Sunday, June 09, 2013

Metro's lost decade, why Houston should be the capital of Texas, our affordability, and more

This week's misc items:
  • Fortune article on a new book about how the the U.S. is bifurcating into high-growth, low tax, low debt central states and low-growth, high tax, high debt coastal states.  Yet another reason to be thankful you live in Texas...
  • Rising Prices Make Homeownership Affordability More Unequal Across the U.S.  Despite the local headlines about Houston home prices moving up, it's relatively mild compared to more constrained metros, with only 12% of monthly average wage needed to pay the mortgage (second lowest after Detroit) and only a 8.7% year-over-year increase in prices.  #1 Honolulu requires a whopping 74% of the monthly average wage to make mortgage payments.  Mega-ouch.  Houston was in the middle of the pack when it comes to rent affordability, requiring 29% of the monthly average wage (vs. 57% in Miami and NYC) and 9.7% YOY growth.  Hat tip to Hugh.
  • Texas Monthly on why Houston should be the capital of Texas instead of Austin, and the debate that ensued.  Yes, it's a bit tongue in cheek.  But still some fair points... ;-)
"So here we are, almost two centuries later. Austin, the capital, has forsaken the risk-taking ways of its founder and more closely resembles its dour namesake. The city is becoming ever more buttoned-down, striving, and full of modern-day “impresarios” (luxe condo flippers and McMansion builders) while insisting it is still the same “weird” Shangri-la it was when LSD and mescaline first came to town. Meanwhile, Houston—whose city father, incidentally, was known for his shaggy mane, gaudy head scarves, and Indian sashes—effortlessly goes about being one of the strangest and most wonderful metropolises on earth
Consider first a few of its contrasts: For nine of the past eleven years, U.S. News & World Report has named MD Anderson the top cancer hospital in the country, while the Rothko Chapel will forever be an idyllic meditation space and the foremost shrine to suicidal depression on the planet. Rice is the state’s only private university with Tier One status (and the University of Houston is vying to become only the third public university in Texas with that status), while 2013 marks the twenty-sixth annual Houston Art Car Parade, a rolling spectacle and movable feast for the eyes like none other. Houston is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any American city outside New York and more taquerías than any ciudad this side of Monterrey. 
Then there’s our sheer cultural heft. More than two million people avail themselves yearly of ballet, Broadway shows, opera, plays, and symphonic music at the nine arts venues downtown. Taken together, the seventeen-square-block theater district has more concentrated seating for arts events than any place besides Broadway. Seven million people a year stroll through Houston’s nineteen museum district attractions; last year the Houston Museum of Natural Science almost doubled in size with a 115,000-square-foot expansion that includes the gobsmacking, Smithsonian-level Morian Hall of Paleontology. And need I mention NASA, or that “Houston” was the first word spoken on the moon?"
  • Excellent Bill King op-ed on how Metro blew it over-focusing on budget-busting light rail over the last decade.  Great concluding excerpt:
"It is a welcome development that Metro seems to be committed to a revival of its bus service. It is unfortunate that we wasted a decade and several billion dollars on building an at-grade system that will do very little to enhance transit in Houston. We can only imagine how good our bus service might be today had Metro spent that decade and those billions on buses. Buses may not have the cool factor that shiny trains do. But if you really want to move a lot of people and really provide an alternative to private car travel, buses are the answer."
Looking forward to some (hopefully) good Astrodome news this week!

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At 7:57 PM, June 09, 2013, Anonymous said...

What if Houston, like Andorra, became its own country? Stranger things have been known to happen, as documents.

As for Houston rail, I just saw this interesting post at the Houston Chronicle article which you shared. It was written by a reader who asserts that it's cheaper to move folks by rail than by bus (while perhaps forgetting that a rail ride's at most 8 miles long while bus routes are perhaps typically much longer):

"Before rail, back in 1996 the earliest data available from the National Transit Database, Metro spent $179.141 Million operating its buses. They owned 1,194 buses back then and ran 37,919,944 revenue miles with those buses moving 392,162,422 passenger mile.

In 2011, the most recent data available from the NTD, we find that Metro now owns 1,235; 41 more buses than in 1996. Metro operated 41,403,073 vehicle revenue miles, meaning that they ran either longer routes or more routes than in 1996 and they moved 426,552,709 passenger miles; 34.4 million more miles than in 1996.

Metro spent $328,885,459 in 2011 to accomplish that. That represents an 85% increase in spending over 16 years. I'm quite sure that sales tax revenues haven't increased by 85% during that same time. Meaning that Metro didn't need any help from light rail to blow out the budget surpluses, the buses did that all on their own.

In 2011 rail moved 10,618,061 rides for Metro at a cost of $1.65 per ride. Would you really prefer that Metro moved all of those rides at the bus cost of $4.95 per ride? That would have cost taxpayers an extra $35 Million more than the $17.5 Million they actually spent operating light rail."

At 8:39 PM, June 09, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Be careful of the comparisons. First, that rail cost is ignoring the extremely high initial capital costs of building it. Second, the Main St. LRT is one of the most popular routes in the city with a very high density of destinations along a short line. It also gets fed my many bus routes with transfers. The bus routes have an obligation to cover the entire low-density Metro service area, and run with some minimum frequency, as a service to the transit dependent, meaning there are many long, thin routes with few passengers in order to get geographic coverage. That really increases the cost per ride. If you want to see a massive hemorrhaging of taxpayer money, try covering long, thin, low-density routes with rail lines. Bus is the appropriate transit mode for the vast majority of the city.

At 1:30 PM, June 10, 2013, Blogger Gary said...

Though the particular details of Texas making Waterloo (excuse me, Austin) the state capital are unusual, the decision itself. Note that New York City is not the capital of its state (or nation, though it once was), Philadelphia is not the capital of Pennsylvania, Chicago is not the capital of Illinois, St. Louis is not the capital of Missouri, neither Los Angeles nor San Francisco are the capital of California, etc. The virtuous leaders of these states thought it better to locate capitals far from the sin and corruption of the big cities, and go for rural locales nearer geographical centers of states. Ironically, the existence of state government tends to stimulate the growth of new centers of sin and corruption.


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