, all through the national slowdown of 2007 and now into the almost certain recession of 2008. This is from Skip's Greater Houston Partnership email newsletter:
It's likely that, when the revised December '06 estimate is released, 12-month job growth for December '07 will exceed 100,000, running about 4.0 percent. The key message from today's TWC estimates: Instead of slowing over the course of '07, job growth in Houston last year appears to have continued unabated, essentially matching the torrid '06 performance.

How does Houston's 3.9 percent job growth for the 12 months ending this January stack up? As usual, Austin-Round Rock leads among the state's major metropolitan areas, up 4.2 percent with a gain of 30,500. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington grew 2.9 percent, adding 83,500 jobs, and San Antonio was up 3.0 percent with a gain of 24,200 jobs. Each of the four majors outperformed the state as a whole, which posted 2.8 percent job growth.

What's been going on in Houston and in Texas contrasts vividly with the experience of most other parts of the country. From January '07 to January '08, the nation as a whole managed a net gain of 977,000 jobs--a meager 0.7 percent increase. Houston alone accounted for 9.8 percent of the nation's net growth, the four large Texas metros together accounted for nearly a quarter of it (23.9 percent), and the entire state of Texas contributed 29.1 percent. Without Texas, nationwide job growth would barely have exceeded 0.5 percent.

Wow. Almost a third of the nation's job growth is happening in Texas.

And the revised estimates a few days later:
Today, the Texas Workforce Commission released revised monthly estimates of nonfarm payroll employment for April-December 2006 and February-November 2007. They show that job growth in the Houston metropolitan area peaked last June with a 12-month net gain of more than 117,000 jobs, or 4.8 percent, and then slowed to a bit more than 90,000 jobs, or 3.6 percent, by the end of the year.
"Slowed" is relative. That is still some crazy-strong job growth. I think that makes us the #1 metro in the country for absolute job growth in 2007, but I haven't seen an official list. The usual competitors are DFW, Atlanta, and Phoenix, but I don't think any of them had as good a year as us.

Most of our long-term forecast models assume about 100K/year population growth, and about half that in job growth - so we're running almost twice as fast as that, which implies we may be adding population of around 200K/year. Hard to say how sustainable it is, but there doesn't seem to be any kind of slowdown on the horizon for energy, the Port, or medical. It may be time to accelerate a lot of those long-term infrastructure plans...

Update: Skip at GHP confirms:
Between January '07 and January '08, the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown Metropolitan Statistical Area gained more jobs than any other U.S. metropolitan area and added jobs at a faster rate than any other major metropolitan area, according to estimates published today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Houston accounted for more than 10 percent of the nation's net job growth over that period. Texas' four major metropolitan areas--Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin--together accounted for nearly 25 percent of the nation's job growth.

For more, click For the complete BLS report, with data on all metropolitan areas, click

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Monday, March 10, 2008

NY Times does Texas (wind power, diversity, and politics)

The NY Times recently had a couple good in-depth articles on Texas I wanted to pass along and excerpt. The March 4 primary is over, but this first article on the incredible size and diversity of the state - and the political complications it creates - is still an interesting one.
Pieces of Texas Turn Primary Into a Puzzle
The rapidly mounting fight in Texas has reminded national political strategists yet again of the state’s unwieldy size and stark geographical differences.
The vast, immigrant-heavy Texas of Houston, where more than 100 languages are spoken in the city’s schools

...trying to make sense of a state as large as New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina combined, and probably even more diverse.
And the rapidly mounting fight has reminded national political strategists yet again of Texas’ strange largeness — or large strangeness — a state that Congress decided in 1845, the year it joined the Union, might well be later divided into four more states should it consent.

That provision stemmed from the debate over slavery, but it was an acknowledgment of the state’s unwieldy size and stark geographical differences, from prairie towns with plainly descriptive names like Notrees and Levelland (used to visit my grandparents there) to the swamps and cypress forests of the Big Thicket National Preserve in the southeast to coastal towns like Galveston, with old Victorian neighborhoods reminiscent of San Francisco.


Texas is also separated into 20 media markets, among the most of any state in the country, with the added necessity of buying advertisements in Oklahoma and Louisiana if you want to cover every corner of it.

The next one covers the incredible growth of wind power in Texas.

Texas, once the oil capital of North America, is rapidly turning into the capital of wind power. After breakneck growth the last three years, Texas has reached the point that more than 3 percent of its electricity, enough to supply power to one million homes, comes from wind turbines.
Aesthetic and wildlife issues have led to opposition emerging around the country, particularly in coastal areas like Cape Cod. Some opposition in Texas has cropped up as well, including lawsuits to halt wind farms that were thought to be eyesores or harmful to wetlands.

But the opposition has been limited, and has done little to slow the rapid growth of wind power in Texas. Some Texans see the sleek new turbines as a welcome change in the landscape.

“Texas has been looking at oil and gas rigs for 100 years, and frankly, wind turbines look a little nicer,” said Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, whose responsibilities include leasing state lands for wind energy development. “We’re No. 1 in wind in the United States, and that will never change.”

Texas surpassed California as the top wind farm state in 2006. In January alone, new wind farms representing $700 million of investment went into operation in Texas, supplying power sufficient for 100,000 homes.

Supporters say Texas is ideal for wind-power development, not just because it is windy. It also has sparsely populated land for wind farms, fast-growing cities and a friendly regulatory environment for developers.

“Texas could be a model for the entire nation,” said Patrick Woodson, a senior development executive with E.On, a German utility operating here.


Texas is better equipped to deal with the transmission problems that snarl wind energy in other states because a single agency operates the electrical grid and manages the deregulated utility market in most of the state.


At the end of 2007, Texas ranked No. 1 in the nation with installed wind power of 4,356 megawatts (and 1,238 under construction), far outdistancing California’s 2,439 megawatts (and 165 under construction). Minnesota and Iowa came in third and fourth with almost 1,300 megawatts each (and 46 and 116 under construction, respectively).

Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and Oregon, states with smaller populations than Texas, all get 5 to 8 percent of their power from wind farms, according to estimates by the American Wind Energy Association.

It has dawned on many Texans in recent years that wind power, whatever its other pros and cons, represents a potent new strategy for rural economic development.

Since the wind boom began a few years ago, the total value of property here in Nolan County has doubled, and the county judge, Tim Fambrough, estimated it would increase an additional 25 percent this year. County property taxes are going down, home values are going up and the county has extra funds to remodel the courthouse and improve road maintenance.

“Wind reminds us of the old oil and gas booms,” Mr. Fambrough said.

I'd like to end this post by acknowledging the 3-year anniversary of this blog. Approaching 600 posts and counting. It's been a fun 3 years, and I look forward to keeping it going many more. If you're a relative newcomer to Houston Strategies, or if you're just feeling curious or nostalgic, you can browse highlights from those three years here.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Green space award, density vs. sprawl, good transit, Yao, stadium, flights, and an event

Clearing out the queue of smaller items again, which seems to grow faster and faster these days.
  • A good friend of mine, Dr. Chris Bronk at Rice in the Baker Institute for Public Policy, is putting on "The Conference on Convergence and Connectivity 2008: Broadband, Wireless and Mobile" where "Experts in academia, industry and government gather to discuss the impact of digital communications technology" (i.e. this is a policy conference, not a technical one). It is free and open to the public on Wed March 26th. Abstract, video brief, and RSVP here.
  • Marginal Revolution analyzes the economics and logic of the Rockets drafting Yao Ming, in spite of knowing he had a high likelihood of ongoing injuries.
  • A new study indicates that sprawl, not density, promotes social interaction, despite 'common wisdom' that it does the opposite. They give several theories, but seem to miss the most obvious one to me: the suburbs have a much higher proportion of family households, and families are drawn to socially interact much more, from schools to sports to church to after-school activities to kids' social circles. There's a reason they're called "soccer moms"...
  • In a route I would have never predicted, Finnair may connect Houston to India via Helsinki, which sounds kind of crazy until you pull a string on a globe and find that it is very close to the shortest "great circle" route between Houston and India.
"We will be looking to provide more services in the U.S. and are looking at destinations on the West Coast and cities like Houston and Dallas to which we can provide services in the future to cater to India-U.S. traffic."

The Chronicle covers other recent new international service here (Dubai, Doha, Moscow, Singapore).
  • A study finds increased density and street connectivity does not increase walking.
  • Tom rightfully skewers what's going on with both the Ashby tower controversy and land for the soccer stadium.
  • Speaking of the soccer stadium, Christof has a post on how badly the proposed stadium cuts off the east-west street grid in east downtown. Why can't they shift it north or south to match up with either the GRB or Minute Maid?
  • Neal has an interesting transit analysis titled "Of Harris County Metro Ridership statistics and private provision of public transportation." Here's the excerpt that most jumped out at me:
"Mills and Hamilton go on to state that people value wait times, transfer times, and access times at much higher rates than those of times actually spent in transit. In particular, they state that wait times for vehicles are absolute killers for patronage, being put at some 2-4 times greater than one's average wage. Clearly one way to increase transit patronage is to make sure wait times are cut down to a minimum. The other is to find ways to increase the travel speeds of the vehicle, perhaps through bus routes with fewer stops or through dedicated bus lanes. It also points to the idea that people are willing to pay some rather high fuel prices before giving up their vehicles."

This is why frequent, nonstop, high-speed express bus service is better commuter service than infrequent large trains that stop several times on their way in, as well as typically requiring a transfer for people to get to their final destination.
  • The Harris County Flood Control District won an award for green space preservation against 11 other large U.S. counties. Very cool. We seem to get knocked a lot on the parks and green space issue, but whenever people really look at what we have and what we're doing, we actually come out pretty well.
And one final pass along:
OpenID John Sterling said...


I wanted to engage in some minor threadjacking and share this link with other readers from Ft. Bend.

According to the press I saw "Sugar Land officials and Fort Bend County Public Transportation are working with the Texas Transportation Institute to determine the community's interest in transportation services for the city. The focus of the study is the area in a one mile radius from the US-59/Hwy. 6 intersection."

I imagine that the transportation savvy readers of "Houston Strategies" will have plenty of valuable input.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Texas vs. Ohio

Both Joel Kotkin and the Wall Street Journal have written similar op-eds showing the dichotomy of the Texas and Ohio economies before the potentially decisive Democratic primaries. Joel's post even attached some metrics charts on migration, job growth, economic growth, and demographics. Reason excerpts the political ramifications, as well as noting:
Interesting, Joel also points out that techies and CEOs seem to be attracted to Texas's low housing costs, free market business climate, and lack of an income tax. Ohio, on the other hand, has tried unsuccessfully to revitalize its economy through tax breaks and glitzy downtown development schemes.
Some Kotkin excerpts:
Texas is clearly on the rise, a fast-growing, dynamic and increasingly economically attractive place that will eventually contest California itself for national preeminence.
Texas presents, in many ways, Ohio’s mirror image. This free-market haven is among the few large states that enjoy both strong net internal migration of domestic residents and growth in immigration. Despite its less than stellar reputation among northeastern intellectuals and journalists, Texas also has become a major draw for college-educated workers in their late 20s and beyond. This is not merely an Austin phenomenon, but it is also true for Houston and Dallas.

Economically, Texas is on a roll, driven in large part by its historic role as an energy center. Bill Gilmer, a Houston-based economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, ascribes the growth to several critical factors, including higher energy prices, relatively low housing and business costs and a recovery in the technology sector. “Everything’s now hitting on all cylinders,” Gilmer said.

Anyone who has spent time working in Houston, as I have, has noticed the big “buzz” of economic activity that shows the place has come back. The streets are definitely more crowded now than they were just a few years back, and there seem to be a lot of high-end stores and restaurants opening all around.

Houston’s job growth is running at about twice the national average, with manufacturing, finance and professional and business services all gaining. Incomes, adjusted for cost of living, have grown more quickly there than in most other cites. But it’s energy, Gilmer and other economists believe, that’s driving growth, bringing a whole cadre of new, highly paid professionals to an increasingly sophisticated high-tech business.

“Our business has been growing 40 percent for the last three years,” exults Chris Schoettelkotte, CEO of Manhattan Resources, a Houston-based executive search firm specializing in recruiting energy executives. “We’re pulling people from Wharton, Harvard, MIT and UCLA like never before.”

...Technology, too, is making a comeback in the Lone Star State. Austin is often lumped in with “hip” places such as Boston or Silicon Valley, but unlike them, it is adding jobs and enjoying a big surge of new migrants.

Lower housing prices and no state income tax, it appears, appeal to techies as much as other high-income folks, particularly engineers and executives entering their child-rearing years and moving primarily into the city’s sprawling suburbs.
Due in part to expanding trade with Mexico and other Latin American economies, Texas in 2002 replaced California as the nation’s leading exporting state.

With typical Texas ambition, Houston is actively poaching global business from both East Coast and West Coast ports, and Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are becoming huge players in air cargo, one of the fastest-growing elements in world trade.

...Texas is a relatively young state — its population between the ages of 18 and 44 is expanding at more than three times the national average.

...But Texas Latinos are not identical to those in the Golden State.

For one thing, they tend to be far less unionized and more entrepreneurial than their California counterparts. And they are far more integrated into the Texas mainstream than the California community, which is made up of more recent immigrants.
The WSJ continues the hammering of Ohio:
Ohio's economy has been struggling for years, and most of its wounds are self-inflicted. Ohio now ranks 47th out of 50 in economic competitiveness, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council. Ohio politicians deplore plant closings even as they impose the third highest corporate income tax in the country (10.5%) and the sixth highest personal income tax (8.87%). A common joke is that Ohio lays out the red carpet for companies -- when they leave the state. By contrast, Texas has no income tax, a huge competitive advantage.

Ohio's most crippling handicap may be that its politicians -- and thus its employers -- are still in the grip of such industrial unions as the United Auto Workers. Ohio is a "closed shop" state, which means workers can be forced to join a union whether they wish to or not. Many companies -- especially foreign-owned -- say they will not even consider such locations for new sites. States with "right to work" laws that make union organizing more difficult had twice the job growth of Ohio and other forced union states from 1995-2005, according to the National Institute for Labor Relations.

On the other hand, Texas is a right to work state and has been adding jobs by the tens of thousands. Nearly 1,000 new plants have been built in Texas since 2005, from the likes of Microsoft, Samsung and Fujitsu. Foreign-owned companies supplied the state with 345,000 jobs. No wonder Texans don't fear global competition the way some Presidential candidates do.

So tomorrow the eyes of America will be on these two states moving in different directions. Ohio has an economy burdened by high taxes and work rules that impose heavy costs on employers. Texas embraces free trade, keeps taxes low, doesn't impose unions on business and has tooled itself for 21st century global competition. Ohioans may not like to hear this, but for any company considering where to locate a new plant or move an existing one, the choice between Ohio and Texas isn't even a close call.

The challenge for our national economy in a world of competition is to become more like Texas and less like Ohio

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