Thursday, March 05, 2009

MetroRail, Portland, energy, stimulus, and a race

So Metro approved the contract for 4 of the 5 new light rail lines this week. Although there have been complaints about the 2012 plan delays, it looks like Metro used the time - and the intervening economic collapse - wisely to get the costs down to $73 million per mile (from potential estimates as high as $100m per mile). That's still more than the $45 million a mile for the 2004 Main St. line, but that reflects not only inflation but a complete 5-year design-build-operate contract that is much more comprehensive than the Main St. line contract. Metro claims their financial books are solid for the whole thing - let's hope so. As usual, Christof has the details here.

Moving on to some other items:
  • A Business Week ranking has Portland, Oregon as the country's most unhappy city, based on crime, depression, suicide, divorce, economy, and other factors. Hard to believe it beat out Detroit. I'm not sure how much their heavy-handed approach to land-use regulation impacted those results, but you'd have to think hostility to cars, increasing congestion, and skyrocketing home prices and cost-of-living wouldn't help - not to mention forcing walking, waiting, and transit ridership during the long, dreary, rainy winter months. The dark side of 'smart growth' taken to extremes.
  • Houston is the #3 energy star city according to the EPA, as the energy capital should be. Good conservation should be part of that capital status. Hat tip to HAIF.
  • If you're curious, here's the Texas list of stimulus projects. Hat tip to... um... sorry, I lost track of who sent me this. Please claim your credit in the comments.
  • A Wall Street Journal blog thinks the floor on oil prices has been reached. I've seen other, similar prognostications, including predictions of more strong OPEC cuts next week. Let's hope so. No desire for another 1980's here (movies and music, yes - local economy, no).
Finally, you might want to check out this site called High Trek Adventure that coordinates an urban race where "teams of 2 solve clever clues and face fun challenges all while navigating the urban landscape via foot or on public transportation! It's a scavenger hunt, with all the thrills of the amazing race, mixed in with trivial pursuit, throw in a mini road race and add a dash of cat-and-mouse." Houston's race is Saturday March 14th. I did something similar a couple times when I was a student at Rice, and it was a blast. Would have won, too, if I'd trusted my hack of their software code. Ahh, youth (insert warm fuzzy nostalgia here).

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At 9:19 AM, March 06, 2009, Blogger ian said...

". . .forcing walking, waiting, and transit ridership. . ."

Oh please. Providing options is not the same thing as forcing. People in Portland have plenty of cars. They just also have other options, as well.

However, I do find the Portland-depression link very interesting, although I don't dispute it. Portland is definitely held up as a model city, so for it to even beat out such down-and-out cities as Detroit really is surprising. Here's my hypothesis for at least part of the phenomenon, based on many of the people I know who have moved to Portland: perhaps immigrants to the city generally tend naturally to be dissatisfied with life. When I lived in Austin, I met several people who couldn't wait to move to Portland, because it's such a great place and will fix all of their problems. But then they get there, and it's great, and all that planning has made Portland a wonderful place to live (wink, wink), but they find they still aren't happy because the unhappiness is more deeply rooted.

Just a thought. That wouldn't necessarily account for the native Portlanders. . .but then again maybe the natives are happy. I get the sense that a LOT of people move to Portland, at least temporarily, and if a significant number of them are going to be unhappy wherever they live, that may tip the balance

At 9:54 AM, March 06, 2009, Blogger Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

The relative depression of places like Portland has nothing to do with planning or smart growth. I have family members living in the Pacific Northwest, and I know that most of the depression has to do with the weather. Compound that with the current economic climate and there you go. And of course this assumes the Business Week article has any validity in the first place.

I can tell you from first hand experience that the relative depression level of residents in Portland and Seattle fluctuates with the seasons. People depressed in dark and dreary February suddenly become rejuvenated come summer. At that time of year people in Portland and Seattle are out and about, walking, sitting at sidewalk cafes and bars and generally enjoying the sunshine and beautiful weather. Shockingly, they are using light rail, trolleys and their own two feet by choice; I know…it is amazing.

Finally, you failed to mention that the article also notes the high degree of suicides in places like Las Vegas, hardly the center of smart growth and transit. In fact, the article directly contradicts your implied reasoning (i.e. that somehow dense, smart growth places like Portland are depressing). If anything, the article points out that the anti-urban, socially-isolating rural nature of states like Arizona, Nevada, Alaska, and Oregon (Oregon is more than Portland…it is a big state) are the real cause of depression and higher suicide rates.

Quote from the article:
“More densely populated places, where residents are closer to friends, family, and social services, tend to have lower rates (of suicide).”

At 10:31 AM, March 06, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's a city in Oregan named Boring for a reason...


But really, wintery overcast weather is not fun. I'm so glad that the warmth is back.

The cold hurts!

At 1:03 PM, March 06, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, I think Portland has been hostile to the car - both in terms of ignoring needed freeway expansions (as Austin used to do) and parking - and that has forced people onto transit that would prefer not to, esp. in the winter.

I think you have a good point Ian that naturally unhappy people may migrate there because of its reputation, and they're still unhappy. Those people are also likely to be more socially isolated, since they obviously gave up whatever (probably limited) social network they had in their origin city to move to Portland. People with large, deep, happy social networks tend to prefer not to move.

As far as weather, it's the same as Seattle, which is much farther down the list. Some other factor is hitting them other than the depressing winter weather.

At 2:18 PM, March 06, 2009, Blogger Appetitus Rationi Pareat said...

And New York City, using your standards arguably the most "hostile" city to the car in America, is not even on the list. Neither are planned and transit-based cities like Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Philadelphia.

It has to do mainly with the economy, weather and, like the article points out, social isolation. A lot of people in the Pacific Northwest are loners. It's a cultural thing. Most of the other cities on the list are cities/towns with plenty of suburbs and are completely reliant on the automobile.

At 5:22 AM, March 07, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the residential land use policy has anything to do with the depression and suicide rate in Portland. However, the commercial/industrial land-use policy *does* affect things, pushing up the unemployment rate by making it impossible to do business (see this article from 2002).

Portland is a city in which MBAs drive Radio Cabs, because they're so intent on staying IN Portland that they're willing to accept underemployment as a trade-off. In this case the "quality of life" mystique may actually be working against its residents; if our MBA cab driver was in Houston making $80,000, he'd be driving a Cadillac or spending weekends at his lake house. In Portland he's got a 950 square foot condo and a Toyota. But he's got streetcars and street trees, so he's *supposed* to be happy.

I think I might do a blog post about this in a day or two. We'll see.

At 6:55 AM, March 07, 2009, Blogger engineering said...

Northwest weather can be depressing perhaps better comparison is Portland vs. Seattle although I find Seattle a more cosmopolitan city.

And I don't think we can talk about Portland and ignore Vancouver, WA. Although Portland is claimed as the TOD city, last time i checked population growth in Portland is minimal. While on the other side of the river Vancouver is growing like crazy.

Thus people live in Vancouver but work in Portland. The traffic congestion between the two is a problem and a source of many discussions.

Also, with economic downturn I find it hard to believe that tax revenues will continue. METRO's revenues will decrease and costs will increase. How to deal with that will be interesting.

Plus slow economy and construction on major streets will be very hard for local businesses thus likely more will go under.

At 9:29 AM, March 07, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's up Camacho? Shout-outs from a huge fan of the IH-45 tunnel concept.

At 9:32 AM, March 07, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was always a big fan of the multi-state task force for the Interstate Bridge (between Vancouver and Portland).

Oregon came up with a proposal that was basically "build light rail next to the existing bridge," and Washington came up with a proposal that was "tear down the existing bridges, build a 10-lane high-rise, plus low-rises for collector-distributor and bus lanes, plus light rail."

It was fun watching them try to "compromise." But you can see the difference in economic growth that results from the two approaches to infrastructure.

At 12:10 PM, March 07, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Like you, I had feared the next round of LRT would cost in excess of $100 million/mile. I thought we couldn't afford NOT to build it at that cost. The red line cost about $40 million/mile, so we're looking at two and half times the 2003 costs. Road construction has the same cost drivers, so that two and half times/2003 cost scenario would inflate the Katy Fwy expansion to the $7-8 billion range.

We missed an opportunity by not building a cheaper intraurban LRT system when construction costs were lower. Hopefully, we can build a robust transit network before the energy cost drivers come back to bite us. We inner-loopers need the LRT, but so do the commuters need the connectivity to enhance Park and Ride service and future commuter rail. Most area jobs are centrally located, but only 7% in downtown (as you point out.)

On an unrelated matter, Portland is not hostile to cars. Driving and parking in the central business district is a challenge, but the city has ample interstate and state highway capacity to and through the city. Portland has has far-flung suburban pods of its own. And the lack of good jobs in the suburbs/surrounding towns ensures these areas will produce many long commutes.

Sure, they are connected to commuter rail, but I think it's a mistake to use commuter rail as an excuse to extend the metropolitan frontier. We have enough of a chore connecting our existing communities.

At 1:23 PM, March 07, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

To ARP on NYC, Chicago, DC, etc: those are cities substantially built around walking and transit before the age of widespread automobile ownership (post-WW2). It's built into their fabric. Portland is a substantially car-centric post-WW2 city that is trying to restructure itself in a new way - a way that is not compatible with how the city fabric evolved over the last 50+ years (car-based). I think that has created a lot of pain on a lot of levels (rapidly increasing housing costs, congestion, parking problems, etc.). I'm not saying it's the root or primary cause of their unhappiness ranking, but I do think it is one more factor in the mix.

> he city has ample interstate and state highway capacity to and through the city

It might have been ample in the past, but they have had some of the fastest congestion increases (TTI data) over the last decade or two as they refused to expand it and focused instead on LRT.

At 10:30 AM, March 09, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd note that Paul Burka has a thread on rail. If y'all want to talk to people that make decisions... :)

At 5:32 PM, March 09, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the heads up on this. Very interesting...

At 10:21 AM, March 11, 2009, Blogger engineering said...

Keep Houston Houston... i like the i45 tunnel as well. Lets compare vs.

Read your statement "you are absolutely right that high speed rail does not work if there is no means to move people around once they get to their destination."

Yes and no. First, is what we mean by high speed rail. Second, is who will pay for it and how much. Third, if rail provides a good service then local access should not be an issue. In Houston there are lots of underground air conditioned tunnels. Do we know how close to the Amtrak station are the tunnels? How many blocks?

Last, what is the average speed of high speed rail vs. passenger rail? Can we then compare the costs? Do the calcs between Austin and Houston :)... should be interesting to know the additional cost per minute between the two alternatives.


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