Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The #1 way to revive urban cores, CA attempts the greatest white elephant project in history, Australia's home-building restrictions finally catch up with it, and more

 Some smaller items this week:

"Magical thinking caused politicians and the media to back this boondoggle in the first place, and more than 15 years later, incredibly, the spell still hasn't broken." 

"The plan admits that the agency expects to spend more on the 171 miles between Merced and Bakersfield than the $33 billion it had projected the entire 463-mile project would cost when voters approved it in 2008. ...

Meanwhile, in light of the pandemic, the agency has modestly reduced its ridership expectations from 35 million trips per year to 27.6 million. This is still more unrealistic than the cost projections. In 2019, Amtrak’s high-speed Acela carried less than 3.6 million riders in a corridor with a higher population than the LA-SF corridor. While California is promising higher speeds than the Acela, the Northeast Corridor has the advantage of really being two corridors anchored by New York, America’s largest city. The California corridor has no similar mid-point metropolis; the Fresno urban area has fewer than 725,000 residents compared with New York’s 19.5 million. Incidentally, to the extent that the 27.6 million turns out to be too high, the supposed savings from not having to expand road and airline capacities dwindles."

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Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Houston's affordability may not have eroded as much as you think

There has been a lot of buzz recently about Houston's decline in affordability. In addition to a sudden pandemic-induced surge of demand meeting limited supply, a lot of that decline can be attributed to mortgage interest rates moving up so much during the late pandemic, but prices have increased as well (see charts, HT Patrick). But I think there are some factors distorting that data to make our affordability decrease look larger than it actually is...

Here are the three pre vs. post-pandemic factors that I think are distorting the data:
  1. Different types of houses being purchased: the pandemic normalized remote work and drove lots of people out of the city to far suburbs and exurbs, where they may have bought larger houses on larger plots of land than the normal pre-pandemic house profile (and fewer in-city townhomes). 
  2. Wealthier buyers: I’d guess the pandemic buyers skewed wealthier, more upper middle class, remote-friendly professions moving to larger homes in the farther suburbs and exurbs.  Different buyer demographics changes the profiles of the homes being bought, which would skew the price of the median sale upwards.
  3. Fewer first-time buyers: Much higher mortgage interest rates knock out a lot of potential first-time buyers from buying less-expensive starter homes, which skews the median home sale price higher.
As you can see, these variables can make the median home sale price an unreliable indicator of what home values are really doing in the metro.  What would be more interesting would be if we could find out what those existing homes that were selling for ~$200k ten years ago are selling for now? (a more true measure of inflation in house prices) I’d bet those homes aren’t going for $320k now – probably more like mid to upper 200s. But that's data we don't have. So just take it with a grain of salt next time you see a headline about Houston's decline in home affordability...

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Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Inside the new Jurassic World Exhibition in Katy

I was fortunate to attend last week's media preview of the new Jurassic World Exhibition at Katy Mills Mall (even Katy's mayor was there - see pics), and I'll admit it was pretty darn cool. Inside a giant tent they have a series of staged experiences you move through with lots of great interaction, especially for kids (and plenty of Instagrammable stuff for the adults too, lol). The dinosaurs range from babies with handlers (puppets) to humans in costume (raptor paddock show) to some very impressive large animatronics (T-Rex and more - see pics). The raptor paddock show with the human handler was the most curious to me, as I couldn't understand how they would be able to make an animatronic dinosaur realistically walk? Turns out they didn't - they put a human in costume instead. But it sorta works (especially for kids) because it's fairly dark and you're behind a high-security fence. Definitely check it out for a fun family afternoon.

You can see my complete photo and video album of the experience here 

(see if you can find the "behind the scenes" pic using Night Mode on a Pixel 7 Pro phone to see in the dark ;-)

Here's the Chronicle article and the press release overview:

The award-winning Jurassic World: The Exhibition is now open at Katy Mills. Jurassic World: The Exhibition, a 20,000-square-foot family-friendly immersive experience has now become one of the fastest selling exhibitions in history since its launch and has welcomed over 8 million visitors. After touring cities around the world including London, San Diego, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, Paris, Madrid, Seoul, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Toronto, Atlanta, Sydney, Cologne and Berlin, this global sensation makes its return to Texas.  

This must-see attraction has been created by NEON, a global leader in immersive and epic experiences and produced in conjunction with Universal Live Entertainment, a division Universal Destinations & Experiences.

Jurassic World: The Exhibition is a family-friendly exhibit of massive proportions based on one of the biggest blockbuster franchises in cinema history. Visitors walk through the iconic Jurassic World gate, where they will explore richly themed environments inspired by the beloved films, coming face-to-face with life-sized dinosaurs, such as the towering Brachiosaurus, Velociraptors including fan-favorite Blue, and the most fearsome of all, the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex! Guests will imagine what it would have been like to roam amongst these breathtaking creatures, and even interact with baby dinosaurs, including “Bumpy” from the popular animated series Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous from Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment and DreamWorks Animation, currently streaming on Netflix. 

The Exhibition welcomes multiple generations of Jurassic World fans to venture to the remote island made famous in the movie franchise. 

Some of the elements on the interactive journey that await visitors include: 

  • The Ferry: The journey begins aboard a ferry and a walk through of the iconic “Jurassic World” gates.  
  • Land of the Giants - Walk under the towering Brachiosaurus that is part of the gigantic sauropod dinosaur family, the largest creatures to ever walk the earth.
  • Creation Lab: The Creation Lab is where guests can enjoy a hands-on experience and learn more about the science behind dinosaur DNA.  They’ll also learn more about coprolites and the various species of dinosaurs that live at Jurassic World.
  • The Raptor Paddock: Guests can walk up to the Raptor’s paddock, but don’t get too close! These creatures have sharp serrated teeth and sharp-clawed hands and feet. Their large, recurved claw is used for slashing and pinning prey. 
  • Gyrosphere Valley: This is the perfect place to take a picture with a baby dinosaur and discover what is under the dirt at the Dig Site. Continue the journey through this picturesque valley to climb into a life-sized gyrosphere.
  • Feeding Time: The highly intelligent and extremely dangerous Indominus Rex is one of the most formidable creatures in the park. Visitors can watch as she is fed her daily meals.
  • T. rex Kingdom: A high voltage fence is the only thing that separates visitors from the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex. 

Jurassic World: The Exhibition will be in Houston at Katy Mills for a limited engagement. Tickets are available now at 

(I think I saw somewhere that it's here until October, but don't quote me on that)


Wednesday, March 06, 2024

A more reliable Texas electricity grid at a lower cost

Bill King has an excellent blog post on the reliability issues with the Texas electricity grid, including during Winter Storm Heather in January, concluding with:

"Because of cheap natural gas prices and the significant contribution of wind and solar, Texans enjoy some of the lowest electricity prices in the country, running 18% below the national average. But that low cost comes at a price – an inherent lack of reliability in its grid. And it is a savings that is wiped out many times over when a storm like Uri does billions of dollars in damage, not to even mention the human toll.

The Texas grid held in this storm, but the long-term issue of building a reliable grid is Texas in far from over."

The core issue is that solar and wind are cheap but not reliable, yet they are displacing more reliable natural gas (referred to as "dispatchable power"). ERCOT is looking at very expensive ways to improve reliability, essentially subsidizing natural gas.  I have two thoughts on how to reduce this cost.

First, the crypto miners: they are a net good for Texas as they help pay for new capacity, but the state should not be paying them tens of millions of dollars when we need them to shut down so we can have their power during peak times. They’re welcome to take advantage of our cheap power 99.9% of the year, but the other 0.1% of the year when we need it, they need to go offline with no compensation. That should be the deal.

Second, I think it’s important to remember that rare rolling blackouts are not the end of the world. The problem with Uri was the power went out for days, but most people can handle losing a half-hour or hour of power just fine, even if it’s freezing outside. We don’t need to pay for 100% reliability – 99.99% is good enough (less than an hour a year without power) or maybe even just 99.9% (about 9 hours without power in small intervals spread over the year). The grid just needs to be robust enough that ERCOT can properly implement short-duration rolling blackouts when needed without the grid going down for days like Uri. The difference between 100% reliability, 99.99%, and 99.9% might not sound like much, but it could easily be tens of billions of dollars in extra costs that would have to flow through to ratepayers.

But overall I agree there will have to be limits on how low a percentage we allow dispatchable power to be of our power mix.