Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rankings, stats, better transit, and Atlanta vs. Houston

The small items have been coming in thick and fast (really more medium-size in this case), compelling me to do another misc post more frequently than I'd like (ideally) before I get too many for one post:
  • Brookings has released a new report on "The State of Metropolitan America", including some pretty impressive interactive maps with tons of statistics.  If you dig into the full report (pdf), there are a lot of Houston tidbits.  A graph on p.45 shows a huge spike in domestic migration to Houston starting in 2005 with Katrina and high oil prices, and it has pretty much outpaced international migration the last half of the decade (ending the decade with roughly balanced growth between the two).  We're also high on wage inequality, which sounds bad, but actually reflects the substantial number of high-paying jobs here vs. the more flat, modest incomes found in most of the rest of the country.  Our peer group on income inequality includes NYC, LA, SF/SV, Dallas, and DC.  Not bad company as far as world cities.  Download the pdf and search on "Houston" for more.  Hat tip Houston Tomorrow.
  • An essay over at New Geography asks "Is it game over for Atlanta?"  Houston and Dallas are held up in a more favorable light vs. Atlanta several times, including on in-migration rates, job growth, freeway network, public transit investments, urban infill, and cultural development.  In my mind, Atlanta with its horrendous traffic congestion is a particularly scary example of what happens with freeway network under-investment over a number of years - and one Houston should learn from.  Hat tip to HAIF
  • The Infrastructurist blog sums up some of the transit issues in Houston, although I don't think locals will read anything they don't already know.  Her conclusion is right that Houston's growth demands better transit, it's just that the answer is not rail, but a more comprehensive express bus system to serve our dispersed job centers.  The comments are more interesting, where good points are made on why rail is inappropriate for Houston.  Hat tip to Nicholas.
  • An update on Metro's HOV-to-HOT lane conversion from Reason:
"In Houston, the local transit agency (Houston Metro), which developed its reversible HOV lanes originally as exclusive busways, has undertaken a project to convert all five of them to HOT lanes. As reported on Tollroadsnews.com, Metro has awarded $81 million worth of contracts, the largest of which is for installation of electronic tolling equipment at 52 tolling points and 47 access/egress points on five radial freeways: I-45 North, US 59 North, I-45 South, US 59 South, and US 290. The lanes are to be in operation by 2011. Besides these five HOT lanes, Houston also has new HOT lanes (two per direction) on the I-10 (Katy) freeway plus three toll roads: the Hardy, Sam Houston, and Westpark. Altogether, they will constitute something of a HOT Network (though not a seamless one)."
IMHO, 'seamless' should be the next goal, including much-needed HOT lanes on the 610 loop (and even BW8).
"If New Yorkers have learned one thing from the depredations of urban renewal, it is to distrust anyone proposing a "comprehensive vision" for our future. We know where benevolent intervention has gotten us."
Taxation and regulation: A-
Workforce quality: B+
Living environment: B+
    I was particularly heartened by those last two grades in areas where Texas is often knocked. While we have a long way to go on education, we have made strides - and our relatively strong work ethic shouldn't be undervalued. We also show that a free market approach to land-use and substantial freeway transportation investments can overcome a harsh climate and generally unremarkable terrain to yield a pretty good living environment, with large, new, affordable housing and plenty of discretionary income left over for amenities like restaurants and entertainment - critical elements often overlooked when assessing quality of life.
    Some excerpts:
    For example, Texas fares competitively with Nevada and Delaware in terms of taxation and regulatory environment, but scored best overall, in no small measure because of the perception that its government’s attitude to business is ideal. Runner-up North Carolina edged Texas slightly in its living environment, but scored somewhat below the Lone Star state in terms of government attitude to business and work ethic, which is a sine qua non for the business leaders. After employee work ethic, CEOs most highly prize lower tax rates and perceived attitudes toward business, followed by living environment considerations, such as real estate costs and education.
    “Texas is pro-business with reasonable regulations,” one CEO respondent remarked, “while California is anti-business with anti-business regulations.” Another commented, “California is terrible. Even when we’ve paid their high taxes in full, they still treat every conversation as adversarial. It’s the most difficult state in the nation. We have actually walked away from business rather than deal with the government in Sacramento.”
    By contrast, Texas, the second-most populous state and the world’s 12th largest economy, is where 70 percent of all new U.S. jobs have been created since 2008. Unsurprisingly, it scores high in all the areas CEOs value most. “You feel like state government understands the value of business and industry to create jobs and growth,” observed one CEO. Its tax credits and incentives to business choosing to locate or expand are among the most aggressive. The Texas Enterprise Fund is by far the largest deal-closing fund of any state, with grants totaling $377 million disbursed in 2008.
    Little wonder then that while Texas gained over 848,000 net new residents in the last 10 years, according to the Census Bureau, California lost 1.5 million. New York State’s net loss exceeded 1.6 million - the highest of any state. High-tax, big-government New Jersey ranked fourth, with a net loss of almost 460,000, enough to drop it from 10th to 11th place in population.
    Hat tip to Makoto and Tom.

    One final item: please sign the online petition and spread the word to help Houston get the World Cup in 2018 or 2022.

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    Tuesday, May 18, 2010

    The Case(s) against Rail Transit (and the financial collapses in Dallas and Austin)

    I've been building up a list of recent stories on national problems with rail transit projects.  The most comprehensive is Randal O'Toole's new report at Cato on "Defining Success - The Case against Rail Transit".  It is packed with disturbing statistics.  Here is the Executive Summary:
    Over the past four decades, American cities have spent close to $100 billion constructing rail transit systems, and many billions more operating those systems. The agencies that spend taxpayer dollars building these lines almost invariably call them successful even when they go an average of 40 percent over budget and, in many cases, carry an insignificant number of riders. The people who rarely or never ride these lines but still have to pay for them should ask, “How do you define success?”
    This Policy Analysis uses the latest government data on scores of rail transit systems to evaluate the systems’ value and usefulness to the public using six different tests:
    • Profitability: Do rail fares cover operating costs?
    • Ridership: Do new rail lines significantly increase transit ridership?
    • Cost-Effectiveness: Are new rail lines less expensive to operate than buses providing service at similar frequencies and speeds?
    • The “Cable Car” Test: Do rail lines perform as well as or better than cable cars, the oldest and most expensive form of mechanized land-based transportation?
    • The Economic Development Test: Do new rail lines truly stimulate economic development?
    • The Transportation Network Test: Do rail lines add to or place stresses upon existing transportation networks?
    No system passes all of these tests, and in fact few of them pass any of the tests at all.
    His short analysis of Houston is on p.25.  He also calculates that Metro loses $3.27 for each passenger trip on the light rail, which is actually not bad compared to most of the lines in the list (and in line with the loss subsidy for bus trips).  But I would expect the loss to be much, much worse on most of the new lines.

    His conclusion:
    Since around 1970, the modern rail transit boom has led American cities to spend close to $100 billion building, and billions more operating, new rail transit lines. This analysis indicates that these new lines almost always waste taxpayer dollars. Instead of providing cost-effective transportation, rail transit mainly transfers wealth from taxpayers to rail contractors, downtown property owners, and a few transit riders who prefer trains to buses.
    Most of the few rail regions that enjoyed increases in per-capita ridership or transit’s share of commuting supplemented rail construction with strict land-use rules that reduce housing affordability; transportation plans that deliberately increase congestion to discourage driving; and subsidies to high-density transit-oriented developments along the rail lines. The costs of these policies are high and benefits negligible.
    By almost any objective criteria — profitability, ridership, cost-efficiency, the Cable-Car Test, economic development, and the effect of rail transit on a region’s transportation system as a whole — few American rail transit systems make sense. Congress should correct the perverse incentives that encourage transit agencies to choose high-cost solutions to transit problems. Transit agencies should stop building rail transit. With the possible exception of a few subway and commuter-rail lines in New York and one or two other major cities, agencies should make plans to shut down existing systems when they are worn out and would otherwise require expensive rehabilitation. Those exceptions should be maintained only if they can be locally funded, preferably out of user fees and not general taxes.
    Moving on to stories on specific transit agencies and their rail plans:
    (Hat tips to kjb, Brandon, and BlogHouston for story links.)

    Can you see how it might be a blessing in disguise if we lose the $900 million in federal subsidies for the N and SE LRT lines and instead did a re-think of the Metro Solutions plan before we join the same headlines above?

    To wrap it up, a quote and some thoughts:
    “Why do politicians love trains? Because they can tell where the tracks go. They know where everybody’s going. It’s all about control. It is all about power. Politics itself is nothing but an attempt to achieve power and prestige without merit. That is the definition of politics. Politicians hate cars. They have always hated cars, because cars make people free. Not only free in the sense that they can go anywhere they want, which bugs politicians in the first place, but they can move out of the political district that the politician represents.”
    --P. J. O’Rourke, “Driven Crazy,” Reason, November 2009, p. 15.
    Not necessarily completely accurate, but (darkly) funny.  I think it stems more from a fundamental disconnect.  Voters aren't happy with their commutes and they've experienced trains in older cities or other countries that work, and wonder why they can't have the same thing - even though newer cities have fundamentally changed around the car in the last 60 years, and the economics of rail has deteriorated to the point of infeasibility (outrageous costs, few riders).  These arguments are too complex to easily convey to voters, so politicians do the simple thing: promise rail, and either study it indefinitely because it can't be made to work (or  "we're waiting on federal funds"), or actually build something that we're ultimately disappointed with, either because it was done on the cheap and doesn't connect where people really want to go, or it has massive cost overruns that bankrupt the local transit agency (or, in some cases, both).  This is also why you don't see almost any agency building any rail without massive federal subsidies, because those subsidies are the only thing that make it remotely feasible.  And they still run into cost problems, even with the subsidies, and ridership is almost always disappointing.  Yet the rail momentum seems unstoppable, certainly by anything as flimsy as logic.  Sigh.

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    Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    Houston needs a new 'museum', plus CO-UA foresight, rankings, budgets, parking, and more

    I'm speaking at a symposium in Sacramento this week, so just time to pass along the rapidly growing list of smaller items:
    "Reunited, the heady crew embodies Houston itself: oversized, earnest, subject to wild financial swings, and peculiar as all get-out."
    (HAIF discussion)
    "The first offshore production wind turbine in the U.S. will likely be erected this summer off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and operational by fall...
    Texas has unique coastal sovereignty. Because of a stipulation made when the Texas republic joined the United States in 1845, its boundary extends 10.3 miles from the coast.

    Federal land for all other coastal states begins 3 miles offshore, which means Cape Wind Associates had to seek the approval of the Minerals Management Service. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last Wednesday that the government would grant a permit to build the 420-megawatt project, which since 2001 had been debated in dozens of public meetings and faced vehement opposition from residents, historic associations and politicians."

    Hat tip to Jessie and HAIF.
    "While rankings are ubiquitous, so are their flaws. Some suffer from bad or misinterpreted data, or lack of transparency, or arbitrary weightings. Rankings also purport to draw distinctions between top-ranked entities when, statistically speaking, there is very little light between them."
        Two final items.  

        First: Attention all budding, hands-on, non-tech entrepreneurs out there (or if you know anyone like that, forward this along): you could make a boatload of money here in Houston if you built a (for-profit) museum like The City Museum in St. Louis - recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal (A Quirky Museum Exposes Kids to Thrills, Spills and Trial Lawyers - WSJ.com).  Kids absolutely love it, and if it can succeed in St. Louis, it can do at least 2-3x the business here.  700,000 annual visitors at $12 each - do the math.  Don't miss the photos and video.

        Second: while I am sad at the loss of Continental's HQ in the merger with United (although I am hopeful the reality will be a dual-HQ over time, or at least a lot of jobs just below the executive level kept here), I also need to brag a bit on the foresight of your local blogger with this Chronicle op-ed from December 2002:

        (click them to see larger images; for some reason it doesn't show up in the Chronicle's online archives)

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        Sunday, May 02, 2010

        Are we setting up commuter rail to fail?

        That's the headline of Christof Spieler's recent article in Cite magazine.  For those of you who don't know Christof, he used to write excellent posts about transit over at the Intermodality blog before being recently appointed to the Metro board.  The article was written and published before that appointment.  In it he raises a lot of critical issues regarding Houston's long-term commuter transit solution.  Here are some of the excerpts that jumped out at me:
        Houston already has two fixed guideway transit networks. Park-and-ride buses run from the suburbs to Downtown on 100 miles of HOV lanes and light rail traverses 7.5 miles of track due to be expanded to 38. Is commuter rail-a third technology-needed or would Houston be better served by expansion of its existing systems?
        Rail has traditionally stirred controversy in Houston. But one thing is clear. There’s a broad political consensus in favor of commuter rail. The clarity ends there. A dozen different corridors are under consideration; out of several possible central station locations, none connects easily to any of those corridors; at least three different agencies are vying to design and operate the system, but nobody knows how to fund it; and it’s not clear how commuter rail will connect to the existing transit system.
        Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion of commuter rail shares a widespread misconception of Houston as a city where most people work Downtown and live in the suburbs, and where most traffic is commuter traffic. In reality Houston is a multicentric city. The Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza, Uptown, Westchase, Energy Corridor, and Greenspoint each has as many jobs as other cities’ downtowns.
        Serving a multicentric city requires frequent two-way service that connects not just to Downtown but to other activity centers as well. Unfortunately, that’s not what has been proposed.
        An infrequently available, rush-hour only, Downtown-focused system will not be very effective. The entire 250-mile [Houston-Galveston Area Council]-proposed line would carry only 36,000 people a day—fewer than the 7.5-mile Main Street light rail line. And it would cost a lot of money—$3 billion in construction costs (compared to a tenth of that spent on the Main Street line) and $35 million a year, which comes to nearly $10 a trip in operating costs (compared to $1.30 on Main Street line), of which maybe 60 percent would be covered by fares.
        Other technologies — single-car diesel trains, express buses — could offer similar advantages: more frequent service, fewer transfers, faster acceleration, fewer emissions, and the ability to run outside existing railroad corridors to serve other destinations. But the HGAC and Galveston studies considered only locomotive-hauled commuter rail.

        Houston, in fact, already has very successful suburban commuter transit. METRO, Trek, and Woodlands Express buses leave suburban park-and-ride lots every morning, running as often as every three minutes, and provide nonstop trips on free-flowing high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes right onto downtown streets, a short walk away from 140,000 jobs. A 2009 Central Houston study found that over half of Downtown employees who live 20 to 70 miles from Downtown use the HOV lane buses. These 33,000 daily transit trips are in addition to 179,000 trips in local buses, vanpools, and carpools that also use the HOV lanes. If those vehicles ran on tracks rather than rubber tires, this would rank among the top ten U.S. commuter rail systems. The current service is more frequent, more convenient, and faster than most commuter rail systems and equally reliable. 
        An ineffective, expensive commuter rail system will not improve the region. Rather than rush ahead with a system based on preconceived, often faulty assumptions and driven by political urgency, we need to engage in a discussion about what we want to accomplish and how best to do that. Unfortunately, that discussion is harder to fit into a soundbite than “We need commuter rail.” And while good transit with a high level of service and efficient connectivity will carry more riders, it is often more expensive and takes longer to implement than a more basic service. A few trains a day running from Hempstead to the parking lot of Northwest Mall from which shuttle buses (frequently stuck in freeway traffic) carry a handful of riders on to Downtown and Uptown is not good transit. But the politicians who backed it would still be able to take credit for “improving transit.”
        Decisions about transit are also decisions about urban form. People and corporations alike make decisions on where to locate based on available transportation. Job centers that are easier to get to will attract more jobs than those that are difficult to access.
        The last page has a nice map of the proposed lines as well as four key questions for evaluating proposed commuter rail routes:
        1. Will the route duplicate services? (Park-and-ride buses extend to near the outer limits of suburban growth in most directions with the exception of Pearland and a few other areas.)
        2. Will the line go where people live?
        3. Will the line go where people work?
        4. Will the line connect well to light rail?
        To those, I'd add:
        5. Are the total trip times reasonable?
        Just because the lines all connect doesn't mean people when endure hour+ commutes each way with connections.  Don't forget the light rail only nets out around 17mph with stops, and commuter rail maybe a little more than twice that.

        Even David Crossley has joined in questioning how appropriate commuter rail is for a city like Houston.  His post includes a lot of good stats and maps about where the jobs are in this city.

        Of course, my regular readers know this fits with what I've been saying for a long time.  It's good to see more voices raising questions about these plans before billions are spent.  Let's hope the politicians and power brokers are listening.

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