Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Glaeser on Houston and rail, job growth, and Intergalactic IAH

Just a handful of quick items this week.  First, a couple of Harvard professor Dr. Edward Glaeser excerpts:
Public policies only made things worse. The defining characteristic of declining cities is that they have plenty of infrastructure relative to the level of demand. Detroit didn't need the People Mover—an expensive monorail that glides over empty streets. And today, a Light Rail project is being pitched by the federal government, which seems to have learned nothing from the failures of past follies.
Neither Detroit nor the U.S. suffer from any profound transportation problem that can only be fixed with vast federal spending. The country doesn't need more People Movers. It needs unleashed, educated entrepreneurs—and they will only be held back by taxes being funneled into fanciful make-work projects in a futile attempt to fix our economic malaise.
Glaeser's solution is simple: Where land is scarce, density becomes vital. Cities that cannot build out must build up. Freed from restrictive and Byzantine zoning regulations, Houston has built up and out to become the fourth-largest city in the U.S., he notes, all despite an unusually vile climate. Owing mainly to affordable housing and the availability of jobs, Glaeser calculates that—after taxes, housing, and transportation costs—an average family in high-density Houston is much better off than a comparable one in Queens or Staten Island. While not everyone will want to experience high-rise life, its availability should result in lower prices for all.
From the Houston Digital Ambassadorship newsletter: Houston No. 2 in job gains among metros nationwide (behind DFW, but not by much)

And finally, a question for my readers (which I have asked before, but would like to do a new survey): has anybody ever heard IAH humorously referred to as "Intergalactic" in a conversation?  I've been asking around, and nobody seems to have ever heard it, so I'm starting to wonder if I made it up and just thought I heard it from others?  If you have heard it before, please let me know in the comments.  Thanks.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arguments building against high-speed rail plan

Two items this week build the growing pushback against the administration's plan for a national network of high-speed rail lines.  The first is from Reason's respected transportation analyst Robert Poole in his Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter.  After describing negative op-eds in the Washington Post and news analysis in the NY Times - and dissecting a fluffy response by the DOT Secretary - he gets to the really devastating stuff:
An especially useful report has crossed some people's screens in recent weeks. "High-Speed Rail: Lessons for Policy-Makers from Experiences Abroad" was written by Daniel Albalate of the University of Barcelona and Germa Bel of the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. They review the experiences with HSR of Japan, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy and seek to draw lessons for the United States. Their country profiles point out the different policy objectives in each case, leading to somewhat different implementation strategies (e.g., some doing all new rights of way but others upgrading existing rail lines). 
Among the lessons learned are the following:
  • HSR is not a particularly useful tool for fighting CO2 emissions;
  • Energy use and emissions for HSR are much higher than for conventional trains, and are similar to those for cars and buses.
  • HSR does not generate new economic activity, nor does it attract new firms and investment, but does help to consolidate and promote on-going activities in large cities.
  • Medium-size cities may be put at a disadvantage, due to HSR shifting some economic activities to larger cities.
  • HSR involves huge construction and operating costs, and cost overruns seem to be high in almost all cases.
  • Political pressures (e.g. for extra station stops or to serve low-traffic points) often lead to higher costs and decreased benefits;
  • These economics cast doubt on the use of public-private partnerships in HSR projects;
  • It is difficult to justify HSR in corridors where first-year demand is below 8 to 10 million annual passengers [far higher than any of the planned U.S. projects].
These are sobering lessons, and they should be factored into serious quantitative assessments of whether any proposed HSR project is a sound transportation investment.
So what's the motivating drive behind this administration push?  George Will gives his opinion in Newsweek - which I don't necessarily fully agree with, but I think he raises some interesting points in his theory (bold highlights mine):
High Speed to Insolvency 
Why liberals love trains. 
Generations hence, when the river of time has worn this presidency’s importance to a small, smooth pebble in the stream of history, people will still marvel that its defining trait was a mania for high-speed rail projects. This disorder illuminates the progressive mind. 
Remarkably widespread derision has greeted the Obama administration’s damn-the-arithmetic-full-speed-ahead proposal to spend $53 billion more (after the $8 billion in stimulus money and $2.4 billion in enticements to 23 states) in the next six years pursuant to the president’s loopy goal of giving “80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.” “Access” and “high-speed” to be defined later. 
Criticism of this optional and irrational spending—meaning: borrowing —during a deficit crisis has been withering. Only an administration blinkered by ideology would persist.
Washington, disdaining the decisions of Ohio and Wisconsin voters, replied that it will find states that will waste the money. 
California will. Although prostrate from its own profligacy, it will sink tens of billions of its own taxpayers’ money in the 616-mile San Francisco–to–San Diego line. Supposedly 39 million people will eagerly pay much more than an airfare in order to travel slower (!!). Between 2008 and 2009, the projected cost increased from $33 billion to $42.6 billion.
So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior. 
Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism. 
To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nashville vs. Houston vs. coasts, TX beats Krugman, our 6th anniversary, and more

Just a few smaller misc items to pass along this week:
  • How's this for amusing? The new 2010 Census population-weighted center of the United States is Texas County, Missouri!  How's that for a sign of where the population is moving?  And it gets better: guess the county seat of Texas County, MO? Houston!  Both named in 1845 after the new Republic of Texas and Sam Houston, our first president.  If you believe in those sorts of things, you could interpret it as an interesting omen of where the action will be in the next decade+... ;-)
  • This post devastates Paul Krugman's column attacking education in Texas vs. more unionized Wisconsin.  It turns out when you directly compare racial groups, Texas does quite a bit better than Wisconsin.  Wisconsin only looks better on the surface because of their demographics.  Hat tip to Packy.
  • A great quote from a review in The Economist of Ed Glaeser's new book on cities:
He sees it as an indictment of planning that spreading Houston has “done a better job of providing affordable housing than all of the progressive reformers on America’s East and West coasts.”
  1. First, as I previously noted, is the extremely high ambition level. These guys are clearly looking at places like Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, etc. and saying “Why not us?” Their mission is to become one of America’s great cities. There’s no “era of limits” in Nashville. You see this come through, for example, in their convention center plans, which call for 1.2 million square feet. It comes through in their highways, which are being built 8-10 lanes with HOV lanes, as if getting ready to become the much bigger city they plan to be. It shows in the numerous residential high rise and midrise projects. It shows in how Nashville, unlike every comparable Midwest metro, already has a commuter rail line in service. Midwesterners recoil from change, and would view becoming the next Charlotte or Atlanta with horror. But Nashville is eager to move up to the premier league, so to speak.
  2. Second is the unabashedly pro-growth and pro-business stance. Every development in the Midwest is opposed by some group of NIMBY’s. Densification, even in downtown areas, is often anathema to influential neighbors. Not in Nashville. Huge tracts of inner city are being rebuilt from vacant lots or single family homes into multi-story town houses or condos. There are midrises all over the place. It does not appear that development has any problem getting approved there.
  3. Third is low taxes and costs. Tennessee does not have a state income tax. Electricity from the TVA is dirt cheap. Property taxes cannot be increased without a public vote. It remains to be seen if this environment can be sustained, but for right now, cost appears to be an advantage.
  4. Fourth is that they’ve embraced instead of rejecting their heritage. Rather than saying that country music is for hillbillies and an embarrassment to their new ambitions as a big league city, they’ve proudly embraced it. They updated the image with a glitzy, “Nashvegas” spin and made it the core of what Nashville is all about. Most Midwestern elites seem to view their existing heritage negatively. But great cities have to spring from the native soil in which they are born. Their character has to be organic. Import all the fancy stores, restaurants, sports teams, transit lines, etc. you want, but it won’t distinguish your city. Nashville learned this lesson well, probably from Atlanta. The southern boomtowns took their existing Southern heritage, dropped the negative items that needed to be changed, updated the core positive elements, and created the vision of the “New South”. This is something that can be embraced by the masses, unlike the elitist transformations that are often promulgated.
  5. Fifth is that, again, they appear to have studied the lessons of places like Dallas, Atlanta, Charlotte, etc. They’ve seen the need for freeways. They’ve looked at the style of development and the neo-traditional urban form. I was very impressed to see that there while most condo developments and such were fairly undistinctive, I did not note any that exhibited poor urban design form. When I consider the poorly designed projects that are frequently implemented in, say, downtown Indianapolis, it is easy to see who gets out more. Nashville has done its homework.
  6. Sixth, Nashville is realistic and open to self-criticism without being self-flagellating. I posted my previous take on the city on a discussion forum dedicated to that city. Given the modestly negative tone contained in much of it, I expected to get crucified. Surprisingly, most of them basically agreed with it. Too many cities in the Midwest either engage in naive boosterism or wallow in woe-is-us. Perhaps because of the large number of newcomers, there’s a more realistic assessment of where Nashville stands. And this enables rational decisions about where it needs to go.
Finally, I'd like to close with an acknowledgement of Houston Strategies' 6th anniversary.  It's been a great six years, and I hope to keep it going as long as ya'll keep reading me.  As always, thanks for your readership.

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Monday, March 07, 2011

State of the County headlines Astrodome status

I was able to attend Judge Emmett's State of the County address last week (Chronicle front page coverage here), and was very excited to hear his headline focus on the future of the Astrodome matches my previously posted ideas (and follow-up).  A minimalist upgrade into a festival and events venue could bring in more than enough annual revenue to support its maintenance as a historic structure (as he pointed out that we did not do with the Shamrock Hotel).  He emphasized this was his personal opinion, but a consensus of the Commissioners Court was required, including El Franco Lee's interest in a STEM education institute.  But he wants a decision this year on a plan that can then go to the voters.  Hear, hear!

Here are some other points from his speech that made it into my notes:

  • The county has a $1.2 billion annual budget and they're dealing with a 3% drop from last year - tight but not a disaster.
  • We need to improve our water, air, rail, and road transportation infrastructure to take advantage of our potential as a key gateway to North America, especially as the Panama Canal gets expanded.
  • HCTRA will continue to work on widening the south Beltway 8, building the Hempstead toll road, and extending the Hardy into downtown, but we must also continue other improvements like building the Grand Parkway and making freight rail improvements, both of which are reliant on TXDoT at this point.
  • Harris County is the 3rd most populated county in the nation, and has more people than 24 states (!) - although I'll add that we're at risk of being passed by Arizona's 5x geographically larger Maricopa County (i.e. Phoenix metro) soon.  The 2010 Census pegs the county at just over 4 million people.  He believes the Hispanic story is overhyped as the lines blur in our diverse mix, and that race is a nonissue as far as he's concerned: the focus is on providing services to all residents of the county, period.

Overall, an impressive man doing a great job made an excellent speech about a county doing very well compared to most of the rest of the country.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why people and companies love Houston + HSR, Census analysis, and more

Continuing from last week with the rest of the smaller items:
"What are people seeking in Texas? I’d call it quality of life with room for upward mobility: affordable homes with mortgage payments that leave some money for recreation, good public schools for their kids and generally less onerous tax regime.
In the end, we are seeing the birth of a Texas that is neither the white bread, big hair idyll of the cultural conservatives or the free market dystopia imagined by liberals. It is becoming more diverse, without losing its capitalist energy. With all its blemishes, the emerging Texas may well become the model for how America evolves in the coming decades."
But Forbidden Gardens is already being mourned by fans of Houston's zany monuments, which include a house made out of beer cans and an amusement park dedicated to oranges. "It's one of my favorite attractions in Texas," says Wesley Treat, co-author of "Weird Texas," a compendium of the Lone Star State's oddball pilgrimage sites. "Forbidden Gardens is really one of a kind."
And a special subsection on high-speed rail:
"Historical data shows capital cost overruns are pervasive in 9 out of 10 high speed rail projects and that 2/3 of those projects inflated ridership projections by an average of 65 percent of actual patronage. 
It is projected that 3.07 million people will use the train annually. Keep in mind that Amtrak’s Acela train in Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore only had 3.2 million riders in 2010. And that market’s population is 8 times the size of the Tampa/Orlando market."
"...subsidies to airline and highway travel average around a penny per passenger mile, while subsidies to Amtrak are closer to 30 cents per passenger mile."
Finally, my favorite excerpts from Harvard professor Dr. Edward Glaser's excellent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on why people want to live here:
When all was done, the after-tax, after-housing-cost income was about 50 percent larger in Houston than in New York. On top of that, the Houstonians could access better public schools and enjoy a shorter, less arduous commute. 
Texas does have real economic strengths. Per capita productivity in Dallas and Houston is about 20 percent higher than the American metropolitan average, and unemployment rates remained low even in a recession. ... 
Texas attracts millions because it combines productivity with affordable housing. Lower housing costs in Houston are the most important causes of the city's real prosperity. America's anti-Texans would have you believe that housing is cheap in Houston because the area is unattractive, but if greater Houston was so unappealing, why is its population soaring? 
The real reason that Texas homes are inexpensive is because they are abundantly supplied.
It's not that pricier areas like Boston and San Francisco lack land. Harris County, Texas, has less land per capita than Middlesex County, Massachusetts, where I live. But Middlesex County generally prevents large-scale building, with high minimum lot sizes and abundant environmental restrictions. Texas does not. 
Ironically, Houston's laissez-faire, pro-growth attitude has allowed red state Texas to provide far more affordable housing for low- and middle-income people than progressive California and Massachusetts. Texas proves that unbridled private supply, not rent control or public housing, is the most effective way to ensure that every American can afford a decent home. 
Texas' unfettered construction also explains why the state has enjoyed stable prices. When demand rises in Texas, developers build and that limits both price increases and subsequent price crashes. 
Outsiders make a mistake by ignoring or disparaging the growth of Texas. The great urban areas of Texas have benefited from allowing the change that has been outlawed in America's costly coastal states. Other places could use a little Texan enthusiasm for growth.

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