Thursday, May 07, 2009

MetroRail cost disputes, TX growth, rankings, and more

OK, my queue of smaller misc items has been spiraling out of control, so here are some of them:

One thing hasn’t changed in this recession: Those who are mobile will continue to move where jobs are relatively plentiful and housing is cheaper.

The winners continue to be southeastern states and Texas. Some 67,000 single- and multifamily building permits were issued in the southern region in the first three months of this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Texas alone accounted for more than 20,000 authorizations. Hot spots are still Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin.

Considering that almost 120,000 permits in the entire country were issued during that period, it shows that more than half of all new construction is in the South, where the cost of housing and living is significantly lower than in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast. In contrast, just 5,571 units were approved in New York and New Jersey combined.

  • A cool new service that lets you build videos with XML text editing just launched, and to show off their service, they auto-generated 1,000 videos from Wikipedia content, including Houston. Not bad, although they should have included some sort of audio or music track.
  • Some national maps of the best cities for job growth. The devastation in CA, FL, and the automotive Midwest is pretty apparent. Hat tip to Joel.
  • Business Week ranks Houston as world's 10th most inventive city. Not bad. Hat tip to neoHouston.
  • Austin and Houston Hobby rank in North America's top 5 airports. Usually I drive to Austin, but I did get to fly through there a few months ago, and it is really nice. They did a great job with the Bergstrom conversion from an Air Force base. I never saw the old Austin airport. And of course they've done a great job with the Hobby renovations.
  • Houston was recently ranked as the #6 best city to live in, based mainly on economic and housing stability. Hat tips to Jessie and the houstonist.
  • Five of the top 10 selling master-planned communities in the country are in Houston. If you guessed The Woodlands was our #1, you'd be incorrect this year: Cinco Ranch edged it out, and they were followed by Telfair, Sienna Plantation, and Eagle Springs (by IAH). Another hat tip to Jessie.
  • A Brookings report finds that jobs continue to disperse and decentralize outside of city centers, just as they long have in Houston, raising another red flag that commuter rail transit to downtown (less than 7% of jobs) is not the answer, but this is.
The final item is a big one. Several reports say Metro's announced costs for the new light rail lines are low by more than half (KHOU Channel 11 and followup, Examiner, blogHouston, Neal analysis). From The Examiner:
Using the $1.46 billion contract as the basis for calculations, the average cost of the four corridors will be $68 million per mile. The average based on the (FTA) letters of no prejudice amounts for the North and Southeast corridors would increase the cost to $159.4 million per mile.

It would also increase the cost of the East End Corridor to $527.7 million and more than double the price of the Uptown Corridor to $688.8 million.

That would bring the estimated cost of the four lines to more than $3 billion.

Separately, the 11 miles of the University Corridor not included in the contract would be more than than $1.7 billion.
$4.7 billion is a truly staggering amount of money if that turns out to be the true cost - way, way beyond the $640 million bond issue voters approved in 2003. Metro needs to show some transparency and clarity on this soon, ideally with a full reconciliation of all the numbers on their web site - including the revenue projections and expected Fed dollars to pay for it.

I'd also like to start hearing the Mayoral candidates weigh-in on this topic, since one of them will control most of the Metro board come January.

Update: The Chronicle story, which does dissect some of the numbers, but not the ones in the FTA letters.

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At 1:28 AM, May 08, 2009, Anonymous david said...

after reading your blog, so I understand What to write articles so that your visitors interested to read

At 9:25 AM, May 08, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Look METRO likes and hides information AGAIN!

They are the worst agency to pull TxPIA requests. They'll delay anything for public review until the last minute before board votes so the media can't stir things up.

The Chronicle has fired the only recent reporter that actually wrote a real article on METRO (Mrs. Ruiz who is now at Texas Watchdog). Her article details how horrible the bus service is and how easy it is for people to make the decision to just drive if they have the means too.

At 11:40 AM, May 08, 2009, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...


I've been following the Mayoral candidates on the campaign trail over the past month or so. These are my notes on what they have said about Metro Rail:

1) Gene Locke has stated he supports rail, but has admitted that "money is a real problem." He has stated that the original thought was that the $640 million in bonding authority that the agency asked for back in the 2003 election would be enough to pay for a substantial amount of Phase 2, a belief that not come to pass.

Locke often talks to Congressman Al Green about various matters and Al Green has told him that federal money is a long ways off.

As an aside, the Houston Chronicle reported some weeks ago that the Houston congressional delegation has asked for $2 billion in earmarks for FY2010. After doing some research, I discovered that about $600 million of that $2 billion is for Metro. Of that $600 million, $430 million of that is for rail transit, but it's often hard to bag earmarks of that magnitude.

Peter Brown: Mr. Brown has not specifically addressed the MetroRail funding issue, but he is alarmed at the mistrust the agency has generated in the community with its rail plans. He wants a more responsive board, as well as better bus service to feed the rail lines.

Annise Parker: Ms. Parker has stated that she supports rail, but has voiced concern that the cost of the project will cause Metro to cannibalize the bus system in favor of building rail lines.

Roy Morales: Mr. Morales supports rail, but has not specifically addressed the cost issue. He has voiced concern about traffic problems caused by at grade rail, noting that Metro cannot run 3 or more rail cars on one train along rail lines because that would cause the length of the train to be so long as to possibly block traffic at some intersections while trains are at train station stops. Hence there is a limit on the economies of scale that can be obtained via employing light rail. For safety and traffic reasons, he supports sky trains or elevated rail.


At 12:21 PM, May 08, 2009, Anonymous Chris said...

Congrats on the reference from the Dallas paper! You've officially entered the ranks of public intellectual.

At 2:04 PM, May 08, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks, Chris!

And thanks, Neal, for the details. That is very helpful. At least they're acknowledging the cost issue, something Mayor White has been remarkably quiet on.


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