Sunday, September 08, 2019

Response to Jeff Speck's anti-45N expansion op-ed

I had a whole host of smaller items for this week, but all of that has to be put on the back burner to respond to a lot of flawed arguments in Jeff Speck's anti-45N expansion op-ed featured in the Sunday Chronicle today.  So let me take them one by one:
  • $7 billion: yes, it is expensive, but he fails to mention that this is *state money* that will go somewhere else in the state if we don't use it. Houstonians are being essentially offered $7 billion in free transportation infrastructure - are we really going to turn that down??
  • Lost businesses and jobs: these businesses, jobs, and economic activity don't evaporate, they just move.
  • Our lack of competitiveness: then why are we consistently at the top of the metro rankings for population and economic growth?  Why are people choosing with their feet to move here?  And why are the top cities he lists - SF, NY, Chicago - all out-migrating?
  • Freeways don't benefit downtown: if we tore down all the freeways going into downtown, I'd be willing to bet a *whole* lot more companies would be moving out than new residents would be moving in.  Those freeways are the lifeblood of those major downtown employers bringing their employees in from the suburbs that offer the quality of life (and schools) they want for their families.  If those freeways are gone, those employers will be moving out to them (like Exxon did), not vice-versa.
  • Induced demand: this is exactly what we should want! It means the government built transportation infrastructure that is in high demand, and that's exactly what taxpayers should want! Would you rather they built transportation infrastructure noone wants to use? (like a lot of rail lines built in the US these days...) My favorite example that makes this clear: if an airport built a runway, and no new flights used it, that makes it a boondoggle waste. But if it fills up with new flights, that's the definition of success!
  • The Katy expansion was a mistake: ask just about anyone that used to drive on the old 6-lane Katy freeway, and they'll all agree it's *way* better now. Nobody wants to go back to what it was before.  And it has enabled nothing less than a boom out there, including the Energy Corridor. Here's the most-liked online comment that points out the flaws in his numbers:
"What a truly garbage article, even though I agree with the premise that the I-45 expansion isn't being done correctly. All I had to do was look into the claim that "the PM commute on the Katy was up 55% since before construction". That's not true. Opening the link, that 55% rise was since 2011 - freeway construction was complete in 2008. There was no analysis of the commute times before the construction. 
Making fraudulent claims like that, Mr. Speck, completely undermines your argument. And you really think getting rid of the sections of 45 where you're speeding along at 70 MPH inches away from a concrete wall will somehow decrease safety? You really don't understand that per vehicle PM emissions are higher when the vehicle is idling in traffic (and thus has its engine on) longer? No discussion on the population and economic growth in West Houston since the expanded Katy opened? 
This is exactly why I got out of urban planning - unbelievable hypocrisy and ignoring of facts that don't fit your agenda. No the 45 expansion is not perfect, but leaving the freeway configured the way it is now in perpetuity is unacceptable. Go away please."
  • Safety: in addition to the comment above, he ignores the fact that when freeways are congested, people cut through local streets, and that is *way* more dangerous than keeping that same car on a freeway.
  • Air pollution: see comment above.  What causes more pollution than cars zipping down a freeway? Cars stuck in congestion on a freeway, or continuously idling on surface streets.
  • Future vision: he pretends like these are mutually exclusive, but they are completely compatible and both are doable and actually happening. The project includes removing the Pierce between downtown and midtown and sinking it in Eado and the Museum District, which enhances rather than detracts from his walkable vision!
"If I-45 is widened, it will be remembered that, in the decade prior, Houston enjoyed a brief glimpse of a better future. Downtown and Midtown have been reborn, lifted on a demographic shift that favors urban living. Regional bike trails grace the Bayou Greenways, and a brilliant Beyond the Bayous plan lays out an ambitious path for sustainable growth. Transit ridership is up, thanks to investment in light rail and a redesigned bus network. The mayor, members of city council, and county commissioners all sing the praises of a more walkable Houston. Sadly, all these trends will be reversed if Houston doubles down on its nation-leading commitment to fossil-fuel infrastructure."
I'll also point out what I've said before: personal and commercial vehicles are never going away. They may run on fossil fuels or electricity or fuel cells or whatever, but the basic vehicle is now a foundational element in our society.  These freeways will accommodate plenty of non-fossil-fuel vehicles in the future. 
  • Congestion-based pricing: finally, one good idea in here! And good news: the 4 new MaX Lanes down the middle of 45N will almost certainly have it (as well as supporting huge transit improvements in MetroNext!). But unfortunately, congestion pricing the whole thing is not politically feasible (nor federal or state-allowed, I believe).
I'll conclude by saying I applaud TXDoT's extensive efforts to respond to community input and mitigate impacts (and hope they continue to do so), but I also wish they would commission a regional poll on support for the project, which I'm sure would show overwhelming support and quash this illusion that the public is opposed to it.  Then we can get past this "do it/don't do it" debate and just focus on the "how do we make it better?" debate.

Previous posts on this project:
UPDATE: Great new online comment with additional points showed up under the article by LogiBoom:

"Why does the Chronicle print this garbage and give it the prime location in the Sunday op-ed? It would take a very long post refute all the nonsense in the Speck op-ed, but here are a few points.
  • Most new lanes on I-45 are managed lanes, which will be a critical part of future public transit options
  • Downtown will be greatly improved by removing the Pierce Elevated, sinking around 2 miles of I-69 below ground, and reducing the number of freeway structures on the west side of downtown
  • The expansion and improved single-occupant vehicle mobility will be most beneficial to people in blue-collar and mid-skill jobs, since those jobs are outside of downtown (warehouses, industrial sites, construction, medical, etc) and the only way to get to those jobs is to drive
  • The idea that the growth and revitalization of downtown will be reversed by this project is absurd. Downtown Houston interests help design this project and are highly supportive. When construction of the project starts, we'll see new development as developers anticipate the improvements.
  • Speck's solution, congestion pricing, will disproportionately impact the lower-income population. It's ridiculous to compare Houston to NYC. NYC has extensive public transit (mostly built 100+ years ago) and people can switch to transit. That's not an option in Houston, or just about any city outside of NYC."

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At 10:15 PM, September 08, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, this is an excellent post exposing all the nonsense in the Speck editorial. I just want to emphasize one item of Speck's most egregious nonsense, "sadly, all these trends will be reversed" regarding downtown growth and revitalization. Downtown Houston interests where influential in developing this plan and strongly support it. It will be highly beneficial to downtown. As soon as developers know for a fact that the project is happening (i.e. construction begins), they will plan and build new development which will benefit from the downtown improvements, just like there was a boom in the Katy Freeway corridor while construction was still in progress.

At 10:23 PM, September 08, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Great points! I'm pretty sure the downtown interests wouldn't be fighting so hard for it if they didn't think it was going to be beneficial!

At 9:40 AM, September 09, 2019, Blogger Andrew Lynch said...

Thanks for posting a rebuttal !

At 8:03 PM, September 16, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer a middle ground approach as both sides are just engaging in hyperbole.

At 12:56 PM, September 17, 2019, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Induced demand: this is exactly what we should want!"

Which completely undermines the key points being used to justify the project - reduction of congestion and improved air quality. As more vehicles use the expanded freeway, congestion will return and air quality will decrease. The result is a multi-billion dollar failure in highway planning based on a false set of claims. But it's "free" money, right?

At 4:33 PM, September 17, 2019, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Their models say an increase of 24mph on average in the 2030s. Even if you think congestion will build until the speeds are the same, with the new capacity that still means more people are being moved more safely where they need and want to go - and that's a good thing. I've made the same argument about the expanded Katy freeway.


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