Monday, April 26, 2010

Drew Carey and John Stossel tell Cleveland to learn from Houston

What started as a humble video segment for Reason TV has mushroomed into a lot of positive PR for Houston (and less than positive for Cleveland).  It started with famous actor and comedian Drew Carey working with the libertarian Reason Foundation on a video series about saving Cleveland, his hometown.  Houston is held up as a "best practice" example for land use regulation.  There are lots of suggestions and positive comparisons to Houston on red tape (minutes 29:20 thru 32), zoning (37:30), and opportunity (47:50). Yours truly has a short cameo at 38:55. (If you want to be able to jump around, the trick is to start playing it, then hit Pause. You'll see the grey loading indicator continue to download the video. Come back later after it's fully loaded and you'll be able to jump to any point you like.)

After the series was released to the internet and Forbes declared Cleveland the Most Miserable City in America, John Stossel at FOX Business News picked it up.  A friend of mine loaned me a DVD of the 45 minute show (thanks Nolte), but I haven't been able to find it online.  There are shorter segments about it here and here.  The first one jumps right into talking about Houston 16 seconds in, and the second one jumps into Houston around 40 seconds and 58 seconds in.  The Cleveland newspaper writes about the show here.

Unfortunately, one of the professors he has on the show to present the other side brings up another one of those Houston myths that just won't die: that you can build anything next to anything, including a strip club next to a day care center or school.  No, we have narrow nuisance and SOB regulations to prevent that.   We also have private deed restrictions. You don't have to prescriptively control everything to prevent the worst-case scenarios.

Then Bill O'Reilly picks up the story in an interview with Stossel (hat tip to Jessie):
STOSSEL: People go to where the weather is good. We already have...
O'REILLY: Well, you can't blame the city for the weather. I mean, look at Chicago. Great city, bad weather. Boston, come on. You can't blame the city for the weather.
STOSSEL: You can rank them for that. And you can blame the politicians for saying we're going to raise taxes to build our wonderful projects, and that's going to make things better. The cities that prosper like Houston are the cities that have fewer rules and lower taxes.
O'REILLY: But remember Houston used to be the crime capital? They cleaned that place up pretty well.
STOSSEL: But Cleveland has 22 zoning categories. Houston has none.
O'REILLY: Twenty-two zoning categories? Very hard.
STOSSEL: In Cleveland, to start a business, a politician bragged, "We could get you in there in just 18 months." In Houston, one day.
O'REILLY: One day? The problem with no zoning is you can have, you know, the No-Tell Motel right next to you. And...
STOSSEL: You could. But that rarely happens. And it's not an ugly city, Houston.
O'REILLY: No, I didn't say it was ugly. Who said it was ugly?
STOSSEL: Lots of people. No zoning. The city planner said it will be ugly. You will have...
O'REILLY: We have a lot of Houstonians watching "The Factor," and I love going to Houston. All right. There you are, the Forbes magazine list, and Stossel laying it down.

We've come a long way.  Five or ten years ago, you couldn't find many people - including libertarians - that were willing to hold Houston up as a land-use model in public because our reputation was so bad.  But now they do, and it's (slowly) changing our national reputation for the better.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

What to do if Metro fraud costs us $900 million Fed$

Adding to the Metro mess, KHOU 11News Defenders have an expose this morning on how Metro deceived the FTA in its rail funding application (hat tip to Barry). It intentionally used out-of-date pre-recession sales tax revenue estimates to "prove" it could afford to build all five lines (which was required).  UH Dr. Barton Smith gave them updated numbers in June 2009, but they chose to submit the old June 2008 numbers with the November 2009 application.
"In fact, for the next 15 years combined, Smith downgraded his tax revenue projection by $2.4 billion, but KHOU discovered Metro never shared that information with the federal government."
The FTA is unhappy and has asked for and received the updated data.  Two local congressmen are calling for a fraud investigation and a Metro house-cleaning. It's unclear if the $900 million in federal funding for the North and SE rail lines is in jeopardy.

While I'd hate to see Houston lose out on federal funding, the loss might force us to do a much-needed rethinking of the Metro Solutions plan.  A whole lot has changed since the 2003 referendum.  Not only have revenue estimates plummeted, but cost and debt estimates have skyrocketed.  Traffic congestion has increased noticeably.  And gasoline prices went from $1.50 to $4 - and now temporarily down to $3, but the expectation is they will rise again as global growth gets back on track.  That has, and will, dramatically increase the demand for long-distance commuter solutions, especially frequent express buses from all neighborhoods to all job centers with an improved and expanded HOV/HOT lane network.  If we don't do it, I think we're going to see more employers considering places like The Woodlands, Katy, and Sugar Land (see bottom) to cut their employees' commutes while still giving them nice, new, affordable homes in good school districts - to the detriment of the core City of Houston tax base and vitality (like Exxon's potential move to The Woodlands).

Where is the money for those new commuter solutions going to come from? My proposal would be to scale back the core LRT network to connecting just the major job centers and destinations. That network would free up money by temporarily switching the North, East, Southeast, and (probably) Uptown lines to fast, frequent signature bus service.  They have relatively low ridership projections and are through neighborhoods with uncongested streets (except Uptown, of course, but it can ill-afford rail disruption on Post Oak) where buses work just fine for the demand. We can no longer afford speculative rail lines through uncongested low-density neighborhoods without major destinations, while hoping for long-term densification.

Ultimately this short-term setback could be a long-term blessing in disguise.

Update: The Chronicle Politics blog is reporting that there was no deception, the FTA knew what it was getting all along, and the N and SE federal funds are not at risk.
Update 2: KHOU followup story: Feds scold Metro and take action to protect taxpayers on rail lines

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Houston rankings, profiles, defense, music, affordability, IAH, and more

Time again for some of the smaller misc items that have stacked up:
  • Ted Balaker has a new Reason TV piece on how red tape and taxes are strangling California.  Texas is talked about as a better model about 5:30 in, with numerous shots of Houston.
  • In case you missed it, check out Jennifer-Joy Bronk's recent op-ed in the Chronicle on using micro-loans to stimulate entrepreneurship, economic development and wealth in our own city of Houston.  A great idea well worth supporting.
  • From HAIF: a defense of Houston cleverly titled "Why Houston sucks"
  • Ben Mutzenbaugh blogs for USA Today on the airline industry, and he put together a behind-the-scenes photo gallery of IAH during a recent visit.
  • A David Brooks quote/stat relevant to the urban/suburban density debate:
"In 1964, there were 15,000 foundations in the U.S. By 2001, there were 61,000. In 2007, total private giving passed $300 billion. Participation in organizations like City Year, Teach for America, and College Summit surges every year. Suburbanization helps. For every 10 percent reduction in population density, the odds that people will join a local club rise by 15 percent. The culture of service is now entrenched and widespread."
It sounds like overexposure makes one a little more hostile towards your fellow man, like the famous NYC stereotype.  I'm still a believer in offering all levels of density to let people live how they want to live, but it's still interesting to understand the pros and cons of each.
"Houston and Phoenix ranked seventh and eighth, with cost indexes of 97.9 and 98.1, respectively.  Houston also benefited from very low natural gas costs and low office leasing costs..."
  • A Financial Times special report profile: Houston: where energy is king
  • The Dallas Morning News on how cool the Houston music scene is.  This is cool but surprising, considering the Houston Press did a cover story a couple years ago about how dead the indie music scene was in Houston (and how bands routinely skip us for Austin and Dallas).
A hearty hat tip to Jessie for the last four items.  Thanks.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Land-use panel event Tues (with free lunch!)

I'm planning on attending this event and wanted to pass the announcement along.  If you work downtown it should be particularly easy to attend:

South Texas College of Law will host what promises to be a very interesting land use panel on Tuesday, April 13, at noon.  It's called "Land Use in the Unzoned City: Regulation, Property Rights, and Smart Growth in Houston's Future."  It's free and open to everyone, with lunch provided and no rsvp necessary.  Attorneys and professionals interested in real estate, environnmental law, or Houston politics might find it interesting.  We have a great panel of leaders and experts in the law, planning, and development aspects of land use.  Please feel welcome to attend, and to forward this invitation to any persons or groups who might be interested.  From the web page:

The South Texas Real Estate Law Society is proud to present an in-depth look at the regulation of property use, property rights and smart growth in Houston. The free program will feature experts on urban development and regulation including President of Houston Tomorrow, David Crossley; CEO of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, Kendall Miller; and Professors Craig Anthony Arnold from the University of Houston and Asmara Tekle from Texas Southern University. The discussion will be moderated by South Texas Professor Matthew Festa and features a complimentary lunch. The event is co-sponsored with Houstonians for Responsible Growth and Houston Tomorrow.

When:  Tuesday, April 13, 12:00 noon
Where: South Texas College of Law, 1303 San Jacinto, Downtown Houston, Garrett-Townes Auditorium

For more information, please contact Matthew Festa at 713-646-1857.

The website is here:

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Madam Mayor and me on the Metro mess

I've been wanting to do a "big picture" post on Metro since the transition committee reports came out (see below for links), and after a blogger conference call with the Mayor last night I think I finally have all the pieces I need.  I originally expected it to be a post of despair:
  • Massive debt for extreme rail construction costs hobbling Metro for a decade or more, with budgets running out before the most-critical, job-center-connecting Universities line is built.
  • Shady dealings.  In fact, Metro offices were raided today by the district attorney.
  • A study for a 290 commuter rail line ending at 610, connecting to an Uptown line that probably won't exist from a lack of money, and still providing no meaningful commuter service for anybody going downtown or the the TMC.
  • With continued local and global growth, commute times and gas prices will reach intolerable levels, and Metro won't have any money for a desperately needed expansion of express commuter bus service from more neighborhoods to more job centers with more frequency and more capacity. Employers are likely to speed up their exodus to suburbs like The Woodlands, Katy, and Sugar Land - further deteriorating Houston's tax base.
  • Logical prioritization would focus on the Universities line and expanded commuter bus service first (with signature bus service on the other lines until they can be comfortably paid for), but $900 million of use-it-or-lose-it federal funding will force us to focus instead on the secondary N and SE rail lines that do not add any new connectivity among job centers.
In other words, we're going to build the least critical pieces for the most money, leaving nothing for innovation or adaptation to a rapidly changing and growing city.  Overstressed budgets will leave Metro a zombie agency.  Summing up the Mayor's Metro transition committees:  

"Iceberg approaching. Full steam ahead!"

It's enough to make even a staunch Houston booster like me pessimistic about our future.
But after talking with the Mayor, I feel (a bit) better:
  • Her new board members will bring much needed transparency, credibility, new leadership, and fresh thinking to the agency.
  • She realizes the critical need for regional expansion of transit, and is ok if Metro is not in charge - a key condition to bringing the surrounding counties on-board.
  • She agrees we need a substantial expansion in express commuter bus service as well as circulator systems (like the former downtown trolleys).  Unfortunately, she's also supporting commuter rail, which I'm less of a fan of.
  • They are willing to consider postponing the non-federally-funded East End line to move up construction of the higher-priority Universities line.  I really hope to hear more soon about investigations into this option.
So what's the net-net?  I've moved from despondent to cautiously hopeful, but certainly not optimistic or enthusiastic.  We'll just have to see how it develops.

Here are links to pdfs of the Powerpoint charts produced by the transition committees to brief the Mayor.  Thanks to the CTC for hosting these on their server:
On an unrelated note, during the call she also mentioned the possibility of privatizing city parking meters to raise funds to close the budget gap.  Chicago was able to bring in over a billion dollars this way, although not without controversy.  Properly handled with a few lessons-learned from Chicago, it could be a relatively pain-free solution to at least some of our budget problems.  Then again, a budget crisis is a terrible thing to waste if we can use it to push through much-needed pension reforms.  The easy way out may cost us longer-term.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

Tripling the value of the Clear Lake Metro Park-and-Ride

I know I've been a little thin on new content recently, something I hope to rectify soon.  In the meantime, here is a small new 'strategy' for Houston Metro: move the Clear Lake P&R lot from Bay Area Blvd. to the Space Center Houston parking lots.

Here are the benefits:
  • Express commuter buses could now carry passengers both ways with NASA employees and contractors that live up in Houston doing the reverse commute.  They could walk to the NASA campus easily from Space Center Houston (or even take the Rocket Park trams).
  • Tourists to Houston would be able to access our #1 attraction with a single express bus ride to/from downtown (or maybe even Uptown and/or TMC).  This is especially helpful to convention and business travelers that may not rent a car.  And the increase in tourism traffic may also be incentive for Space Center Houston to offer the use of the lot to Metro at substantially discounted or even free rates.
  • Space Center Houston has plenty of empty parking on weekdays *and* has plenty of land for expansion to the west (and some to the east).  From the satellite map it looks like it might even be an expansion vs. the existing Bay Area P&R.  Here's an aerial view of the Space Center Houston parking lot, and here's one for the existing Bay Area P&R lot (use the zoom out button for a better view).
  • It's right where the NASA 1 Bypass freeway spur ends for fast access to/from I45.
  • The Bay Area P&R land could be sold off for a tidy sum.
I think it could be a big boost for the route, commuters, NASA, and Houston tourism.  Let me know what you think in the comments.

UPDATE 6/8/15: Another benefit - how about connecting here to Galveston on Island Transit?

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Winter 1Q10 Highlights

It's time for the Winter 1Q10 quarterly highlights post, which is a little awkward because of the recent 5th-birthday retrospective post.  Sorry about them being so close together, but I'm trying to keep these posts on a regular schedule at the beginning of each quarter.  I promise to do some more new content posts soon.

These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument.

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly twice/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link (Atom) (or RSS 2.0) is also available. As always, thanks for your readership.

And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging).