May 25, 2009

On Houston's future 3 hour commutes

This past week, Houstonians learned from the local media of a series of high profile departures, or of people who are looking for jobs elsewhere, to escape from the twilight of Mayor Bill White's administration.

One, somewhat lower profile figure who apparently has recently left City employment was one, Ray Chong, who was Deputy of Traffic and Transportation in the City public works department. The Wizard knows that in addition to Mr. Chong's overseeing of various studies that he was one of Bill White's point men in the Ashby High Rise issue.

But it is about what was perhaps the last of Mr. Chong's studies that is the subject of this post. Smart Growth and planning proponent David Crossley notes that Mr. Chong made a presentation where he asserted that the average commute time in the Houston area in the year 2035 will be three hours!

That's right gentle readers, the City of Houston's recently departed Traffic director stated that Houstonians will face 3 hour commutes in a mere 26 years time. Of course, Mr. Chong and company made a presentation with a mobility study (or should we call it an immobility study?) to back up that assertion, but that still doesn't erase the basic assertion.

Now, if one thinks rather deeply about such an issue, one comes to realize that there is an enormous amount at stake for millions of Houston area residents when a high level City bureaucrat makes such a statement.

The current Houston area 2035 plan envisions spending some $77 billion in public funds over the next quarter of a century on road related projects and transit. However, Mr. Chong stated that he and his team incorporated all of those projects into his studies and still came to the conclusion that Houstonians will be wasting three hours of their day in a quarter of a century commuting back and forth to work. In other words, Houstonians and their public officials will be spending upwards of three billion dollars per year, every year, for the next 26 years, but despite that enormous sum of public monies being spent, Houstonians one way traffic commute will skyrocket from 26 minutes in 2005 - 2010 time frame to 90 minutes in 2035! That, gentle readers, is a very powerful statement - in a matter of one generation, Houston's transportation system will effectively get overwhelmed and collapse, despite spending tens of billions of dollars on transportation related projects and issues. That is a statement that many influential Houstonians, like members of the Greater Houston Partnership or just about any local elected official - including the Mayor, would not like to see made public.

If you take the report seriously, then the report states that the amount of roads of all classifications within City of Houston limits will rise roughly only 10 percent, while the job base will rise from 1.5 million to 2.1 million, a nearly 40 percent rise. Mr. Chong's report also projects that City population rising from 2.1 million to 2.7 million. On the face of it, Mr. Chong's prognostications may seem to be true. It points to a future of Houston neglecting to do enough to keep up its transportation network with the demands that the future populace will place on it. That however, is on the face. The Wizard knows that such a sky is falling type catastrophe is not going to occur.

First of all, one has to take in the magnitude of what Mr. Chong is asserting. Yes, it is true that urbanized areas that have higher populations do exhibit higher work travel times and greater traffic congestion, but the Wizard has traveled far in this world and has seen a lot of cities. Two years ago, I spent 9 weeks in London, a city whose metropolitan area has roughly twice as many residents as Houston does, in a smaller geographical area (and hence with a population density several times higher than that of Houston), with demonstrably narrower roads and much higher reliance on slower public transportation. The result? London has an average commute time of 42 - 51 minutes. This study states that in outer London, the commute time, where cars dominate, is 30 minutes, while in inner areas of London where public transportation dominates, the commute times are roughly 55 minutes. Meanwhile, in the 2005 U.S. census study cited above, New York and Chicago have commute times of 38 minutes and 33 minutes respectively.

The point being made here, if I may be so blunt, is that what Mr. Chong is saying is garbage. It overlooks that real estate developers and landlords, as well as employers and employees, all make decisions as to where to locate. Very few people will tolerate making a 3 hour daily commute, much less a 2 hour commute, and they will adapt accordingly, often by deciding to leave a little earlier or later to get to their jobs. The average length of a commute by car is roughly 7.5 miles, while a commute by public transportation is about 5 miles. Mr. Chong is then saying that traffic flows throughout the entire area will drop to an average of about 5 miles per hour for vehicle traffic!. This is nonsense.

Instead, a far, far more likely scenario of what will unfold in the future is that the Houston area will probably continue on its current pattern of slow densification combined with some suburbanization. Such a pattern would go a long way to mitigating most of the catastrophic horrors envisioned in this mobility study. I could foresee my 20 minute morning commute and my 25-30 evening minute commute lengthening by 5-10 minutes in a worst case scenario, but even if it did then all that would do is prompt me to either move closer to work, or to switch jobs.

One item that Mr. Chong's story may be more to the mark on is the assertion that public transportation's share of commuting trips will drop from 3.8 percent to 3.3 percent. One big story that has not been reported by the media concerning recent controversies surrounding eminent domain issues and cost estimates behind Metro's North and Southeast corridors is that in its FY 2010 report to Congress, the FTA is stating that spending $897 million on the North Corridor rail alignment is going to result in a mere 7,500 new riders being attracted to using transit (see page 221 of the report). The Southeast Corridor rail alignment is projected to cost $911 million and is expected to attract a mere 4,500 new riders to transit (see page 227 of the FTA report). Yes gentle readers, you read that correctly. The FTA is telling Congress that it is recommending helping Metro spend $1.8 billion to attract 12,000 new riders to rail transit, a figure that works out to spending $150,000 to attract a new rider to transit. Meanwhile, my yet to be completed FY 2008 - FY 2009 ridership numbers are indicating that Metro lost 10-20 percent of its ridership over the past year. If we continue to pursue such policies, then it is quite plausible that Houston's transit agency will end up bankrupting itself merely to substitute rail transit for bus transit, but not gaining any meaningful market share of transportation trips or doing anything to alleviate traffic congestion. Indeed according to Metro's federal enviornmental impact statements, the agency intends to cut off road lanes available to vehicle traffic along most of the routes where it wants to run rail.

With that aside, reports like this mobility study remind me of how ridiculous it is to write studies and plans that portend to see 30 years or more into the future, something that has been cemented into modern day American metropolitan urban planning, when we will have no idea of what the full picture of future conditions will be like. The reader should be reminded that the London Underground's first rail lines were built in the late 19th century to as a response to extremely heavy traffic congestion along roads in London that were causing traffic flows to slow down to the point where a wagon of vegetables would spoil because it was taking an entire day for a wagon driver to cross the length of the city. Hence, there is a good argument to be made that it is far better to make transportation spending decisions on a case by case basis, based on observations of heavy and rising traffic congestion, and on a shorter time scale of perhaps 10 years, than it is based on some grand vision of what you think the far future is going to be like.

A final disclaimer and something to think about: The Wizard will be of retirement age in 2035 and most likely won't be doing too much daily travel anyway! :)


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 01:50 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Because they can , Houston and Texas matters , Oracles and Visions , Transportation

May 18, 2009

On Houston's finances and Richard Vacar

This past Saturday, the Houston Chronicle published an editoral on the City of Houston's finances. The editoral from Houston's newspaper of record generally offering praise for Mayor Bill White's handling of the City of Houston's public monies in a worldwide economic downtown. The Chronicle's editorial board wrapped up their assessment of the Mayor's financial wizardry with a statement that

With little more than 7 months remaining in his last term, Mayor White has deftly steered Houston through both fiscal and tropical storms. His successor will have a tough act to follow.

Hmmm. The Wizard decided to make his own assessment of the City's finances. I spent part of this evening gazing into my crystal ball, from whence I found the City of Houston's fiscal year 2008 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (aka CAFR).

Amongst the items of interest are:

1) The status of the City's pension plans. There are three plans listed; one for the firefighters, one for the police officers, and the Municipal Pension system that covers everyone else. The status of these plans can be read on page 123 of the report:

A) The actuarial value of the assets of the firefighter's pension plan was $2 billion in 2004 and $2.633 billion in 2008. The accrued liabilities in 2004 were $2.266 billion in 2004 and $2.892 billion in 2008. Overall, the funding ratio of the firefighters plan improved from 88 percent to 91 percent.

B) The actuarial value of the assets of the police officer's pension plan was $2.394 billion in 2004 and $3.005 billion in 2008. The accrued liabilities in 2004 were $2.875 billion in 2004 and $3.858 billion in 2008. Overall, the funding ratio of the police officer's plan dropped from 83 percent to 78 percent. In 2002, the police officer's plan was funded at a ratio of 90 percent.

C) The Municipal Employees pension plan had assets of $1.501 billion in 2004 and $2.194 billion in 2008. The accrued liabilities in 2004 were $2.634 billion in 2004 and $3.128 billion in 2008. Note that the liabilities in 2004 were $3.278 billion. Overall, the funding ratio of the MEPS plan was 57 percent in 2004 and 70 percent in 2008.

One wonders how much of an improvement executing a lien against the downtown Hotel of the Americas improved the HMEPS balance sheet? Better yet, the City is keeping its funding ratios more or less the same, but the dollar values of the mismatch between assets and liabilities is growing. Is the City accruing pension and other liabilities that it cannot afford?

2) On page 246 of the report, one can read about the amount of general bonded debt outstanding owed by the City. In the time frame between 2004 and 2008, the amount outstanding rose from $1,979,786,000 to $2.926,444,000. On page 209 of the report, the CAFR states that the amount of taxable property went up from $103 billion to $135 billion. Per Capita debt levels went up from $985 to $1325 per City resident.

It seems to the Wizard that property values are not increasing at a rate that would sustain continued bonding to accrue, especially since we are in a recession.

2) On page 226 of the Adobe file (or page 196 of the City CAFR), one can read that the total primary CoH net assets have fallen from $5.371 billion in 2003 to $3.891 billion in 2008, a drop of about $1.5 billion. The Wizard is not an accountant, but it seems that during Mayor White's tenure as Mayor, the City devoured its accrued capital (in all of its forms) in order to keep the ship of state afloat.

3) On page 229 of the document, the City states that general revenues from property taxes went up from $639,888,000 in 2003 to $829,837,000 in 2008. The difference between property taxes from 2007 - 2008 was a rise in property taxes collected from $738,578,000 to $829,837,000. According to the Mayor's revenue cap, it seems that Houstonians may be in for a bit of a refund if Council actually follows the cap.

It was also noted recently that Richard Vacar, a longtime powerful administrator of the Houston Airport system retired abruptly. ABC's Mya Shay broke the story and the Chronicle is following it.

Speculation on Vacar's retirement has focused on Vacar's involvement with airport operations in other cities and country, denoting that a non-profit was involved on the deal. Kevin and company talk about it here, wondering about transparency issues or shoddy deal making that would reflect on the Mayor.

A better question to ask is why did the Houston Airport system start working on such deals with airports elsewhere in the first place? The motive for that, gentle readers, can be discerned from the 2001 City Revcap battle and Mayor White's counter charter amendment, which the seems to have prevailed in court. The Mayor's charter amendment offered a cap in increases in revenues from property taxes and drainage fees to the lower of of 4.5 percent per year, or the increase in population and indexed inflation.

It should be obvious to readers that any monies to be gained from the Houston Airport system would not fall under the Mayor's Revcap charter amendment, whereas it would have under the citizens Revcap. Ergo, it would make sense for the City to aggressively pursue such avenues for increased revenues to come into City coffers since they would not be covered by the Mayor's charter amendment.

I am at a loss in explaining why the Mayor canned Mr. Vacar. That is a job for the media to uncover. Better yet, will one of Houston's fourteen City Council members work up the political courage to confront the Mayor, a man whose administration is seeing the twilight of its rule, at the Council table and ask a simple question: Why Mr. Vacar was abruptly asked to take a walk?

Sigh... Such are the joys of taking a job that is so inherently political in nature.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 11:22 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Because they can , Houston and Texas matters , Money and finance

May 13, 2009

Umm, We don't know where trillions of dollars went...

Today's entry, gentle readers, makes one want to shake one's head. The Wizard was forwarded a link in his email from one of his friends which led to a YouTube video of Federal Reserve Inspector General Elizabeth Coleman answering questions from Florida Democrat congressman Alan Grayson. I don't surf the Internet too much looking at sites like the Daily Kos, but their post was as good as any on the subject.

The inspector general tasked with overseeing and auditing the Federal Reserve knows pretty much nothing about what the Fed is doing. That's the conclusion that comes from watching the exchange Tuesday between Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) and inspector general Elizabeth A. Coleman.

Narrolibertas is similarly outraged. Bloomberg News reported back in February that the taxpayers are on the hook for bailing out the financial sector in this crisis for $9.7 trillion dollars!

The Houston Area Liberty Campaign has been calling for a thorough auditing of the Federal Reserve, perhaps by Congress. Narrolibertas suggests calling your Congressman.

The Wizard has long believed that, contrary to making responsible decisions, government - for the most part - aids and abets the abrogation of responsibility. And so it goes.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 08:41 AM
This entry was posted in the following categories: America , Because they can , Money and finance

May 06, 2009

Taking Houston in stride

This past Sunday, the Wizard took his weekly stroll down to the nearby HEB grocery store, a walking trip that is about 12 minutes in length. I came back home with three of my eco-friendly, reusable HEB grocery bags (promoted by Eva Longoria!) full of groceries that set me back about $70. It was a bit of a strain, as one of the bags had two twelve packs of soda in it. The reusable bags are easily strong enough to survive such a jaunt, but it's never easy to walk home with 2 twelve packs of drinks in one bag. That is, unless that's all I am carrying. One twelve pack is fine, even when packed with lots of other groceries. Nonetheless, my exertions were enough to invoke sympathy from a neighbor of mine, who opened the door for me towards the end of my trip home.

Houston has long been crucified as being completely auto dependent. Complaints abound about Houstonians having to make a proverbial mile drive just to get a quart of milk, or so goes the urban legend. Actually, my grocery store is only about six-tenths of a mile away from me. Better yet, I have access to two convenience stores within 300 yards of where I live, both of which will sell me a quart of milk albeit at a higher price than HEB will. But then again, that is why they are called convenience stores. You pay for the convenience.

Yet, even that relatively short walk is enough for many of my neighbors to notice that I do this. The girls seem to be scared about walking to the store for fear of getting robbed, even though they would be walking down the greatest and busiest street in Houston. Some of my neighbors seem to think that walking to nearby places makes one look like a homeless bum in the eyes of others, but I could give a damn what others think. Still others find quaint amusement over the fact that I walk around the neighborhood to get my stuff done, like one couple who waived merrily to me recently one morning before work when I came walking back after picking up my dry cleaning.

And yet, it turns out that my area of town is quite walkable. There is quite a bit of stuff that can be reached within that 12 minute walking radius from around my abode, including quite a few restaurants, my dentist, my dry cleaners, liquor stores, shopping for hardware, office supplies, some furniture, physical fitness gear, not to mention convenience stores. I have considered buying a bicycle, which would make the Galleria, at 2 miles distance, reachable within 12 minutes or so. I sometimes wonder why my neighbors don't walk more to get to nearby places, but it doesn't bother me too much. They have their reasons. Some might cite trying to scurry across eight lanes of traffic across Westheimer, but even fraidy cats could be invited to walk if skyways were built that crossed the length of the street.

So how walkable is my neighborhood? Well gentle readers, there is a website now out there now called Walk Score that attempts to answer that very question. The website declares that it has an algorithm that it uses to measure how walkable your neighborhood is. Just punch in your street address and presto! you get a score on a scale of 1-100 which measures how walkable your neighborhood is. The higher the score generated, the more walkable your neighborhood.

So, how does the Wizard's neighborhood measure up on this walkability score? I punched in my address and discovered that, lo and behold, my neighborhood comes in at a very respectable 77 out of 100, indicating that, yes, my neighborhood is very walkable. According to Walk Score's gradings of cities around America, my neighborhood would come in at at #4 out of the top 40 cities, beating out every other city with the exception of San Francisco, New York, and Boston. Indeed according the the Walk Score website, I am able to get around without owning a car.

I could conceive of trying to live in my neighborhood without a car. If I lived within a distance of 2-3 miles of a job - say if I worked in the Galleria or off of Post Oak Boulevard - I could just about do it. Even if I had kids, they could take a bicycle to nearby schools. My main problem would be getting to and from my various social activities, as many of my friends live and meet some distance from where I live. As it is, I drive only about 6,000 miles per year, a figure low enough to prompt an auto mechanic friend of mine to say "Wow, you really baby your car!"

Walk Score has a Walk Score map of Houston, so you can look up your neighborhood. My old neighborhood scored an 86 out of 100, which was no surprise to me since I used to walk to a Borders bookstore, as well as a Blockbuster, Book Stop, the post office, a grocery store, and a bakery. And yet, again, none of my neighbors walked around my old neighborhood except to walk their dogs, much like my neighbors do where I live now.

So why won't Houstonians walk when according to Walk Score, they live in perfectly walkable neighborhoods? I've stated some reasons my neighbors have given me above, but who knows? Maybe my old neighbors just didn't feel like walking to the grocery store then and my current neighbors don't feel like walking to the grocery store now. Better yet, one wonders why the City of Houston planning department has poured an enormous amount of time and money planning urban corridors, with the expressed purpose of getting people to walk, when they already live in what are arguably walkable neighborhoods.


Posted by The Mighty Wizard at 07:09 PM
This entry was posted in the following categories: Because they can , Culture , Houston and Texas matters , Transportation