This past week, I received an email from a friend that I made through my activism on Metro Rail. The email stated that Houston City Councilwoman Wanda Adams would be holding a public meeting concerning flooding that had occurred in the MacGregor Place subdivision in the aftermath of the rain storms that occurred on Monday, January 9th 2012.
The email was lengthy and quite worrisome. It was clear that the MacGregor Place subdivision had taken a real beating during the January 9th rain storm. Kids had to be taken out of HISD's Peck Elementary school, and the neighboring Kipp Academy charter school by dump trucks because school buses could not make it in and out of the neighborhood. Little did I know that this was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to this local horror disaster.
I got to the meeting just as it was starting. As I was walking up to the local YMCA building where the meeting was held, a friend of mine was giving an interview to a channel 26 Fox News reporter, who was the only media person who covered the event. The Fox News internet video did a pretty good story of covering the meeting, but here are more details.
The meeting was kicked off by CM Adams, who introduced Harris County Precinct 7 Constable Mae Walker, who told the audience that her office has access to 2.5 ton and 5 ton high water vehicles for use in the event of an emergency. Her office also has boats if people are stranded. CM Adams then introduced to the audience representatives from Union Pacific railroad, the City of Houston Public Works and Engineering department (PWE), the Harris County Flood Control District, Metro, and the American Red Cross. CM Stephen Costello, father of the Proposition 1 rain tax, was also in attendance.
Benton Bond, an employee with Union Pacific railroad, was first up to the microphone. Mr. Bond gave a roughly 20 minute presentation on the events of January 9th. Specifically, Union Pacific railroad has for many decades operated a freight rail line that runs generally in a north / south direction, and which almost parallel to Spur 5 near Interstate 45, and runs close to the MacGregor Place subdivision. Mr. Bond thanked the audience for photographs and videos that people had sent in to UPRR and to the other parties, as the photos and videos enabled the parties to construct a timeline of the events of that day.
Mr. Bond told the audience that the Kuhlman gully, which runs in an east / west direction through the subdivision, then turns north towards Braes Bayou after it leaves the subdivision, runs underneath the rail yards. Mr. Bond said that it started drizzling about 6:00am on January 9th, but it started raining very hard at approximately 9:15am.
Mr. Bond told the audience that by 9:30am, Union Pacific had evidence that street flooding had already started. Between 10:00am - 11:00am, floodwaters started entering cars and buildings in the area. By 11:00am, the Kuhlman gully had reached capacity, and at 12:21pm, witnesses spotted a 75 foot long by 18 food wide culvert extension that ran underneath the Union Pacific railroad tracks that had experienced damage. The Royal Palms apartment complex, which is located along Griggs Road, is federal Section 8 housing, and is located right along where Metro is building the light rail line, was extremely hard hit, as can be seen in the Fox News video links above, which showed residents sweeping water out of their first floor units.
Mr. Bond finished up his talk and video presentation by saying that the flood was a 25 year flooding event, that the roads flooded first, then the Kuhlman gully, and he showed a photo of the upended 75' by 18' culvert that was sticking up into the air. Mr. Bond alluded to the photo, noting that the photo had gotten press coverage and had been widely circulated in the community. Mr. Bond stated (as did a spokeswoman for UPRR in the Fox News video) that UPRR had acted to cut the culvert up in order to free it and allow flood waters to drain out.
A professional engineer who was employed with Union Pacific, whose name I didn't catch spoke briefly about the rainstorm itself. He said that 4.28 inches of rain fell between 9:15am - 11:15am, and that 4.81 inches of rain fell between 9:15am - 12:15pm. This engineer told the audience that the flood was a 200 year event, contradicting the earlier statement that the flood was a 25 year event. He said that City of Houston storm sewers were designed for a 2-10 year event in residential areas and 5-10 year events in commercial areas, something I have heard said before. But the engineer stated that construction going on in the neighborhood cut down on storm capacity because water could not get into the street culverts.
Next up on the speakers list was Eric Dargan, an engineer with City of Houston Public Works and Engineering. Mr. Dargan repeated that a 2 year flooding event is considered to be 4 inches of rain within 24 hours. Mr. Dargan told the audience that there were no collapsed or blocked storm sewer lines, contradicting what the previous engineer had said.
Mr. Dargan stepped down, and Curtis Lampley with the Harris County Flood Control District stood to speak before the audience. Mr. Lampley said that the HCFCD was responsible for maintenance of the bayous, but not the storm sewers or the streets of the city. He said that the HCFCD does not issue permits, nor does it do culverts. This was in response to a question of who was responsible for what.
Next up was Metro's Dave Couch, director of capital projects for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Mr. Couch told the audience that the rainfall overwhelmed the drainage system. All storm sewer lines were in service, and he said that Metro was increasing the capacity of the storm lines. He asserted that ther was no solid runoff into the system. Were all lnlets to the storm sewer system sealed, he was asked? Mr. Couch answered, "no." Mr. Couch also told the audience that Metro was installing larger storm lines as they built rail, increasing them from their current size by three inches.
A gentleman from the City of Houston emergency management division, whose name I did not get, then came up to speak about the aftermath. He told the audience that information for a federal disaster declaration was being sent to the State of Texas. Someone had enough wits around them to contact the American Red Cross, which did all the heavy lifting in terms of helping residents who were stricken by this disaster, by providing food, medical care, and simple help. Someone there got in touch with St. Francis Xavier Catholic church, whose Priests and congregation threw open its doors and gave shelter to those who were rendered temporarily without shelter.
The floor was open for questions. One person asked whether the flow of water had been diverted from Braes Bayou? The answer was no. The next question, however, fired the crowd up. One person demanded to know whether constructing the Metro rail line had caused the flooding? One of the neighborhood pastors said that he had lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and it had never flooded. Another resident testified that the water had flowed very slowly out of the neighborhood. The rain had stopped around 2:00pm that afternoon, but the water did not drain out until after 4:00am the next morning.
In response to this, Dwight Boykins, who sits on the Rebuild Houston committee, and Houston City Councilman Stephen Costello, who showed up to pimp his new rain tax, got up to speak. Mr. Boykins said that the Rebuild Houston was not ready to start installing new drainage. When asked by what criteria projects would be first worked on, he said that the entire city was being mapped by LIDAR. CM Costello told the audience that the first thing that would be done is to commit to the current five year capital improvement plan (CIP), and he said that projects would be "needs based." Costello told the audience that the Rebuild Houston fund had accumluated $60 million so far and that it was on a path to accumulate $100 million by the end of the year. CM Costello went on to say that "what was amazing about the Renew Houston plan was that we passed a funding source without a plan," to which one woman in the audience replied that that she did not vote for Renew Houston because it was Rescrew Houston.
CM Costello went on to say that a plan for Rebuild Houston would be out on February 10th, and that "needs based" criteria would be based on 311 calls to the city, age of facilities, and traffic counts.
Talk resumed about the flooding that occurred on January 9th. The City of Houston emergency management person came back u to say that the criteria for federal disaster dollars was that 25 or more homes needed to have experienced 50 percent or more damage in terms of value. His team had already received 139 applications from home owners for assistance, far exceeding this rather low criteria, but he also said that apartments also count towards the 50 percent criteria. He went on to say that the Royal Palms apartment complex is uninhabitable and that they were expecting 16 more applications from residents. The Royal Palms apartments were a U.S. HUD based community, but he said that HUD had not given anything to them and that HUD was not financially responsible for the Royal Palms because HUD does not own the Royal Palms apartment complex. Meanwhile, the landlord of the complex was nowhere to be found, something that angered CM Wanda Adams, who had gone looking for the landlord.
HUD had told residents that they had to vacate the complex, and stories were told that food had been stolen from apartment residents. Despite the fact that HUD had told the residents that they had to vacate, HUD had no money for relocation funds. There were some residents who volunteered to relocate to some vacant apartment units up on the northside of Houston, but some people had decided to stay in the Royal Palms. Where else would they go? The emergency management fellow said that regardless of what else they would do, they needed to get their applications for disaster relief in, as they were planning on sending the City's application for federal disaster relief to Governor Perry's office the next day, and that agents from the State would be coming to the area to audit the claims before sending the application to President Obama.
Benton Bond from UPRR got up to address some more questions about the possible role of the damaged culvert in the flooding. He said that the concrete culvert that had risen up had been installed 10 years before, and had been inspected several times since installation. The last inspection was back in March 2011, He told the audience that the company was already in the process of designing a new pipe, but that one thing that was a barrier to a fast installation was that when the old pipe was installed, the City of Houston was very slow in allowing a permit for installing it. Would the City act more quickly this time to abet the reconstruction of the culvert under the UPRR rail line?
Another resident stood up to speak, saying that there had been no flooding in the MacGregor Place subdivision in nearly 50 years, and that he had seen Metro's shielding bags that covered the street gutters saturated with mud. He understood that Mr. Couch had said that they were designed to let water through, but nothing else, but those covers were holding everything back. Eyewitnesses in the neighborhood had seen Metro Rail contractors sweep debris from construction into the storm sewers, to which Mr. Couch said that Metro was responsible for the street inlets.
The meeting ended. Afterwards I spoke with some of the residents. One person said that the University of Houston, which is on the other side of MacGregor Park on MLK, had not flooded during the storm, whereas their neighborhood did, and they wanted to know why? Another woman who identified herself to me as a lawyer said to me that nothing had been said at the meeting, and she was correct. There were a mass of contradictory statements that were made at the meeting, and I told her that the reason why nobody really said anything of substance was not because the investigation was preliminary, but it was because none of the representatives wanted to find themselves on the witness stand a year from now being grilled by her as to who was really at fault for causing the MacGregor Place subdivision to not drain out after a major rain storm, when it had successfully handled Hurricane Alicia back in 1983, Tropical Storm Allison back in 2001, Hurricane Rita in 2006, and Hurricane Ike back in 2008?
I also found out after the meeting that Metro is in the process of condemning a cement and gravel plant that lies just outside the MacGregor Trail subdivision, not far from the Union Pacific rail line. Metro plans to build a rail car barn and maintenance facility at the terminus of the rail line, but the current owners are fighting Metro in court over the condemnation. Did this property in any way possibly contribute to the flooding problem?
The following Saturday, I went to a gathering of bloggers and was told that there had been extensive ponding of water along Harrisburg, where Metro has started building a light rail line, and that one downtown parking garage along Metro's rail line (Metro has dug up the streets of Rusk and Capitol) had also experienced flooding. There is more rain expected this week, which will allow for capturing of more evidence of whether or not Metro's construction is causing flooding along the streets. It also occurred to me to revisit the federally mandated environmental impact statements that Metro had to produce in order to secure federal grant funding to see what Metro and the FTA said about flooding. If those EIS studies didn't show anything about flooding, all that goes to show is that the EIS process is nothing more than a phony dog and pony show to keep people employed, rig the process to ensure the outcome that the transit agency desires (which was to build rail), and for environmental groups to use to stop road construction.
This whole episode reminds me of part of the reason why I started blogging in the first place: Because the Houston Chronicle and other news outlets decide what's news and what isn't, and Chris Moran's higher ups decided that Helena Brown's okay to sell an 8,840 square foot parcel of land that pissed off some of the neighborhood folks who couldn't be bothered to cough up their own money to buy that land was news, while the flooding out of an subdivision, possibly caused by Metro's construction of a rail line wasn't. One resident said on television that all they wanted was not to be treated like animals, and ladies and gentlemen, treating people like animals is not acceptable.
Yesterday, the winds brought news to the Wizard of a townhall meeting that was being conducted by the City of Houston and the Metropolitan Transit Authority at the Ripley House on Navigation Street. The subject matter had to do with Metro's construction of a light rail line down Harrisburg, and so it was that though the Wizard had had a long day of laboring away for a living, that I decided to head over to see what the commotion was about.
To wit: Metro incorporated a rail line on Harrisburg back for the 2003 rail referendum to appease the Hispanic voting bloc, who had threatened to vote against Metro's rail plans if the government agency did not build a rail line that went through Hispanic areas of town. And so it was that Metro incorporated a rail line down Harrisburg to appease the wolves and sharks.
But Metro decided not to submit the rail line down Harrisburg for consideration for a federal funding grant from the U.S. FTA. Why, because there were problems from the beginning with running a rail line down Harrisburg. One obvious one was that the East End of Houston is where the ship channel and Port of Houston are, as well as much industry. The area has many environmental problems, which would have been unearthed during an FTA public inquiry because all federal grants must get environmental clearance from the U.S. EPA in order to be eligible for a federal grant. Hence, Metro would have to build this rail line out of its own monies.
That however, wasn't the most visible problem with running a rail line down Harrisburg. Union Pacific Rail Road (UPRR) operates a rail line that runs through the East End, and runs several dozen freight trains that traverse Harrisburg every day. Any Metro rail line would have either go over the UPRR rail tracks or under them. That is what this public meeting was about. Would Metro build the rail line over or under the UPRR rail tracks?
The meeting was packed, standing room only, with maybe 200 or so people showing up and cramming into a small room at the Ripley House. City of Houston Mayor Annise Parker conducted the meeting, with Councilmembers James Rodriguez and Ed Gonzalez also in attendance. City of Houston Public Works director Dan Krueger was there, but did not speak, but the other noteworthy speaker was Metro's CEO, George "Good Government Guy" Greanias.
Parker and Greanias presented attendees with computer visuals of what an overpass and what an underpass of a rail line running under the UPRR rail tracks would look like. Members of the audience argued both for and against each proposal. I was amazed to hear that Metro and the City, which having gone so far as to put orange construction barrels for three miles down Texas Avenue and down to the 5500 block of Harrisburg, and having torn up and repaved parts of Harrisburg itself, have not yet figured out what they are going to do about the UPRR rail line.
Mayor Parker made it clear that she was agnostic about which option Metro chose, but Ma Parker can afford to be agnostic. She has the gun, and screwing a few voters in the East End isn't going to matter to her to much, not in comparison to losing political support from the construction mafia wolves who are a big part of Metro's self promoting, agency created mess. Time tables were given; if the overpass bridge option was chosen, it would cost $32 million, but if an underpass was chosen it would cost $43 million. Mayor Parker told the audience that the Councilmembers present had agreed to give up two projects out of the City CIP (capital improvement plan) to come up with $12 million in monies for building the bridge. Another idea floated would be to create (yet another) TIRZ (tax increment refinancing zone) along Harrisburg, with the hope that increased tax values would be captured and spent on the project. One proposal was to try to lobby the Harris County Commissioners into forming a TIRZ along Harrisburg.
Questions were fielded from the audience, with one woman who was holding a baby questioning in detail about the financial assumptions of the TIRZ, and another person saying that he hoped that the rail line would promote tourism in the East End! Mayor Parker remarked - memorably - that:
There's no magic - It's just a rail line. The market will have to decide whether to put money into the area.
The audience was told that if the overpass was built, that the rail line would likely be completed by 2014, while the overpass would be completed in 2016. Many complained about how long Metro had taken in instigating the construction of rail. Mayor Parker remarked on how uncooperative UPRR was - oh, the horror! - and George Greanias stated that legally that it was doubtful that UPRR had any legal right to operate their rail line along the street. Parker made it clear that she was playing hardball with UPRR, but UPRR wasn't backing down. UPRR is not some podunk, small time Ma and Pa business that would be easy for a big city Mayor to bully around, but rather a huge corporation that earns tens of billions of dollars in revenue hauling billions of tons of freight around every year. When I listened to Mayor Parker speak as she did, thoughts of Atlas Shrugged went through my mind, this time with a big city politician trying to whip up on a railroad that provides an incalculable service to Houston, all in the name of a government agency that has the power to call for elections whose intent is to aggrandize itself by spending billions of dollars of other people's money.
And for what? That, gentle readers, is the true question. One elderly gentleman asked why the federal government was not involved? That question wasn't answered at the meeting, but in addition to the environmental problems posed, it turns out that the ridership forecast for Harrisburg is only 7,750 boardings per day by 2015. 7,750 riders per day for a rail line that will cost about $500 million, which will take away 2 of Harrisburg's 4 lanes unless the City and Metro widen the street, and which will result in 28 of 40 intersections being blocked off unless plans have been or are changed. People getting onto Harrisburg or off from Harrisburg will only be allowed to make right hand turns only. Meanwhile, the #50 Harrisburg bus route has been attracting 4,400 - 5,500 boardings for years, and George Greanias stated at the meeting that Metro is trying to identify $20 million in annual operational cost savings, presumably to pay for the rail line. And where is that $20 million in cost savings going to come from? Most likely Metro is going to end up cutting bus service, as they have before.
After the meeting was over, I drove for several miles along Harrisburg and looked at the blocked off lanes, the orange construction barrels, and the businesses whose access to the street have all been blocked off. It struck me that the evening's public meeting was held on Navigation, a street nearly a mile away from Harrisburg, that everyone had gotten to the meeting by cars even with the price of gas at nearly $4 per gallon, and for which light rail would be useless to get to.
It's really sad to see Harrisburg, and indeed Houston itself, go through so much agony for so little return. But such are the joys of modern day American Progressivism, which being the heir of a movement that was launched 100 years ago and which has continually promoted the use of State power ostensibly for the public good, has long since done all the productive useful things that government could conceive of doing, but has created a pile of interest groups in the process and who now demand to continue to be fed at the table like wolves and sharks. To try to continue pacifying these groups, today's Progressives insist on resorting to grand projects with big price tags, like light rail, but which have little or no value, and try to use Democracy as a way to justify it all. That may be a reason why companies like Exxon Mobil are leaving the City of Houston for the distant suburbs, and why Houston only garnered 20 percent of the population gains of all of Harris County between 2000 and 2010.
What Houstonians see with Metro is a microcosm of what Americans see happening in Washington, and today's Progressivism will do nothing but impoverish everyone.
After all, there's no magic in it - It's just a rail line....
This past week, Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority kicked off a series of 24 public "workshops" that are being held over the next six weeks around Houston. Metro's stated purpose for doing so is:
METRO is hosting a series of public workshops to discuss the future of transit in our region. We’re working with communities throughout our service area to learn where service is needed and how we can modify or add to existing service to better serve the needs of the community.
Metro goes on to invite Houstonians to:
Share your vision for tomorrow. Attend a METRO public workshop to discuss the future of transit in your community.
So, the Wizard did. I attended the workshop held on May 12th on Richmond Avenue. I really didn't expect anything new that I didn't know already. The Metroettes (employees of Metro who attend public events put on by the agency) were out in force as usual. A heavy set man, who lived in the area but whom I had never met before, said to me at one point that it seemed like many people who were in attendance were Metro employees. I told him he must be new to the world of Metro.
There really wasn't much to report that Examiner reporter Mike Reed didn't cover. Yes, the Kim Slaughter did make a comment about transportation coming down to roads or rail, and yes City of Houston Oliver Pennington did say that half of Houstonians were opposed to any rail.
Metro was soliciting comments and input, which of course doesn't matter to Metro because there are other things that matter much more to the agency than the opinions of one or two dozen Houstonians who show up to each of these meetings. I'm willing to bet $100 that no more than 1,000 residents show up to all 24 of these so called workshops, which goes to show how relevant the agency really is to most Houstonians.
But I digress, because there's something else that needs to be asked about Metro's public workshops that's more important than the agency sending out its PR department on a political fishing expedition to test the public mood, and that is, quite frankly, why is the agency bothering to do this in the first place?
Seven and a half years ago, Metro spent $6 million in sales tax dollars before the November 2003 election (and arguably broke Texas law which prohibits agencies from spending tax dollars to promote agendas) to politically sell Houstonians on a comprehensive regional transit plan, the centerpiece of which was to be 64 miles of light rail, along with more HOV lanes, 50 percent more bus routes, and so on. The voters approved the plan, much the delight of both the Houston Chronicle editorial board and to Metro itself. But that was supposed to be the plan!
So what the hell is Metro doing out here now? After all, Metro has been around for 32 years now, but for some reason Metro needs to learn how to modify existing services for transit? This is the sort of stuff that people get when you have a government agency, which has a gun at its disposal, but whose real purpose is to be the plaything of the ruling political coalition which has captured local government.
The older I get, the more I think that Metro, which was voted into existence in 1978 (which came just a few years after a previous failed attempt to vote it into existence), is just one of thousands of manifestations of the 20th Century Progressive vision that America had to have more democracy. Government had to take over more and more functions in America, and all of this had to be legitimized by democracy. So, the big government loving Texans of the late 1970's wrote section 451 of the Texas Transportation Code, such that agencies that were voted into existence would be ruled over by boards which could call elections for transit plans, in much the same way that government school boards call for elections to sell bonds to build expensive shiny new schools.
Rorschach has said over and over again that one of the big problems that those who fight statism have to face is that every time something comes up for an election, the liberty types fighting elections have to get lucky every single time, while all the promoters of statism have to do is get lucky just once. And so it is when you set up lots of boards and agencies, and grant them the power to call elections. If the interest groups fail to get what they want at the ballot box, there's always the next election where you can try, try again. Once the interest groups hit the political jackpot, win their election and get what they want, the door slams shut and the voters are not allowed to look back no matter how rotten the government acts, and in the process the voters who show up during that election effectively commit future generations to pony up for what they've done.
And so it has been with Metro. Since the November 2003 election Metro has blown through some $700 million in local and federal tax dollars, but has only "just started work" on three rail lines, according to Ms. Slaughter. But hey, guess what? Metro now feels the need to go out into the community and - get this - get their opinion!
Thoughts turn to Erik Ibarra and Lauren Barrash, and their struggles to provide private transportation to Houstonians. The market and their customers tell them how they are doing, and they pay attention because they don't have guns at their disposal.
Now, the Texas Legislature does have a provision whereby agencies and boards can be subject to sunset review, but once agencies and boards are voted into existence, they have interests of their own, and so it was that Metro got itself exempted from being subject to sunset review. Meanwhile, the Texas Transportation Code offers no provision for voters to dissolve Metro, no matter how egregious the agency's acts are.
And so Houstonians are now treated to the spectacle of Metro, going about town, holding their workshops with their posters sitting on easels and tripods, giving long suffering Houstonians who bother to show up and chat with the squads of Metroettes yet another sermon on the alleged necessity of needing a government transit agency - an agency which after 32 years, still needs "to learn where service is needed and how we can modify or add to existing service to better serve the needs of the community."
Addendum edit (5/23/2011): Kevin links to this entry adding that
It's quite the approach to "customer" service!
But that's the whole point to this rant. Metro doesn't have customers. Who needs customers when you have stakeholders?
The City of Houston plays host this week to the 2011 NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. It's been years since I've been interested in college basketball, and the fact that this event is being held in town hasn't changed my lack of enthusiasm for college hoops much, but I digress.
The NCAA tournament is being held at Reliant Stadium, while free music concerts are being put on at Discovery Green. More events are being staged at the George R. Brown convention center. The Houston Chronicle, which has been an apologist for statism for decades, is trumping up how the Metropolitan Transit Authority is planning on putting buses on the Main Street rail line route to accommodate the anticipated extra riders on to go back and forth between these government buildings and parks at taxpayer expense.
Now that my anti-government rant part of this blog entry is over, I'll ask why it is that Metro is having to put buses on the route to handle the extra passengers, as one of the political rationales for building rail on Main Street at taxpayer expense was that doing so got rid of thousands of bus trips every day along the corridor, right? But, the Chronicle is reporting that Metro is going to run two rail car trains along Main Street, instead of one rail car.
But a question needs to be posed. Why stop at two rail cars, if Metro is anticipating extra transit riders along the corridor?
Well gentle readers, the Wizard is glad you asked that question, because it turns out that if Metro were to try running trains with three rail cars on them, instead of 1 or 2, then the agency runs into a bit of a problem. You see, the trains would then be too long for them to operate along Main Street.
Here's the deal: The rail cars that Metro operates were built by Siemens. As the Wikipedia entry for Houston's Metro Rail notes, the rail cars are 96 feet long, so a two rail car train is 192 feet long. A three car train would be 288 feet (or 96 yards) long, and those numbers do not include any connections or hitches between the rail cars. Furthermore, the train stations have to be longer than the rail cars in order to accommodate potential passengers. The train stations that are envisioned by Metro to handle trains with two cars for the other corridors are roughly 220 feet long.
The problem posed with trains that are three rail cars long is that as every Houstonian knows, the streets in downtown Houston are laid out in a grid, and the length of the grid blocks in downtown Houston are right around - you guessed it - 100 yards. That means that if Metro were to try to run trains that were three rail cars long, the trains (and the train stations) would potentially be blocking vehicle traffic that would be running in an east - west perpendicular direction to the trains running in a north - south direction. There are almost certainly similar problems to be found in placing train stations along the other corridors where Metro wants to build rail.
What this means is that Metro is boxed in by the current built environment in downtown Houston with regards to how many rail cars they can run with one train. That in turn will cause a ripple effect that will limit the passenger capacity that will affect any and all expansions to rail in Houston. Train stations will be hemmed in by the layout of the current street grid, and the only way to get around such problems posed by building rail at-grade would be to completely cut off streets where they now intersect with any of the streets along which Metro wants to run rail. Hence, that in turn would mean cutting off vehicle mobility along any corridor that Metro wants to build rail.
Of course, such issues can be gotten around by elevating rail, or building subways, but then you are talking about a 2-5 fold increase in the price tag to taxpayers. Alternately, Metro can attempt to run trains at-grade with greater frequency (i.e. with shorter headways), but that in turn might cause more traffic disruption, and it would cause Metro to have consider adding more power capacity on the grid to run more trains.
And so it is that Metro will be running buses on my dime to abet the capacity of Metro's Main Street train to ferry out-of-towners to go have their entertainment.
The Wizard apologizes for not getting a blog entry out and published on Sunday night. Missed that self imposed deadline again.
News has slowly been percolating through the blogosphere and social networks about the mislabeled as usual Livable Communities Act of 2009. Briefly, the bill is being pushed by Senator Chris Dodd, through the Urban Affairs committee in the Senate. According to GovTrack, the bill is to
to establish the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, to establish the Interagency Council on Sustainable Communities, to establish a comprehensive planning grant program, to establish a sustainability challenge grant program, and for other purposes.
The bill is to
burn through spend $3.75 billion in federal grants to cities across the country to enact the Smart Growth agenda. Some of my friends have made noises of this bill being the vehicle through which U.N. Agenda 21 is to be enacted in America, but there really isn't a reason to get conspiracy minded about shadowy international forces being behind the legislation. Actually, if you simply visit the GovTrack website, readers can see who is in favor of the legislation:
U.S. Green Building Council
National Leauge of Cities
Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments
American Institute of Architects
American Public Transportation Association
American Public Works Association
Children's Defense Fund
Habitat for Humanity
National Association of Area Agencies on Aging
National Association of Realtors
National Housing Trust
Trust for America's Health
U.S. Conference of Mayors
In other words, this bill is a handout and make work program to the central cities, one of the primary parts of the Democratic coalition for the past century, as well as to the "Smart Growth" crowd, to reshape American cities if they dance to Washington's tune.
It's really depressing to see the AARP as a backer of this legislation. Not content with making sure that $1,200,000,000,000 per year in wealth gets transferred to the old folks through Social Security and Medicare (not to mention having succeeded in getting Americans to pay for the pills for the old folks and coming out in favor of Obama Care), the AARP is now in the game for having my income tax dollars reshaping American cities.
From a Tea Party perspective, question number one about the legislation is that rather quaint one - namely, is this bill Constitutional? "What?!", cry the Progressives. "Of course it's constitutional! It's constitutional because it's - drum roll please - good public policy!" That's especially true if the New York Times editorial board believes it is, and this argument of it's constitutional because it's good public policy crap has been the mark of American jurisprudence for the past 100 years now.
No doubt that some are going to try to lay on the argument of, "well, the federal government enacted the Interstate Highway Act back in 1956, and that contributed to urban sprawl, so why can't we enact another bill to counter that." That argument smacks of the idea that one piece of state interventionism justifies the next one, and that's one of the reasons why government keeps expanding. Big Federal government leads to Big State government and Big Local government. And so it goes, unless the Tea Party can digest this, understand it, and put the heat on Washington to end it.
So what to do? Much of the problem with America is understanding who is responsible for what. Why not let private actors offer "livable communities?" Such an idea is more consistent with liberty. If interest groups are truly interested in reshaping cities this way, and demanding that the arm of the state act, then they should be taking this issue down to their local city councils and demanding that they raise property taxes on local taxpayers to reshape their city, rather than go plunder Washington like everybody else. Otherwise, take a few minutes out to bug your Senators and tell them to vote no, and tell them why.
Addendum: Becky points out that statist resettlement of the populace, whether forcibly or by economic encouragement (the American way), is a staple of dictators, authoritarians, and the Left. Stalin, the Chinese Communists, Pol Pot, and other dictators resettled and herded people around.
Even worse, it rarely achieves anything worthwhile, but it often does get people very upset, as it did in Post WWII Britain, when the Labor Party built the New Towns to house the 3-4 million Britons who lost their homes in WWII.
Over the past two years, the Wizard has attended countless events, luncheons, and public gatherings, not to mention read endless stories whereby various experts have pontificated on the causes of the current recession that America, and parts of the rest of the world finds itself in. Typically, the person giving the speech tells a long winded, complicated story about how a set of complex events set the stage for America's economic problems.
Paul Krugman recently wrote in his blog at the New York Times that
The 2007-9 recession was driven by the collapse of a huge housing bubble, and the resulting financial fallout. The Fed couldn’t cut rates sharply, because they weren’t all that high to begin with; there couldn’t be a housing boom, because housing was already overbuilt.
Krugman goes on to show a graph to illustrate his points, namely claiming that conservative economic policies didn't have anything to do with anything. Ezra Klein, a columnist at the Washington Post, whose column Mr. Krugman cites, goes on to talk about Kenneth Rogoff's articles, also cites that America suffered through a financial crisis, and that would also seem to have justified Congress's vast economic interference which it engaged in for the past two years. Mr. Rogoff himself said in November 2009 that the recession was turbocharged by a financial crisis.
The Wizard however, disagrees. A disclaimer before going any further - the Wizard has worked in the oil and gas industry for the past 22+ years. Having said that, the Wizard also knows quite a bit about economic and world history. The Wizard believes that the root of the current economic recession was a classic supply side shock caused by a rise in fossil fuel prices over the past decade, and that this shock effectively exposed and exacerbated any pernicious underlying economic problems which acts by the federal government had previously encouraged.
The Wizard musters economic history to illustrate my points. Over the past 40 years, every time in which there has been a major rise in the price of crude oil, for whatever reason, an economic recession has occurred soon thereafter.
1) A recession occurred in 1973 after the 1973 Arab Israeli war, when the Arabs famously embargoed crude oil to the West. The price of a barrel of oil went from $3 per barrel to $10-$11 overnight. America went through stagflation for most of the 1970's.
2) There was a second recession in 1980-1982 after the Iranian Islamic revolution, when crude oil went from $10 to $40 per barrel before coming back down.
3) There was a third recession in 1991-1992, which occurred after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. World oil markets went into a flutter for a while before settling down again, and America went into a recession.
4) There was a run up in oil prices over the entire decade from 2000-2010, where the price of a barrel of crude oil went up from $20 per barrel to $75 per barrel, spiking up to $147 per barrel in 2008 before falling back down. America went into a recession in 2008 and still remains mired in a historically high levels of unemployment.
Once again gentle readers - economic recessions following rises in crude oil prices have not happened one time, they have happened every time over the past 40 years! That's what happens when you have an energy intensive society, but bear in mind that having an energy intensive society isn't a bad thing. There is a strong positive correlation between energy use, income levels, and economic development.
And the Wizard is not alone in his sentiments. City Journal magazine carries an article in its summer 2010 issue also stating out that there was a run up in energy prices, and argues that the problems with the defaults in housing markets, with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac ( read these opposing justifications for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae's existence), the derivatives, and so on all came after the run up in energy prices.
It's important to understand that, the breathless, up to the minute, face pressed up against the glass rantings over at the Oil Drum not withstanding, that world oil markets exhibit both inelastic supply curves and inelastic demand curves. So why can the Wizard confidently argue that the supply curves and demand curves are both inelastic? Well, when you have anywhere from 600 - 900 million vehicles now in use in the world, those vehicle owners are automatically going to use a lot of gas. And from the standpoint of producing crude oil, if you are going to fork out a lot of capital to produce a field of crude oil, you'd better have your ducks lined up when trying to make a decision as to how much capital to commit, and the oil and gas industry spends untold billions every year bringing oil and gas to markets, and refining its products. Once you've committed spending billions of dollars to find, develop, and produce from a field of crude, you'd better be confident that there will be a market for that product, and that creates an inelastic supply environment. Rising prices are also a signal that the marginal cost of lifting new crude oil supplies out of the ground has gone up.
So what to do? If the narrative that the root cause of America's recession was due to a rise in crude oil prices, then America is in for a long period of retrenchment in order to adjust to this new world, but does NOT mean that we should go into a flip out over "peak oil". One of the fears behind the peak oil hysteria is that there is no scalable substitute for crude oil in terms of its use as a transportation fuel, but this is nonsense. The Houston Chronicle has carried a number of articles that Honda makes a natural gas version of its GX, which retails at $18,000 for its gasoline version, but some $26,000 for its natural gas version which comes along with a home refueling station that costs $4,000. As the price of crude oil continues to rise, then if the relative price of natural gas as a fuel justifies a switch, the motorists may well switch to using natural gas as a fuel, and with the discovery of new shale gas extraction techniques, the world probably has generations of natural gas fuel available for the foreseeable future.
As the price of liquid transportation fuels rises, it will prove to be a natural curb to use of cars and trucks, while at the same time issuing a signal to producers of energy to come up with new ways of producing transportation fuels. The Wizard suspects that fuel from cellulose ethanol should become viable at somewhere between $7 - $10 per gallon of gasoline, and then it would be a matter of deciding how much arable land to devote to its production. In the meantime, we have shale oil, tar sands, and other forms of energy that could be produced.
But what about now? As the City Journal article notes, one of the problems that America committed both in the 1930's and the 1970's was that Washington committed a long series of well meaning, but misguided errors that got in the way of recovery. For America to get back on track, the country will have to incorporate higher costs for crude oil and transportation fuels in its future, and Americans will do that. Americans will react in different ways, based on their income levels and personal preferences, and we should note that the Obama Administration has already mandated higher fuel economy in motor vehicles that are produced in the future. Rising prices will mean that crude oil consumption will gravitate towards its highest and best uses, and away from more marginal ones such as driving for vacations or use of petroleum for plastics (we could revert to using glass containers for example). Some will swallow the costs and keep driving, others may decide to buy smaller homes and also keep driving. Some will pare back driving and move closer to work. Some may walk or ride a bike. One thing that few people will do, at least willingly, is take local public transportation.
At the same time, the narrative of higher fuel costs would also have helped explain the failure of the General Motors and Chrysler, as people cut back for the time being on buying cars. That would be seen as part of the creative destruction that occurs in a market economy, making it more efficient, but intervention and favoritism by Washington has interfered with that process.
But over the long run, higher energy costs aren't the most important issue we face. What is really at issue is that having so many interest groups making so many demands on the political system, sucking huge resources into the political system, and running massive federal deficits all do - especially when the country is not fighting for its survival - is that they send false signals on what there really is demand for. How many times, for example, will Nancy Pelosi call the House of Representatives back into session to bail out the local government schools to keep employees on the local government school system payrolls? Does America really need yet another stimulus? More to the point, it doesn't help that Americans will find themselves being hit with higher energy costs, while at the same time having an overactive federal government that is spending itself into oblivion because it is doing so much.
Americans also understand that interference from Washington, such as bailing out AIG, or nationalizing the automobile companies, creates a situation where the government is choosing favorites instead of being a neutral referee and letting things unfold and fall where they may. The real issue is that Washington needs to calm down and quit trying to commit to doing so many things, because running around trying to do so many things creates uncertainty as to government and its purpose. And creating uncertainty isn't good for America or its future.
Addendum: A fellow named Philip Stadler writes
I used to wonder how bad things really would have been if AIG had been allowed to fail, to go into bankruptcy and have its carcass picked at by financial companies that were doing things the right way and were solvent enough to pick up those discounted assets. I used to wonder about the repercussions if General Motors would have simply filed for bankruptcy, instead of borrowing $60 billion and then filing for bankruptcy anyway. I don’t wonder about those things anymore. You see, the magic of a successful big government power grab is that now we will never know those answers. The government can never be proven wrong. It is quite possible that letting nature take its course would have cost us an additional three, seven, even ten years of recession... We will simply never know.
I grew up poor. I rode the bus until I was 24 years old. Once I got my first car, I never looked back.
Houston City Council member at-large, Jolanda Jones, at a Bill King speech, July 29th, 2010.
Things flew fast and heavy this past week on the Metro Rail front. This past week, the Wizard attended two public talks on Metro Rail. The first was put on at the headquarters of the Harris County Democratic Party on Tuesday night, July 27th. The second meeting was a presentation put on by former Houston mayoral candidate Bill King, held at a Galleria area restaurant. While the Wizard attended both events, the Wizard did not bother to stand up and ask any questions at either event. Mostly the Wizard took notes and let the speakers have their say.
Before going any further describing what was talked about at both events, the Wizard is simply going to outline for gentle readers what the overall situation is with Metro and the agency's desires to built light rail.
As things stand now with Metro Rail
1) The five rail lines envisioned, totaling 30-31 miles, will probably end up costing roughly $4 billion plus to build.
According to Paul Magaziner, Metro currently has about $100 million in cash - that's it. The State of Texas requires that Metro maintain at least $60 million in cash on hand. If Metro intends to issue more bonds, then those bonds will have to be certified by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office, and that's not assured.
2) At the meeting with Harris County Democrats, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia told the audience that Metro had spent $640 million on light rail since the November 2003 election. He did not go into details or breakdown for the audience on how that money had been spent. However one thing is obvious: Despite having spent all that money, Metro still hasn't laid down one yard of rail track on any of the rail lines.
3) Tom Bazan has been religiously capturing sales tax data for both the City of Houston and Metro since 2001. His latest spreadsheet, which he updates monthly, can be downloaded here. Tom Bazan's data shows that Metro is on a path to collect roughly $490 million. In contrast, Metro forecast in it's 2008 SFEIS for the Southeast Corridor rail alignment that it would collect $592 million in sales taxes for 2010, a shortfall of 17 percent.
Metro's entire financial analysis is extremely aggressive. For example, the spreadsheet offered states that Metro would collect $804.8 million in sales taxes in 2015.
4) Metro owes the City of Houston some $130 million in general mobility funds, debts that had accumulated during former Mayor Bill White's term in office.
5) Even if Metro manages to get all federal grants, Metro will have to cough up at least another $2 billion in local funding to complete this project.
Bill King's speech - July 29th 2010
Mr. King's presentation can be viewed online here. Several highlights include that Metro stated in its financial analysis that the agency would not be obligated to turn over 25 percent of its sales tax monies for general mobility street construction purposes to member cities after 2015, which is rather presumptuous since an election has to be held on this issue in 2014 according to the 2003 referendum. The agency admitted in its environmental impact statements that making turns with its trains along the Richmond / Wheeler University rail route would result in high levels of noise. The aforementioned sales tax and farebox recovery figures are wildly optimistic, with farebox recovery rising from $60 million in 2010 to $132 million in 2015, and $167 million in 2020. Mr. King reiterated his call for lowered or eliminating fares on Metro's buses. King's analysis is that 20 percent of all trips taken in the Houston area are for work trips, and Metro can only hope to attract a few percent of those work trips. King expressed concern that the agency board has already tied itself with contracts over the project.
King stated that there were several things that Metro could do to gain efficiency. One was to sign long term contracts for natural gas as a fuel source.
As an aside, a number of people who were in the audience were from Metro, which is standard operating procedure for the agency. Metro usually sends employees to public meetings on Metro Rail, both to keep an eye out on the public mood and to pack meetings with "supporters" of their plans.
The HCDP event - July 27th 2010
Metro's new chairman, Gilbert Garcia, was joined by the new CEO, former City controller George Greanias, and long time Metro executive John Sedlak, at the HCDP event. The three men took turns at the microphone speaking, at which was their constituency.
Gilbert Garcia was chairman of Mayor Annise Parker's 2009 campaign. He's an investment banker, affiliated with Henry Cisneros's money management fund. He told the audience that he cut his teeth in politics working for Walter Mondale's Presidency bid in 1984 in New Jersey and Texas. Mr. Garcia is a Yale graduate, making him a member of what Angelo Codevilla calls the ruling class
Garcia went on to tell the audience on how he was in Atlanta, where instead of a $75 cab drive, he took a MARTA train for $2, ending with a rhetorical "if Atlanta can do it, then why can't Houston?" Garcia reported that morale was low at Metro when he first started. He introduced himself to an employee, who told him, "I've never met a board member, much less the chairman." Garcia stated that agency leadership was eating, sleeping, going all out to get the $900 million in federal grant money. Garcia stated the current board's intention to complete all five rail lines, and asserted that Houston was limiting its future by not doing so.
Actually, the Wizard thinks that Houston is not limiting itself by not building light rail. It is the political classes and those who are politically connected to the City and to Metro whose futures are being limited by not building light rail.
George Greanias then got up to speak. Greanias told the audience that he had not been active in the 2009 Mayor's race, and had not endorsed anyone. A few criticized that Greanias had no transit background, but Greanias himself said that was a good thing.
Greanias stated that "nothing will shape Houston like Metro, with the exception of HISD." He told the audience that 30 percent of work trips into downtown were ferried by Metro, and 20 percent of work trips to the Medical Center were via Metro. Metro now has GPS installed on all buses, and the agency washes all buses every night with recycled water. Greanias took the occasion to announce (in advance) of a letter Metro received from the Harris County District Attorney's office that allegations from former City controller Lloyd Kelley had been cleared, as well as that Metro had received a Record of Decision from the US-FTA for the Wheeler / Richmond University rail line. Nothing was said about a recent story by Texas Watchdog about an HISD study comparing efficiencies of HISD's bus fleet verses Metro's.
Greanias said that when he came to office that Metro employees did not feel connected to management, and that he vowed that Metro would keep promises it made to the public. Grenias asserted that "we have to build this rail system!"
Greanias said that "we've made it more convenient for people not to use transit than to use transit", in reference to Metro's surrendering of sales tax monies for general mobility funding. John Sedlak reiterated this remark later. It became clear to me that there is a mindset amongst the Metro brass that they don't seem to count the fact that streets that are fixed up with Metro's sales tax dollars are also used by Metro's buses. Greanias asserted that Metro Rail on Main Street replaced 11 Metro bus routes, something the Wizard knows to be false. There used to be four bus routes directly running on Main Street that were truncated after the rail line was put into place.
John Sedlak, Metro VP took to the podium. The Wizard had not seen Mr. Sedlak in two years, and it appeared that Mr. Sedlak's age is starting to show a bit. He has to be pushing 60 by now.
Sedlak told the audience that rail was easy to use, verses climbing up the steps of a bus. Strollers and bicycles could easily fit in rail cars. Advertising on buses and trains was a local policy issue and that Metro had to work with the City of Houston and Scenic Houston. There was a City ordinance in effect that prohibited advertising on City right of ways, and Metro's bus stops were located in those right of ways. Sedlak said Metro was not sure how much money could be raised, but Allen Kepler, Metro's first chairman, had decided long ago not to advertise on buses, as this was a branding issue. The agency had kept to that ever since.
One attendee asked about parking on the North Corridor rail alignment, stating that they were not sure where to park at Northline Mall. She asserted that if Metro wanted to encourage people to ride trains, then they needed to have lots of parking (really?!). Sedlak replied that Metro was looking at leasing parking space around the old mall area and was in talks with HCC about parking for the Main Street rail line, as well as the garage at the Ensemble Theater.
The issue of parking also came up with the Airport Express buses. Sedlak told the audience that Metro "loses a ton of money" running the Airport Express (but spending $640 million and not building any rail isn't?), but was looking at expanding the service to stop by nearby downtown hotels in an effort to pick up ridership. The same woman who asked about parking near Northline Mall stated that BART had problems with car parking and suggested that Metro build a better parking lot nearby the Airport Express staging lot.
One man asked the three speakers, "how will you defeat obstructionists like John Culberson?" The question drew some laughs from the audience. Greanias told the audience that Metro needed to persuade the rest of the community, and to convince the people around Culberson" on rail. Sedlak said that one key for Metro was "getting something done" on rail. In Dallas, he stated, they're asking "who gets it next?" Well, maybe. Garcia asked whether Metro should go to the airports, apparently not realizing that according to the 2003 bond election, Metro was going to the airports.
Another audience member, who happened to be a cyclist, mentioned that he could often beat buses when going from one place to another.
Cost overruns and media relations were addressed, and one audience member mentioned that HPRA President Barry Klein has been harping on cost overruns. Greanias told the audience that "if Barry wants buses, then what he'd really want were rickshaws". Greanias said that the new board is offensive when it comes to the media. FOIA requests are being handed out. Agency PR folks had spoken to Houston Press editor Margaret Downing, and noted that some recent articles by the Press had not been so snarky.
Greanias brought up the issue of ridership, which has been down for the past two years. Metro is starting to look at some of the edges of some routes to examine why patronage on some routes are low. Why? Greanias brought up the idea of issuing vouchers for taxis, rather than run a 45 foot bus along such routes. A lack of shelters along bus routes was cited, as colder weather affects ridership. Changing the fare box structure was acknowledged. Incidentally, Greanias told the audience that the FTA does not allow Metro to count riders ferried to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo for national statistics purposes.
HCDP chairman Garry Birnberg asked the Metro leadership what Democrats could do to help? One answer was to get ready for an eventual election on the general mobility fund. Another was to ask, "what's the other sides solution?", and that largely summed up the meeting.
Afterwards, Richmond Avenue merchant Daphne Scarbrough told the Wizard that she had run into former blogger and now Metro board member Christof Spieler at a Rice Design Alliance meeting. Ms. Scarbrough asked Christof about the orders for Spanish rail cars, which has gotten the agency in hot water with the FTA? Mr. Spieler told Ms. Scarbrough, "Daphne, we're doing everything the FTA tells us to do." No doubt about that. Sam Staley would be expecting nothing less.
The Wizard kept quiet during the HCDP meeting and simply took notes. What emerged from the HCDP talk was an agency leadership that is still fiercely ambitious. Yet it had also become clear that nobody at the agency really knows where they are going with this project. The agency "was looking" at parking at Northline Mall? The agency "is looking" at whether to complete building these rail lines to the airports? That is not what the agency said it would do back in November 2003 at the bond election.
And more to the point, Wendell Cox just wrote that what really matters if you are going to use state or agency power to build public infrastructure, that it is the outputs that matter, not the inputs. And we need to keep that in mind with everything we do.
Addendum: The Wizard is going to start publishing on a regular schedule - probably posting on Sunday evenings.
The Houston Chronicle carried the story On July 8th, 2010, that the Renew Houston charter amendment campaign had reportedly garnered 30,000 signatures which they turned into the City Secretary's office for verification and certification for going on the November 2010 ballot.
The Wizard has heard CM Stephen Costello speak twice on the Renew Houston initiative, and intends to blog about the matter, but before writing about the charter amendment campaign, the Wizard decided to quote Renew Houston itself as to why the promoters are pushing this agenda:
Houston is an aging city. Over 60 % of all drainage and streets are past their useful life; 80% will be past their useful life in the next 20 years. When a street is assigned for re-construction, it takes the city 12 years before the work will commence due to lack of funding. ...
Americans are seemingly bombarded left and right with stories of aging infrastructure that hasn't been worked on for decades, that of course needs billions of new tax dollars over and above what governments already spend to be successfully maintained. At the same time, America has witnessed spectacular infrastructure failures in recent years, including the failures of the levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. President Obama's new head of the FTA, Peter Rogoff, made a speech in Boston in May 2010, where he stated that the six largest local government transit agencies in America had $50 billion in deferred maintenance of their rail lines, and now Houstonians are being told by an interest group campaign that 60 percent of Houston streets and drainage are past their useful life.
So, this begs the question: Why is it that governments, whether local, state, or federal, seemingly fail over and over and over again not to do needed maintenance on existing infrastructure? The easy answer to such a question would be, "What do you expect Wizard? Of course the gummit don't do things right! Why should this be any different? Why do you want to waste our time on this?" Well, if that's your answer, then maybe we should be privatizing public infrastructure. After all, this is an endemic problem!
But as though on queue, last month the Wizard received his most recent issue of The Independent Review. In the issue, economist Dr. John Bratland addresses the neglect of public infrastructure through comparing how a private entrepreneur handles capital (and capital goods), verses how politicians and bureaucrats spend their political and bureaucratic capital.
Dr. Bratland's article makes for great reading. Without going through the entire article, the Wizard will focus on the high points of what Bratland is saying.
Market signaling: Bratland notes that there is a distinction between capital and capital goods. Capital could be construed as everything that an entrepreneur has at their disposal in order to make judgments that help maintain, and hopefully increase, the income and profit stream of the enterprise. This includes labor, land, cash receivables, whatever. Capital goods are individual pieces of capital, including that land, labor, finance, machinery, etc. Bratland points out that the entrepreneur operates in a framework of contracts and private property rights that help guide the entrepreneur towards making the best decisions, and that the entrepreneur often faces competitive pressures and operates under some uncertainty about the future.
Bratland goes on to say that entrepreneurs will incorporate decisions on the purchase and maintenance of capital goods, based on whether they will maintain or increase the income stream. Entrepreneurs may decide, for example, to defer maintenance for a while on capital goods, if the entrepreneur judges that there will be little or no effect on the overall income stream. But, Bratland points out that successful entrepreneurs always incorporate maintenance costs into maintaining the capital goods in their purview. The entrepreneur will get market signals and feedback that help the entrepreneur make decisions on maintenance and replacement of capital goods.
Verses no market signals: Needless to say, none of this framework exists in the world of public infrastructure maintenance. Bratland points out that there is no market of exchange when it comes to public infrastructure and there are no private property rights. Most importantly, there is no market signal to indicate that a street, a freeway, a sewer line, drainage culverts, or any other element of public infrastructure needs to be maintained or for that matter be replaced! There is no income stream available to tell governments that maintaining existing infrastructure is the correct thing to do.
Politicians and bureaucrats will have, and pursue, conflicting agendas upon assuming office and during the course of their careers. Politicians may come under political or competitive pressures to keep taxes and expenditures low. Politicians may or may not be in a position to obtain substantial monies for infrastructure maintenance via the legislative process for their districts. Politicians will also spend monies on infrastructure if they can perceive that it will enhance their power, career goals, or affect roll call votes in other issues. Politicians may perceive for example, that they can gain more votes or power through voting to devote monies towards health care or education, rather than infrastructure maintenance. Politicians or bureaucrats may deny maintenance monies to other politicians, bureaucracies, or geographical areas, if it were to meet certain goals. Bureaucrats may have career goals that include obtaining jobs in academia or the lucrative private sector, which often have little or nothing to do with maintaining public infrastructure. Politicians and bureaucrats often correctly perceive that they often can gain more power, prestige, or favorable press, through building new infrastructure over maintaining existing infrastructure. Both politicians and bureaucrats may or may not be particularly publicly spirited in their actions.
But most of all, bureaucrats and politicians really are not in a position to be able to weigh whether building new infrastructure or maintaining older infrastructure is the best use of public dollars, since there is no market mechanism to guide their decisions. Making such decisions inevitably involves making some judgment about opportunity costs and social welfare, of which there are no real answers. Considering all these factors, as stunning as this sounds, neglecting existing infrastructure for years or decades and letting it go to pot could be - and often is - the best political outcome from the perspective of people who are involved in the political process.
Next, the Wizard will address the Renew Houston charter amendment.
I'm going to be up late tonight. After reading some work related stuff, I'm writing a response to Harris County Metro's FEIS for the University rail line. This is the fourth public reply comment I've made on Metro's rail lines. In previous public comments, I've submitted photos to Metro, the FTA, and to members of Congress, that show all the "for lease" signs and boarded up property along Main Street that contradict economic development claims, I've shown empty streets near Crosstimbers and ridden Metro buses to dispute their travel savings time claims, I've predicted cost escalations, have shown evidence that Metro's rosy future cash analysis predictions are garbage (why would Metro Chairman David Wolff otherwise be writing editorials in the Houston Chronicle demanding that Metro's sales tax territorial jurisdiction be expanded?), and have asked whether all we are doing is simply turning bus riders into rail riders, just to name a few things. But every time, Metro gets their FEIS approved, as they simply brush aside any public criticisms with simple one line replies, as they waltz their merry way towards bagging federal grants.
Why bother? The NEPA / EIS process, like nearly everything else the federal government does, is full of nothing but bullshit.
About two weeks days ago, the Wizard wrote about the death of an aunt of mine on my mother's side. This is the story of observations I made on the trip I made to Chicago and back.
The trip to Chicago
My father and I left Houston in his rather spacious automobile circa 1-2pm in the afternoon. We went over to my brother's residence where my father left him some instructions and house keys before we hit the open road. We ran into traffic congestion no fewer than five times within the first 35 miles before finally hitting some open road along I-45. We avoided the I-610 loop construction, but it was raining pretty hard that day and there were a number of accidents which were eliciting lots of rubber necking from drivers.
I had wanted to get out of Houston using U.S. 59, but I got into an argument with my father, who wanted to use I-10 to avoid the reconstruction work going on at the 610 Loop and get onto Interstate 45. We were leaving about 1pm and I told him that if we used I-45, we would run into evening rush hour traffic in Dallas. He would have none of it, so off we went, toughing it out up I-45.
The road way finally opened up somewhere around Conroe and off we went. True to form, we reached Dallas around 5pm and promptly ran into Dallas evening rush hour traffic around the point where I-45 ends and the road continues, turning into State highway 75. As with Houston, there are only either three or four lanes that go through downtown Dallas. It took a good one hour and twenty minutes to make it through Dallas and its northern suburbs before the traffic lightened up again. I was amazed how far the region had suburbanized. I spotted a new interchange that was being constructed in the outskirts of the Dallas Metro along highway 75. It will be needed.
As it was, I drove along highway 69 through Oklahoma, eventually hitting Interstate 44 east of Tulsa, which led to St. Louis. While driving along I-44, I saw a night train rolling in the opposite direction along the Interstate, reminding me that many of our roads followed where the trains ran.
We went through St. Louis around 4:00 am. I found the road network around St. Louis to be rather tricky. The interstates around St. Louis are full of turns, and the roads undulate with the terrain. If you aren't careful, then it's very easy to miss the turn offs that you're supposed to hit in order to stay on course.
I eventually made it to Lincoln Illinois by 7:30am. I let my father drive the rest of the way into Chicago. He is up there in age. I had let him drive for about 1 hour during the night, but he kept veering off onto the shoulder of the road, waking me up in the process from a brief nap. I then took back over driving until daylight, when it was safer for him to drive. We got into Chicago after 19 hours on the road.
Many people have extolled about Chicago having an extensive mass transit system, and it does. Nonetheless, there was no doubt in my mind as my father and I entered Chicago on that snowy morning in late December that Chicago is in fact a city that is primarily built around the automobile.
We came into town and my father briefly drove around the convention center area. I saw quite a few hotels either directly connected to the convention center, or within a few blocks walking distance. The center also happened to be empty as we drove by. It reminded me that there are only so many conventions to go around and that Houston should not be wasting its energies on the convention business. We have far more pressing business to attend to than worrying about fighting over the scraps with a hundred other cities for convention business.
There was snow on the ground the entire time I was in Chicago. The temperatures hovered in the 20's during the day, and dipped into the teens at night. It was okay for a day or two, but after that I started to realize how thankful I was that I did not grow up, nor spend my adult life in Chicago.
I have a niece who is going to university in Chicago. She, like many students, has a car, but often walks with her friends to nearby restaurants and clubs. She also takes public transportation.
On the other hand, we stayed with my God parents while in the city. They never take public transportation, going everywhere by car - and yes, they have a pair of very nice cars! My sister had rented an SUV for the situation, so we mostly went back and forth between my aunt's residence and my God parents' using both vehicles. Only my mother flew into Chicago. We needed cars because it turned out that my aunt had quite a bit of stuff she had accumulated in her apartment. I ended up throwing away some 100 bags of trash in neighborhood bins before I returned to Houston and we took quite a few trips to the Salvation Army to donate items to charity.
Many of Chicago's older neighborhoods have alleyways in the back, where there are parking garages for residents. The alleyways are also where the trash bins, which are city owned, are located. Another item of interest was that in both my aunt's neighborhood and in my God parent's neighborhood, the streets were configured to be one way streets, with parallel on street parking. And yes, parking was often very hard to come by. On more than one occasion, I ended up parking over one block away from where my God parents lived. My father recalled that when the family still lived in Chicago in the 1960's, the streets in those neighborhoods were two way and there were not nearly as many vehicles parked in the street.
My God parents picked up the Chicago Tribune on the Sunday while we were there. While reading the weather pages, I was reminded of a piece of family lore. My father had a lifelong friend who shot a home movie of the blizzards of 1977-1979. For those of you who are not aware, Chicago endured three consecutive winters, 1976-77, 1977-78, and 1978-79, where the city was buried by an avalanche of snow. I recall seeing the home video, mercifully during a Houston summer, as a teenager, but had forgotten about it until I read that story. Another piece of trivia: The chief meterologist for WGN is a fellow named Thomas Skilling. He happens to be the brother of former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling.
But I digress. In 1957, the City of Chicago passed a zoning ordinance that mandated that developers provide one space for off street parking for each residential unit. It became clear to me that this mandate was not providing enough parking for Chicago residents.
We drove up and down Western Avenue many times, as that was the thoroughfare that stretched between my God parents and my aunt's residence. The street has three lanes in both directions, but the outermost lanes are taken up for parallel parking. I also noticed that there were row houses along the street in a few spots, indicating possible spot zoning since the street was obviously commercial. There were some businesses had Houston style parking, such as some CVS / Walgreen's type drug stores and some restaurants we went to. In other words, the zoning codes were clearly not uniform.
There were times where we would see clumps of pedestrians walking in the early evening hours. My father told me that it was likely that those were people who were just getting off work and heading to some neighborhood tavern or nightclub. At one point we passed under an "EL" (elevated rail line). My dad began to reminesce about his life in Chicago before we moved to Houston. He said he would often move to where there was a nearby rail station, as he did not own a car while living in Chicago until he was 36 years old. At one point I asked him how long it took for him to get to work when he lived in Chicago, and he told me about 45 minutes to an hour.
Another item of note was that gasoline prices are some 50-70 cents per gallon higher in Chicago than they are down south. This price discrepancy still held in central Illinois when we bought gas on the way home. I am not sure about why this was the case, but I would not be surprised if the matter has to do with the idea that oil and gas companies have to formulate different type of fuel due to Clean Air Act mandates. This balkanizes the gasoline markets around the country.
The trip home
My mother decided that my dad needed to go home, as he wasn't adapting well to the weather or to the problems of dealing with my aunt's death. Ergo the job fell to me to drive him back to Houston.
My dad directed me to take I-90 / I-94 towards downtown Chicago, then take I-55 south to get out of the city. I'll never forget the view of the skyline of downtown Chicago from a crowded and congested I-90 / I-94. It is not as spectacular as Manhattan's skyline, but it is very impressive. It is that broad downtown area that (at least on paper) justifies Chicago's public transportation network.
As we made it onto I-55, I encountered another amazing sight. It took driving some 30 miles south along I-55 before the traffic finally began to thin out, but that wasn't what startled me. It was that I must have seen 300-400 18 wheelers driving northbound along I-55. At some points, it looked to be that one out of every three or four vehicles was an 18 wheeler. There was a repair facility for 18 wheelers along the road, as well as several parking areas. I caught what I thought was a glimpse of a freight rail line along the way. It reminded me of how Chicago, like Los Angeles, is a vast hub for the movement of freight.
We followed I-55 through as it turned into I-40, down through to Memphis, then turned west through Arkansas on the way back. We made it to the outskirts of Memphis after 9pm, and as we did, I saw hordes of Federal Express freight trucks making their way west bound out of Memphis and into the night.
I reached Texarkana around 1:00am. TX-DOT is constructing a large interchange at the edge of town, and it took several minutes to snake our way through the construction before we hit U.S. 59 for the final drive home. I wanted to make it back into town before the morning rush hour hit with full force. That turned out to be a tough thing to do because U.S. 59, though it is five lanes in many areas, is not an Interstate road. Because of that, the road goes directly through the heart of many towns in East Texas, such as Lufkin, Marshall, and Jefferson. Every time you go through those towns, you have to slow down to urban speeds, whereas the Interstates often bypass or circumnavigate many smaller urban areas which often allows for faster travel.
We made it into Houston at 7:00am, running into rain and mildly heavy traffic along 59 as we reached 610 Loop. I turned at 610 to head towards I-10, and ran directly into the construction work that TX-DOT is doing along the route. I was glad when it was over, as it was another 19 hour drive home.
1) I did not run into much traffic congestion driving either to Chicago or back outside the major urban areas. Even St. Louis, which I drove through at rush hour, did not have too much traffic congestion. The big traffic congestion, surprise, surprise, was in Chicago, Dallas, and here in Houston. As such, I strongly believe that the Trans Texas Corridor was (and is) not necessary! The Governor and the political classes can make all the statements they want about traffic congestion, but I didn't see it along I-45, nor along anywhere else.
If Texas really needs new roadway, it would be much cheaper to simply add a lane in either direction along the right of way along I-35 or any of our other major roads. That would be much cheaper on the public coffers than cutting a quarter mile wide swath along the entire state of Texas and building a gigantic infrastructure project costing $150 billion. When doing infrastructure, it's better to make improvements to add to what's already there, if it's necessary, rather than start up gigantic new projects that often lead to disasters.
2) What is necessary is that if government is still going to be the main player in terms of infrastructure funding, then policies ideally need to be developed so that the bulk of the money goes to where the traffic congestion is at - which is the major urban areas. America already has a great road network for its towns and rural areas. What we need to do for them is simply maintain what they have.
In 2010, Congress will probably take up a new six year transportation appropriations bill. The House chair for transportation is Ken Oberstar, who has stated that he wants a massive six year appropriation bill of $500 billion, well over 50 percent higher than the cost of the previous Bush Administration era transportation bill.
Tea Party types should be thinking that considering our country's financial straits, this is utterly irresponsible. The Interstate freeway system, which was the main rationale for collecting the federal gas tax, is completed and there's no stomach in Congress to raise the gas tax. Congress has been funding transportation out of general revenues since the last bill ran out of authorization. Governor Perry might have been ambitious with the Trans Texas Corridor, but his criticism of federal transportation was cogent when he stated that the federal program had become unfocused, because so many gas tax dollars were not getting back to where they came from and they were being spent on items like bicycle trails and light rail systems.
I would argue that the federal government should reduce the gas tax to perhaps 5 cents per gallon. The federal program should go only towards the Interstate system, thereby putting the federal program into maintenance mode, and either let the state and local governments set up policies to fund their own transportation networks, or better yet let the private sector start dealing with the matter. Either way, it's more likely that America would end up with a more rational transportation network for the future and it would be part of a program to start rolling back the centralized power of Washington has drawn the ire of so many.
Greetings gentle readers,
The Wizard has several items he wants to write about, but rather than belt out a long epistle at the moment, I thought I would simply drop a quick note on an announcement. The Houston Chronicle's Carolyn Feibel reported that unless a Member of Congress objected, the FTA would approve advancing Harris County Metro's so called University Line into preliminary engineering (PE) status. No FEIS has been issued by Metro on the rail line. A discussion about the issue can be read here on BlogHouston.
Well, today the Wizard received notice of a Letter from John Culberson - who happens to be my Congressman - that the Congressman intends to object to this advance of the rail line, or the western portion of it which is in the 7th Congressional district, into PE status. Culberson's 14 page letter, along with documentation supporting Culberson's grounds for objecting based on Metro's stated financial health, and pertinent news stories from KHOU-TV concerning statements from Gene Locke and Annise Parker regarding Metro's 25 percent general mobility funding, can be downloaded here.
As to what this means to the status of the rail alignment, I am not yet sure. The Wizard thinks this will cause the FTA to scrutinize Metro's ability to meet the local matching requirements, but probably will not stop the project from advancing into PE status. As always, what will really stop Metro is the massive cost escalations of Metro Rail, along with its ongoing general mobility obligations.
Houston will know who its next Mayor will be next week. Otherwise, the world rolls onwards.
Addendum edit: November 26th, 2009
When I initially published this blog entry, I identified the owner of the Washington Wave jitney service as Erik Ibarra. That information is incorrect and is hereby retracted. The actual founder and President of the Washington Wave jitney service is Lauren Barrash. The Washington Wave jitney service is in no way owned, operated by, or affiliated with Mr. Ibarra or his Eco Shuttle service. The Wizard formally apologizes to Ms. Barrash and to Mr. Ibarra for any confusion that may have resulted from my error.
(What follows is the resuming of my original blog entry)
Apologize for not blogging for several weeks, but I've been busy mostly on the social front.
The Washington Wave site notes that this service is the first jitney service offered in Houston in 15 years. Why is that? Much of that has to do with the barriers to entry caused by the the restrictiveness of the jitney ordinance (Chapter 46, article 6 of the City of Houston ordinances), which state that a would be jitney operator cannot operate a vehicle that is older than five years old, on top of a pile of other fees that have to be paid and rules that have to be followed. It's not hard for people to imagine that such barriers to entry make it very hard for anyone to break even on operating a jitney service, much less turn a buck.
Moving onwards, the weekend that Randal was in town, my 20 year old Honda CRX with 192,000 miles started having problems with the clutch. A consulting with my mechanic that I've been with for the past 12 years confirmed that pretty much the entire clutch, clutch cable, and probably the transmissions seals were all shot.Getting the car repaired was a cool $900, but I now have a car that can probably last another 100,000 miles if I so desire, and I've been finding I'm getting about four miles per gallon better gas mileage since the transmission work was done.
I was able to make it to and from my car mechanic's shop via Metro bus. Metro has the #81, the #82, and the #53 all at my disposal. No $130 million per mile rail lines, along with the disrupted businesses, nor the 1,500 foot radius condemnation zones needed, but here was the kicker. It was Friday afternoon and a Metro bus was stalled, dead in its tracks at the corner of South Shepherd and Westheimer. The bus driver had put out a set of blocks to indicate an out of service bus. I asked her what was the problem with the bus and she said there was a battery problem. The lost lane of traffic, not to mention the fact that her bus had broken down at the corner of a very busy major intersection, was a recipe for a major traffic tie up. Vehicles were backed up at least 50 deep back along Westheimer.
Fortunately (for me at least), there was another #81 bus just a block and a half up the road, so I waited until the next bus showed up and went home. However, the trips back and forth took 40 minutes for a five mile trip, which meant that the bus traveled an average speed of 7.5 miles per hour. On both the trip home and back the next day, fellow passengers looked at me and complained about how slow the bus was. Granted, these routes were navigating Westheimer during busy afternoons, but those passengers were looking at me as though they were hoping I could do something about the situation.
This got me to thinking about the idea of elevated transit. Last week at the HPRA meeting, Barry had an engineer from Tubular rail speak (or perhaps tout is the better word) on his product, but he didn't get away without having to answer a bunch of questions on the safety of his concept.
This has gotten me to thinking that there seems to be this idea out there that if a social decision is made to elevate transportation, it must be in the form of rail transit. But what about the idea of simply building an elevated road via double decking a thoroughfare, and allowing only buses, bicycles, and pedestrians to access it? Granted there are issues (there always are), including the cost of building anything that is grade separated, which would probably double the cost of a road built at grade.
A double decking of a thoroughfare would have to be at least 4 lanes wide, 2 wide lanes for buses, a middle lane for maneuvering, perhaps a four foot wide buffering strip for planting of vegetation, flowers, or scenery, and outside lanes for pedestrians and cyclists. There could be overhead cover provided for cyclists and pedestrians to allow for shelter against rain. Bus stops could be placed at gaps between the buffers every one-third of a mile.
A host of issues that would arise include resistance from neighborhoods (i.e. would such a project be politically feasible), constructing stairs or elevators for egress, where to put support structures for elevating a road, building the road high enough for vehicles to pass underneath, worries that such a structure would be a visual eyesore, and possibly water drainage. Costs per mile for 60 feet of elevated roadway would probably run at somewhere around $10 - 20 million per lane mile or $40 - 80 million per mile. If there were to be an elevated busway built over a freeway, then additional costs would incur from having to cross over the freeway. Here is a webpage that shows what an elevated busway might look like.
On the positive side, there would be no need for acquisition of additional right of way, but rather simple easements. There would also be no electric stray current leakage to worry about which is a substantial contributor to maintenance costs of rail lines, and some construction costs would be saved via not having to provide electrical power stations or infrastructure. Traffic congestion would ease on the streets below and motorists would not have to worry about unsafe at-grade trains going through our busiest intersections every 3-6 minutes. It's also conceivable that some property owners would build extensions to an elevated bus way from their own buildings.
If an elevated, exclusive busway were to be built over Westheimer, that would conceivably cut the travel time that I experienced a few weeks ago in half. Placing a bus stop every one third of a mile would have meant 15 bus stops to sit through on the way to Shepherd, which at twenty seconds a stop would mean a stop time of five minutes. Given that there would be segregated traffic with no stops at intersections or traffic lights to worry about, the bus could probably average 30 miles per hour between stops. That would result in an overall five mile trip of 15 minutes, or an average speed of 20 miles per hour. That would cut the overall travel time on that bus trip by more than half, and faster trips mean more transit riders. I could conceivably make a work trip to downtown within 30 minutes from where I live, and if I could do that, then I would consider regularly taking a bus to work.
A separated guideway along the elevated busway for cyclists and pedestrians would allow for getting around town without having to tear up the existing infrastructure and current business owners just might be able to survive the construction.
It's admittedly implausible that elevated busway will make it into the public discourse, but what such an idea goes to show is that in order to make public transportation (or via other methods) attractive to anyone is that transit has to be able to compete with automobiles in terms of speed, convenience, and overall safety. That means for the smart growth crowd to get what it wants, then the entire City of Houston would have to be completely redone and that's not going to be cheap. I would imagine it would be cheaper to do that via elevating the roadway, but that all depends on what you're after - improving mobility, or reshaping people's behavior.
The Wizard recently has been in a rather expansive mood, exploring other aspects and possibilities that life has to offer. About two and a half years ago, a friend of mine made an offer to me to buy in on a wine bar located on Washington Avenue. He was up front and fair with me, offering me a detailed prospectus from the business owners, as well as what to expect from him. I mulled over the offer for about two weeks before turning it down. I had some confidence that the bar would make it. What stopped me was the thought that I simply did not know how much time and effort overseeing my investment would take out of me. My employer frowns on moonlighting and I dreaded the thought of having to get up at 7am in the morning and coming home after midnight five nights out of the week.
And so it was. Yet, it is a good thing to look over offers with an open mind. I ran into this same fellow about two weeks ago, and sure enough we started going over the idea of me buying into something along Washington Avenue. The street is brimming now, of course, with new development, the area being ripe for redevelopment.
So this past Saturday, the Wizard found himself taking a tour of Washington Avenue. There was a carnival atmosphere at the Salvation Army Thrift Store, as well as plenty of people enjoying themselves at various bars and clubs. It was a beautiful day out.
My landlord friend showed me his properties, and described the overall situation he was in. I had to admit it was a bit of gordian knot. To wit, the wine bar which I would have invested in ran into a bit of trouble with an ornery City inspector and had their outside porch ripped out. There went some of their business and the bar had to let go of several employees, and that wasn't the last of what I heard from my landlord friend, or his associates I met with that day, with regards to complaints about being a businessman dealing with the City.
But we moved onwards. We went to another of my landlord friend's properties, another of which is host to a bar. Now here is where I was really leading to with this blog entry. The bar has parking, but there is a lot along the street behind Washington Avenue that recently came up for sale. The lot is undeveloped and needs only to be cleared by its future owner. Now here's the kicker. The lot will probably go around $350,000. Adding the lot would be a bit asset to my landlord friend's property, but he's a bit tied up financially. Hence the possibility of my involvement.
But here's the catch. Ideally, we would be using the property for about 25 parking spaces, and one guy came up with the idea of putting some sand on the lot and allowing bar patrons to play some off street volleyball (this was their idea, not mine!). Now the Wizard has a degree in Economics and you can imagine what is going through my mind. How am I going recoup or otherwise justify investing over a third of a million dollars on a lot that is to be used for 25 parking spaces? That works out to some $14,000 per parking space. I'm not sure a commercial lender will look at me and say that - yes - I can carry another note like that in my current financial condition. Can I amortize something like that over 30 or more years?
Several ideas went through my mind. My landlord friend and I could charge for parking space. My partner has made it clear (as has the City) that parking - not sidewalks or walkability - is the biggest problem along Washington Avenue. Maybe parking is indeed the highest and best use for this lot and that I could generate sufficient monthly fees to justify utilizing that lot as a parking lot. Maybe it would enhance the value of my friend's property and business, thereby we could figure out a way to capture that value and get it back to me.
But ultimately, all of that is not what I'm getting at here. What I am getting at is is that it's an article of faith amongst those who are angry about automobiles or suburbanization that automobile use is subsidized and that automobile use does not pay for itself. I've often wondered how many of those gripers have actually run a business, have been faced with a real world decision on how much parking to provide potential customers, or tried figuring out how to best use a plot of land in a spot market that is both in a recession, yet is dynamic and rapidly changing.
Tom DeGregory was right. In a competitive market economy, the competition in capital markets, in the form of land, labor, and investment, is much more fierce than it is for product markets. It's not an easy thing to figure out, and as George P. Bush said the other night at an event I attended, there are no guarantees in a free market economy. Others will no doubt covet that lot of land, but such a decision on the use of that land certainly isn't something that I would trust to some starry eyed urban planner, or some moron employed in a City bureaucracy, even if the neighbors get noisy and start complaining.
Yes, I know what the answers are going to be. The planners are going to gripe about how City codes dictate how much parking there is supposed to be. They're going to gripe about strip centers and shopping malls full of acres of concrete. They're going to gripe about off street parking, a lack of sidewalks, and all the rest of it. But it still doesn't erase the dilemma I find myself in - whether to pull the trigger and buy?
Multiply this conundrum hundreds of thousands of times over and maybe, just maybe, you can begin to understand why I'm not all that thrilled with zoning or other far distant planning.
The world rolls onwards...
I caught this post via the Houston Chronicle from Keep Houston Houston entitled A funny thing about transit. It was a most interesting post coming from Keep Houston Houston.
The Wizard has noted before that I can in fact reach my downtown job from where I live via Metro bus. It's just that it would add 1 hour of time to my round trip commute to do so and I've decided that it's not worth my time to put up with a 1 hour and 45 minute round trip work commute every day.
I subscribe to the Journal of Urban Economics, ergo I know there have been plenty of studies that have been done to estimate what the value of people's time is on transit trips. The learned literature strongly suggests that the in time spent in transit is valued at some 40-50 percent of their per hour wage rates, while time spent in accessing and waiting for transit vehicles is perceived at a considerably higher rate.
Another part of the transportation mobility equation for me is that I have social interests that would be a bit hard to satisfy via transit, but not by my car. My social interests are almost all located between my work place and my home, ergo I don't have to drive much in order to live what for me is a reasonably satisfying life. Now if I were to get married that would be another story.
So, KHH has much of it right, but not all of it. Transit does limit your mobility to the extent that you only get to go where Metro goes, so it alters your lifestyle in that extra dimension. It sucks up your time and it is not 24x7. Transit also limits at least some of your shopping opportunities vis-a-vis a car because it's very difficult to haul that 52 inch plasma screen TV onto a Metro Bus or rail car. Allowing jitney competition would aid in transit mobility, but it's still impossible to understand why 30 miles of rail lines have to be built when Metro already has a bus network that runs into the thousands of miles, and where we could achieve close to the same thing rail would offer via adding dedicated bus lanes to major thoroughfares which would remove much of the speed and reliability problem that transit vehicles have to contend with.
Always remember, it's added mobility, not mobility substitution that we're after. As for why the votes for Metro Solutions came from the inner city and not the suburbs, maybe that has more to do with the idea that folks in the inner city might be able to reach the Medical Center via a $1.5 billion train that would run from the Hillcroft transit center, but a suburbanite will not be able to take a train that runs from Katy to Kingwood.
Before I go any further, I wish my older brother a belated Happy 50th birthday. I should be thankful that he made it this far.
For the past 10 days or so, the Wizard, along with untold thousands of other Houstonians, has had to put up with the fact that the illustrious Texas Department of Transportation has scrapped up the top 4-6 inches of pavement off of FM 1093, also known as Westheimer Road. Since the Wizard lives right off of Westheimer, the matter has been of some importance to me, especially since I experienced a flat tire last Thursday while driving to work. I found a nail in my old tire, had to wait for AAA to pump up my baby tire so that I could drive the following morning to a Firestone to buy a new tire. The new tire set met back $90.
And so it was. As with many people, I was left wondering exactly why it was that the powers that be decided to repave what was for all practical purposes a perfectly fine road? The official answer was posted on Channel 2 news:
TxDOT says the roadway was hardly perfect before.
"As a driver, driving down a roadway, you don't see all the little things in the pavement," TxDOT spokeswoman Karen Othon said.
Othon says Westheimer Road had cracks that workers have sealed over the years to keep moisture from causing more damage.
The last time this section of Westheimer Road was resurfaced was 2002.
"The actual life of an asphalt pavement is 7 to 10 years, so it was time for it to be resurfaced," Othon said.
We discovered Westheimer Road wasn't actually scheduled to be repaved until April 2011, but when TxDOT received $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money, the state decided to put several projects on the fast track.
"There is a criteria established with the stimulus money, and if you don't use it and go by their guidelines, then we do lose it," Othon explained. "So this is something that we definitely wanted to take part of and use the money that is offered to us."
TX-DOT's website reports that this repaving project is currently estimated to cost $9.45 million.
And yet, that still begs to ask the question. Was this really necessary? I understand probably better than anybody that Westheimer, all eight lanes of it, probably carries some 100,000 (or more) vehicles everyday. Yet the road was in perfectly fine condition. This reminded me of when I lived off of Kirby Drive, where I saw the City of Houston lay asphalt on stretches of the street 2-3 times before deciding in 2001 to tear up the street - yet again - because the City decided to lay an underground storm sewer under the median connecting Buffalo Bayou and Braes, a project now in its second stage between San Felipe and Kirby south of Interstate 59.
It's actions like this, where people decide to do something about what is a non-issue, all because they are chasing after some handout money, that drive me nuts. That money could have been used to repave Richmond Avenue, for example, but God forbid we should repave parts of a badly bruised up Richmond Avenue because we all know that Metro so desperately wants to put a train down that street. So better to spend $1.5 billion to put a 10-11 mile light rail line down Richmond, rather than spend less than one percent of that amount to smooth out the wrong street. How is it that we can so often be so penny wise and pound foolish?
The repaving of Westheimer is not only a $10 million microcosm of the $787 billion stimulus plan, it is a microcosm of irrationality and absurdity of politics as a whole. People wonder why there are skeptics out there who question whether doing stuff like this is worth passing the bill on to our children's future. It isn't.
An item of note: Bob Lemer passes on that there will be a 90 minute workshop of City of Houston finances September 25th from 11:30am - 1:00pm. Cost is $35 for Houston CPA members and $50 for members of the public.
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! :)
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.
When Al Gore was Bill Clinton's vice president, the (non) - issue of urban sprawl could have been described as something of a second tier issue in American life. To be sure, urban sprawl had its usual detractors, but the matter was mostly something of a concern to certain interest groups.
This state of affairs has changed with the election of Barak Obama as President, where the New York Times noted that in February 2009 that the President said
"The days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over,”, urging officials to employ “innovative thinking” when deciding how to spend their transportation money.
Moreover, considering where on the political outlook scales Mr. Obama sits, one can imagine that his administration would look to the Brookings Institution for ideas on many matters, including urbanization.
What a discouragement, therefore, it must be for many in the anti-suburbanization camp to read of a study that was just published by Brookings entitled Job Sprawl Revisited: The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment. The Brookings study, which compares the results of a spatial location analysis of private sector jobs across 98 metropolitan areas across the United States, denoting the differences in job locations between the years 1998 and 2006. Notably, private sector job decentralization occurred in 95 of the 98 metropolitan areas studied, and that does not bode well for central cities. Also, in 17 out of the 18 industries studied experienced job decentralization.
The Brookings study asserts a series of ailments that result from job sprawl, including higher water and sewer infrastructure costs, spatial mismatch where employees can have trouble reaching appropriate work, lower pace of innovation, and higher energy consumption.
Noting or complaining about all these issues is nice, but doing so begs one to ask a question that the Brookings study fails to ask, much less answer. If all of these ailments are (or were) occurring during this time frame, then why were private sector employers continuing to move away from central cities anyway?
One aspect of this issue is to look at the types of employment that are locating furthest away from the center. According to the study, it is the retail, construction, and manufacturing type jobs that are the ones that are most prone to moving outwards away from the central business districts (CBD's). The Wizard is willing to bet that these industries are the ones whose land use requirements are the largest. It would behoove them to locate where land is cheapest, which happens to be at the suburban fringe. Not doing so would put them at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis with their competitors in the marketplace. As far as retail goes, it also pays to move closer to their customers, and that happens to be in the suburbs.
One issue the Wizard decided to look into was the price of petroleum and of gasoline during this period. This chart shows that during the 1998 - 2006 time frame, the price of a barrel of petroleum rose from a post 1997 Asian economic crisis low of $12 per barrel to a high of $60 per barrel in 2006. The price of a gallon of gas went up from $1 per gallon in 1998 to $3 per gallon by the summer of 2006, yet the trend towards decentralizing of the spatial distribution of jobs continued to occur.
According to the study, Houston is one of the 53 metropolitan areas that is experiencing rapid decentralization of jobs, meaning that job shares were flat or declining in the CBD while growing in the outer rings. The report estimates that there were 1,750,155 jobs within 35 miles of downtown Houston in 1998 and 1,975,566 jobs within 35 miles of downtown Houston 2006. We can set up a table to see how many jobs were located where:
1998: number of jobs: 1,750,155
2006: number of jobs: 1,975,566
1998: percentage located within 3 miles of CBD: 14.2
2006: percentage located within 3 miles of CBD: 11.6
1998: number of jobs within 3 miles of CBD: 248,522
2006: number of jobs within 3 miles of CBD: 229,166
1998: percentage located 3-10 miles from CBD: 36.8
2006: percentage located 3-10 miles from CBD: 32.4
1998: number of jobs 3-10 miles from CBD: 644,057
2006: number of jobs 3-10 miles from CBD: 640,083
1998: percentage located 10-35 miles away from CBD: 49.1
2006: percentage located 10-35 miles away from CBD: 56.0
1998: number of jobs 10-35 miles from CBD: 857,576
2006: number of jobs 10-35 miles from CBD: 1,106,317
Now then, it should be noted that the City of Houston is approximately 640 square miles. A radius of 10 miles encompasses 314 square miles, ergo that is just under 50 percent of Houston's acreage, discounting the fact that there are some areas within this circle that are not under the City of Houston's jurisdiction, such as West University, the Memorial villages, and perhaps Bellaire and Pasedena. It should be noted that the number of jobs within 10 miles of downtown has, for all intensive purposes, stayed stable. Peter Brown told the ITE a while back that Houston was getting only 15 percent of new area population and 23 percent of new area jobs with the rest going outside city limits. If that were so, then that would infer that much of the new private sector employment that Houston is attracting is deciding to locate in the outermost areas of the City itself, with the rest of area job growth occurring outside City limits. Conceivably, the City Council may decide that the only way in which Houston can actually capture some of the tax monies associated with those jobs is to do so the politically unpopular, old fashioned way - via annexation.
This report also casts doubt upon the idea of using light rail as a method of capturing any job growth. Metro started operation of the light rail line in January 2004, a full 2-3 years before the termination of the study period. Yet according to the study, practically all of the job growth in the Houston metropolitan area occurred more than 10 miles away from the CBD.
The current economic downtown that started in late 2007 is not accounted for in this study. Unemployment across the United States has gone up from roughly 4.5% to 8.5%, while it is at roughly 6.5% in Houston. It might be surmised that there may be a gain in density once the economy recovers on the assumption that the cost of transportation fuels will once again go up. But even if there are gains in population density for reasons of continually rising fuel costs, it doesn't necessarily mean that gains in density will occur within the already heavily developed portions of the urbanized area, particularly if job sprawl continues to occur. Motor vehicles could adapt via a change in propulsion, where electricity becomes a preferred form of power. Households could also decide to trade within their indifference curves of their household budgets, giving up larger house sizes for holding on to the mobility offered by the automobile in the event that transportation becomes more expensive.
The Wizard awaits the next Brookings study on this subject. I suspect that the 2010 Census will tell much about these matters.
KHOU-TV's Jeremy Desel ran a story this evening concerning the latest discrepancies about the cost of Metro Rail. It seems that business owner Paul Magaziner came across some information that contradicts what the unelected Metro board has been stating recently about project costs. Moreover, the source of the discrepancies is coming from none other than Metro itself.
Last month, the Metro board announced that it had approved a deal (though it had not signed a contract) with Parsons Transport Group where Parsons would lead a consortium to build four of the Metro Solutions Phase 2 rail lines, but not including the Wheeler / Richmond rail alignment. This deal would involve building a total 20 miles of Metro's planned 30 miles light rail for a price $1.46 billion. The costs of the North Corridor and Southeast Corridors were announced to be $387 and $441 million respectively. Desel's accompanying news story showed footage of last month's board meeting where Chairman David Wolff expressed optimism of falling costs, presumably due to a fall in materials costs resulting from the current economic downturn.
However, apparently in an FTA Letter of No Prejudice communication dated March 23rd 2009, the costs of the North and Southeast Corridors were stated at $896,797,000 and $911,211,000 respectively.
Desel's story quotes Metro VP George Smalley:
... in no way was there an attempt to mislead the public.
Smalley also says that the $900 million per line numbers mentioned in the Federal Transit Administration letters are likely the best estimate.
"The number that is in the FTA letter is the latest estimate. I’m not going to say it will be the final number. I don't think it will be," Smalley said.
Smalley says the cost of acquiring land, rail cars for the future and financing are what make up the difference between the contract cost and the actual cost.
Ergo, Metro has been telling the public and Parsons one thing and the FTA something entirely different concerning project costs. At $897 million, the 5.4 miles of the North Corridor will run $166 million per mile. The Southeast Corridor will run at $134 million per mile. At costs like this, the 30 miles of Phase 2 will run $4.5 billion plus, a figure the Wizard predicted 18 months ago.
Taxpayers deserve better than this. The discrepancies between both sets of numbers is between $2 - $3 billion, a figure so large that the entire Metro board and Metro President Frank Wilson all need to be fired, if for no other reasons that they have shown themselves to be incompetent and untrustworthy. And, this project needs to be shelved once and for all.
I suppose the Wizard is a little late on commenting on Harris County Metro's decision to use Obama money - aka federal stimulus funds - to convert its current HOV lanes to high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. I was thinking of not posting anything at all on the subject on the grounds that I did not have anything new to say about the matter that somebody hadn't groused about before - that the lanes were allegedly not going to help with traffic congestion, that the lanes were allegedly not being used enough already, that HOT lanes are only for owners of Lexus vehicles and not for the rest of us, and so on.
However there is one aspect of the HOV lane issue that has not been addressed in this recent spate of stories and public commentary and that, gentle readers, has to do with HOV lanes and the 2003 bond election ballot. You remember that election, don't you? The one where you, dear Houstonian, thought that you were voting for rail - right? Well, maybe its time we jar our memories and revisit some of what Metro proposed during the November 2003 bond election.
What few people remember is that there were several components in the November 2003 bond election ballot language. One of those components (we will leave out the others so as to not complicate things here) was that Metro said it would double the lane mileage of HOV lanes that would be available, via modifying the current HOV network to make it two way reversible.
Some months ago, former Houston mayoral candidate Bill King spoke before the Houston Property Rights Association about transportation. The Wizard queried Mr. King about the issue of reversible or two way HOV / HOT lanes. The Wizard inquired about the idea of reverse commutes whereby some people commute in the opposite direction simply because they live in the inner part of the urbanized area, but commute towards jobs that are located further out from the urban core. King stated that one aspect of HOV lanes operating only one way at a time, then reversing lane operations in the opposite direction for evening hours was that this reflected 1970's style thinking. The incorporation of two lanes of HOT lanes operating at all hours in both directions along the Katy Freeway reflects more modern thinking on urban mobility. The idea is to simply expand on this concept and push it all the way throughout the Houston area.
Poor people will in fact pay to use lanes, if it is important enough for them to use them. One of my many vivid memories of living in China 17-18 years ago was the willingness of ordinary Chinese, who at that time were making probably $40 - $50 per month, to pay for taxi trips when they really needed to get somewhere in a hurry. Even fairly short taxi trips in Beijing or Shanghai could set my Chinese friends and acquaintances back a full 1-2 days pay, but it never ceased to amaze me how many times they whipped out their purses and wallets to pay for a cab ride when they really wanted or needed to get somewhere fast. People really do make their decisions on the margin.
Then there are issues of legality. Arguably, since Metro stipulated that expanding the HOV / HOT lane concept was to be a part of the 2003 bond election, then the agency is obligated to actually come through with this promise. The agency has already effectively reneged on its promise of 50 percent more bus service in the metropolitan area. Not going through with doubling the number of route miles of HOV / HOT lanes would destroy what remains of the agency's credibility, reopening the charge that the 2003 bond election was nothing but about desperately desiring rail lines and condemnation zones for redevelopment.
The Chronicle editorial, published March 20th, 2009, stated that Metro would get to keep toll road monies raised. One aspect of the HOV / HOT lane conversion is that there are clearly some areas where it is going to be difficult to add an extra lane through reconfiguration of what is already there. One example of this is the buried stretch of Interstate 59 which runs through midtown Houston from downtown through the Greenway Plaza area, and onto IH-610 Loop. Monies raised through the collection of tolls should be dedicated towards widening the freeway, if need be, to accommodate the extra lane of traffic.
Next: We talk about the proposed regional crime lab.
Today, the Houston Chronicle's new transportation beat writer Rosanna Ruiz broke the news that the unelected board of the Harris County Metropolitan Transit Authority decided not publicize the details of their Facility Provider (FP) contract with Parsons Transport Group before a board vote on the contract that is to be scheduled during a special meeting on Wednesday. The story generated tons of comments on the Chronicle's website, as well as a protest from Jennifer Pebbles from Texas Watchdog, and posts from various bloggers.
Well, what does the Wizard have to say about this? Not much, other than to reveal yet another small pearl that I possess in my treasure hoard. And what, pray tell is that? Well gentle readers, it just so happens that the Wizard possesses a copy of Metro's 2007 FP contract that the agency negotiated with the previous vendor, Washington Group International, which is now a part of URS Corporation. You see, I put in for a Freedom of Information request to Metro sometime around May or June of 2007 for a copy of Metro's contract with WGI. I received a copy of the FP contract, (number CT0700035 to be precise), and dated May 8, 2007, several weeks later at the cost of somewhere around fifty dollars.
The May 2007 FP contract that I received runs into many hundreds of pages and covers an astronomical number of issues; including (but not by any means limited to) estimated project costs for the first phase of the contract, not to mention delving into matters like stray current, provisions for dealing with hazardous materials, performance and reliability issues, ride quality requirements, design of train stations, access to records, contracting with small and disadvantaged businesses, indemnification and insurance issues, corrosion control, hopes and financing for transit oriented development, project bidding, dispute resolution, and so on. Yes, there really is a lot more to this than simply getting to take a trip on a rigid, non-maneuverable form of transportation and riding it without having to pay for it. The contract is so thick that it immediately put any thought of trying to copy it and posting it online out of the question.
The point being made here, however, is that Metro has in fact made available to interested members of the public copies of previous FP contracts. So why are David Wolff and company turning gun shy now?
Inrix, a privately held provider of traffic data and traffic congestion solutions, recently published a national scorecard of traffic congestion, bottlenecks, and travel time indices of metropolitan areas across the United States. According to the Wall Street Journal, Inrix collects data on road congestion, in part, from a million vehicles equipped with GPS-enabled devices like cellphones and car navigation systems. The company stated in the accompanying press release that the data was:
revealing a 30 percent decline in traffic congestion in 2008 during the peak periods on major roads in urban America. Overall the report found that 99 of the top 100 most populated cities in the U.S. experienced decreases in traffic congestion levels in 2008 as compared to the prior year. The Scorecard contains the most accurate and current information in the country regarding overall congestion and bottlenecks on nearly 50,000 miles of America’s major roadways, and is compiled using tens of billions of data points from INRIX’s network of nearly one million GPS-enabled cars and trucks traveling across over 800,000 miles of roads.
The report cites turbulent fuel prices and a struggling economy as sources for a consistent decline in overall traffic volume. Detroit, where the jobless rate climbed past 21 percent in 2008, saw the second largest decrease in congestion nationwide. Additionally, Riverside, Calif., which ranked third-highest in the nation in foreclosure activity during 2008, saw the highest drop in congestion of the nation’s larger regions.
“On average, Americans spent 13 hours less stuck in traffic in 2008 versus 2007,” said Bryan Mistele, INRIX president and CEO. “While less traffic is generally good news, the causes of it aren’t necessarily something to celebrate. Traffic congestion is an excellent indicator of trends, telling us whether businesses are shipping products, whether people are going to work, and whether shoppers are going to the mall. The Scorecard provides an amazing lens through which we can see these and other major events unfolding across the country.”
Traffic congestion really is a lens through which you can view overall activity in the broader economy. Only Baton Rouge Louisiana had worst traffic congestion in 2008 than in 2007. Also, Inrix wrote that
National congestion levels were essentially the same when comparing the first and second halves of 2008, thus it seems that higher fuel prices in early 2008 and the slower economy later in the year netted the same drop in overall congestion.
So, what about Houston? Well, Houston's scorecard can be viewed here. What I find interesting are two things. First, Houston's overall congestion is measured at only 34 percent of that found in Los Angeles, the most congested metropolitan area in the United States. That is because LA has the fewest miles per capita of freeways of any major metropolitan area in America. Second, the data confirms what is probably intuitively obvious to many Houstonians. The overall worst traffic bottlenecks in the Houston area are to be found in the Galleria area. Six out of the top eleven worst bottlenecks are found along IH 610 Loop (southbound and northbound) and various entry or exits to the Galleria, including Westheimer, San Felipe, and Post Oak Boulevard. The exit at 610 Loop and Richmond Avenue comes in at number 22 on the bottleneck list.
The good news is that none of Houston's interchanges make the top 100 list of Inrix's worst segments or interchanges for traffic bottlenecks. The bad news, comparatively, is that every single one of Houston's 25 worst bottlenecks climbed up the overall rankings for bottleneck severity when comparing the 2008 data to the 2007 data, but that almost certainly reveals that the downturn in 2008 has affected Houston less than it has other areas of the country, an observation confirmed by the fact that Houston's travel time index declined only slightly in 2008 verses 2007.
Enough for now. There are other things I want to write about, so stay tuned.
I logged this morning to check my web mail. After doing so, I subsequently found a story that was carried by my ISP about how the price of crude oil is falling, but that the price of gasoline at the pump has been slowly going up.
So what's the deal? The article did a somewhat decent job of describing the overall situation of what's happening in the worldwide oil markets, or at least not a bad job for a journalistic article, but at the end of the article there were a pair of statements that were made by two people interviewed for the story.
"Drivers are being ripped off even more now than before," said Stuart Pollok, who was filling up recently at a Chevron station in downtown Los Angeles. He pointed out Exxon Mobil Corp. reeled in billions in profits last year when oil prices neared $150.
Others see the conspiracy reaching higher.
"It got really low during the elections and now it's going back up," said Christel Sayegh, a 23-year-old graphic designer in Los Angeles. "They do that every election, though, right?"
In response to both Mr. Pollok's wailing about Exxon's obscene profits and to the young graphic designer's conspiracy oriented view of the world, I present an article that was written in this past week's U.S. News and World Report by Robert Bryce about how Exxon paid $116 billion in taxes in 2008. That's right gentle readers. Exxon made an immoral and obscene $45 billion in profits in 2008, but the corporation's overall tax bill in 2008 was - oh well - only a petty $116 billion or 2.5 times as much.
Exxon of course is the largest privately held Big Evil Oil Company in the Big Evil Oil industry. However, as everyone knows there are plenty of other companies in the oil and gas industry that are also paying untold billions of dollars every year in taxes to governments of all stripes.
I posted this message to an Internet discussion group that I belong to and got a response back from a well known guy in the transit industry:
That headline – Exxon’s 2008 tax bill was $116 billion – reminded me of something I was just working on.
From Federal Highway Statistics, Table HF-10, “Funding for Highways and Disposition of Highway-user Revenues, All Units of Government, 2006,” the Grand Total Receipts, from all sources, was $161.061 billion.
That $161 billion includes:
Motor Fuel and Vehicle Taxes $85.540 billion
Tolls 8.108 billion
Property Taxes and Assessments 8.599 billion
General Fund Appropriations 25.979 billion
Other Taxes and Fees 9.878 billion
Investment Income 9.512 billion
Bond Issue Proceeds 17.828 billion
(It does NOT include road use fees not used for roads, including:
Nonhighway purposes $ 8.794 billion
Mass Transportation 10.520 billion
Collection Expenses 3.218 billion
Used for Territories .245 billion)
OK, not that I have done my accounting busy work for the day, what this means is that the amount of taxes paid by Exxon-Mobil for 2008 was about 72% of the entire spending on U.S. Roads in 2006.
Now, Exxon-Mobil is the largest oil company, but it sure isn’t the ONLY oil company that pays U.S. taxes, and while there are a lot of different uses for oil, transportation uses (ALL modes) is two-thirds of U.S. oil use, and I think it is not unreasonable to believe that road use of oil for transportation is the biggest share of that.
You folks have heard me whine before about FHWA not including most fuel sales taxes into the computation above.
So, when someone tells you that roads don’t pay their way, here is another thing to bring into the analysis.
This month's Houston Lifestyles magazine has a story on the last page of its dead tree edition (the online version of the story can be read here) which has both a fascinating perspective on Houston's historical experience with buses and trolleys, as well as a link to a wonderful, must see website on Houston's history put together by the Sloane Gallery.
To wit, here is what Houston Lifestyles and the Sloane Gallery had to say about the bus and rail issue:
It seems that every year we are presented with a new light rail expansion proposal. In 1923 the city of Houston enacted a plan to remove the trolley tracks on Main Street. The removal was completed in 1925 much to the delight of merchants and pedestrians. It was evident that a train running down Main Street did nothing to help the hundreds of retail shops that lined the boulevard. Today, we have a train on Main Street and a virtual ghost town of retail blight to go with it.
History provides us with ample evidence that rail is a successful way of moving people and freight. Unfortunately, history also illustrates how politicians refuse to take into consideration the hard learned lessons of the past in regards to rail placement.
I would correct the well meaning sentiments expressed by the good folks at both Houston Lifestyles and at the Sloane Gallery. The powers that be at Metro, as well as the rail constituency, knew damned well what they were doing. They knew that they had to run rail lines in every direction simply because in order to get the 2003 Metro Solutions election to pass muster at the ballot box, they had to promise something to each and every last constituency in Metro's 1285 square mile, far flung service area. That not only included building rail lines in every direction, it also meant promising new park and rides everywhere, more HOV lanes, 50 percent more bus service, etc. All of this was to be done, of course, without having to resort to raising taxes.
In the August 7th, 2008 edition of Houston's newspaper of note, Leslie Casimir wrote the story of how it takes Houstonians Pablo Camarillo and 72 year old Margaret Jenkins hours of their precious time during their busy days in order for them to get to work. The Chronicle included an online map showing Mrs. Jenkins' torturous daily commute to her home off of Airport Boulevard on Houston's south side to her job on South Loop West.
Mrs. Jenkins' daily commute, the Chronicle reported, takes an estimated 83 minutes. The Wizard decided to punch in Mrs. Jenkins' home and work locations on Google Maps, using the terms 3300 Airport Blvd and 2616 South Loop as the two end locations in order to determine the distance between her home and job. Google Maps reported that the fastest trip was what I expected. Simply take Airport Blvd in a west bound direction until you hit 288, then turn north on 288. When you reach the intersection of 288 and South Loop, turn west and around. The distance is six miles and Google Maps estimates that the trip takes 9 minutes, right in line with what Mrs. Jenkins says in the story. She says the trip by car takes 10 minutes.
Clearly the story generated a firestorm of comments on the Chronicle's website. Tory writes about the issue here. Tory asks whether we have our big government transit monopoly priorities straight?
The Wizard believes that there may be an answer to Mrs. Jenkins' and Mr. Camarillo's dilemma that doesn't involve having a monopolistic government transit agency spend $100 million or more per mile on rail lines, not that any of Metro's proposed rail lines would not help either Mr. Camarillo or Mrs. Jenkins get to their jobs since they won't run where they need to go anyway. That solution involves loosening up the City of Houston ordinances governing the operations of jitneys.
Jitneys are a form of transportation that are widely used in poorer countries, in places that don't have billions of taxpayer dollars to fund grandiose transit monuments. The Wizard has taken jitney trips in several countries, including the Philippines (where they are called Jeepney's), and in Thailand. Steven Baron extensively discussed the use of jitneys in Houston in his book Houston Electric. In that book, Baron notes that Houston City Council outlawed the operation of jitneys in 1924, at which they had captured nearly 25 percent of the passenger market in Houston. However at the 2008 American Dream Coalition conference in Houston last May, I heard Alfredo Santos tell of his story where he started operating a jitney illegally. HPRA President and public activist Barry Klein helped Mr. Santos get legal help, which eventually led to the overturning of the jitney ordinance some years ago and their legalization.
So why aren't jitneys more widely used in Houston? Well, whenever something is legal but rarely used, the Wizard immediately starts suspecting government interference and sure enough, if one decides to pay a visit to the City of Houston ordinances governing the operation of jitneys (Chapter 46, Article VI), one immediately notices some very serious regulatory barriers to entry that would be jitney operators face in entering the competitive field for transportation. Notably:
1) A vehicle used for jitney operations cannot be more than five years old! So, my 19 year old Honda which has over 180,000 miles on it, and which could continue to be safely operated for years to come could not be used as a jitney vehicle.
Imagine if Metro was told that their $500,000 buses, which are usually designed to last for roughly 12 years and 500,000 miles of operation, could not by law be allowed to operate for more than five years? Imagine if Metro's $3.2 million rail cars, which usually last for some 30-35 years with some overhauls, could not be allowed to operate for more than five years? The public would go completely bananas.
2) Jitney vehicle operators must submit an operating plan to the City, including a fixed route and fares. Jitney operators are not allowed to travel elsewhere unless they submit a new route to the City. That means that jitney operators and would be passengers are not allowed to negotiate fares, something that is standard practice in other countries.
It also means that jitney operators cannot fully utilize the full flexibility of their vehicles by servicing an entire area of town and potentially capturing more customers with door to door service. I've been on a number of bus and jitney trips abroad where vehicle operators stopped off on the side of the road or wandered off course on behalf of some passengers. Imagine if a Domino's Pizza franchisee opens a store in your area of town with intentions of servicing a 4 mile radius area around the store, but then is told by the City that they can only service homes or businesses that are on a handful of streets and nowhere else. How many Domino's stores would now be in existence?
3) Jitney operators face bonding and insurance requirements that Metro does not. Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, your life is only worth $100,000 if you suffer injury or death while involved with any kind of accident with a Metro vehicle. It should be obvious to everyone that jitney operators don't enjoy such governmental immunity.
There are more, but no doubt that the usual rationale would be offered as to why these regulations are in place and that is that we need to protect the public. It should be equally obvious to everyone that this ordinance doesn't protect the public from anything, but was instead written to protect Yellow Cab and Metro from market competition, not to help the citizens of Houston get around more quickly or conveniently.
Jitneys also present another problem, this one in the political marketplace. Jitneys don't allow politicians to spend billions of dollars in cost overruns on big transportation make work projects, they don't allow for photo opportunities or to put their names into the history books, nor do they help politicians obtain millions in campaign contributions. They also would drive lovers of government transit berserk. However by lifting lifting the regulatory barriers to entry to jitney operations, the City just might allow a solution to come forward which could allow Mrs. Jenkins to get to her job in 10 minutes and to succeed where taxpayer funded public transit fails.
Are you a class warfare type who is worried that Mrs. Jenkins might have to pay $10 for her twelve mile round trip back and forth to work everyday? Good! All that goes to show is that you don't know how much Mrs. Jenkins values her time. Who knows? She just might be willing to pay that kind of money so that she can get 2 hours and 20 minutes of her day back. Who knows, maybe a friendly jitney operator may decide to cut a deal and price discriminate for her so that she could get a round trip for $5 per day, but we won't know unless City regulations are loosened up.
Next, I write about having lunch with Bill King.
The Wizard's world has many secrets. Unfortunately, one of those secrets was blown this past week, once again by Wall Street Journal, which recently featured a friend of the Wizard who is in a beach front property rights battle down in Surfside. This time, my secret that was compromised is that one of my neighbors drives an electric car. He was featured in a Journal story entitled "You Know Gas Prices are high when Texans start driving golf carts", carried in the July 31, 2008 issue of the Journal and which can be read here.
My neighbor featured in the story, Andrew Kunev, actually lives in the part of our compound next to mine. He's been here for some time now and I pass by his three wheeler, white colored Zap Zebra Sedan, parked just inside our compound gate nearly everyday. The car always has a bit of an unbalanced look to it, which would cause me never to consider buying a Zap, but I've never seen any performance problems whenever I've seen him on the road. I saw him zooming eastbound along Westheimer last Friday evening as I was coming home from work. Mr. Kunev can be seen at 1 minutes 3 seconds, 1 minute 40 seconds, and 2 minutes 12 seconds in the Journal's online video, which accompanies the story.
Another encounter I have had recently is that I have seeing a teenager in the neighborhood north of where I live driving around on an electric scooter while I run workouts. He goes pretty fast down the street - probably 20 miles per hour - but the scooter makes a lot of noise. Nonetheless, he told me once while stopped at an intersection that he was coming back from the grocery store, something obvious from the fact that he was carrying two small bags in a backpack while on his scooter.
These stories have got me all pumped up about the idea of owning my own electric car, possibly as a project. Many years ago, I owned a green colored Volkswagen Rabbit convertible, much like this one. One idea I have is to go look online for an old VW convertible and convert it into an electric car. I love convertibles and am starting to hanker for another one. I spotted one website actually sells custom converter kits for doing it. Here are some photos of cars whose owners have done the job. Another idea would be to convert my current car into an electric car and buy another gas powered one.
The Wizard doesn't drive all that much, ergo I sorely doubt that on most days I would tax the capacities of an all electric car. My job and most amenities are within easy driving range of an all electric vehicle. I would probably keep a gasoline powered one for longer trips.
The Wizard believes that General Motors is making a mistake with the Chevrolet Volt, that being that at first GM was telling the public that the Volt would be in the $15-20,000 range. Then we heard that the Volt would run $30,000 - $35,000, but now we are hearing that the Volt might retail at $40,000. $40,000 is rather steep for most families.
The Wizard thinks that what Mr's Peters and Kunev are the ones on the right track. Their vehicles cost only $7,000 - $18,000. The main worries are how well the batteries will hold up over time (and when they will need to be changed), along with inclement weather and safety issues.
Still, this is low cost, non-gasoline dependent mobility, which can scale and which is within the price range of most developed economy families right now. I know from much travel and experience that motorcycles and scooters are a heavily used form of transportation in Malaysia and Thailand, where annual incomes are in the $200 - $5,000 range, much lower than those found in the West. Familiarity, along with preferences and tastes will count for much, but the Wizard thinks that solutions like this may be a realistic part of our mobility future.
Between December 2006 and April 2007, I was sent to the UK three times by my Big Evil Company employer. The first trip was a stop over on my way to Algeria, while the latter two trips were made to backfill for my counterpart while he took time off for knee surgery and for paternity leave. I spent a total of nine weeks over in the Sceptered Isles.
While I was on the other side of the pond, it was impossible not to notice the amount of environmental hysteria that was being broadcast in the news, whether watching the BBC or reading the newspapers. Hardly a day went by where it seemed that there wasn't some reference to the Kyoto Treaty or that the Labour government was working towards some commitment to cutting greenhouse gases and telling the public that it must have shared sacrifices and belt tightening, all in the name of the Greater Good.
Well, lo and behold, here were are in July 2008 and we now hear of the news that in a recent by-election, the Labour Party lost a stronghold Parliamentary seat in Glascow. For those of you who are not quite up to snuff on your British politics, the world - very broadly - breaks down like this. The Labour Party has long held a very strong grip on Scotland and the north, while the Conservatives do better in southern England. To reiterate, this is a generalization, but as a broad picture statement, it does hold true. Hence, the fact that the Labour Party lost a long time seat to the Scottish National Party is quite a shocker.
As things stand now, the Labour Party majority in Westminster is now down to about 60. When Tony Blair first ascended to power in 1997, Labour had 418 seats. Now Labour has under 350 out of some 646 seats. It is in this context that the loss of a seat in Labour stronghold does not bode well for the Party come 2010, which is when the next general election must be contested. However, it may well be that there may need to be a coalition government formed in order to maintain a majority in the next general election.
But circling back to Labour's woes, much of the political commentary has been centering on the idea that people are starting to get fed up with paying high taxes on fossil fuels, all in the name of environmentalism. One adviser to the Labour government, Richard Parry Jones, warns that if Labour does not ditch its heavy taxes on automobiles, then UK voters are going to throw them out at the next election.
This is a fate that has happened to the Socialists in France and in Germany, where Sarkozy's rightists outright defeated the Socialists and Angela Merkel came to power via a grand coalition. As as this article points out:
In recent years, almost all of Europe's social democratic parties have lost in national elections. The collapse of support for Gordon Brown and his policies reveals a general decline of Europe's social democracy as a whole.
There are many good reasons for the deterioration of the centre-left's political influence and power. But perhaps one of the most crucial is the abandonment of their traditional core value of progressive optimism. After all, the left used to derive large amounts of its popular appeal from a firm belief in social and technological advancement, a political philosophy of societal optimism and hope. During the last couple of decades, however, it has eagerly adopted a green ideology that has replaced its confidence in future progress with the ever more intimidating prediction of climate catastrophe and environmental disaster, culminating in calls for economic sacrifices and collective belt-tightening.
In short, Britain's Labour Party has discarded its "progressive" principles for environmental fear-mongering and salvationist rhetoric in the expectation that voters would accept that only government control, central planning and higher taxes could prevent global disaster.
Eighteen months ago, Labour's David Miliband proposed the introduction of carbon "credit cards" that would be issued as part of a nationwide carbon rationing scheme. He suggested the allocation of an annual allowance for basic needs such as travel, energy or food. Two days after Labour's disastrous defeat in the local elections, the whole scheme was hastily abandoned.
Motorists in the UK are paying the highest fuel taxes in Europe, an average of almost £900 annually. In the name of climate change mitigation, the government has progressively increased fuel, road and car taxes. It has burdened companies with a so-called Climate Change Levy and introduced an emissions trading scheme -- costly policies that have had damaging effects on British competitiveness, energy prices and living standards. As a direct result, a record number of people, particularly Britain's poorest, oldest and most vulnerable, are increasingly falling on hard times. As many as five million households, more than 20% of the UK's population, are today living in "fuel poverty."
Progressives in America have, in many ways, followed a similar pattern. It used to be in the early years of the 20th century that progressivism meant that there was a belief in scientific and technological progress that would make our world a better place. This belief would be coupled with some kind of redistributive and social safety type measures to uplift the poor and catch those who had fallen through the cracks. Instead, it seems that Progressivism now substantially means that technological advancements are not to be pursued because of fears or objections to science and technology. Instead, we are told that we have to cut back, all in the name of saving the planet from some imagined environmental catastrophies, damned the cost.
All the Wizard has to say is that Progressives had better take a look at what has happened across the water and pause, lest they find that voters decide eventually to drive them off of political agenda.
Recently, it came out that Harris County Metro was promoting a nation wide effort for Americans to use public transportation. I was not aware of this, but I did find out about it via BlogHouston.
Unlike 95-96 percent of Houstonians - and probably nearly all of the loudest promoters of public transportation in this City - the Wizard actually decided to take the bus from home to work this past Friday. In reality, I had been thinking of doing this for about two weeks. I've been doing some research, collecting data on transit speeds on various bus routes, wait times, and so forth. What I have been doing when I go on bus trips is that I write down how long it took for me to access the transit stop, the time I get on the bus, record all stops, the amount of time the bus stops, and time of arrival when I get to where I am going.
Without going into a blow by blow account of my trip on Friday, here is an overview of my trip to work and back home. I live about 9 miles from downtown and happen to have a bus stop at the corner of Westheimer and the street I live at. Of course, when it comes to public transportation, all roads really do lead to downtown, ergo if one does not have a job in downtown like I do, and some 93 percent of people who live in Harris County do not, then the possibilities of transit working for anyone in an urban area diminish substantially.
Here are the general details of what happened.
Going to work
1) I walk out my front door at 7:17:50 am. The bus stop is about 2/10th's of a mile away from where I live. I reach the bus stop at 7:21:12 am, so my walk to the bus stop has taken me 3 minutes and 22 seconds. I see a Metro bus at the next light, but it is not the route I want to take. As it is, that route will also get me to work and might have gotten there as fast as, or faster, than the route I took today. As it is, I let the #53 go by and wait for the #82.
2) The #82 arrives at 7:27:10am. As I get onboard and waive my Metro Q-Card, I keep thinking to myself that I could be nearly half way to work by now if I had taken my car. I also think that I am paying $2 for a round trip today, whereas my cost of gas is about $3. As for the opportunity cost of my time, well gentle readers, that is another story...
3) The #82 is standing room only, so I stand for the first two miles until we get to the Galleria. Most are minorities and working class people. I am the only one dressed in slacks and shirt. There, several people get off and I sit down.
4) At 7:37:05 am, we cross 610 Loop. I would have been reaching my workplace by now in my car.
5) At 7:44:49am, we reach Lamar High School and St. John's private school. There to my surprise, seven students get off the bus and start walking towards Lamar High School. I have seen Lamar students get on the bus in the afternoon, but somehow didn't expect this in the morning.
6) At 7:57:20am, we pass Numbers night club. At 7:59:15am, we reach Louisiana and turn left towards downtown. On the way, I see Houston Police pointing speed guns at drivers along Louisiana. We reach Polk at 8:04:10am. My walk to the office is seven minutes.
Results: My overall trip time door to door was 54 minutes, which is what I was generally expecting. That means my car saves me about 50-60 minutes per day in a round trip.
The actual time in transit was 37 minutes. There were a total of 37 bus stops made, which took a grand total of approximately 602 seconds (ten minutes and two seconds). That works out to an average stop time of 16.27 seconds per stop, but some stops were substantially longer than that. The stop for the light at Kirby and Westheimer, for example took, 62 seconds. If I had taken the #53 instead, I may have gotten to work faster.
The average stop time for the #82 is actually less than for some other bus routes I have taken. For example, for the #15 Fulton bus route, I discovered that the average stop time was about 21 seconds per stop. I did this while doing research in response to the public comment period for the North Corridor rail transit line.
The average speed of my entire trip was 10 miles per hour, if you count walk time and wait times. If you count only time in transit, the speed of the bus was approximately 14 miles per hour. That also happens to be the average speed of travel of the Main Street rail line.
My trip home
1) I left my job Friday evening at 5:55pm. I reached a covered bus stop on Smith at 5:58pm and wait. It rained on Friday. That reminded me that 30 years after being voted into existence, a large percentage of Metro's bus stops still do not have covered shelters at them. The #53 has a bus at the light, but I was on the other side of the street and traffic was steady. Once again, I let the #53 go and decide to take the #82 home.
2) 6:02:10pm, board the next #82 bus. The bus currently has about 15 passengers, including 2-3 professional types. I later discover the professional types all get off at Wesleyan. The bus starts in transit at 6:03:06pm.
3) 6:12:00pm. The bus turns onto Elgin, which of course turns into Westheimer. This time many more people get on and off at random stops and there are several people who request bus stops along the route. I have been finding that Metro buses stop an average of about once every quarter mile. In contrast, the planned light rail lines will have a stop roughly every three fourths of a mile to one mile. I suspect that travel speeds would be faster for a bus than a train if Metro were to run supplemental limited stop buses along the proposed rail lines that were to stop as infrequently as trains do.
While I sit on this trip writing down my times, I found myself occasionally staring out the window and starting to dwell on the thought of public transportation being an amenity of an urban area. Maybe it was the fact of actually being on a bus and taking it to work which concentrated my mind on this matter, rather than writing abstractly from an analytical view. Amenities of all kinds have costs related in producing them. The key is to minimize amenity costs in order to achieve results, especially if you are using public monies for the amenity. Otherwise you wind up with sunk costs and ultimately tax increases in order to pay for the amenity. It should be noted that for the first 22 years of the agency's existence, Metro - incredibly for a government transit agency - never got into financial trouble. Transit agencies that only run buses never do. Once a transit agency crosses that line and starts building big rail networks, the thoughts and worries about where are we going to get more money never quit. Since the rail line was built and talk started of building rail lines in all directions, there has been nothing but talk on how are we going to pay for this. Get used to that.
The increased costs of fuel for Metro from the $1.83 per gallon contract they signed five years ago to updated market prices will cost some $30 million per year, which amounts to increasing the system wide subsidy costs to carry patrons by bus by about 6 cents per passenger mile. In contrast, building the rail line for the North Corridor will result in spending about $3.50 - $4 per passenger mile to attract a new transit rider using light rail as your means of doing so.
And no gentle readers, there is no fuzzy math in that statement. I did not say that the cost would be $4 per gallon of fuel, I said the social costs are about $3.50 - $4 per passenger mile to attract a new rider to transit using light rail as your means of doing it. I arrived at that calculation assuming each and every new rail boarding would result in a five mile trip (which is about the average distance a transit rider travels when taking public transportation), using Metro's own stated forecasts (Metro states that the corridor has 19,000 bus boardings now and will have 29,000 boardings after rail is built), their own cost estimates ($677 million), and the FTA's own mandated cost structures to arrive at that figure. Furthermore, Metro says 55 percent of the riders for the North Corridor alignment will be bus riders arriving at train stop via bus, so instead of getting to take a bus straight into downtown, they will have to probably transfer to the rail line in order to complete their trip.
Imagine having a four seat sedan as your car and that you pick up three of your co-workers to go back and forth to work, driving 10 miles back and forth, or about 5,000 miles per year in the process. Now imagine having to trade up to a five seat Lexus type minivan because another co-worker who happens to live nearby (say a mile away) wants to join your car pool. Then imagine the cost of making that switch would cost you an additional $17,500 - $20,000 per year over and above your current transportation costs. That's what we are getting into when we trade up now from buses to light rail. So would you make that switch and buy that minivan, or would you consider trying to do something cheaper, or do nothing at all? If your answer is yes you would buy that minivan, then that also is what Metro, the Houston Chronicle, and the rail constituency want to do.
Note that none of these figures incorporate losses to patronage from bus routes which have had their routes truncated, rerouted, or eliminated in an effort to accomodate the demands that rail will place on the agency. Metro lost some 23,000 - 25,000 boardings on the 16 main bus routes that intersect the Main Street rail line after the line was built. Expect more of this if the other five rail lines get built. Once again, all we are doing is trading up, and what an expensive trade up that is.
Proper pricing of amenities via using private markets for transportation, which is what actors in the free market and private sector would have to do in order to survive, would cut all of this out. That in turn would allow us to get rid of this notion that everyone should live at the expense of everyone else.
4) The bus reaches 610 Loop at 6:34:40pm and reaches the Galleria 1 minute later. When it does, 14 people get off the bus.
5) I get off the bus at 6:48:40pm. It takes me 90 seconds to cross Westheimer because I don't have the green light when I get off the bus. I get to my front door at 6:54:05pm.
Results: The overall time from door to door is 59 minutes and 5 seconds. The actual time in transit was 45 minutes and 34 seconds, reflecting heavier traffic. There were 38 stops made on the way home. The time spent at stops was 816 seconds, or 13 minutes and 36 seconds. The average time spent at stops was 21.5 seconds.
The average speed of my trip home, door to door, was 9 miles per hour, if you count walk time and wait times. If you count only time in transit, the speed of the bus was approximately 12 miles per hour. I have so far found on traveling four different bus routes that the average travel speed of a Metro bus in transit is some 12-14 miles per hour. If Metro were to introduce a Rapid Bus or Signature bus line down Westheimer, that would eliminate about 75 percent of the bus stops along my bus route and cut the time in transit down by somewhere around 7.5 - 10 minutes in each direction.
One of the things I wrote in my reply to the North Corridor Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement was that simply running a bus straight to Northline Mall with the same number of stops as the planned rail line would take approximately 19 minutes. That almost certainly matches the speed of the proposed rail line which would have its own dedicated lane verses a bus which now has to operate in mixed traffic; ergo there would be little or no travel savings to be reaped by spending all that money by building a rail line. What's worse is that Metro plans to cut off road lanes along Fulton (and has floated the idea of doing that to Richmond Avenue), which will cause greater traffic congestion along the route.
One other thought went through my head. The cost of building an at grade light rail line from my home to work would probably cost at least $1,200,000,000, if not far more. It would involve widening and acquiring property along all of Westheimer. Even worse, a rail line traveling 15 miles per hour in transit would have only saved me time on my work trip home. It would have traveled at the same speed on my way in.
Enough for now. I will be going to a visitation this evening for a young colleague who unexpected was taken by a sudden illness. It is a reminder of how cruel life can be. My ADC stories will resume next week.
Sorry gentle readers that I have not been at the blog lately, but there has been much going on, both at the work front and at the activism front. I had to go into work three times off hours within the past week. No, that's not fun.
I will be spending the next week or so writing about what some of the speakers at the Houston American Dream Coalition conference had to say on the various topics that were covered at the conference. The American Dream Coalition has DVD's for sale for people who may be further interested in what featured speakers had to say.
My first speaker to be featured is Lolita Buckner Inniss, a law professor at Cleveland State University, who spoke about the topic of form based codes or FBC's. Ms. Inniss teaches property law and practiced for over a decade dealing with municipalities and zoning issues.
Ms. Inniss has written some academic papers on the issue of form based codes, and about the idea that FBC's are presented as an alternative to zoning and its perceived problems, including physical decay, segregation of ethnic, racial, and economic groups, and being implicated as a reason for aggavating economic downturns. Inniss argues that FBC's are not the panacea they are sold as. She argued that:
1) FBC's try to do by design what used to be originally spontaneous.
2) New Urbanism or Smart Growth, at its heart, is a very contested notion. There are several flavors of New Urbanism.
3) FBC's imply that they will allow a reliance on community involvement in urban development, but Ms. Inniss argues that most of the community is left out of the so called community involvement most of the time.
4) The supposed tool for community involvement is called the Charrette. Pardon my French, but having lived in Houston all my life, this word which is used everywhere but Houston, is apparently a fact of life in urban planning. This word, which somehow conjures up images of beret wearing neighbors sitting at a cafe, sipping coffee and planning what the future will be like, is also sometimes known by another term, the Charade. More on Charrettes later.
Ms. Inniss went on to say something that the Wizard has long known about Cities, namely that they were not about social activities and only occasionally about political ones. Cities have always been about the money. If you look at the lens of history, cities were where the rich lived. The poor lived in rural areas.
Ms. Inniss went on to say that land use was, before the advent of zoning, governed largely by servitudes, nuisance law, and easements. Ms. Inniss made the commonly issued argument about nuisance law, namely that it is limited. Facts and objectiveness is often in doubt. Differing aesthetic tastes and judgments often throw a wrench into its use.
Ms. Inniss then went on to say that zoning codes coincided with a period of tremendous economic growth. Population crowding, pollution from the Industrial Revolution, and increased social mobility all probably played a role in the rise of zoning. She argues that there were class conflicts, where the poor and middle class had access to areas of wealth and power. One early promoter of much of this stuff was Ebenezer Howard, who advocated garden cities, green belts, and so forth. What is less well known is that Mr. Howard also advocated the abolition of private ownership of property on the grounds that it was a cause of overcrowding. Planning would get rid of that.
Post Zoning Challenges
Professor Inniss wrote that FBC's are prescriptive, not proscriptive. FBC's are proscriptions on designs, but they are not telling you what to do with your property. Her observations are that the poor or minorities are usually left out of the Charrettes, and that usually planners and elites will get what they want out of the community involvement process.
I also learned another word in the land use lexicon and that word - yes, Virginia - is called responsibilization. Responsibilization apparently is government inspired imposition of autonomy for land use decision making. In practice, what this really means is that government abdicates responsibility while still retaining control of land use. Claims are made of deregulation of land use and privatization, but often the free market is not really allowed to function to its fullest form. Put in another way, if FBC's work as intended, then responsibilization means that local governments say that we are in charge if it works as desired, but if it doesn't and social ills or undesired results occur, then it was because you were in charge.
Ms. Inniss summed up her talk by saying that FBC's are often an ad hoc process approach to land use. It does not represent unplanning or unzoning of land use. FBC's are often used as an alternative to planning or zoning by people who may not be accountable for decisions made and who may not represent many members of the community.
Ciao for now.
It's been a month since the Wizard published something on his blog. This was not on purpose, but it was due to the fact that some important documentation arrived on a policy matter that has required study. I am actually still working rather feverishly on that issue, but there was the matter that some have talked about the American Dream Coalition conference which was held here in Houston the weekend of May 16-18, 2008.
I was credited with being a sponsor of the conference, given that I paid for a substantial portion of the bus tour that the Antiplanner has written about on his blog, both here and here. It turned out that there were 75 people who opted to take the bus tour, which necessitated that we rent out two buses. That in turn required that there be two tour guides.
The story on where we decided to take these out - of - towners is a story in itself. The Wizard, along with a few others, received an email some 3 months ago requesting that we help make financial contributions towards the conference and that we would plan for the bus tour. The Wizard, along with Barry Klein, and Dave Hutzelman, went round and round in circles trying to work out a schedule that would be able to fit in everything that we would want to show people. Discussions dragged on for days and emails flew back and forth. Dave wanted desperately to show off the downtown tunnels, while Barry wanted to show off historical aspects including the Houston Ship Channel. Talk raged about whether we should tour the refineries, to discuss policy aspects of Houston being the place where the oil and gas are processed. Incredibly, Barry even wanted to go all the way out to see the San Jacinto Monument! Meanwhile, the Wizard shook his head and wondered how in the hell we were actually going to get all this done.
The first shoe fell when Kathleen told us point blank that we needed to be back at the hotel by 4:00pm sharp. This was for the benefit on conference attendees who would be desiring to shower up and get ready for the evening forum on land use and light rail. So, given that we would realistically have 8 hours with which to conduct a tour, and that we would need to plan for lunch, we then narrowed down our ambitions, which was what I had been telling Barry we needed to do anyway.
Barry and Dave still were trying to push for their agendas when the Antiplanner himself stepped into the debate. He wanted to see a city which had (and still has) an aggressive road construction program in place, coupled with loose land use policies. If we could talk about what it is like and show off features of a City with no zoning, that would be great. He also greatly desired to see a privately planned Master planned community. The reason for seeing the latter was that there were almost certainly going to be people on the tour who had never seen such communities before and he wanted for conference attendees to see them.
And so now the gauntlet had been thrown down. The debate had been focused. With that, the Wizard went to work. We briefly discussed showing off the Woodlands, but the Woodlands had been started with federal money, so my thoughts turned elsewhere. There were a number of master planned communities we could have chosen from, however one idea I wanted to discuss is our use of toll roads, ergo I wanted to talk about toll road policy. That led me to Sienna Plantation, with its newly constructed Fort Bend Parkway nearby.
With these ideas in mind, we hammered out a route which would include the following:
1) Houston as a non-zoned city. We would discuss features of Houston's non-zoned environment including deed restrictions. We would tour the Heights, a part of town that was originally built around the streetcar and which had turned into a backwater before being revived over the past 25 years. We would tour Washington Avenue, an area that is undergoing redevelopment under market pressures. We would travel briefly along Braeswood and talk about the property rights battle stemming from the Floodway Ordinance. We would also show off a city which is experiencing a monstrous boom in development.
2) We would show off current controversies, including Ashby Highrise and Metro's light rail lines. At the same time, I decided to start off the tour by going down San Felipe, where tour attendees would see Inwood Manor and the Huntingdon, as a backdrop to the Ashby controversy.
3) We would go through some of Houston's gritty neighborhoods and its wealthy ones.
4) I succeeded in shoe horning in the I-10 / Katy Freeway expansion. Barry knew of a restaurant in the area that would seat over 300 people. We would eat there.
5) We would then go out to Sienna Plantation in the afternoon via the Southwest Freeway. This would show off Houston's massive freeway system. This was the long way there, but we would come back via the Fort Bend Parkway on the way back. We would spend some 60-90 minutes at Sienna.
I drove the route and had it all figured out in my head. I made contact with the Johnston development people, got names and numbers, and potential speakers. All was well....
Or it was until the Antiplanner started insisting that we have a boxed lunch just 10 days or so before the tour. The Wizard however sidestepped that problem by simply not finding out where we could get such a large order on short notice. It didn't help that I have a full time job. I can't go spending all my time chasing this stuff down.
The second wrench occurred just one day before the bus tour. Since we were having two bus loads of passengers, that necessitated that I drive the route with Barry. All was well until we hit the Main Street rail line near Fannin and Rice University (circling around after touring Ashby). My original route, made with Barry's own input, called for us to tour the light rail line towards downtown to show off distressed areas of the alignment. Instead Barry insisted that we travel south to show off the Texas Medical Center, then the Astrodome. We would then circle back and travel along Harrisburg, the Ship Channel, circle around 610 Loop, and so on. In effect, he was trashing his own original plan.
Sigh... The joys of local activism.
I tried to tell Barry this would not work. Remember, we were under a deadline! I had already done this once before and I had it already worked out! My arguments, as always, fell on deaf ears. We drove through everything Barry wanted to see and the trip took 6 hours in my car. The buses, I reasoned, would be 50 percent slower. So reluctantly he gave in and cut out the downtown tour, along with the Ship Channel, Broadway, and 610 portions of the tour. Instead, we simply traveled south along the rail line, hit 610, then traveled east to M.L.K., then tour the proposed rail lines, including showing off signage from those opposing the alignments.
With that, all was well until the tour started. About 20 people did not get out to the buses on time. We waited at the hotel until 8:15am before starting. We started down San Felipe (showing off the condemned pocket park near Ed Wulfe's development at San Felipe and Post Oak), before stopping again! This time, the Antiplanner told us to wait until some 10 more people were ferried to the buses from the hotel via taxis. This made many of the tour attendees angry, so they proceeded to take out their anger on - you guessed it - their tour guide! That ended up causing the tour to not get off until past 8:30am and we were some 20 minutes late getting back, but once we got going the tour turned out great.
And yes, the Wizard did serve as tour guide. Wendell Cox was on my tour bus and the Antiplanner joined for the afternoon portion of the tour. I received compliments 14 times during the conference from people who were on my bus. They particularly liked how I went into historical aspects of the City and background as to what was going on. They absolutely lapped it all up.
And so it was. It made me feel like a million dollars. The next blog posting will be on what I thought was good about the conference.
I had the week off from the day job a couple of weeks ago and took the opportunity to attended an April 9, 2008 TexITE luncheon where Councilman Peter Brown was the featured speaker. And it was a speech to remember.
Mr. Brown started off by saying that he has been a member of the ITE since 1995, when he mentioned that some of its members had started getting caught up in New Urbanism. He stated that he has worked in some 25 states with master planned developments and 130,000 units.
He stated emphatically that he represents the City of Houston. He insisted that the Houston metropolitan area needed a "strong central city", but as have so many other speakers who have made this claim, I should note that he failed to explicitly explain why is it necessary to have one. What's so special about a particular municipality when both homeowners and businesses are footloose?
Mr. Brown stated that the efficiency and character of the built environment must go together. He also said that Houston must become a Sustainable City. For those of you that need some help reading between the lines, this means that Houston must have urban consolidation, despite the fact that Houston has been gaining density at a rate of about 500 people per square mile per decade since circa 1990. In this encoded language, this means that we must have more compact development, use less energy, meaning that we have to get away from autos and use public transportation regardless of its decline in use. In other words, it's no longer the City's job to merely provide police protection, fire suppression, or other services. It is now the City's job to compel you to cut down on how much energy you use regardless of your own habits or desires.
There is now a new Council committee called the Committee of Sustainable Growth. Of course, Mr. Brown is the chair of this committee and I would not doubt that some of his "Smart Growth" friends are advising him.
Mr. Brown says that we recycle only 7 percent of our waste, while Seattle recycles much more. He forgot to mention that recycling was one of those fads that started in the 1980's, but municipalities everywhere quickly discovered that recycling was largely a money waster. In fact the City of Houston, which started a recycling plan under former Mayor Kathy Whitmire, has tried on a number of occasions over the past 15-20 years to get out of the recycling business because it was consuming taxpayer dollars. However, recycling is politically popular, ergo the City continues to waste taxpayer dollars doing it because the taxpayers like wasting their taxpayer dollars this way.
Read this post as to why recycling is often a money waster:
Well one of the reasons they want you to take your recyclables to a depository is because curbside recycling is extremely energy inefficient. And seriously money losing in most places unless landfill fees are exorbitant like in NY, CA or Seattle. I think in SanFran you have to sort your recyclables. In Texas, Austin has a weekly curbside program which loses money. In Houston we have a biweekly curbside pickup which loses money, and is only available in the closer in more dense areas, maybe 1/3 of the city area. The trucks squander so much fuel that the money from selling recyclables doesn't pay for fuel costs. This is even worse in lower population density cities like Nashville and 'burbs because of the distance between pickups. Houston was losing intolerable money from this when it was weekly, so they changed to biweekly. Unless you're in an area where land for landfills is extremely tight, and pop. density is high like in major cities on the coasts, curbside recycling is window dressing, a "feel good" solution causing more waste than saving. It's not a matter of Nashville being behind San Jose at all, just reasonable economics for the local situation. The political entities there are saying to you to combine a trip to the store with a trip to the depository and save fuel. I do this with glass since Houston does not take glass at the curbside.
Mr. Brown informed the audience that the City of Houston now has a comprehensive mobility plan and a comprehensive drainage plan in place. A "Green Building Code" will be getting adopted, though he did not go into details of its contents. There are definitive plans for Interconnected Green Belts and flood control plans. At the same time, CM Brown lamented that the City has no source of money for flood control.
Mr. Brown is convinced that new resources for transportation infrastructure funding will be available at the federal level. He reemphasized that Houston needs a plan.
Mr. Brown supports the Texas Triangle Bullet Train connecting DFW, Austin & San Antonio, and Houston. He says that costs will be $21 billion, a figure I'll believe when I see it. He said that Southwest Airlines is probably dropping their opposition to such a plan because there is no money to be made on short haul air traffic. As was to be expected, Mr. Brown emphatically supports dramatically increased light rail and commuter rail expansions. Of course he would because he will be dead before he has to ask taxpayers to bail out Metro when the cost overruns come and bus service goes to pot to continue rail service. All this for a form of transportation that will probably never achieve more than 10-15 percent of work trips no matter how high the price of fuel becomes.
One item I should interject here about a Texas triangle train. One needs to remember that such a scheme will only be built within the boundaries of Texas. As such, people should not expect that a financially strapped federal government, which will be feeling the full brunt of the baby boomer entitlement burden coming within the next decade, to fund such a scheme simply because you are asking that 49 other states fund it without getting anything in return. It will need to be done either privately or be done from the confines of the Texas Legislature.
CM Brown says Dallas is 10-15 years ahead of Houston when it comes to rail, but he failed to mention that rail has done nothing to improve traffic congestion, which is as bad as Houston's. He also didn't talk about the recent massive escalations in rail costs which have sent shockwaves throughout the Dallas political classes and have driven Dallas's rail expansions into the ditch. He said Houstonians will not tolerate eminent domain for new roads. That's good to know because if we are going to have the much ballyhooed 3.5 million new residents show up by 2035, then we will probably have another 2 million or more vehicles on our roads.
Mr. Brown says that Houston must be pro-growth and development, as only 15 percent of new area population and 23 percent of new area jobs are landing in Houston proper, as the people and jobs are going outside city limits. Strangely, moments later he proclaimed that "there is a great migration where people are moving back to the central city". The creative classes want an exciting, vibrant lifestyle and we need to improve the "Quality of Place". I suppose that we are to have no more of those quiet, boring, suburban bedroom communities with good schools and lots of open space which might attract new residents.
Mr. Brown said we have reactive and complaint driven government, where for example a developer says they need a pair of lanes for their new development in order to make it work. This is not efficient, Mr. Brown proclaimed. Instead, "we need to do things like figure out where the high density development is supposed to go". Mr. Brown didn't mention the idea that developers might be the ones whose job it is to figure out where high density development might go, nor did Mr. Brown go into details as to why a developer might need a pair of road lanes to get their new developments to work.
Transportation planning: Area planning will require overlaying TX-DOT's plans, TIRZ maps, and the city's plans. Houston will soon have a classification of city streets, which he says have led to "insipid neighborhood layouts", though Mr. Brown did not go into detail as to what constituted insipid neighborhood layouts. Mr. Brown is not happy with current transportation modeling at H-GAC, claiming it is primitive. Other cities have "much more advanced" modeling.
Mr. Brown then said a major goal of Houston's comprehensive mobility plan is to substantially reduce per capita vehicle miles traveled ! He said Houstonians spend $12,000 per year in auto expenses. He derided that Houston is a cheap city to live, saying that despite cheap housing costs, Houston is very expensive, partly because taxes are high. There is a trade off between housing and transportation costs. "We need to find a balance", presumably through even more planning. Major Thoroughfares are to be rationalized, efficient, and neat. Mr. Brown did not go into any further details as to what the City was going to do to compel its citizens to not travel so many miles, regardless of what their means or travel desires were.
Mr. Brown has traffic calming on his agenda, as well as road dieting. In case you need translations of these terms, these are part and parcel of the Smart Growth agenda, terms which mean that roads need to have lots of money spent putting various barriers in the way for pedestrians, which in turn cut down on vehicle speeds and mobility. Road dieting means cutting down on road lane miles and redeploying them for bikes and walking. In other words, Mr. Brown wants to make Houston more automobile hostile, build up traffic congestion, and make it slower and more difficult to get around so that people will walk more. In other words, this means making Houston look like London.
If you need a clarification of what "road dieting is", imagine this. Westheimer inside 610 Loop is mostly two lanes in both directions with no medians. Now then, imagine taking the outer 5 feet off of the outer two lanes and redeploying them for (seldom used) bike paths. That wipes away one full lane off the street configuration. Then with the remaining three lanes, use the center lane as a turn lane and put an occasional pedestrian island on it. This leaves us with only one full lane for vehicle traffic in either direction.
Don't laugh. I went to a Metro meeting some months ago on the Wheeler / Richmond rail alignment where Metro is looking at allowing only one lane of traffic to operate in either direction during off peak time travel hours. All this in the name of "promoting a pedestrian realm".
Here are just a few of hundreds of photos I took of London when I was there in 2007:
1) This photo shows a 300+ year old neighborhood where there is only on street parking and which only has one lane for cars.
2) This photo is a window ad at a real estate firm where two apartment flats are for sale. The first is for $1,850,000 and the second is for $1,500,000.
3) This apartment was going for $850 per week. The apartment below was going for $800 per week, which is about the average apartment rent in London right now.
The difference between carrying a 30 year $150,000 mortgage at 6 percent in Houston and a $600,000 mortgage in London (the average price of a home in London is about 300,000 pounds) is $32,400 per year, enough to purchase and maintain 5-6 cars per household. My colleague whom I went to London to backfill for is a Scotsman who lives in Aberdeen. He cannot afford to move to London because the UK government takes too much of his salary away in taxes and the City is too expensive for him, his wife, and their 3 kids, even though he is probably making $100,000 per year and would be living in a national capital which has a legendary public transportation system which is heavily subsidized.
Mr. Brown says that Dallas has a comprehensive development plan, but strangely, in order to come up with this new plan, they had to do away with antiquated zoning which was getting in the way of the new plan. Mr. Brown didn't mention stories like this or this when talking about Dallas's latest plans.
Houston does not do fiscal impacts on development says Mr. Brown. People are fed up with taxes and we need to promote development. My take on these remarks is that these studies are often used to justify whether "development pays for itself", presumably meaning that if a developer spots a market for single family homes somewhere and wants to build them, the City could then stop this development on some theoretical grounds that the infrastructure will be too costly to implement and that the development will not contribute enough tax monies to justify planners permitting its construction. In other words, such grounds could be used to deny where people live, where development is located, what type of development it is, and its attendant satisfaction of market participants on the grounds that this development is somehow detrimental to municipal finance of all things. In other words, such a device could be used to hinder development, if that development is presumed to be of the kind that is somehow not to be desired.
The questions started: One engineer who had spent his entire career in traffic engineering, talked abaout the traffic and transportation department, which was dissolved in the 1990's, but is now in PW&E and part of a giant bureaucracy. Gonzalo Camacho was also there. He said that 30 percent of early morning rush hour traffic is school traffic. People move to the suburbs for better schools and cheap housing.
Mr. Brown's response: "We need a Marshall Plan for schools and health care!" Great - yet another plan. That must have been the twentieth time Mr. Brown used the word plan in his talk. He lamented that the City spent lots of money in the Clinton Park area to revive it and make it desirable to live there, but then HISD closed the elementary school so parents won't want to live anywhere near there. Of course the answer to this planning error requires yet more coordination and even more planning so that these mistakes don't get made again.
So there you have it. Mr. Brown fully intends to implement the entire tool set of "Smart Growth" policies to make Houston more congested, full of green belts, with lots of planners doing lots of comprehensive planning which will probably make your life as a Houstonian more expensive and inconvenient. Rising costs will also drive more people out to the urban fringe, regardless of what people's attitudes are towards accomodating new growth. Rising housing costs may stem from an increasingly inelastic and unresponsive housing market, as well as pouring more resources into expensive rail transit projects which are far away from where most people live and work, and do not go where people want to go.
And so it was. This is the City that Peter Brown and his friends want to have. I drove home to put some cotton swabs in my ears to stop the bleeding and started writing. Tomorrow's another day.
This past week, the FTA issued letters to one, Mr. Frank Wilson, CEO of Harris County Metro, informing him that the FTA has moved the North Corridor and Southeast light rail alignments back into preliminary engineering status for fiscal year 2009. Of note, Metro stated in its FEIS for the Southeast alignment (see page 50 of this document) that a light rail component would cost $329 million (2006 dollars). The FTA PE approval letter now states, two years later, that the updated cost estimate is up to $663 million for the alignment. As for the North Corridor alignment, the FEIS for it stated that the North Corridor would cost $354 million (see page 50) in 2006 dollars. The FTA letter now states that the alignment will cost $677 million in year of expenditure dollars. The FTA administrator and outside auditor wrote in the accompanying report that Metro's estimated annual increases of 3.25 percent were optimistic because of volatility in commodities markets, uncertain scope of the project, and items like utility relocations. In other words, the cost of these two alignments has gone from $682 million to $1.34 billion in inflationary dollars, a rise of 96 percent. If you factor in inflation, the project's cost rise is about 63 percent and the outside auditor says these numbers are optimistic.
Folks, the word is now official. This 30 mile of the Metro Solutions Phase 2 expansion will cost over $4 billion - which I had predicted 4 months ago - and Metro will go bankrupt ponying up a mere one third of that money. Houston Chronicle transportation beat writer Rad Sallee wrote on March 28, 2008 that there is a problem with the Harrisburg rail alignment crisscrossing Union Pacific rail tracks. No problem if the money can be found to build an overpass. With the cost escalations however, this means that the 4 mile, 4 stop Harrisburg rail alignment will cost $500 - $600 million and will presumably be replacing a local bus route with many more stops. It will only cover a short stretch of the #50 Harrisburg bus route, which in 2007 carried a mere 4,192 riders per day. This is down some 20 percent from the pre-Main Street rail line peak patronage Metro achieved with the Harrisburg bus route in 1999 of 5,499 riders and in 2000 of 5,277 riders.
As for travel forecasts for both proposed rail alignments, Metro stated in its FEIS for the North Corridor in 2006 that a rail alignment would draw 14,000 riders per day. That's right folks. $677 million for 14,000 riders per day. For the Southeast alignment, Metro forecast in its FEIS that a BRT alignment (not a light rail alignment) would draw 13,900 riders per day. It's quite possible that light rail would draw more riders. Either way, we are looking at two rail alignments whose capital costs approach 50 percent of the entire cost of the Katy Freeway refurbishment and expansion, but will probably only carry about the equivalent of two lanes of passengers and do nothing to expedite the movement of freight or goods. Transit ridership is up about 10 percent over 2007, but transit still carries only 4-5 percent of work trips and only 1-2 percent of overall trips. Moreover, transit patronage is up for both bus and rail.
Mobility is what matters, not mode. There is a very strong argument to be made that patronage would also improve if Metro simply installed dedicated bus lanes, decreased the frequency of stops to improve bus travel speeds, and increased headway frequencies to cut down on catastrophic wait times. This could all be done at a fraction of the cost of $130 million per mile light rail lines.
But enough of today's troubles. The purpose of this post is to talk about a wonderful book that every transportation fan should have in his or her library and that book is Steven M. Baron's Houston Electric - The Street Railways of Houston, Texas.
Baron, a rail fan, writes that the book - which he published in 1996 - was a time consuming process and gives much credit to a number of streetcar enthusiasts who are no longer with us. The amount of material Mr. Baron managed to uncover was tremendous, considering that hard evidence on Houston's streetcar system is very scarce. He still managed to publish a book that is 223 pages long, including footnotes and sources. I should thank Mr. Baron for his efforts.
Baron starts off, appropriately, at the beginning. In 1868 Houston was, in his words, a 1 square mile hustling place with nothing but dirt roads which of course turned to mud when it rained. Nearly everyone walked. That is when Houstonians were greeted to the news that a horse car would be utilizing some old tracks from the Houston Tap & Brazoria Railroad which had been built years earlier, but had fallen into disrepair. Mule pulled cars started operating along Houston roads. Mules were preferred because they were steadier than horses and did not frighten or bolt. Baron goes on to describe the schemes which various early pioneers tried to get regular rail service into operation during the 1870's and 1880's.
Baron says that many figures were involved in the initial construction of Houston's early streetcar system, but perhaps the one man who was best known and identified with it was Henry MacGregor. MacGregor, who was born in New Hampshire but moved to Houston as a young man, became a secretary of the Galveston City Railroad, then later bought out and became general manager of Houston's budding streetcar lines (along with William Sinclair) in 1883. He had a swath of real estate holdings and eventually became involved in the effort to widen the Houston Ship Channel. He left MacGregor Park along with North and South MacGregor Way (which lie on either side of Braes Bayou, south of the University of Houston) to the City in his will. MacGregor and Sinclair took over a company called Houston City Street Railway, which had received a state charter in 1870, but regular service did not really start until years later. HCSR faced competition from another rail line, but Sinclair and MacGregor stepped in and acquired the assets of both companies.
Things went well until April of 1888 when another trio of ambitious men received a franchise from the Houston City Council to start a competing streetcar system. For a while in 1889, Houstonians experienced the drama of two companies laying track, a battle where City Council members led both sides and which led to legal fights, injunctions, and a handful of arrests. Despite this, Houston lamentably still had chronically muddy roads.
This state of affairs improved dramatically in 1891 when enough capital and technological expertise was available to electrify the streetcar lines. In scenes that were reminiscent of the Main Street rail line, Baron describes how service was often dangerous. Still, the electrification of the streetcar lines were a tremendous boon to the city, even in the midst of the nationwide depression of the 1890's.
Streetcars in Houston, as they did in every city of the world, also aided and abetted suburbanization and sprawl, just as the automobiles which succeeded them did. In a letter written in 1893 to the newspapers, a person who signed the letter "A Poor Man" wrote:
The adoption of electricity as a motor by the streetcar company in Houston is a blessing to the poor people of this city, because it allows a man of limited means to rent a house or to build a home in the outskirts of the city where rent is cheap or lots can be bought for a very small price, and live there and at the same time get into town early enough to attend to business. Rapid transit is the only thing that can enable a poor man to own his own home.
Real estate was big business after the 1890's and no savvy developer would really want to develop without streetcar access. Most famously, the Heights was developed with the streetcar in mind, but most other neighborhoods were also.
Baron also describes the strikes from labor unrest, management difficulties, and financial problems which plagued HCSR until out of state bondholders created a reorganization plan which brought the engineering firm Stone and Webster into the management picture. S&W brought capital, expertise, and some financial stability to the management of Houston's streetcar system and in fact provided management services all the way until the system went through its final shutdown in 1940. S&W helped oversee bus services during WWII and for some years afterwards. S&W reorganized the company and renamed it Houston Electric Company. The streetcar company was known by this name even after Houston Lighting and Power came along, and which in fact contracted to sell power to HEC in the 1920's, an idea that alleviated HEC from having to produce its own power. He also tells of the innovation and design of the Birney car and the resulting cost savings that were reaped by HEC because of the ability to do away with a conductor needing to be on board the vehicle.
In November 1914, a booming Houston, fresh with a new ship channel and flowing oil fields, witnessed a new competitor into the transit picture - the jitney automobile car. Baron goes on to write how competitive pressures from jitney cars drove HEC management absolutely crazy for the next decade, as jitneys eventually captured some 22 percent of the market. It didn't help that inflationary pressures from the First World War crippled finances, as did rising capital expenditures. Efforts to raise fares were usually met with petition drives from Houstonians opposing the measures, which often passed in elections.
Intriguingly, in 1920, the City of Houston hired a traction consultant named John Beeler to do a thorough study of Houston's transportation system. Beeler wrote, amongst many other things, that two-thirds of the streetcar routes were losing money. But he also wrote:
One of the reasons why the jitney bus has made such inroads into the railway business is because it saves time... The public demands rapid transportation.
Beeler went on to note that the average speed of travel achieved by streetcars was about 9 miles per hour, whereas the jitneys were averaging 14 miles per hour. Successive ordinances were implemented to subject jitney cars to ever increasing regulatory measures over the following decade. They were opposed by jitney drivers, but in 1924 City Council unexpectedly shutdown and banned jitneys altogether.
Baron goes on to state what is well known in historical and transportation circles in Houston, namely that the streetcar network reached its apex in 1927 with 90 miles of routes. What few know however is that as early as 1924, Houston Electric started trying out substituting or supplementing shuttle and commuter bus services to neighborhoods instead of going through the massive capital expense of extending streetcar tracks. The now affluent Southampton area of Houston got bus service, as did Harrisburg alignment in February 1928 - ironic considering that Metro now is going to spend huge sums of money to bring rail back to the street. The famous Bellaire streetcar route was abruptly replaced with bus service in September 1927 because the track was falling into poor condition. By 1929, Houston Electric was operating some 70 buses on 16 routes. Meanwhile, the City of Houston was implementing a paving program on its streets and was requiring that Houston Electric pay for paving of lanes where its streetcar tracks were, which proved to be another massive drain on HEC's coffers. The Depression proved to be a hard blow to HEC, with patronage and farebox recovery plummeting and transit losing patrons to an ever growing fleets of private automobiles. Baron includes a telling photo, dated approximately 1938, where a streetcar is pictured going south on Fannin, but which is seemingly lost in a crowd of ever increasing automobile traffic.
The story Baron tells is one that Houston's streetcar system did not abruptly collapse. Instead, the story that emerges from his book is that Houston's streetcar network experienced a steady switch from streetcars on rail to buses from the period of roughly 1924 - 1940. The company executives at HEC knew something that so many people who argue and fight over transit today do not, namely that the capital costs of running buses was - and always will be - a tiny fraction of the expense of trying to maintain and extend streetcar rail networks. They knew as early as the late 1920's that the future belonged to the bus. Moreover, the per capita number of rides that people took on transit had been in steady decline for decades. The peak ridership per person was in 1913 where people took over 220 rides per year on streetcars. This number had declined to 159 per year by the late 1920's and decline accelerated over the decades of the 20th century and into the 21st. Baron writes nothing about alleged conspiracies to put streetcars out of business and replacing them with buses.
Baron tells the story of how Houston's new bus network served Houston during WWII. It was ironic that Houston dismantled its streetcar network just before the war, as patronage went from 56 million in 1940 to a record 130 million in 1945, a figure that has never been equaled. Conceivably, this surge in ridership, caused by wartime banning of automobile production and gas rationing, might have helped HEC keep its streetcar network alive until perhaps the early 1950's, but nearly all cities except for a few older cities in America dismantled their rail lines as the 20th century moved onwards.
Baron has a chapter on the aftermath of the dismantling of Houston's streetcar network, telling readers that patronage continued to decline during the 1950's and bus headways were steadily lengthened. Municipal ownership was discussed as early as the late 1950's. He tells of Bernard Calkins's valiant efforts during the 1960's to keep bus service running, but Calkins was unable to reverse declining ridership and had to sell out to National City Lines. He tells of the City of Houston's purchase of the bus system from NCL in April 1974 for $5.3 million, with the new company being named HouTran. Metro was voted into existence in August 1978 and, armed with a 1 percent tax on commerce, the rail plans started coming immediately, heedless of the fact that transit only was carrying 1-2 percent of all travel trips in Houston. In 1988, Baron notes that Metro carried 76.9 million passengers on 980 buses on 106 routes. In 2008, Metro is on track to carry about 112 million boardings using about 1,000 buses on a similar number of routes. On a per capita basis, there has been practically no change in the past 20 years in per capita ridership despite the fact that gasoline is now nearly $3.50 per gallon.
Baron's general history of transit comprises about half the book. The later half of the book describes individual neighborhoods and the lines which served them. In what can only be described as a godsend, Baron also includes yearly patronage and farebox numbers that HCSR and HEC achieved in their years of operation. This alone makes his book a wonder to read.
In summary, the Wizard think this book should be required reading by every political figure, both elected and appointed, in America. I think that every political interest group should also read this book. I think that every person who voices or writes an opinion on public transportation in this country should also be required to read this book and should keep their mouths shut until they do. There just might be a small chance that the world might become a far more rational and saner place if they did.
In today's edition of Houston's newspaper of record, transportation beat writer Rad Sallee notes that Harris County Metro has achieved record boardings. I had noted that a while back on Tory's blog, but I have yet to post the latest boardings statistics on my spreadsheet. Fare collection is also up. In general, I like this.
The easy explanation for this is that we have $3 per gallon gasoline. I posted my observations on Metro and posed an observation to an internet board which I belong to in conjunction with another poster's remarks that transit ridership for SEPTA in Philadelphia is also up, mostly on its commuter routes. The observation I posed was, whether price increases in gasoline or other transportation fuels will drive increases in transit patronage, and if so then how much?
The result was a fascinating conversation which centered around such issues as the marginal rate of substitution of motor vehicle use to transit, the income elasticity of demand, and the cross price elasticity of demand for transit use. The general thread of the discussion centered on the marginal cost of transit trips.
The level of discussion was of a far higher quality than that which I normally encounter when visiting local internet boards and blogs, given that fair number of these people are transportation professionals and journal published Ph.D's with no particular ax to grind. Well, they have no other ax to grind other than the simple wish to spend public monies only if absolutely necessary, and then as cheaply as possible lest their profession be given a really bad name. Many of these people are outraged at some of the projects which have been fobbed off on the taxpaying public.
The result of my posting of the Metro statistics and the other gentleman's SEPTA story from Philadelphia resulted in a discussion thread that went something like this:
One of the opening posts in the discussion thread was made by Steven Polzin:
In general gas prices would be a meaningful mode choice factor for a small number of all travelers and their impact on overall ridership could easily be overwhelmed by local factors such as economy, service changes, fare changes, parking cost changes, etc. Remember some of the impact of gas prices is not economic but folks showing a concern about global warming, energy independence, sending more $ to the mid east etc. that influence decisions. Thus part of the impact of high gas prices, to the extent that it exists, may bean emotional response not an economic one. The media and to a lesser extent the industry have fed a perception that gas prices have/will contribute to greater transit ridership. Looking at the numbers would suggest caution when setting these expectations.
The thread of the discussion went into such topics as how much to people value their time verses what amounts of money they were willing to pay in order to get somewhere more quickly and conveniently. Discussion also centered on whether longer transit trips were part of the equation of increased transit patronage.
Mills and Hamilton cited that Keeler and other researchers in the 1970's whose work indicated that people valued their commute time at roughly 30 - 50 percent of what their wage rates were. Charles Lave came to a similar conclusion which he published in this 1979 article in The Atlantic an article which discussed the high gasoline prices of the era when combined with various governmental laws which rationed gas through price ceilings and caused people to wait in line for gas instead:
But an increase in waiting time is, in fact, an increase in the real cost of gasoline: studies of transportation choice have established that commuters are willing to pay about 40 percent of an hour's wage to save an hour of travel time. That is, the increase in waiting time was equivalent to a real price increase of 50 to 100 percent, and motorists responded by reducing their weekday travel by about 15 percent. If this had continued, their long-term response would have been even greater since they would have had the time to make more important adjustments, such as changing automobiles or residences.
Mills and Hamilton go on to state that people value wait times, transfer times, and access times at much higher rates than those of times actually spent in transit. In particular, they state that wait times for vehicles are absolute killers for patronage, being put at some 2-4 times greater than one's average wage. Clearly one way to increase transit patronage is to make sure wait times are cut down to a minimum. The other is to find ways to increase the travel speeds of the vehicle, perhaps through bus routes with fewer stops or through dedicated bus lanes. It also points to the idea that people are willing to pay some rather high fuel prices before giving up their vehicles.
But what about the idea that higher fuel prices will cause people to abandon trucks and cars and instead patronize mass transit? One big clue for whether people will do this can be to see what has happened in Europe. This BBC story from 2003 indicated that outside London, only 11% of British people got to work by public transport, only 5% of commuting was by national rail. Only 3% cycled to work, while one in 10 walked. Prices for gas in Britain in 2003 were about $6.50 per gallon, while today they are about $7.50 - $8.00. The per capita income in Britain is some 10-20 percent lower than here in America, so there is not a terribly great difference on the income elasticity of demand figures.
Intriguingly, Metro's increased patronage numbers may be coming from the fact that since Houston has a booming economy, Houston may be drawing in more poor people in addition to wealthier income groups. In article in the New York Sun, noted urban economist Edward Glaeser writes that New York draws a lot of poor people and he states that one of the reasons why it does is because it has a large public transportation network. In a more formalized paper published recently in The Journal of Urban Economics (which I subscribe to), Glaeser speaks more thoroughly to the issue of the role of public transportation drawing people to cities and urbanizing poverty. Amongst the amazing interpretations of a model he works through, he writes that:
Let WRich be a rich person's opportunity cost of time, F be the fixed time cost of public transportation, and C be the fixed time cost of driving you get:
Alternatively, if WRichF < C then some rich people will take public transportation. In this case, a four ring city can be one outcome. In the inner ring, the rich take public transportation. In the next ring, the poor take public transportation. In the third ring, the rich drive and there may be a fourth ring where the poor drive.
Glaeser finds that proximity to public transportation does well at predicting the location of the poor in cities.
My thought is that if fuel prices were to increase to circa $7-10 per gallon, that Metro's patronage figures would increase from 4-5 percent of work trips to perhaps an overall range of somewhere around 10 percent. Perhaps Metro's annual boardings would increase to 200-300 million per year from the 100 million they are at now. However, those numbers are still not enough paying passengers to enable Metro to stand on its own two feet.
This is frustrating to me because my real dream for public transportation is that I want public transportation to be able to pay for itself and not have to be considered something that can only be provisioned by government. Houston had private bus service operated by Bernard Caulkins all the way into the early 1970's, when the Arab oil embargo caused gas prices to climb 4 times. That in turn required a doubling of fares which caused patronage to drop by one third. Still, despite a sales tax regime that approaches half a billion dollars, Metro struggles to draw as many riders as Mr. Caulkins did in the 1960's. Once Metro was voted into existence, one of the first items on the agenda was to start building trains everywhere. Since then, we have gotten so used to this crap that nobody anywhere ever seems to have remembered how the world once really was.
Private provision of public transportation would destroy the rationale for taxation. It would also:
1) Put paid the question once and for all as to whether rail or buses are cheaper to own and operate.
2) Destroy the rationale for the 1,500 foot radial condemnation zones around train or BRT stations that Metro now wields and the potential for political corruption.
3) Put an end to the ever twisting and changing rationales that the public wants out of public transportation. Instead, a private actor would simply concentrate of providing good service and making a profit while moving people from one place to another. Tory alluded to this when he wrote:
Metro is a public agency subject to the will of the voters. It started out as subsidized alternative transportation for the poor and disabled. Then people wanted commuting alternatives (the HOV buses). Then they wanted local rail. Now, given the local boom of $100 oil, they'd like to see some freeway congestion reduction by attracting more riders out of their cars.
4) In a similar vein, getting government out of the provision of public transportation would put an end to the political battles where various groups try to capture the agency for their own purposes, whether they be money and patronage, urban reengineering, downtown groups wanting rail lines to cover up for the fact that their property is expensive, for shelling out to run rail to airports through neighborhoods where Metro previously refused to place more bus stops because of a lack of patronage, $300 million intermodal transit temples, or any other idea they may come to mind.
5) Public transportation would not be considered a jobs program with the specter of unionization by government workers who can't lose their jobs.
6) A private bus company would probably buy cheaper equipment and look to do things like put maps at bus stops. We would no longer see large 50 seat buses running around empty anymore.
7) One thing people might remember was that in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus that was operated by a private bus company. Blacks then protested the bus company by refusing to use the company's services. If blacks were to try that same political tactic today over some issue, Metro could care less. It doesn't help that the Black elite of today is in on the handouts for contracts.
8) The compadres at BlogHouston would not have
Dick Nixon Metro to kick around anymore. I could write about more interesting issues, like when cellulose ethanol will become economically viable as a transportation fuel.
More than anything, privatizing public transportation would take the politics out of the equation, which would bleed off all of the intensity of the entire debate.
And so it goes. It's getting late and tomorrow's another day.
On February 13, 2008, the Wall Street Journal published a fascinating story on a largely unnoticed revolution going on in American transportation. American railroads are, for the first time in a century, making massive new investments in their infrastructure. Better yet, not one dime of the $10 billion (with $12 billion more planned) is coming from public coffers. From the story:
For the first time in nearly a century, railroads are making large investments in their networks -- adding sets of tracks, straightening curves that force engines to slow and expanding tunnels for bigger trains. Their campaign is altering the corridors of American commerce, more so than any other development since interstate highways spread to the interior.
The story goes on to say that this burst of new private development of railroads has been driven by a massive burst of finished consumer goods coming in from Asia. These goods add to the usual cargo that freight rail carries, such as coal, grain, and chemicals. Compare all of this to the slovenly inefficiencies of Amtrack or light rail inner city transit. Moving goods is cheap. Moving people - at least in the economically affluent part of the world - is expensive.
This development, the story goes on to say, is generating development along the pathway of the railroads, but the development is primarily commercial in nature. Also, the railroads and freight trucks complement each other, where trucking companies find that sometimes they can ship goods long haul over rail rather than doing it over the Interstates.
And speaking of the Interstates, I was reading a story in this weeks' issue of The Economist of China's massive spending on transportation projects. The print edition carries a side story on the effects that America's Interstate Highway system had on productivity while it was being built. The Interstates were initially estimated to take 12 years to build at a cost of $25 billion. At the end, it took 37 years and cost (in 2006 dollars) $425 billion.
Question: Was it worth it? According to Ishaq Nadiri and Theo Manuneas, yes it was. America went through its greatest and most long lasting economic boom during its history after WWII and the Interstates had quite a bit to do with raising that productivity and making America a vastly wealthier country. Broadly speaking, Nadiri and Manuneas say that the greatest gains were reaped early on in the program and declined slowly as time went forward. The gains of the late 1950's were 31 percent of America's economic productivity growth, 25 percent by the late 1960's, and down to 7 percent by the late 1980's as more money was spent on road maintenance. One out of every five dollars was also being siphoned away from road building to build rail transit and bike paths. Freight costs in 32 of 35 industries dropped by an average of 24 cents for every dollar spent on the system.
Could something similar to the Interstates been done privately? The Interstates had incorporated into them some 14,000 miles of toll roads, mostly in the Northeast. Conceivably, a far seeing Governor and Legislature in some states could have launched state wide initiatives using toll roads, but it would have taken multi state cooperation to achieve a similar result to the Interstates. As it is, now that the Interstate system is complete, I wonder whether it would not be such a bad thing to turn most of it over to the states and either curb or shutdown collection of the federal gasoline tax the way that the Republican Congress of 1994 wanted to do? Entertaining ideas.
Well, well, well. The Wizard suffered a cratered hard drive a number of days back and subsequently found that his available backups were not exactly up to the task of restoring their contents. Sigh... life goes on.
As it is, my quality of life has returned to its normal excellence, all without a dime of taxpayer monies or time wasted with worthless political rhetoric. Some of this was achieved by shopping this weekend at three of my favorite places, Frys, Borders, and Home Depot. I also purchased two new pairs of running shoes from a place I have done business with for nearly 20 years.
And speaking of worthless rhetoric, On Thursday, February 7, 2008, Houston's newspaper of record published the findings of a panel of so-called experts from the Urban Land Institute and their ideas for Houston's future. Tory writes about it here. I am on a fresh install of Windows as I write this, so I cannot access the PowerPoint of the group's "findings". Still, I shall deal with their points as made by the Chronicle and Tory.
1) Houston needs more housing in downtown.
Answer: The marketplace will answer that question, not a panel of people who possibly might have been hired by some downtown Houston landowners and interest groups, conceivably at taxpayer expense. As it is, the 3,500 or so people who live in downtown Houston live in housing whose cost gradients are going for at least $235 per square foot, if not higher. The office space in downtown Houston currently has gradients of $275 or more per square foot. Meanwhile, would be homeowners can buy in some areas within 10 miles of downtown Houston which have price gradients of $70-$90 per square foot. Doing so and driving a car into downtown saves them many thousands of dollars every year in housing costs. As such, the Wizard believes that the market for housing in downtown Houston is probably saturated and will remain a small niche market. The same market forces which left downtown dormant after nightfall as late as the late 1990's have returned to some degree and will probably stay that way. Funny, but some people who have written about this don't seem to understand this idea.
Meanwhile, there is no compelling reason why Fry's, Home Depot, or other companies should locate downtown. Doing so would put them at a cost disadvantage vis-a-vis with their marketplace competitors. Land is valuable thanks to the agglomerated economies of scale afforded via the construction of skyscrapers, which allow dozens or hundreds of firms needing office space to bundle together (like law firms who would like to be just down the street from the City and County government and court houses) and outbid manufacturers or retailers for access to downtown property via renting floors of such towers. Moreover, for many there is no compelling reason to locate near downtown for access to the port or to rail heads, as there is no advantage to be found for most to do so.
2) Houston's competitors are (insert city here).
Houston's size, as is the size of most cities in a market economy (and yes, 1/3rd of the U.S. economy is in the political economy), will be determined by the size of its markets. The factor payments flowing into Houston thanks to $90 per barrel petroleum and $7 per 1,000 cubic foot natural gas are incredible. If you can't make some money right now, then there is something wrong with you. Naturally Houston should be expanding.
Still, it would be nice if we could attract some other non-fossil fuel firms, or if our current incumbents would show enough foresight to start buying up land so that they can control cellulose ethanol production from offices located in Houston. In general however, I am not a big believer in the idea that Houston is competing against cities like Sydney.
3) Houston should consider planning for its ad-hoc sewer system.
Ah! Now these guys are onto something. Staying on top of your infrastructure is a very wise thing to do. Too bad the political classes here in town seem more interested in building sports temples rather than deal with sewage.
4) Houston must start shelling out billions to run rail to the airports.
Oh, my goodness! If this one didn't give away who paid for this report, then I don't know what would.
The Metro Solutions 2003 ballot language called for the taxpaying public to shell out for rail to both Hobby and Intercontinental. Naturally, the rail lines lead to - you guessed it - downtown Houston. Tory's thread questions how far this would be. The Wizard works downtown and drove to Intercontinental in December 2006 when taking a business trip to London and onto Algeria. The distance of the drive along I-45? 25 miles. It took me 55 minutes in 5pm Friday evening rush hour traffic with 1 freeway accident to make it to Intercontinental. The Metro Solutions ballot language states that a hypothetical route would be 21.5 miles.
The cost of a light rail route to Intercontinental? That would be a minimum of $3 billion. We would be giving up a Katy Freeway refurbishment and expansion - all 18 lanes (with room for two more), 350,000 daily vehicle capacity, and tens of thousands of freight trucks - for such a project. Meanwhile, Metro stated in its 2006 North Corridor FEIS that the first 5.4 miles of LRT transit from downtown to Northline Mall would attract 15,000 riders per day.
Folks - shelling out for rail to the airports is a recipe for disaster. If the downtown interest groups - which in every expanding city are sick of people running away from them because sprawl makes their land less valuable - politically demand and insist on dedicated public transportation to the airports from downtown Houston, then build a pair of dedicated bus lanes to the airports and run buses along them. It will save the taxpayer a ton of money.
In a future post, the Wizard will give gentle readers some pearls of wisdom regarding the phenomenon of cities which have run rail to their airports.
5) H-GAC needs to distribute transportation dollars based on quality of life criteria.
I have a question to ask: Define quality of life for me? If shelling out billions of dollars to run rail to the airports results in more traffic congestion because that money was not spent on creative ideas like tunneling under freeways, then that results in a diminishing of my quality of life. One of the reasons why people have been sprawling outwards from urban cores for generations is to get away from the historically narrow streets and inadequate transportation infrastructure which existed in Central Business Districts. Sprawl helps alleviate congestion, not cause it. Anyone who doubts this should do what I did and spend a good 10 weeks in London (or better yet, Bangkok). There you will see the results of narrow roads from antiquity, complemented with dense development. Average speed of travel around London? Try 8-13 miles per hour.
Moreover, trying to insert language that transportation dollars should be doled out on non-quantifiable issues like "quality of life" detracts from dealing with concrete problems, such as measuring that a freeway is backed up for 8 hours per day and that vehicle traffic is slowed to 20-30 mph during those time frames. Maybe it is time that we should start considering adding some more lanes somewhere, right?
So the Wizard's verdict? I'd accept the recommendations on sewage and non-zoning and file the rest of this report into the rubbish bin. We'd all be better off for it.
More Fireballs, Lightning Bolts, and Hell Storms to come.
I received the following email today. I will share it in its entirety, the only comment being that the Los Angeles MTA has spent $11 billion (inflation adjusted) on rail transit since 1985, only to achieve the same number of boardings it achieved 22 years ago.
Riding the Silver Line bus rapid transit from Boston Logan Airport into downtown Boston last weekend via a Big Dig tunnel -- a quick ride, on a bus with luggage racks -- got me looking at the transportation performance of the Big Dig project.
Answer, from recent professional presentations: enormous reductions in traffic congestion. Apparently, the traffic engineering in the new tunnels eliminates weaving and bottlenecks. T-Ops is working 24 X 7 with cameras and other sensors. b> The bottom line number is 62% improvement in traffic flow.
See recent illustrated document attached in pdf, an end-of-year edition of Peter Samuels' Toll Roads News - found here.
There is a Powerpoint presentation in PDF showing performance graphics by ITS engineer Dan Baxter from last October here.
Dan Baxter and Peter Samuels describe the financial mismanagement
For those who want more, there is lots of detail in this screen scrape of an article by the same Dan Baxter in Roads & Bridges magazine from June 2007.
Despite setbacks, "Big Dig" potential benefits are stratospheric
- By Dan Baxter
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Boston's Central Artery/ Tunnel project, nicknamed the "Big Dig." Records of project planning activity date all the way back to 1982, and as of 2007 all sections of the project are now open to traffic.
More than $14.6 billion has been expended, and recent projections put completion closer to $15 billion. As with all highway projects, the Big Dig journey passed through planning to design, then on to construction and finally into operations and maintenance. The similarities with other highway projects stop there. The Big Dig has been unique in many ways, not all positive, including unparalleled cost escalations and highly publicized construction problems. Prior to completion, the only positive news has been a few construction achievements well known in the industry and the management of traffic during construction. New measurements and projections of project benefits are now available and an assessment of the true value of the project is possible. Even if the project does eventually achieve its original goals, will the highway construction industry ever see another mega project like the Big Dig? If there is another mega project with the scope and cost of the Big Dig, will it be managed differently based upon lessons learned? Looking back at the Big Dig, what really went wrong and what really went right?
True to traffic
With the final cosmetic touches now being put on the largest mega project in U.S. history, it is now possible for the first time to speculate how history will judge the project. As with every human endeavor, nothing is in reality a total success or a total failure. A Big Dig scorecard needs to consider costs, schedule, quality of construction and tangible benefits to the public. At a staggering $14.6 billion for 7.5 centerline miles of highway, the cost of the project is over $300,000 per inch. At that rate, achieving a positive benefit-to-cost ratio for the project will require unprecedented benefits. However, the facts emerging show the numbers may be closer than you might think.
The Big Dig has had more ups and downs than the numerous ramps that drop from the surface into the labyrinth of new subterranean highways. The most recent blow to the project came in August 2006 when a fatal accident resulting from a ceiling failure became the latest in a series of project problems to make national headlines.
Although it has been consistently maligned in its hometown newspaper, the news from the Big Dig is not all bad. Some monumental construction challenges have been met and mastered, including the soil freezing and tunnel jacking required to complete the I-90 extension to the new Ted Williams Tunnel. Now that the facilities are fully open to traffic, it is clear that the excessive daily traffic congestion and related air pollution that once gripped downtown Boston has been substantially reduced. A large portion of the vehicle delay disappeared with the giant concrete and steel elevated freeway that for two score years blackened the fourth-story windows of adjacent Boston buildings.
When it comes to traffic, the promise of the project planners to vastly improve traffic flow was kept, and even exceeded. A popular sound bite used by project critics during the design phase was "it will be obsolete the day it opens." Traffic data collected and compared with "before" conditions have proven the critics who voiced that position wrong. Dramatic reductions in travel time and increases in traffic flow have now been documented in a new study recently published by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA). The study was conducted independently of the Big Dig construction management consultants. The study, titled Economic Impacts of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, performed by the Boston-based international transportation and economics consulting group EDR, stated that "the original 1990 environmental projection was that the `Big Dig' would improve traffic flow by 40% by 2010. Today, the project exceeds that with a 62% improvement in traffic flow. This was accomplished while overall traffic volume grew by 23.5% since 1995."
Improved traffic flow is only one part of the picture. New public parks, reconnected neighborhoods, revitalized commercial activity and an aesthetic face-lift unparalleled in American municipal history have prepared Bostonians for a brighter socioeconomic future.The Rose Kennedy Greenway and the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge will transform the path of the old Central Artery into an extraordinarily beautiful stretch of parkland crisscrossed by sidewalks and streets that reconnect the city to its waterfront. The bustling crowd of locals and tourists that can be seen every day walking about at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace will soon be able to stroll farther east through the R.K. Greenway to parks like Christopher Columbus Park that sit at the bay's edge. Dramatic increases in the value of downtown, South Boston and Seaport District real estate have been realized and are projected to soar with the completion of the greenway. As spectacular as the traffic improvements and urban area transformations may be, they are not sensational enough to capture national headlines. The Big Dig's unexposed benefits are every bit as real as the costs and problems so readily exposed by the broadcast media.
Sign from above
In spite of the realization of the key kept promises, the Big Dig is as beleaguered as ever, and new fears about structural integrity have eroded the public's perception of the project into a mired mess of mixed reviews.
After enduring more than a decade of political firestorms and media bashings, the past two years has seen a series of successful and meaningful ribbon cuttings. The opening of new tunnel sections and connector ramps, the world's widest cable-stayed bridge and numerous public parks only temporarily lifted the spirits of the remaining project partisans. Those spirits must certainly have fallen again with the concrete ceiling panel that killed a motorist last year. The tragedy started a new series of searing public commentary and politically charged lawsuits.
In the days following the disaster, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney "knee-jerked," went on the offensive and publicly questioned the safety of the tunnels. As the top elected state official, his lack of confidence prematurely trumped lesser bureaucrats who were responsible for determining the actual cause of failure and dealing with the problems. The reaction was predictable if not understandable as the Big Dig has always been an easy target for criticism. Defending the Big Dig project in the light of this catastrophe might appear to be political suicide in the short term. However, joining the ranks of critics may erode long-term credibility when it is time to take credit for the benefits.
The accident that killed Milena Delvalle of Boston's Jamaica Plain was caused by the failure of an epoxy-based anchoring system that held a large concrete ceiling panel in place. Reports from the scene indicated that there was no evidence of epoxy on some of the anchors that were lying in the debris on the road. A cursory search of public project records reveals that ceiling panel installation methods have been the subject of claims and changes and formed the basis of a value-engineering effort managed by the management consultant, a joint venture of Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff. The causes of the failure have been reported to be a deadly mix of poor workmanship, flawed inspection and questionable decisions by project management that ultimately reduced the factor of safety to save time and money.
The investigation found that the failed anchors were among the first to be installed using the epoxy method, with the implication not that the oldest anchors failed first, but that the first anchors were installed by crews inexperienced with the method. Although there is no way to prevent motorists from having accidents due to human error, there is no excuse for a purely structural failure due to nothing more than the weight of an element under normal stress conditions.
As each month goes by absent of more failures, the August 2006 tragedy looks more and more like an isolated problem. People in the construction industry know that history is peppered with tunnel collapses. Less than a month after the Boston accident, a highway tunnel linking the cities of Guangnan and Yanshan collapsed in southwestern China, trapping 25 workers. Unfortunately, like so many other "firsts," the Big Dig is the site of the only highway tunnel collapse in memory to occur shortly after the tunnel was opened to traffic.
Structural failures over the past two years provide a roadmap to the No. 1 thing that has gone wrong with the Big Dig. Since project inception, the highly privatized program management of the project has had amazingly minimal public-agency oversight, placing the true power of the purse strings and key day-to-day decision making in the hands of the management consultant.
Highway construction projects a fraction of the size of the Big Dig have had twice as many public-sector managers. Privatization itself is not the problem, because without privatization mega projects are not possible. The problem ensues when the privatized management is forced to operate outside their realm and role in order to fill a vacuum. When construction problems occurred, Boston political adversaries and the media have had the upper hand over the Big Dig management consultant, which is constrained both by its position as a private firm and its responsibility to deal in technical accuracy rather than shooting from the hip.
In the case of the tunnel leaks in 2004, the strong condemnation by the Boston Globe essentially went unanswered for six months. Six days is too long, much less six months. The Big Dig has needed both a political and a public-agency advocate empowered and motivated to respond quickly to quell the rush to judgment. Future mega projects need more than engineering and construction leadership. Advocacy in the ranks of the politically elected leaders and appointed agency heads must be cultivated and maintained to establish ongoing public confidence and accountability.
Money to move
The second thing that went wrong was the magnitude of the cost escalation. Some cost increases would be expected, but quadrupling costs point to either incompetence in estimating or intentional lowballing.
The reality of the Big Dig is that from the start, schedule compliance was favored over budget adherence. Management spent money to keep the project moving, knowing that failure to overcome obstacles in individual contracts would have a ripple effect throughout the project. In the mega project environment, the whole is split into many smaller parts that must fit together in both space and time. If one contractor's schedule slipped, several other contractors could claim a delay. Public-sector and political accountability also would have gone a long way to address the continuing issue of cost escalation. The decision to blame the management consultant for underestimating true project costs during project planning may have provided a convenient scapegoat to deflect political accountability. However, it also had the long-term detrimental effect of exposing the management consultant to media pressure to which it could not respond and eroding the public confidence in the privatized program management of the Big Dig.
When a technical problem occurs that rightly requires the management consultant's action, even their best efforts are met with skepticism. The lesson learned is that you can't have it both ways. If you use your program manager as a scapegoat in the media, you can't expect the public to accept your total reliance on him when problems arise.
The advocates of this project in the 1980s produced glossy brochures that focused primarily on elimination of the habitually congested elevated portion of I-93 in downtown Boston. One particularly powerful brochure was the "Now you see it, now you don't" piece that included a photo of the jammed Central Artery on the cover and an artist's rendering of a new park-like setting in the same location. The primary benefits described in detail were transportation related, and the secondary benefits described much more vaguely had to do with reconnecting neighborhoods" and creating new green space for Bostonians to enjoy. It is now possible to compare the promises of the project's visionaries with the realities of the as-built project.
A justification for the project was certainly that operation of the existing highway had become unacceptable by any standard. The 14-hour-long peak hour average speeds on the elevated Central Artery had dipped into single digits, reflecting one of the worst operational conditions in the world. Due to the extremely poor existing conditions, the contrast between the before and after conditions is truly dramatic and helps to justify the cost of the project.
The astounding results of the EDR study show dramatic improvements in average speeds and delays. As an example, the daily average travel speed for the old Central Artery northbound was 10 mph; the Big Dig quadrupled it to 43 mph. The average speed for all harbor tunnels (the new Ted Williams Tunnel plus the existing Sumner and Callahan tunnels) nearly tripled from 13 mph to 36 mph. These unprecedented improvements in traffic flow have the combined effect of reducing the daily hours of vehicle delay on these facilities a whopping 66% from 38,088 daily hours of vehicle delay in 1995 to 12,834 in 2005 after the Big Dig opened. The delay reductions for some individual minor movements were mind-boggling, such as the notorious bottleneck between Storrow Drive eastbound and I-93 northbound that improved by 81%. This was the site of an apartment building with a sign that read "IF YOU LIVED HERE YOU'D BE HOME BY NOW." The Big Dig decreased the average travel time through this segment from 16 minutes to less than four minutes. This perpetual traffic jam was as much a Boston landmark as the Old North Church, and now it is essentially gone. All of these numbers were achieved in spite of a growth in overall traffic demand reflected in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) of 13% in the same period.
Where did the traffic go? The traffic volume is still there. It has even increased. It is the delay that was eliminated, and this was the vision of the project. The true genius of this mega project has always been not just the replacement of decaying infrastructure, but the amazingly efficient transportation connections that the new viaducts, bridges and tunnels create that speed traffic flow throughout the metropolitan Boston region.
The Big Dig is essentially America's largest interchange. With these connections, the whole metropolitan highway system operated by the MTA finally functions as a system, and reductions of demand on formerly bottlenecked facilities abound. Traffic is better throughout Boston, not just in the project limits.
The EDR study projects that "these improvements are now providing approximately $167 million annually in time and cost savings for travelers. This includes $24 million of savings in vehicle operating cost plus a value of $143 million of time savings. Slightly over half of that time-savings value ($73 million) is for work-related trips and can be viewed as a reduction in the costs of doing business in Boston." The study points out that the promise of the original 1990 project documents used for the environmental assessment projected that the Big Dig would improve traffic flow by 40% by 2010.
In light of these improvements, is it possible to consider the Big Dig a failure? Unfortunately, if traffic were the only benefit, the astronomical project cost would make the Big Dig investment questionable in comparison with a more traditional reconstruction. The traffic analysis portion of the EDR report claimed that the completed project provides annual savings of $177 million (2005
dollars) in operating costs and delay reductions for roadway users. Although these numbers are impressive, based on traffic benefits alone it would take 80 years to break even (not considering the cost of a traditional alternative). In order to evaluate the true benefits of the Big Dig, the economic effects on real estate also must be considered.
Positive square feet
The historically volatile economy of the greater metro Boston region now sits at the near side of a new economic boom that will be fueled by nothing more than the subterranean superhighway brought by the Big Dig. In real estate, location is everything, and the Big Dig is transforming industrial wasteland choked by congestion into easily accessible high-end real estate.
The Big Dig will create an estimated 16 to 21 million sq ft of new commercial and residential development in the South Boston Seaport District alone. The EDR study stated that real estate projects already developed or in construction and planning total 10 million sq ft of office and retail space, including nearly 8,000 new housing units, reflecting $7 billion in private investment made possible by the Big Dig. The increase in property value is estimated to bring in as much as $120,000 million per year of much-needed property tax revenue. Combined with the prospect of future increases to toll revenue, this boost should help the commonwealth maintain its investment provided the dollars are properly appropriated to maintaining the roadways.
Given the history of Boston and the value of the adjacent Back Bay area, a man-made residential and commercial gold mine created from the swampy marsh south of the Charles River, there is no doubt that the market forces needed to capitalize on the Big Dig investment are converging and will drive the project's true value into the stratosphere within the next 20 years. With the concrete and steel canyon of the Central Artery being replaced by the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a remarkably beautiful property value engine that will provide a 180° swing in the aesthetics of downtown Boston, the project planner's commitment to keeping the air rights publicly owned will pay off 10-fold.
Another clear winner from the Big Dig is Boston's Logan International Airport. After years of steadily losing passengers to expanding airports in New Hampshire and Rhode Island due to the untenable travel time in the existing access highways and tunnels, Logan will solidify its position as king of the New England airports. The EDR study reported that access to Logan "is now easier for an added 800,000 Massachusetts residents who with the full opening of the I-90 connector to the Ted Williams Tunnel, now live within 40 minutes of the airport. Today, 2.5 million residents live within 40 minutes of Logan International Airport."
The Big Dig also delivered a massive shot in the arm for the New England economy. The cost of the cubic yards of excavation, new concrete and steel do not add up to $14.6 billion. The difference was corporate profits and job income. The Big Dig created nearly 50,000 jobs in Boston. Over 50 engineering teams and over 125 contractors received valuable contracts. Although some Boston
families paid dearly for the privilege to work on the Big Dig, the worker safety record was good. The Hegarty family in Dorchester lost their father, John, the first worker killed on the project after six years of construction without a fatality. Given the complexity and size of the project, the overall safety record of the project was far above average and provided unusually safe and high-paying jobs.
Touching the nerve
Recently, I sat in the $200 million Operations Control Center talking with Jim Murphy of the MTA, the man who is responsible for day-to-day operation of the world's most expensive labyrinth of tunnels, freeways, viaducts and tollways. Murphy spoke with sincerity in a serious tone about his job managing the facilities. He dodged no questions, admitting a few shortcomings of the project, but at the same time described the complexities and realities of this underground superhighway in a matter of fact way.
It may be hard for some to admit it, but the project worked. The Big Dig did what it was supposed to do, what it was promised to do. All the critics who lined up to say it would fail were wrong. The criticism of project cost escalations was justified, but the total value of the project to Boston will continue to exceed expectations. In an era when spending on a foreign war can be $2 billion per week, the cost of the Big Dig could be expended in eight weeks.
Baxter is North American ITS Director for Stantec.
Source: Roads & Bridges June 2007 Volume: 45 Number: 6
Copyright © 2008 Scranton Gillette Communications
Speaking as one who often experienced Central Artery congestion in the 1970s as a part-time Boston resident, it's an impressive, albeit expensive human achievement. There was a 2006 journalistic celebration of the achievement as a reversal of urban renewal destruction in the Washington Post at
provides streaming live video of traffic in central Boston.
Yesterday afternoon found the Wizard rearranging portions of his vast personal library of books when I stumbled across a book which I have not read in some 10 years: Marguerite Johnston's Houston the Unknown City, 1836 - 1946. In the Wizard's view, Ms. Johnston's history book is really more of a collection of journalistic accounts of Houston's early history, but all authors have their individual writing styles so you take what you can and go with the flow.
Today's epistle is a brief encapsulation of chapter 28 of Ms. Johnston's tome, which she entitled Automobiles, an Unnoticed Revolution. Packed in those six and one half pages are early accounts of what the world was like when automobiles were entirely new.
Ms. Johnston repeats an observation which Robert Bruegmann wrote in Sprawl, namely that motorized automobiles and trucks did not replace rail. What automobiles replaced were horse drawn transport. To quote Ms. Johnston:
In 1900, horse-drawn carriages, mule-drawn wagons, and electric streetcars were all anyone could need for transportation. Automobiles came into Houston as a sport, and an athletic and adventurous one at that. Nobody predicted that within twenty years, automobiles and horses would have traded places - the car to be driven for daily transportation and the horse to be ridden on fine mornings as exercise for Houston ladies and gentlemen. Very few foresaw that these would swell in number to provide a new use for the oil gushing up out of the ground at Spindletop.
Ms. Johnston wrote that the automobile age began quietly, a vehicle acquired here and there. She writes that by December 21, 1901, the Houston Chronicle was able to write that :
Automobiles have come to Houston... For more than a months now these agile, swift-moving steam machines have been dashing back and forth over the downtown streets.
Our socialite author then goes on to tell her readers that horse livery stables and blacksmith shops all over Houston stood ready to rescue horse drawn vehicles with broken axles or horses who had lost their shoes, but that nothing of the sort existed for these new fangled vehicles. Indeed part of what made all of this so amazing was that in the beginning there was no supporting infrastructure for motorized transportation.
Ms. Johnston tells of how C.L.Bering made a cross country trip in a car in 1903 and was cheered in every town he passed through. April 1, 1903 (appropriately) saw the first record of a Houstonian getting ticketed and fined $10 for "fast driving down Main Street." By 1906, Houston had 80 automobiles. On June 21, 1909, the Houston Chronicle reported that:
The first local party of automobilists to successfully make a trip from Houston to Galveston and return in a single day made the run on Sunday, leaving here at 6 o'clock in the morning... returning ... about 9 o'clock in the evening."
She then goes on to describe how such country trips were no mean feat, due to the fact that the roads were usually dirt ones, with wheel ruts, no maps, and no signposts. The trip to Austin involved trips opening gates through private property! Ms. Johnston writes of Julian Huxley (yes, that Julian Huxley!), who at the time was teaching at the Rice Institute. Mr. Huxley bought a Model T for 100 pounds ($5,400 - $10,700 in 2006 dollars) when he was in Texas and later wrote of it:
It was a gallant little machine which I could drive across the prairies. In the winter vacation, I drove with a colleague in my new car to see Stark Young, professor of comparative literature at the State University at Austin...
This important route from Houston to Austin soon turned into a dirt road, so bad that at one swampy place I had to turn off into a field.
Ms. Johnston' goes on to write that Dr. Huxley got stuck in the mud on that hapless trip.
From 1906 to 1910, the number of licensed automobile owners in Houston increased 10 times. From 1910 to 1913, the number increased another 5 times on top of that. There were 4,143 autos in Houston by 1913. Ms. Johnston wrote that cars were starting to replace carriage horses in the stable at the back of the property. She wrote that saddle horses held out for another two decades.
Modes of death changed. Deaths incurred from runaway horses, animal bites, and diseases were replaced by automobile accidents. Amongst Houston's early fatalities was nine year old LaRue Sachs, who was killed by a motorist. La Rue Street, located off of West Dallas near Waugh Drive, is named after her.
Ms. Johnston goes on to describe what it was like to actually operate and ride in early automobiles, saying that glass windows and the hard top and not yet come. Dusters and goggles were part of the driver's uniform. The ladies wore scarves over their hats to counter the stiff breeze from traveling 30-40 miles per hour. Lap robes were common. Other perils awaiting those intrepid new car buyers included flat tires which were commonplace. Patching holes in inner tubes was a skill that many young men of the era learned fairly quickly.
The crankshafts were located in front under the radiators. Turning them often required an adult male's physical strength and it was harder to turn them over in winter time. Some covered the hoods of their cars with blankets or lap robes to keep the lubricants from congealing. On some really cold mornings, motorists would light up charcoal heaters under radiators.
Electric cars were out and about, competing with the gasoline powered ones. Some well known figures in Houston like Mrs. Albert Bath and Mrs. Will Clayton drove electric cars, where Ms. Johnston notes that these vehicles needed to be plugged in and recharged after daily runs.
Running boards were another frequent feature of cars of the era, noting that children and young people would sometimes hang on to them for short trips. Running boards were done away with as newer cars were designed with more streamlining.
Then one day, a fellow named George Hawkins decided to build a garage attached directly to his house. He persuaded developers to push 10 1/2 Street through to his driveway. More of that was to follow.
Ms. Johnston's chapter is a great read. She does not, however, discuss observations such as that motorized transportation use is strongly positively correlated with incomes, and that accordingly the adoption of automobiles had much to do with rising incomes and living standards. However her writings do give insight as to how much trouble people were willing to put up with in those early days towards operating an automobile. In fact one could make the observation that the hassles our ancestors faced in operating motorized transportation were merely a tradeoff and may have been less than the hassles they faced in the upkeep of horses and wagons. Her work also shows that the people of that era created an entire operating infrastructure for automobiles within a manner of a few decades, something that should put to sleep any worries about the future of having to arrange a new infrastructure to support ethanol fuels from cellulose (ethanol absorbs water), or having to produce electricity from hundreds or thousands of square miles of solar panels or wind turbines. When it makes economic sense to do so, then those innovations will come.
As anyone who has been following the news in America over the past year, two of the biggest news stories have been turbulence in housing markets across the land, and what is the the story with petroleum prices. Tory wrote a blog entry back in August 2007 which raised questions on housing and commuting costs in American cities. In turn, his blog post linked to a story carried in Forbes about housing and commuting costs throughout the land. Naturally, much was made about commuting in Houston eating up a substantial part of our household budgets around here.
The Wizard has never put too much stock in such debates, indeed your learned commentator did not even bother to reply to Tory's post. Nor does yours truly think very highly of those who rage about transportation costs incurred from automobile use. And why, pray tell, is that? Let's just pay a visit to a very helpful and insightful website which reveals much: The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics web page which describes household consumer spending over the past 100 years.
Before going any further, we should remind ourselves that the figures from 100 years ago on household consumption are - well - just that. They are 100 years old. Governments of course have been collecting information on their respective populaces for a very long time. Still, there are as always the quality of that information, but the BLS does state that their statistical information on household expenditures for residents in Boston and New York City are amongst the oldest pieces of information that they have been continuously collecting and are of considerable interest when thinking of such issues.
So what does the Wizard believe are the observations of greatest import when it comes to household expenditures since 1900?
1) Rising incomes. American household incomes have gone up 10 fold or more since 1900. Budget constraints have been pushed outwards to astronomical levels. One very famous economist strongly believed - even during the depths of the Depression - that this massive accumulation of human wealth would continue. Regardless of what else you may think of him, on this issue he was absolutely correct.
2) Reduction in family size. The mean size of an American household was 5 people in 1900, whereas it was 2.6 people in 2000. The ramifications of the drop in the size of households cannot be underestimated. In 1901, the BLS says that American households spent some 42 percent of their household budgets on food, but 22 percent on housing (29 percent in Boston).
But reduction in household size also rolls over into housing markets. In the short run, the social demand curve for housing is very inelastic. And why is that? The reason is that very few people are willing to sleep outdoors or in their cars at night. In Houston, there are an estimated 10,000 homeless people out of an urban area of some 4 million people. When I read urban economics with Barton Smith, we discussed the issue of budget constraints one day and he said that poor people are often willing to part with 50 percent (or even more) of their incomes on making sure there is a roof over their heads. They are willing to double up if necessary, to move back in with family, or give up other consumer goods in order to make sure they do not have to face the elements.
Thus, reduction in household size allows for much greater monies for other goods, resulting in some very interesting changes in individual and household indifference curves. One thing I am very confident I can say is that housing is a normal good, as is spending on transportation.
My observations find confirmation if one studies BLS data on household spending for housing and transportation over time. The 1934-1936 data is the first time the BLS displays data for transportation expenditures. The U.S. household percentage was 8.3 percent, while the Boston and New York figures were 5.1 and 5.7 percent. The 1960-1961 data show that U.S. household expenditures for transportation were 14.7 percent, while New York households spent 10.7 percent and Bostonians spent 13.5 percent. The 1984-1985 data show that transportation spending was 19.6 percent, 15.8 percent for New York and 19.3 percent for Boston. The 2002-2003 transportation figures were 19.1 percent for the U.S., 15.4 percent for New York and 17.3 percent for Boston.
The food budget fell from 42 percent in 1901 to 33-36 percent in 1936, then to 24-28 percent in 1960-61, 12-16 percent by 1984-85. Food budgets have stayed at 13 percent since then.
Housing expenditures rose from 23 percent in 1901 (29 percent in Boston) to 32-35 percent by 1934-1936. They stayed at 30 percent in the 1960-61 and 1984-85 periods. They rose however by 2002-03 32 percent across the U.S, and 36-37 percent in Boston and New York.
So what can we say about all of this, besides the fact that housing and transportation are normal goods? It can be pointed out that food production has increased dramatically with modern agricultural methods. Some have pointed out that fossil fuels have much to do with this in terms of providing fertilizer, pesticides, and farm machinery fuel, but one has to wonder whether there are substitutes for these? Can genetic manipulation of crops provide even greater crop yields? The Wizard is watching the work of one man in particular to see what holds in store for the future, not only for agriculture production, but for future liquid fuel production and a lot of other items as well.
But I digress. Clearly household budgeting for food would fall with the decline of family size regardless of any other factors. Also, it does help to remember that not only was food a bigger part of family budgets 100 years ago, but to reiterate that family incomes themselves were lower! Even if our children were to see an era of rising food prices due to an alleged decline in the amount of fossil fuels or phosphorus available (and an implied decline in agricultural productivity), is that not to mean that we cannot put land back into agricultural use?
I ask questions like this because what all of this shows is that there are a number of issues that those who see nothing but doom and gloom for man's future seem to not consider. We do not know what future incomes (and hence household budget constraints) will be; we do not know what technological improvements will happen, nor do we know exactly how fast they will happen (and they may happen very quickly!); we do not know what percentages of household budgets people in the future will be willing to allocate towards various desires.
Are you just dying to see the world's stock of petroleum to run low so that people will stop driving gasoline powered cars, knowing that electric cars are more expensive? Did you ever think that the automobile manufacturers might consider allowing people to carry an 8 year car note instead of 5 years? Did you ever think that Americans might consider downsizing their average house sizes from 2,300 square feet to 1,700 square feet, and perhaps cutting down the size of their house notes 25 percent in the process? If doing so results in a drop in the amount they are carrying on their mortgage by $50,000, that would result in a drop of $300 per month every month for 30 years, if a mortgage is carried at six percent interest. And what will people do with that extra $300 per month? They just might spend it carrying a note on a $35,000 flex fuel car which might be powered up during their work day by an electrical outlet that is provided by their employer's parking lot, but we don't know that do we?
And that is the reason why the Wizard did not put much effort to get worked up about the Forbes article, nor do I worry about such things as how much of American household budgets go towards transportation costs, food costs, or any of the other things that work other people who really have nothing else to worry about into a lather. I am concerned about whether people try to make certain household expenditures more expensive than they need be because of political or aesthetic preferences. People will make adjustments as they want or need to do so, but why force them to make tradeoff decisions that they otherwise might not need to? I would have much more to be concerned about had suffered the genuine misfortune, like 80 percent of humanity, of having been born in a really poor country.
The Wizard has been an avid paying subscriber of The Economist, for nearly 15 years. In the previous week's edition, the world's greatest news magazine featured a story on how advances in power electronics are enabling ships in the 21st century to handle massive flows of current. They are also being complemented by improvements in electrical motors which are smaller, more powerful, and more versatile. Amazing changes on how our ocean vessels move about are taking place far from the minds of your average everday John and Jane Doe.
Amongst the story's exerpts:
Galley slaves pulled on oars; river-boat steam engines turned paddles; and nuclear reactors boiled water to drive turbines connected to propellers on aircraft carriers and submarines. What makes the experimental engine room in Leicestershire so special is that it leaves out the bit that usually links the engine and propeller. Instead of a propulsion shaft connecting the two, the all-electric drive being tested uses the ship's engines (turbine or diesel) to burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, which is then routed down thick cables to an electric motor that drives its propellers.
Almost a century ago, around the time of the emergence of modern ship propulsion, electric drives were seen as viable contenders to compete with the then-rising mechanical drives.
But these early examples were large and unwieldy, and the idea was abandoned.
Its recent rebirth has been almost as rapid as its fall, helped by two related developments: power electronics capable of handling huge flows of current, and smaller, more powerful electric motors. These advances have allowed shipbuilders to reduce the size and weight penalties associated with electric drives. They have also made possible the development of totally integrated power systems, which make energy fungible: instead of having one engine dedicated to driving the ship and another one devoted to generating shipboard power, electricity from multiple sources can simply be routed to wherever it is needed at the time.
And that is why advanced navies such as Britain's and America's are now among the most enthusiastic and earliest adopters of electric-drive ships. As warfare has become more digital, the demand for electricity on board warships has increased. Radar, computers and combat systems now account for as much as 30% of the fuel burned on modern warships. And the demand for power could be about to jump dramatically. Some navies are already testing rail guns, which use huge amounts of electricity to produce a magnetic field which then accelerates projectiles to many times the speed of sound.
Even more futuristic and power-hungry applications are within sight, such as “direct energy” weapons that zap enemy ships and “electric armour” that vaporises incoming missiles. With such demands for power, some of it only for a fraction of a second, warship designers are keen to have a single system doing all manner of things. Think of the Enterprise in “Star Trek”, where power is diverted to the shields, weapons or warp drive as needed. “We're going with electric drive because of warfighting need,” says Rear-Admiral Kevin McCoy of the American navy. “We are almost at the limits of technology and affordability in making improvements in mechanical drives.”
Although they are more expensive, bigger, heavier and in theory less efficient than mechanical drives, they use much less fuel. This is because the diesel engines and gas turbines commonly used to power ships are most efficient when buzzing away constantly at close to their maximum output. Throttle them back even a little, and the amount of energy obtained for each barrel of fuel burned falls sharply.
By some estimates, American navy ships spend 80% of their time travelling at half speed, which requires barely one-eighth of the power needed to propel a ship at top speed. But this requires them to burn almost as much fuel as they would when going much faster.
The savings can be huge. America's Congressional Research Service reckons that installing electric drives on naval ships can cut fuel use by 10-25%. The American navy, which already has a handful of electric-drive support ships, expects savings of close to 20% for future warships using the technology.
Perhaps surprisingly, many of these advantages also apply to cruise liners, which present designers with many of the same problems as warships.
Much of this power is used to keep passengers happy, running air conditioners during hot Caribbean days, for instance, and powering discos and cinemas in the evenings. Then, once all the passengers have gone to bed, the power can be routed down to the propellers for a high-speed dash to the next port.
Electrical propulsion is much more difficult. But some small experimental aircraft are already flying with electric motors driving their propellers. They are generally powered by high-discharge lithium-polymer batteries, which are also being used in some electric cars. Fuel cells are another option. Boeing is testing an electrically powered light aircraft which uses both batteries and a fuel cell as power sources.
Yet all these electrical aircraft are small and have limited range. What of larger aircraft? Retrofitting a large airliner with electric motors instead of engines would not be feasible because the power-to-weight ratio of an electric motor cannot compete with that of a jet engine, and storing and generating the energy needed for a long-haul flight would not be possible given the shape and size constraints of existing aircraft. But a “blended wing”—an aircraft in which the fuselage is a flat, tail-less structure resembling a giant wing—could provide huge efficiency gains and may form the basis of future airliners.
These propellers could be driven by superconducting motors, which can generate three times the torque of a conventional motor of the same weight and power input, according to a paper published in August in the journal Superconductor Science and Technology by Philippe Masson and his colleagues at Florida State University. American researchers are working on superconducting technology for maritime propulsion, which would leapfrog the British electric-drive system.
The World turns.
Oh my goodness! Even the Wizard didn't foresee this bolt from out of the blue cast by Tory. $1.8 billion for a 14 mile light rail line? $130 million per mile for light rail? Richmond and Wheeler costing $1.3 billion?
Just this past week I wrote about Metro's $3 billion limousine. Now, 30 miles at $130 million per mile is $3.9 billion. Add in the $520 million Main Street train and the $300 million Intermodal temple and you have a $4.7 billion limousine. I tried to show an argument that Metro could afford to field 500 buses on the road for a $3 billion limousine. Now the opportunity costs of the rail build out would mean we could probably operate 800 - 1,000 new buses everyday out on the road instead of 500. Instead, we have 18 rail cars on Main and Frank Wilson wants to buy another 100.
Folks, this is nothing short of a disaster! For American cities that were built in the age of the automobile, we need to completely reorient our public transportation tax dollars towards building up massive investment trusts for operations purposes - which would be inviolate and could not be touched by elected officials - and get them completely away from flashy transit monuments. Leave the massive capital spending for New York's subways and maybe Chicago. As described in my previous post, at a $4.7 billion we could acquire and operate 5 or more times as many additional buses out on the road as rail cars - indeed we could completely bury all of Metro's five rail lines with two times as many additional buses as rail cars - and still have some 400 or more new buses left over for the entire rest of the City. This would cut down wait times everywhere, give us a vastly more nimble transit system that would serve the entire city, rather than have a few dozen miles of trains going nowhere near where I need to go and a shriveled, truncated bus system which serves no other purpose other than to feed a greedy and rigid set of trains.
Friday, December 7, 2007, will be a day which will live in Houston Transit Infamy. Yes gentle readers, there will be even more Fireballs, Lightning Bolts, and Hell Storms yet to come.
Addendum edit - December 8, 2007: The news came across last week about the FTA's decision to require Metro to resubmit documentation and allow public comments on the North and Southeast alignments. I don't care if you are all for railroading the city and for violating the property rights of the home and business owners along the corridors by stuffing them into 500 yard radial condemnation zones which will surround all of the train stations. As a taxpayer, you should be thankful for the FTA's decision to do this.
And so it has come across the news that South America's latest Caudillo, Hugo Chavez, is not pleased with the Venezuelan constitution which he himself wrote and is putting up for vote revisions. All this to push along his so called 21st century socialism, which of course is no different from the socialisms of the 19th and 20th centuries that succeeded - as the Wizard personally knows - in keeping billions of people throughout the world in dire poverty. Some people just never learn.
Today's epistle is about a specific aspect of the latest Chavez bombasts and threats - threatening to kneecap America by cutting off oil shipments in the event that America tries to intervene. In short order, such a threat will not work and the Wizard will tell his gentle readers exactly why.
As Daniel Yergin explains in his master work on the world oil and gas industry, The Prize, in the 1980's petroleum started being traded on world oil markets. Not all oil is created equal, as some petroleum from some places has lots of gunk in it like sulfur, metals, and other content in it which makes it more difficult to refine into useable products than other petroleum. The petroleum from Venezuela tends to be of the less desireable kind.
But the fact that Venezuelan crude is less desireable than petrol from other places doesn't mean it is not desireable at all. Indeed that's the whole point. Say for just a moment that Chavez make good with his promise to cut off oil exports to the United States. He needs to remember that in order to carry out his
19th and 20th century 21st century socialism, he needs oil revenues. As such, the country's fields need to continue to produce. There are supply schedules to follow and those schedules need buyers.
Now then, Chavez could try to command that the country's oil be sold to China or India, presuming that there would be enough buyers to use it. However, what would buyers do once their hands are on it? That is the problem is Chavez's threat. Petroleum is fungible and there is nothing preventing others from turning around and simply selling it to the United States at prices which are set by world oil markets. Indeed that is what happened to a large degree in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Petroleum exports still eventually reached the U.S. through other countries, once the world's oil and gas industry figured out how to reconfigure the supply lines and shipping routes.
The real problem for America in 1973 was self created - namely that the Nixom Administration imposed price ceilings (price controls), which as every first year economics student learns, results in shortages in supply. Because prices were not allowed to rise, rationing had to occur somehow and that rationing came in the form of waiting in line for gasoline, with the entire country wasting time, money, and gasoline trying to get more gas.
And so gentle readers, Chavez's threat is little or nothing to worry about. If Chavez does not want to sell us oil, then some other corrupt government in some other heavily politicized (hence making it a disordered and disastrously run country) will.
So the other day, I found myself watching the local municipal channel and saw the hearings on the Metro board decision to railroad Richmond and Wheeler Avenues. This is part of the proposed 30.1 mile expansion of the current Main Street rail line, which itself cost $520 million and not the advertised $324 million (and of which Frank Wilson immediately asked for another $104 million to upgrade). The advertised price of the expansion is $2.2 billion, but other documentation I have in my possession (and of which I will write about below) states that another cost estimate will be $2.6 billion (including the estimated 300 million for the Northside Intermodal temple). Either way, for further purposes, I will go with the $3 billion for the 37.5 miles of rail since nearly all transportation infrastructure projects have cost overruns.
So what to make of all of this? The point of this article is to make some rough back of a napkin comparisons of what the opportunity costs of spending $3 billion on 37 miles of rail verses what could be done with that amount of money with alternative forms of public transportation. It is also to air my thoughts on this whole mess.
Addendum edit - December 8, 2007: Please read my updated entry on Metro's
$3 billion $4.7 billion limousine.
On August 8, 2007, the Examiner News, one of the Houston Community Newspapers, carried a story about a transportation solution that was implemented for the needy (one day access can be purchased to access the story) which are served by the Spring Branch Family Development Center of Houston and interviewed its director, a man by the name of Richardo Barnes. As it is, the SBFDC services immigrants studying English to improve themselves, single mothers and those who are otherwise struggling financially.
Mr. Barnes tells of how he has been on a crusade to get Harris County Metro to implement a series of bus routes to better serve the Spring Branch area. He correctly notes that the agency - scandalously in my view - does not run a regular bus route along Hillcroft, which turns into Voss road as it goes through Memorial, and into Spring Branch. Hence the agency does not even have a way to connect would be patrons from the heart of the Galleria to Spring Branch. It also does not have a direct route running along Chimney Rock, which turns into Wirt Road as it reaches Spring Branch. More to the point, Mr. Barnes believes that the Spring Branch area would better be served by a circulator route. I grew up in Spring Branch and cannot agree with him more. Instead, the agency makes sure that the routes in the area make it to the nearby transit center.
So what has Mr. Barnes done instead? Well, the Examiner article goes on to say that his Center received an anonymous donation of $60,000 to purchase a bus from Texas Bus Sales. Said Barnes,
The bus goes where people need to go and the schedule is made up based on their needs. "Sometimes they have to compromise a bit," he said. "If several people need to go grocery shopping, we ask that they go at the same time."
Barnes illustrates what some of his clients are up against by pointing out that a woman who lives in an apartment near Interstate 10 and Gessner must take three Metro buses in order to bring her baby to the WIC clinic.
"The trip takes about three hours," he said. "Our bus can pick them up and have them here in 20 minutes."
Barnes went on to say that there are more than 250 people who have signed up for the bus service and that they pay $10 per month. Their monthly fee barely pays for gas, however one might ask how much does it cost per month to maintain the bus?
The question of what to do here could use some reasonable framing. In Metro's National Transit Database profile for both 2004 and 2005, the agency states that the 7.5 mile MetroRail line costs $14 million per year to operate. This is more or less in line with the annual operating costs of other rail lines, which often take about 2-5 percent per annum of original capital costs to operate. Or, I should say that they do in their early years, until it comes time to do major maintenance of switchgear, signaling, wear out on rail cars, and so on. Still, a reasonable estimate will be that in its early years of operation, the 37.5 miles of trains will cost some $60-70 million - give or take some millions - per year to operate. Bear in mind that the agency has been stating that the ticket revenues for the train have been less than $2 million per year. This matters because that implies the agency has not been even coming close to collecting the annual operating expenses needed to operate the Main Street train, much less having those same passengers pay for the capital costs of building the train. This in turn leaves open the long run specter of the agency having to break its 2003 Metro Solutions bond election promise that it would not have to raise taxes in order to implement its plans. However, what rail fans are counting on is that once the rail tracks are in place, there will be - how shall I say - facts on the ground, which will force matters in the future and for which people will say that we have sunk those costs, we can't just tear them up now!
Moving onwards. The same NTD profiles state that for Metro to operate its 1,000 buses (the agency has over 1,400 buses in its fleet, 20% plus of which are spares), cost $263 million in 2005. This implies that the annual cost per year to operate a bus is some $250,000. This might seem outrageous, but maybe not. If you pay a bus driver $50,000 - $60,000 total compensation (wages, benefits, health care, 401k) per annum, that it would take 2 bus drivers to operate a bus for 18 hours per day, then thrown in fuel costs and maintenance, then that figure may well be accurate. I do have it on good word that "typical" buses operated by mass transit agencies get about 3.5 miles per gallon, bearing in mind that buses are the ultimate stop and go vehicles when operating in urban areas. Throw in the fuel costs have gone up about $1 per gallon since 2004-2005 and you are probably looking at another $20,000 per year (for $270,000), assuming that the bus runs 180 miles (10 mph for 18 hours) per day at 3.5 mpg.
Now then, believe it or not one of my biggest complaints against Metro as it has been run all these years has nothing to do with rail. It has to do with how it spends money on buses. The latest transit industry hybrid fuel buses cost $450,000 - $550,000. They do get some 20-30 percent better fuel economy, but that is absolutely absurd to think that this is a bargain when you can look at the Texas Bus Sales website and find used buses for as little as $4,500!
And where would you deploy such buses? This is another part of my complaint. Going back to the 2004 and 2005 NTD profiles for Metro, one will notice another metric. This one is the unlinked passenger trips per vehicle revenue mile metric. For the year 2005, one notices that Metro has 81.546 million unlinked trips for buses, while traveling 41.555 million miles. This equates to Metro buses carrying an average of 1.96 passengers per vehicle revenue mile traveled. That is statistical language for saying that Metro's buses run empty most of the time, something that should be obvious to anyone who spends time watching those buses go by. What makes the issue even more scandalous is to then view double attached buses run empty.
Moreover, even the 1.96 passengers per vehicle revenue mile is statistically skewed, probably with a very interesting kurtosis, by the fact that the agency does have a number of very productive bus routes, such as the #82 and #53, both of which operate on Westheimer and which I often see with nearly full buses everyday since I live right off of Westheimer. The #2 Bellaire is another route which gets good boardings. This anecdotal evidence should leave little room for doubt that a handful of very productive routes achieve much higher passenger per vehicle revenue mile metrics.
I also should bring up the Main Street rail line here, while on the passengers per vehicle revenue mile metric. One might notice that the Main Street train achieves much higher (about 14) passengers per vehicle revenue miles than does the bus fleet. Bearing in mind what was said about the bus fleet above, one also has to remember that the Main Street train was placed on the corridor which had the heaviest concentration of buses and boardings patronage. As far as I can tell, there were some 25,000 - 30,000 boardings along the Main Street corridor (some argue much differently) before the train was implemented. It would therefore make sense that the train would get high levels of passengers per vehicle revenue mile because the agency already knew that the Main Street corridor represented its highest and best corridor for ridership. In other words, the agency picked off its lowest hanging fruit. Now, in wanting to build out trains to other corridors, it will be spending vast sums of capital on successively lower performing routes, including the #50 Harrisburg whose entire route achieves a mere 4,500 boardings per day and which has few other routes around it which can be truncated towards it. I should state here that some people I know who live or work along the corridors have tried spending entire days counting the number of people on bus routes and have told me that these numbers are full of - well, you know what.
What would make vastly more sense for agency bus operations would be for Metro to actually match bus vehicles to the demand curve for its services. Small cheap buses could be deployed on vast majority of routes which have fewer than 5,000 boardings per day. According to my spreadsheet, only 17 of Metro's 133 bus routes (including shuttles and local routes) achieved an average of more than 5,000 boardings per day in FY 2006, the year of Metro's highest ever ridership. Such vehicles would most certainly get much better fuel economy than the massive buses that the agency operates today, indeed my research into the matter indicates that many of these vehicles can get 12 or so miles per gallon. The agency should continue to operate the current bus fleet on its routes of heaviest patronage and in fact could consider the idea of operating double decker buses on its heaviest routes such as Westheimer. However, as we shall see, even that idea might not even be needed if I were in charge.
So let us circle back to the question of what the opportunity costs are of spending $3 billion on rail, along with an estimated $60-$70 million per year on basic maintenance. An alternate idea of what we are looking at looks something like this. The agency could otherwise (but cannot as we will see below) purchase 500 buses and add them to the existing bus fleet. Of these, 70 (or 14 percent) could be used to augment the existing buses that are on Metro's bus routes of more than 5,000 riders, giving them four more buses running on them. The other 430 could be used on all other routes. The 70 buses on Metro's heaviest routes could be similar to those running already, costing the above mentioned $450,000 apiece. The other 430 could be from a company like Texas Bus Sales or other fleet vendor and could purchased at a cost of $60,000 each. This would result in a capital outlay of a paltry $60 million.
So what to do with the other $2.94 billion? One idea would be to take that sum of money and have Metro invest in 30 year U.S.Treasury bonds, which are currently yielding 4.6%. Investing $2.94 billion at 4.6 percent would yield $135.2 million per year, which could be employed for bus operations. The agency collects a mere $50 million from bus fares. If improved bus services were to yield a mere $15 million in additional bus fares, that would bring us up to $150 million for bus operations. Since we have estimated that bus operations are some $250,000 per bus per year (and which we could bump up to $300,000 per year), then we should be able to sustain the estimated extra 500 vehicles on the road.
So what could we do with those extra 500 vehicles? One of my favorite pet peeves is what happened to the #18 Kirby route. The #18 Kirby is one of the casualties of the hugely expensive rail centric transit system. The #18 used to get some 1,500 boardings per day in the late 1990's, but that figure dropped to the current 1,000 boardings per day after the frequency of bus service was sliced in half when Shirley Delibero burned through Metro's cash horde to build the Main Street rail line. All routes could get more frequent service, cutting down some of those horrific wait times that people have to suffer through. Many routes now have bus service that runs every 45-60 minutes during off peak hours. Entirely new routes could be devised, including ones which run from the Galleria along Voss and Chimney Rock to Spring Branch. Mr. Barnes would get his circulator routes with very little fuss, but he won't get a thing anytime soon by dumping all that money to run rail down streets like Wheeler, a street which Metro, in its entire history, has never had a bus route run down. Having never, in its entire history, run a crosstown bus which connects the University of Houston and TSU directly to Westheimer, West Alabama, or to Richmond, the agency and rail fans now politically demand that a $800 million train be laid down which does this. The agency loudly proclaims that college students are a big market of users for public transportation. If that is the case, then why has the agency never bothered to run a bus route directly across town before?
Are you worried that the world is about to run out of oil soon? Great! With $3 billion on hand, why doesn't the agency go out on a limb and ask the Tesla Roadster folks to manufacture 24 seats buses which run on lithium ion electric batteries? Surely they could do such a thing for less than $500,000 per vehicle? We may have cellulose ethanol available to us soon anyway, but if you are someone who believes that civilization is about to come crashing down because we are exhausting economical oil supplies (and for which you believe that there are absolutely no substitutes), then you might want to ask yourself why are we spending billions of dollars to run light rail to airports of all places?
Other benefits of a bus based public transportation scheme would include not having to tear up streets and roads along the corridors, which have deeply upset those who live along them. Residents who happen to live within a 1,500 feet radial of a proposed train stop would not find the deeds to their homes under the shadow of future condemnation because of their proximity to a Metro train stop. Metro may or may not condemn their property, but one needs to remember that Metro is not the only player in this game. Metro has formed a public private partnership with Washington Group International and I have some very good intelligence that WGI has made some - how shall I say - very interesting proposals to Metro regarding what might go on around the Intermodal Transit temple and around train stations. Without going into too much detail, there is a very strong argument to be made that this entire project has absolutely nothing to do with transportation, but does in fact have quite a bit to do with the politicizing of land use via real estate redevelopment. The building of rail lines represents, from the view of the economist in me, a massive concentration of capital along narrow strips of territory. The only way in which one can justify doing something like that would be because there already is a massive concentration of other capital directly in the area.
But I digress. What would ridership have been like with all these extra vehicles on the road? That is a good question. Metro achieved 68 million boardings in 1982. The agency achieved 82 million boardings in 1990 and 101 million in the year 2000. This steady increase of ridership over time was snapped after the light rail line was built. The latest 2007 figures show Metro with 97-98 million boardings even after 500,000 residents have been added to the county population.
It is quite likely, in contrast, that given population increases that the agency would have continued to slowly but steadily improve boardings. As things are, the agency is projecting to have some 120 million boardings after rail is built, but spending a whopping $3 billion to get a mere extra 60,000 net boardings per day (about 3 freeway lanes of passengers in SOV vehicles) is quite a feat. Indeed it is conceivable, based on past trends, that the agency could have achieved 115-120 million boardings by now without ever having spent a dime on rail.
The reason for the relatively paltry 20 percent gain in overall boardings for having spent this kind of money is because of what I wrote about above concerning the fact that Metro is not even collecting operating costs of the rail line, much less capital costs. Since the operational costs of the new rail lines will not be covered, that will force another truncation of bus routes towards the trains, cutting bus service to the wider area. My back of the napkin calculations are that Metro will have to cut back bus service by some $50 million in operational monies per year, which makes me think that about 20 percent of current bus service will be slashed after the trains are built. One also might think that Metro promised in the 2003 Metro Solutions ballot that it would improve bus service by 50 percent, but Metro stated a while back that there was no demand for an increase in bus service. That in turn makes one wonder why it was that the agency made such a promise and how is it exactly that the agency "knows" that the demand curve for extra bus service has been saturated? Read further down for what I say about politlcal markets and real world markets.
I have a story to tell about Metro telling the public that there is no demand for more bus service. Metro used to run a bus route, the #54 Aldine - Hollyvale Circulator. As one can notice from reading my boardings spreadsheet, the Aldine-Hollyvale route used to take in nearly 1,000 passengers at its peak in 2000. However, the Aldine-Hollyvale was one of the victims of Metro's cuts in bus service. Boardings went down in the early part of this decade, reaching a low of 510-690 patrons per day in its last months of operation in 2004 - 2005. In December 2004 (as part of its service improvements), Metro announced that the route would need to achieve an average of 855 boardings per day in order to justify continuing running the bus route - and I still have the publicly issued pamphlet in my possession to prove it. What the agency did not tell the public was that the route once upon a time actually was getting that kind of patronage! So in effect, the agency, having doomed the route to "fail" to begin with by cutting frequency of bus service, self justified its decision to shut the route down because of its supposed lack of success in drawing patrons and because of high operational costs.
Unfortunately, since we are going to a rail centric network, Mr. Barnes still won't get his routes even after we have spent $3 billion on rail transit, and we should investigate why that is so. The big problem with having the federal government diversion of the 2.8 cents per gallon gasoline tax diverted to transit is that because the way that the rules are written, the New Starts grant money can only be used for capital expenditures. Federal money is not to be used to operations expenses. Moreover, only public transit agencies are eligible for the start up grants. This in turn creates the following, warped incentives:
1) Local governments all over America had huge incentives to buy out any privately operated transit companies which still might have been around in the 1960's and 1970's. In their place, government transit agencies would be created and chartered, if for no other reason than to be eligible to get in line for federal handouts for transit. Who cares whether anyone bothered to take public transportation? What really mattered (and still matters) is that local interest groups get the grant money.
2) Since Congress has geared FTA programs towards capital expenditures, essentially the rules say that "we will give you big capital grants, but its up to you to come up with operating funds." This state of affairs completely warps the incentives facing local political elites,transit agencies, and transit supporters. The game is tilted towards spending huge sums of money on expensive rail lines which may cost dozens of times more money to build, but don't cost quite as much to operate. That in turn creates a ripple effect because very few transit agencies cover their operating expenses. That means that bus service usually is cut and reconfigured towards rail lines since doing anything else makes absolutely no sense at all.
I should say, in the light of what was said regarding Stephen Kleinberg's most recent transit survey, that there is a very big difference between political markets and real world markets. Someone participating in a real world market must come up with ideas that will pay their way on their own merits, otherwise, they are forced to exit the field. That, gentle readers, is a good thing. On the other hand, in political markets, ideas only have to win 50% plus one voter and the idea wins, regardless of what the conseqences are and regardless of whether the idea actually succeeds in doing what people think it will actually do.
If the current Main Street rail line were built in a real world market by a private operator, a good idea of what the train would take to be built would look something like this. Since the train cost $520 million and is costing $14 million per year to operate, the estimated annual carrying costs of capital (at 5% interest) would be $26 million. Add $14 million in operating expenses and you get $40 million per year. A private operator would probably have to pay off a loan at 2-3% per year, so the private train operator would need to collect some $50 million per year (if not more) for the idea to be viable in real world markets. Since the train had 11 million riders in 2007, that would equate to a private operator needing to charge about $5 per person per boarding (Metro would need to charge about $6 per boarding to fully pay its own way in the world instead of $1). Very few would be willing to pay that price to ride the train, ergo that is why you do not see rail being built by the private sector. But what you do see is the Houston Chronicle and rail fans in the political markets cheering on rail building while saying that "there is no demand for the increase in bus service".
One issue hanging out over the horizon concerns the 25 percent general mobility monies that Metro pays out to its constituent municipalities for road building and other transportation projects. This arrangement is set to expire in 2014. In theory, the agency could devote all of the money to improving bus service as promised which could fulfill the 50 percent bus service improvement aspect of the 2003 bond election vote, but that is contingent on the idea that the member cities and Harris County are going to actually come to an agreement that the current arrangement will end. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not a done deal. That issue also cropped up in Metro's Westpark rail line DEIS, as well as the FEIS's for the North and Southeast Corridors. In those documents, Metro claimed to the FTA and to the public that it would have $8 billion in cash on hand in the year 2030. Now let me tell you gentle readers something about myself and that is that I have read an awful lot about politics. If there is one thing I know, that is that no politician or group of politicians are going to let $8 billion in cash pile up without spending it. I do not know what will happen, but that money will be spent somewhere. So why did the agency make such a claim? Let just say that we already have covered that. It's because there are all of those all important federal grants to chase after and who gives a damn about what the consequences of that really are.
So we could have (or could have had) one of two things. We could have $3 billion in rail lines, with about 20-25 percent of the entire year 2000 bus system service cut and truncated. That would have offset any (if there were or are any) benefits which might have been gained from rail. Or were could have added 500 bus vehicles to the year 2000 fleet which was already in existence, which could be deployed anywhere - including some for Spring Branch which would help Mr. Barnes and those disadvantaged souls at the Spring Branch Family Development Center.
More Fireballs, Lightning Bolts, and Hell Storms to follow.
One thing that I've kept promising myself about over and over again, but never actually do, is write more book reviews. One of my ambitions in starting this site was to write lots of book reviews instead of posting them to Amazon or elsewhere. I do get plenty of views for my Karen Armstrong book reviews (which I will be transferring to my blog page), so there are people out there who are interested in such things.
This review is of course about the book Sprawl: a Compact History, by University of Chicago historian and Architecture professor Robert Bruegmann. I actually was loaned a copy of this book from a fellow activist, which saved me the immediate trouble of ordering my own copy. I still think I will get around to purchasing a copy sometime soon.
I've certainly gone through my share of academic tomes over the years. Bruegmann's book clocks in at 230 pages, along with 50 pages of footnotes and reference pages. For an academic publication, Sprawl is a fairly easy read, with no dense calculus equations, a mere 10 graphs and 23 images of various cities and urban layouts, along with replications of various plans of cities and models. The book is simply laid out, with three parts. The first describes sprawl from a historical perspective and looks into ideas as to why sprawl takes place. The second part covers the various anti-sprawl political campaigns which have occurred over the past century. Last, Bruegmann looks a prescriptions and remedies for the alleged problems.
Amongst items I noted were the following:
1) Early in chapter 1, Bruegmann notes that there is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes sprawl. His footnote on the topic is over a page long. In the footnote, Bruegmann argues that "it has been the non measurable, especially aesthetic aspects of sprawl that have constituted the emotional heart of the debate on the subject."
The term sprawl has a negative connotation, much like the terms elitism or conspicuous consumption, but what's funny is that the target of that negativism has been rather ephemeral. An implied undercurrent is that sprawl is caused by other people and that it results from the poor choices by which others have decided to live their lives.
My comment: The definition issue should be of no surprise since we are largely talking about the study of social sciences and of urban settings. The entire field of urban studies is rife with definition problems, which often contribute to spill over problems such as having to control for data comparisons and mismatches. In case you want to debate the point, try determining what the population of the Houston metropolitan area is. Do you want to determine the population of the City of Houston, Harris County, the SMSA, the PMSA, or the H-GAC metropolitan area? Bruegmann notes that frequently when the urban population spreads outward, it triggers the addition of a new county to the metropolitan area by the U.S. Census Bureau. Metropolitan density may appear to plummet simply because of the addition of the new county, no matter whether the density of the actual urbanized portion of the area was rising and falling.
Since we don't have a firm definition of what exactly sprawl is, then anti-sprawl campaigners find themselves falling back on the old saw that I know it when I see it.
2) Bruegmann says that many of the things that anti-sprawl campaigners fear is based upon outdated data or evidence. For example, there is a pervasive fear amongst some that sprawl is accelerating and spiraling out of control. Bruegmann shows where the rate of new sprawl in most metropolitan areas is actually slowing down and that many cities are slowly growing denser. That statement is in fact true for Houston.
Bruegmann states that lot sizes reached their peak in the 1950's and 1960's, while houses built on newer lots since then have been getting larger. He says that quite a bit of newer development at the edge of urban areas consists of row housing and apartments.
3) Bruegmann writes that distant "exurban" sprawl, what could be described as very low density development in rural areas past the urban periphery, has been accelerating. This is mostly because the parcels of land are very large and there are more people (often very wealthy) moving out to those areas who still want to be within striking range of towns and cities to access their amenities. At the same time, we have seen the creation of affluent, distant work areas far away from cities where people make very long commutes to get to them.
4) If you are a James Howard Kunstler fan, it may be of interest to you (I already knew this) that the large cities of the ancient world, such as Rome, had population densities of 150,000 people or more per square mile. It's possible to imagine that Mr. Kunstler, who lives in a town whose density is less than 1,000 people per square mile, would be thrilled to live in such a city.
5) The first sprawl in ancient cities and those of the Middle Ages was due to activities which were performed that were often objectionable within the city walls, such as smoke arising from metal working or burial of the dead. Bruegmann correctly notes that historical cities faced the crushing economic burden of building and maintaining walls around their perimeters. As Barton Smith told us in class one day, there were economies of scale in defense, so sprawling outside of city walls was a problematic issue in a world where your enemies could come from out of nowhere. Suburbanites of the ancient world lived outside the walls of cities because they could not afford to live in them. They gave up access to services and protection of the walls in return for living in tiny hovels near roads. Meanwhile the extremely wealthy of the ancient world lived in extravagant villas near the seaside or other desirable country areas.
Intriguingly, Bruegmann notes that London was the first modern city in the sense that it abetted sprawl because for many decades it was the only city in Europe which did not have a wall around its perimeter.
6) Bruegmann says that many of the wealthy in today's American cities live in areas which were already inhabited by wealthy people at the turn of the 20th century. Unlike other places in urban settings where neighborhoods may rise, fall, and perhaps redevelop and rise again, wealthy areas stay wealthy.
7) Bruegmann describes the massive sprawl away from urban cores which happened all over Europe and America in the early decades of the 20th century. Until that time, it was the rich who had moved out of urban cores. Now the masses were rich enough to follow them. The availability of public transportation was augmented by the automobile. Curbs, gutters, sewers, street lights and electricity, which we take for granted today, were all installed and completed in this era. Contrary to the belief that it was people moving outwards, it was often the case that jobs in factories and manufacturing that moved outwards first, then families followed the jobs. This in turn left lots of cheap, empty space behind in city cores which later on were often used by new residents or enterprises that in turn helped to revive the cores of some urban areas. (My note - this just goes to show how complicated cities really are).
8) While writing about the central cities of Europe and America, Bruegmann states that he thinks that an average of 10,000 people per square mile seems to be a threshold whereby very extensive use of public transportation takes place. The two cities in America that have higher densities than this are Chicago and New York (I think Bruegmann may be getting a bit sloppy here as San Francisco also has density above 10,000 per square mile). Even then, use of public transportation is mostly a strong force only for transportation into central business districts. Or as Wendell Cox might put it, its all about downtown.
9) Tirades and battles against sprawl are often triggered in periods where there are large economic booms, such as in Europe and America during the 1920's, America in the 1950's, and in numerous places in the world during the 1990's. Those are times when the numbers of people with the means to move grow rapidly. Bruegmann writes that campaigns against sprawl often occur in the largest and fastest growing cities, which strangely enough are often much denser than smaller towns, cities, and villages. Brugemann notes that anti-sprawlers are much more active in Los Angeles than they are in Little Rock Arkansas or Lubbock Texas.
10) European cities have rapidly been approaching American and Canadian levels of automobile ownership and use, but I already knew that.
11) Bruegmann looks at the possible causes of sprawl. Anti-urban attitudes and racism are examined, but Bruegmann notes that minorities are just as likely to move to the suburbs as white people are if they have the money. As for "anti-urban attitudes", Bruegmann says that:
It is probably only possible to call Americans anti-urban if one accepts a specific set of assumptions about urbanity made by members of a small cultural elite. This group likes to think of urbanity as the kind of life lived by people in apartments in dense city centers that contain major high brow cultural institutions. In these dense centers, the believe, citizens are more tolerant and cosmopolitan because of their constant interaction with other citizens unlike themselves. Bruegmann goes on to say that most Americans, and increasingly people around the world, are rejecting or simply ignoring such ideas for an idealized city.
My note here - from my time of having spent 9 weeks in London, I can confidently say that having people live in dense areas does not make them any more tolerant or cosmopolitan than anyone living in low density areas.
Bruegmann writes about the idea that sprawl is "the inevitable unhappy result of laissez-faire capitalism." Bruegmann goes on to say that this assertion is a complete turn around of the thoughts of urban reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who believed that unregulated private real estate markets would inevitably lead to massively high densities. Benjamin Marsh, an advocate for the working poor, wailed that it would be logical for developers to crowd as many people into a single acre of apartment housing, as that would maximize their profits.
Bruegmann says of various government created causes of sprawl, such as tax deductions for home ownership, that other countries do (or do not) have such deductions as does America, but sprawl is still taking place. He correctly notes that the home owner tax deduction primarily benefits the rich and not those in the lower or middle class income brackets. Yet people with lower incomes buy homes anyway.
As for the "Americans do not choose to live in the suburbs because they would obviously choose a hip urban lifestyle over the dreary suburban life" argument, Bruegmann writes that this seems to point to an idea that greedy developers are in cabal with politicians to deny what people really want. Bruegmann notes that if developers were really to possess as much fiendish guile that is attributed to them, then they should be able to make as much money developing high density lots in cities as they do in the suburbs.
He also discusses the Who framed Roger Rabbit urban myth, where the demise of rail and streetcars was allegedly because General Motors supposedly bought up all the rail and streetcar lines to put them out of business. More to the point, Bruegmann notes (quite correctly) that motorized automobiles and trucks did not replace rail, trolleys, and street cars. What the automobile replaced were horse drawn wagons and carriages and it is important to note that the first automobiles were known as horseless carriages. It was buses that replaced rail and streetcars.
To get a visual look at this, I consulted my copy of Historic Photos of Houston by Betty Trapp Chapman. For the first 85 of the 216 pages of her book, there are very few photographs of automobiles or trucks. There are many photos showing groups of people who have neatly parked in front of buildings in their horse drawn wagons and carriages. There is a photo of a mule train of men and equipment moving along a road in South Texas going towards the oil fields. There is another photo, taken circa 1890, of volunteer firemen in a horse drawn service truck that looks to be about 40 feet long. When President William Howard Taft visited Houston in November 1909, he had a public procession where he was taken by horse drawn carriages and not in a street car. There are only 12 photographs with streetcars, including one where streetcars are jostling for road space with horse drawn carriages and pedestrians circa 1900 (it looks like the streetcar is going to hit a crowd of them!). In the next to last photo, there is a photo of a street car taken in September 1924 which has the caption, "Please step inside and look me over. I am one of your 15 new Houston street cars. I cost $13,000." That streetcar in 2006 dollars would cost $153,263. After the 1910's, there are no more photographs of horse drawn carriages or wagons.
12) The anti-sprawl campaigns: Bruegmann notes that aesthetic tastes of urban development amongst critics changes over time. When London continued to sprawl extensively in the early 20th century, architect critics at the time raged about the row housing that is a feature of London suburbs like Acton Town. They demanded that such development be stopped on grounds such as that Britain's farmland was being consumed. Fast forward to the turn of the 21st century and the spiritual descendants of those urban planners and critics rave these days about how wonderful those same suburbs are and that this is how developers should build cities because it economizes on space.
Bruegmann also says that the first anti-sprawl campaign in Britain witnessed the idea that building new roads filled up, ergo the argument of later anti-sprawlers "we can't build our way out of congestion" is actually far older than many assume it to be. As a side note, Julius Caesar banned wheeled vehicles from the streets of ancient Rome during daylight hours due to traffic congestion. No wonder when your city has population densities of over 150,000 people per square mile.
13) The anti-sprawl campaigns in the America of the 1950's came about, as noted above, because of the increases in affluence and population. William H. Whyte, he of the Organization Man fame, sponsored what was perhaps the first conference on sprawl and targeted Los Angeles as its epitome. Interestingly, Bruegmann says that Los Angeles has densified, but he says that the cost of transporting sufficient water to the L.A. metropolitan area has acted as a curb to more sprawl.
New arguments emerged, such as the costs of sprawl, social and environmental problems, arguments in the 1970's were advanced about the limits to growth, and attacks on the automobile became more and more shrill. Bruegmann states that the economic problems of the late 1970's such as stagflation, drove such concerns off the public agenda. However when Western advanced economies recovered and sprawl continued.
Bruegmann then goes on to list the latest wave of anti-sprawl complaints, which now include social concerns and equity problems, sustainability, and global warming. However the old aesthetic issues crop up again, which Bruegmann thinks is because societies have solved basic problems such as food production, shelter, water, and so forth. Since those problems have been solved, then people have time to - well - look for more issues to complain about.
The last part of Bruegmann's book covers various anti-sprawl remedies which have been attempted during these anti-sprawl campaigns, including a sharp analysis of the bizarre political marriage between Britain's Labour Party and the conservative aristocratic landowners of Britain which resulted in the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. He covers regional planning, environmental impact statements, anti-road building and highway crusades, and the case of the highly successful anti-sprawl efforts employed in building Moscow. I will leave it to the reader's imagination as to why it was that the Soviets were successful in curbing sprawl in the nation's capital. He also notes that the most recent anti-sprawl campaigns have now drawn a backlash in which there are now people who are willing to speak up for benefits that are produced by sprawl.
This has been a long entry, but it hope it provokes interested parties into reading the book and mulling over what Sprawl has to say.
And so it was that Houstonians woke up to the news that the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided that, at the added cost of, well who knows how much money, that the agency is going to aggrandize itself via building 30 more miles of light rail. I will do some analysis sometime within the next few days.
Of course the boys at 801 Texas Avenue cheered at the news, noting that 60,000 jobs were going to be created at its peak. This is almost certainly tacking on a zero onto the number of jobs that might be temporarily created. If 60,000 jobs are to be created and, say for argument's sake that each job pays (with benefits) $50,000 per year, then the labor costs alone for the project would run $3 billion. The numbers can be massaged around, but you should get the picture. It is notable that the Hearst boys were very careful in their editorial not to make claims that the project would do anything to alleviate traffic congestion.
But analysis about that are to come later this week. Today we are going to talk about one person who already has found employment with Metro, courtesy of current Metro President Frank Wilson. That man's name is one, Mr. Frank Russo. Details about Mr. Russo's current employment can be downloaded here. This is a Power Point presentation that is 3.1 mb in size.
Addendum edit: It has been pointed out to me that several of the pages in the contract are missing. That is because there were several pages in the contract which involved dealing with issues such as the fact that Mr. Russo was to follow federal laws not discriminating against race, creed, sex, ethnicity, and so forth in hiring subcontractors, if any were needed. There were other - what I would call generic clauses in the contract, such as that Mr. Russo was supposed to comply with other laws which I did not see worth posting.
Also, it was pointed out to me that the contract does not exactly point out the scope of duties that Mr. Russo was supposed to be performing. Curiously, the contract is quite vague about that very question and I find that I cannot answer that question.
At point, Mr. Wilson stipulated in the contract he awarded to Mr. Russo that he would make $1 million over the first two years of his employment with Metro, at a rate of $300 per hour. The contract was amended this past April, where Mr. Wilson bumped up Russo's pay by $10 per hour and increased the contract ceiling to $1.1 million. Mr. Russo's employment can be extended beyond the inital period, but we will not know on what terms. Metro has an option to help pay for automobile expenses. but we will not speculate about any possible kickbacks between the two men.
So what have Mr. Wilson and Mr. Russo done to earn such pay? Mr. Wilson and Mr. Russo have been together for a very long time, indeed Mr. Russo has been following Mr. Wilson around even before the people up in New Jersey salted them up before sending them down to Houston, much as Mr. Wilson's predecessor Shirley Delibero was before him.
The Frank and Frank show has not been the cleaner of operations, but their history together represents iron triangularism at its finest. While in New Jersey, Mr. Wilson was involved with two rail projects, the South Jersey Rail line and the Hudson Bergen rail line. The Hudson Bergen line currently is 8 miles long and carries about 30,000 boardings per day. The Hudson Bergen project went three times over budget and is carrying about half of its originally projected ridership.
However, that matter was much overshadowed by the events surrounding the South Jersey Rail line. It's a bit hard for me in far away Houston to suss out the details, but it seems that the genesis of the South Jersey rail line was that it was a politically demanded project in the sense that since the folks up in northern New Jersey got a rail line, then gosh darnit, we folks in southern New Jersey better have one too. Based on such political calculus, one might consider looking at the Metro Rail map and drawing your own conclusions.
What resulted with South Jersey
appears to have been was an absolute disaster. In fact the project is such a disaster that it is notable that the Wiki entry listing the light rail line riderships of various lines across America lists the South Jersey project at #22 in ridership. The South Jersey line's cost, originally thought to be $314 million, soared to $1 billion. The project was initially thought to have a miserly 9,000 boardings per day, but that figure was revised to a mere 5,900. Current ridership is claimed at 3,600 - 7,350 per day. A single, typical interstate freeway lane handles about 20,000 vehicles (including freight trucks) per day and more than 25,000+ passengers. Metro has 10 bus routes (cost per bus is about $300,000 - $400,000) which carry more passengers than that billion dollar line.
One week after Wilson pushed through approval of the South Jersey line, he resigned his post to take a job with Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, where he eventually became company president and secured at least $72 million on contracts with the line. As for Russo, he worked in a job created by Wilson in New Jersey, then went to work for Raytheon which did work on the South Jersey line. The entire South Jersey rail line project was such a disaster that the New Jersey State Assembly decided to start calling people to the mat.
In the time honored way of politics, when disaster strikes the best way a political figure can make sure they can continue visiting disasters on the public is to make sure they get as far away as they can from the site of where their previous disaster took place. Hence Mr. Wilson, tarred and feathered, got lucky and found himself a job in Houston where he doesn't ride the HOV canyon buses from his suburban home into downtown where he works (because like for 95-99 percent of the population, it isn't worth his time to do so), though some of my upper middle class co-workers - who would otherwise not be bothering taking public transportation - do, if only to avoid traffic jams. We will not talk about Wilson's taking $250,000 of travel, courtesy of BART in 1992, or his E-Z Pass disasters. As for Russo, in addition to his big money payday in Houston, he is taking his public private partnership schtick back to his old stomping grounds in California.
Sigh. My analysis of Metro's plans for light rail come later this week.
There is a lot in the news and the motor is firing up again. This epistle is about the delays in airline traffic and I have a brief comment on the Texas Transportation Institute 2007 mobility report.
There has been much talk in transportation circles about the TTI report, and in the interest of brevity, I will not say much here. Tim Lomax and company do say that, yes, building more roads does help with traffic congestion and we need to keep at it. Tom Bazan has written recently that 150,000 more vehicles were registered in Harris County last year than in 2005, so it is no surprise that traffic congestion has gotten worse. This mirrors part of what my public comment was to the 2035 plan. Additionally, heavy congestion is a sign of economic and social vitality in an urban area, so congestion isn't always a bad thing.
So, are you one of those who says that building more roads only induces ever more demand by current road users? Then try reading this article by Robert Cervero. Finally, I will state that traffic congestion is still not nearly as bad in Houston as it is in transit heavy Europe. Commute times in Europe vary by country with a mean of 38+ minutes. Note that the article I cited was 4 years old.
We've been bombarded recently by a spate of stories about how bad air traffic has become and what remedies are there for alleviating the problem. Gary Becker and Richard Posner write about their ideas here.
When I flew to China in 1991, air traffic congestion wasn't too bad. When I went on holiday in 2000, the situation was much worse. I flew into O'Hare and had to go into a holding pattern which nearly made me late for my flight to Tokyo, and flights to Tokyo don't happen every hour. I and another passenger were then spirited through Narita onto our connecting flight to Bangkok.
Casual or long time readers of my blog will probably know by now that any time The Wizard reads about matters like these, I find it always helps to view the matter through the lens of history. This morning I awoke to watch a program on the History Channel entitled Our Generation: Fly with Me.
The Fly with Me program was a great one to watch and here are some of my hand written notes I took while watching the program:
1) The first really large scale passenger aircraft was the DC-3. It was mentioned on the program that in 1955, a cross country flight from New York to Los Angeles taken on a DC-3 lasted all day and had to include three stops to refuel. The Wiki entry for the DC-3 confirms this, as it mentions that the range of the aircraft is 1,025 miles.
2) The cost in 1955 to fly across America on a DC-3 was $1,000. Translated into 2007 dollars, that same flight would cost $7,500. So not only was travel by air a bit slow by today's standards, it was also expensive. Now where has that matter been discussed before?
3) As it was, flying was something for the rich and was considered to be a romantic thing to do. Going to the airport and getting on a plane was a special occasion.
4) The subsequent roll out of the Boeing 707, the first aircraft of the jet age, changed everything. Not only could passengers get to their destinations in one third of the time, but jet aircraft introduced economies of scale in the number of passengers it carried. Whereas the DC-3 carried 21-32 passengers in a noisy propeller driven aircraft that could not fly above the weather, the 707 could (somewhat quietly) carry 110-200 passengers 35,000 feet up.
5) The 707 was not the end of reaping the economies of scale from jet aircraft. 15 years later, my favorite plane, the Boeing 747 took to the skies. The 747 can not only fly twice as far as the 707 could, it can also carry 2-4 times as many passengers.
6) In 1978, Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act, causing further drops in the costs of flying. Meanwhile, the standard of living in America has (more or less) doubled since 1950, allowing for more money to be spent on transportation and travel.
So what has all this meant for flying? I have flown with United Airlines since I worked in China because they offered me membership in their frequent flier program when I went over there. Just for kicks, I punched in a round trip ticket itinerary from JFK airport to LAX (New York to Los Angeles) for a 5-6 hour non-stop flight leaving on November 15, 2007 and returning on November 30. The response I got was that I could get a round trip ticket in economy class for $328, $302 if I used a nearby airport like La Guardia. Even first class flights could be had for $1,308. I am sure that if one looked hard enough, one could find cheaper flights.
As it is, these figures mean that flying by jet aircraft has dropped the cost of flying by roughly 80-95 percent since the DC-3 ruled the skies. Needless to say, flying by jet aircraft has democratized flying, just as the improvement of roads (and later rail transport) in Europe democratized travel. The number of passengers traveling by air in America has grown by 300% in the past 30 years. 80% of Americans have now traveled by aircraft and 50% have flown in the past 12 months. Then there is the issue of airport security and what it means for passenger inconvenience and delays.
Some of the supply has come online via private jets operating at smaller airports, especially for business executives or rich people who don't want the hassle of dealing with checking in at the big airports. The show mentioned that a typical private jet now runs some $40 million, but a company called Net Jets allows one to rent (or buy) into a private jet. Prices start at $412,000 and the program mentioned that a typical Gulf Jet ownership program will run you $2 million for 50 hours per year of flight time. Don't laugh. Net Jets operates 370,000 flights in 150 countries.
So what's the solution? Rail fans no doubt would dream of high speed train service, but realistically high speed rail can only compete with planes on a time basis over a distance of up to perhaps 600 miles once one considers the time differential of navigating the airports. Then there is the issue that capital costs of constructing high speed rail would probably average $30 million per mile and go up. Then, how do you navigate around in your destination city?
So should rail fans put their hopes in having the federal government fund a Los Angeles - San Francisco - Fresno high speed rail line, or perhaps one connecting Dallas - Fort Worth, Austin - San Antonio, and Houston? Well, let me put it to you this way: Each of those routes all connect destinations in only one state and if you are looking for the federal government to fund any big programs, you'd better make sure that the program in question benefits the entire country and not just one state! Get the message?
I had the opportunity, if I so desired, to take the Chunnel between London and Paris in January of this year. I opted for flying between Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle. When considering the time differential, it was only a one hour flight, but the train rides, navigating through customs, etc, made it a 4 hour trip. The chunnel trip would have probably come close in time terms, but the trip by air (and getting around in both cities) cost $90 less than by rail.
Any time I think of long distance travel by train, I think of Amtrak. One person I know who traveled by Amtrak wrote me a message a while back saying that Amtrak lost their luggage and did nothing to help them locate it!
My thought is that, considering the NIMBY'ism surrounding the building of new airports, we are going to have to continue with airport expansions for the near term future, along with better use of non - major airports. It's either that, or resort to using larger aircraft which can carry more passengers. Another idea might be implementing congestion pricing of flights at busy times at major airports. Bullying the airlines via legislation for their success in getting people to fly, but not increasing the supply of airport runways and terminals, is only going to drive up the price of flying because mandating the compensation of angry passengers who are forced to wait is going to force the airlines to raise their prices to come up with the money to do that.
Air travel will become more expensive in the future as petroleum prices rise, which may help alleviate the problem. It is difficult to fly aircraft using any other kind of fuel besides petroleum, although the Brazilians have made aircraft fly (albeit with major problems) with ethanol. However it remains to be seen whether or when alternatives to today's petroleum will become viable on an industrial scale. Some people are doing some really amazing and ambitious stuff finding a replacement for traditional petroleum as a liquid fuel.
I am going to stop now as this has been a long write. I may post more on this later.
A voice in the wind told me about this.
The accompanying Ride of the Valkyries background music is a priceless touch to what is otherwise a sad and pathetic video.
PS: Light rail is the most dangerous form of surface transportation on a per passenger mile basis.
I promised in my previous post that I would continue to write about transportation history, but I surfing the Internet led me to some stories about the London Tube system I could not pass up writing about. Having spent 9 weeks in London earlier this year, I have been following the London transit workers strike and public private partnership (PPP) meltdown of Metronet quite closely. As such, I found some very good stories and sites surrounding the London tube system:
1) This is a tremendous write up by City Journal on the meltdown on the Metronet PPP. This article should be required reading for anyone interested in transportation issues, especially here in Houston since Metro is entering a PPP type agreement with WGI.
2) This is a fairly new blogging website which is pro-rail transit, but they have some excellent links to stories about the Tube. They link to the City Journal story above. There is also this link which leads to #3.
3) This guy says the London Tube system has eaten up 12 billion pounds of subsidies ($24 billion) in the past five years. There are now over 1,400 managerial personnel on the payroll who make more than 50,000 pounds ($100,000) per year. Staff costs have gone up 52% in the past four years.
4) This is a story that appeared in this week's Economist.
Strikes are what you get when you have an urban area which decides to base its transportation strategy using a large public transportation component. The reason for this was made crystal clear when I was an undergraduate Economics student. For years I swallowed various sociological / social structure or political power type arguments about the role of labor unions in a society. My beliefs were all blown away with a single line which I read in my first year textbook. The author mentioned that the power which a labor union has is tied to the elasticity of demand for the labor that the labor union provides. The more inelastic the demand curve for the labor union's labor, the more power a labor union has for extracting economic rents for its members. That is why you see labor unions oppose the movement of money and capital for plants, free trade agreements and competition from non-unionized labor.
As for unions in transportation, all I can say is to repeat what the Economist says. A large component of the demand for travel in any urban area is inelastic, especially taking trips back and forth from home to work. Moreover, in cities like New York and London where a substantial percentage of the population take the subways to work and might be having a hard time affording a car due to housing costs or parking hassles, then you end up with a large segment of the population who are effectively held hostage to the whims of unionized transit workers and those transit workers know that. The union claims that they are merely worried about losing pensions and jobs, but as a practical matter they will get everything that they want because they are in a very strong position to make such demands precisely because the social decision has been made to rely on transit as a means of getting around. Those union workers have the power to make their problems a public problem and I am confident that those pensions will ultimately get backed up by the British taxpayer.
Social losses result from lost economic activity and from having a large workforce of transit workers who are commanding rents that result from wages which are above their levels of productivity. The $4.8 billion per year subsidy that the Tube is receiving works out to about $700 per person per year or $2,800 for a family of four. Throw in the fact that even a zone 1 and zone 2 Oyster Card monthly pass is 90 pounds and you have a real cost of about $2,800 per year for using a transit system which can only get you to a neighborhood in London that is within a 4-5 mile radius of the Strand. Tack on another $1,500 plus per year if you want to use the the Tube in its entirety. At costs like that, you are getting to the point where you might as well start thinking of buying a car, especially if you have a family.
A big question for many who live in London is what are the substitutes? As the Economist article mentioned, many stayed at home. A few were fortunate to be able to walk or bike their way around and they were fortunate this is still late summer. However such issues really beg one to ask whether British taxpayers are getting their monies worth when the people who are the recipients of their largesse won't even do their jobs without demanding even more tribute - and yes, tribute is the correct word to use here. Then there's the issue that this same union is - surprise - desperate to get the back the work that Metronet quit doing. So far TFL is the only bidder, which should not shock anyone and will end up giving the transportation union exactly what it wants. Several months ago, a portion of an old tunnel collapsed and as the City Journal article mentions, it would take an awful lot of guts for a private sector actor to take on the maintenance and upgrade of a 100 year old subway system with huge unknown defects and liabilities.
Sigh... I'm glad this is not my problem - yet.
In continuing with my previous post on Tim Blanning's account of the Europe of 300 years ago, I present two follow ups on what happened in Europe (and indeed the early American Republic) in transportation. The first involves looking at the rest of the lessons from improved road building and my next blog entry will look at Blanning's writings on the use of waterways in Europe.
As was intimated in the previous post, Blanning writes that it was the British and the French who worked hardest at improving road building. However, pouring large amounts of money into road building did not in of itself translate into a leap towards modernity, indeed the results between what happened in France and what happened in Britain could scarcely be different. Though the French monarchs of the Ancien Regime poured growing resources into road building in the 18th century, where those resources went was a bit uneven as were the results. The highways and arterial roads were greatly improved and this indeed sped up travel in France considerably. However lateral roads linking up provincial towns were still in dire condition, something that was noticed by none other than Adam Smith:
In France, however, the great post-roads, the roads which make the communication between the principal towns of the kingdom, are in general kept in good order, and in some provinces are even a good deal superior to the greater part of the turnpike roads of England. But what we call the cross-roads, that is, the far greater part of the roads in the country, are entirely neglected, and are in many places absolutely impassable for any heavy carriage. In some places it is even dangerous to travel on horseback, and mules are the only conveyances which can safely be trusted.
Adam Smith then went on to add something else that was a big problem in France with regards to road building:
The proud minister of an ostentatious court may frequently take pleasure in executing a work of splendour and magnificence, such as a great highway, which is frequently seen by the principal nobility, whose applauses not only flatter his vanity, but even contribute to support his interest at court. But to execute a great number of little works, in which nothing that can be done can make any great appearance, or excite the smallest degree of admiration in any traveller, and which, in short, have nothing to recommend them but their extreme utility, is a business which appears in every respect too mean and paltry to merit the attention of so great a magistrate. Under such an administration, therefore, such works are almost always entirely neglected.
Blanning goes on to write that the problem in France was that only a small proportion of the population could travel up and down the royal routes. Blanning writes that according to Pierre Goubert most of the population of France still lived in the conditions mentioned in my previous post - i.e. they were still living out their lives within a 5-10 mile radius of their places of birth, ergo their lives were still limited to that of the family, neighbors, the notary, the weekly farmers market and the seigneurial court. This meant that France continued to be fragmented in character, inhibiting the initial formation of an 18th century French national economy along with its vast advantages to entrepreneurs and businessmen of being able to reap economies of scale and scope through greatly expanded markets. That would not be accomplished until much later. In other words, the royal roads of the French Monarchy were not reaching the peasantry of France and they were the majority of the nation's people!
To be fair to the French, they were not the only ones which fell to the siren song of building roads mostly to please the courts of nobility, rather than to tie together cities and lesser towns. Blanning writes that the Spanish elites were also guilty of committing this sin, as were the Italians. And to reiterate, pursing this policy of road building for royal privilege rather than to integrate the nation resulted in fragmentation. According to John Lynch:
As natural produce, raw materials and manufactures could usually be transported only on the backs of mules and donkeys, the radius of any local economy was correspondingly short. For example, the price of wheat in Almeria was twice of what it was at Guadix, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. So the population followed the examples of the other coastal towns and imported grain from France, Italy or even Africa.
These issues (including the substantial price differentials in goods resulting from fragmented economies) were sidestepped in the United Kingdom. Of course helped immensely that the UK is a correspondingly small island, ergo the distances were not as great which was a big advantage in a world where travel was slow. It also helped that solutions from the national center were not trusted in Britain, ergo the solution of using turnpikes which were self funding. Moreover, they were also extended to towns and villages in the periphery, a fact that led to better and busier roads outside the main highways and arterials, which was noticed by contemporaries of the day.
It also helped businessmen, entrepreneurs, and travelers that the United Kingdom had a unified system of tariff structures, outside of those levied by the operators of turnpikes. When most people in the modern day world think of trade issues, they probably think of the some alleged exploitation of workers in the developing world, or of some disease or defects of products shipped in from other countries. It seems people seldom remember from history that the single biggest inhibition to trade were the seemingly endless number of levies which were slapped on travelers and merchants by an ongoing parade of officials - royal, provincial, and municipal, not to mention those laid by estates and monasteries! The Holy Roman Empire was particularly riddled with this problem, as was the Habsburg Monarchy. However France and Spain also suffered badly, even though they were nation states on paper. In fact both countries were a motley accumulation of territories which were acquired over hundreds of years. There was little movement for political reform on tariffs since so many were profiting from the system that was in place - and yes, much of that profiting was personal and was not going into public coffers. Stopping to pay the endless line of tariffs not only made trade and travel much more expensive, it also slowed trade and travel down. America's Founders noticed this and stipulated in the United States Constitution that the power to set tariffs was to be denied to the States without Congressional authority.
And last but not least, the improvement of European roads also helped alleviate to some degree one of the greatest horrors our ancestors faced - that of hunger and famine. Blanning writes that there is good evidence that Europe went through a cooling period that was particularly pronounced in the latter half of the 17th century. Mean temperatures were 0.9 - 1.5 Celsius cooler than they were from the 1920's - 1960's and that this cooling had a negative impact on agricultural production. Of course, agriculture was much different 300 years ago. Machinery did not exist. Cereals were a big part of the European diet and varieties were often not adapted to take maximum advantage of the soils.
For our ancestors, it wasn't a question of whether a crop failure and a year (or more) of dearth would come. It was a matter of when and it wasn't unusual for mortality rates to reach 20 percent when crop failures did strike. In two of his most unforgettable pages, Blanning describes in a hair raising narrative what would happen in a year where a crop failure struck. Still, the situation did start to improve during the 18th century and into the 19th. Some of the improvement came from improved governmental action made possible by the improved road and distribution system, while better farming and agricultural methods, not to mentioned improved weather all helped to cut down the length and severity of food shortages, though Europeans continued to be plagued by subsistence outbreaks. Widespread shortages occurred in France in 1741, the 1770's and most notably in 1788-1789 (which many believe was one of the factors which helped trigger the French Revolution), but it should be noted that many acute food shortages were local in scope!
Enough for now. Part three comes next week.
Based on the strength of some book reviews on web sites I normally visit, I headed down to a Borders Books near where I live and purchased The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648 - 1815, by Tim Blanning, a Professor of History at Cambridge University and a Fellow of the British Academy. Blanning's book is a tour de force of a wonderfully rich subject - what happened in Europe during the 170 years between the conclusion of the Treaty of Westphalia and Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. I am now about 100 pages into this book.
Of interest here is that Dr. Blanning starts off his book with a most curious topic - the amazing improvement in transportation and communications which occurred, particularly in Britain and France, during this period. Blanning also notes that in Eastern Europe, little changed in terms of infrastructure during this time. Blanning of course gives due to what happened when railroads were invented, but in his first 40 pages Blanning compares the difference of what transportation was like in the middle of the 17th century and what it was like 150 years later.
As a student of history, I knew that for most of mankind's history, transportation was slow and expensive for most and that not many people traveled more than 10 or so miles away from the homes they were born in during their own lifetimes unless something compelled them to. Nonetheless, Blanning's book drives home exactly how expensive it really was for our ancestors to travel and that travel was rarely faster than walking pace.
1) (If one desired to travel outside of one's own town - Wizard)
"Four or six draught animals were needed to pull a coach and they had to be changed every 6 to 12 miles, depending on the condition of the roads. In England it was calculated that one horse was needed for every mile of a journey on a well-maintained turnpike road. So, for the 185 miles from Manchester to London, 185 horses had to be kept stabled and fed to deal with the seventeen changes required by the stagecoaches which traveled the route. Those horses in turn required an army of coachmen, postillions, guards, grooms, ostlers and
stable-boys to keep them running. As a coach could carry no more than ten passengers, fares were correspondingly high and out of reach of the mass of the population. A journey from Augsburg to Innsbruck by stagecoach, although little more than 60 miles as the crow flies, would have cost an unskilled laborer more than a month's wages just for the fare."
2) "Almost everyhere the 'roads" were tracks, with no foundations or drainage and consequently deeply pitted by wheel-ruts."
'more like a retreat of wild beasts and reptiles, than the footsteps of man', in the view of an English observer writing in the early eighteenth century.... The roads of Europe were essentially those of the Roman Empire - after fourteen hundred years of neglect.
3) Blanning includes a table of travel times from London 1700-1800 in hours:
1700 1750 1800
Bath: 50 40 16
Edinburgh 256 150 60
Exeter 240 120 32
Manchester 90 65 33
4) Blanning talks about how forced labor from the farming peasantry was not an efficient method of infrastructure improvement. Instead...
"By that time, however, another method had been found. This was the 'turnpike', a word which originally designated just a barrier across a road to keep marauders out."
Blanning goes on to say that one of the beneficiaries of turnpikes were members of Parliament, who could now travel to London much more comfortably from their country homes - and proceed to pass more Acts of Parliament which created more turnpike roads!
5) Improvements in roads and road surfaces greatly dropped freight costs. To quote Blannning:
...but freight too could benefit. Much larger and more heavily laden wagons could pass along the improved roads: in the 1740's three-ton loads were permitted, by 1765 that had been doubled. The improved surfaces meant that fewer draught animals per ton were required. Writing in 1767, Henry Homer claimed that 'the carriage of grain, coal, merchandise, etc. is in general conducted with little more than half the number of horses a with which it formerly was.'
6) Writing in the middle of the 19th century, the German social historian Karl Biedermann estimated that travelling had been fourteen times more expensive two generations earlier!
7) Blanning wrote that the expansion of Europe's infrastructure also created a new class of society - the highwaymen - who would prey on hapless coach riders since cash was demanded up front in exchange for being permitted to use the turnpikes. Some wondered whether all this newly found mobility was worth the crime and congestion. London had streets choked full of coaches and wagons.
8) And perhaps my favorite excerpt:
"The turnpikes brought speed and mobility into a society previously characterized by their opposites. This was a culture-shock which many found upsetting - especially when the lower orders started to move out of their villages, on to the roads and into the towns, picking up insubordinate habits on the way. John Byng complained bitterly in 1781:
'I wish with all my heart that half the turnpike roads of the kingdom were plough'd up, which have imported London manners and depopulated the the country - I meet milkmaids on the roads, with the dress and looks of Strand mistresses, and must think that every line of Goldsmith's Deserted Village contains melancholy truths.'
The reference to Goldsmith's poem is revealing, for it is an elegy for a lost world of rural innocence and harmony, from which the forces of modernization have banished the inhabitants to urban anomie and vice."
300 years later, some people are still complaining that mankind's vastly increased mobility has resulted in the same urban ills. It seems that for some people, the more things change the more things stay the same. At the same time, one really does need to remember that one of the primary reasons why we build the cities we do today is because we can - due to the staggering drops of transportation costs in real terms. Otherwise we would still be living in huddled and cramped conditions.
I am percolating over what to say over the newly published H-GAC 2035 Regional Transportation Plan. I have written about 5 pages in my response so far, but I will not have enough time to write a full response to all of the topics covered in the program. Ergo, I will write about the topics which I consider to be of greatest interest. I hope to have a reply done by this weekend and get it in before the deadline. I do know that:
1) If the population projections are true (a big if), then we will probably have another 2 million or so vehicles on our roads by 2035 barring a catastrophic economic depression. Ergo, we will need more roads.
2) I will look at the decision making process by which members of a society make their mobility decisions.
3) The percentage of money which is devoted to transportation within the political economy of America is small and frequently ill focused, while needs are growing. At the same time, use of market mechanisms have seen some success but political mishaps have thrown wrenches into employment of the free market to help solve transportation puzzles.
4) The self correcting mechanisms to traffic congestion which arise because some move closer to work or because work moves closer to them do operate, but they have their limits. Hence the need for more road building.
A general idea would be to try to match the number of new lane miles to increases in vehicle miles traveled (VMT). In a tie in to point #3, part of the reason why we have seen increases in congestion is that we have seen improvements in gasoline mileage which has put both lowered the cost per mile of vehicle ownership and has lowered the amount of gasoline tax monies collected for transportation purposes.
5) Freight in Houston is set to become a big issue. The Bayport facility and expanded use of the Port of Houston have put these issues on the front burner.
6) Heavy investment in mass transit via light rail or BRT have and will result in social dead weight losses. Having put picked off the lowest hanging fruit via installing rail in the corridor with the heaviest patronage, we are set to spend several billion dollars of government transportation monies available to install BRT or light rail into corridors with much lower levels of utility.
I will also denote how rail shares aspects in common with transportation via car and roads that many people don't realize.
7) Some quick thoughts on mixed use real estate development.
8) Would it be of interest to create a regional board for pollution issues?
9) Finally, I will get really brave and take a stab at future transportation energy supplies and how we might adapt.
Victoria Gardens in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is typical of dozens of developments sprouting along the nation's light-rail lines and near subway stations: stores, theaters, restaurants, offices and housing connected by sidewalks to mimic a walkable urban neighborhood.
Just one thing is missing: transit.
There is no light rail or subway in Rancho Cucamonga, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. Victoria Gardens is typical of most Southern California developments: It's on one freeway and next to another.
Transit-oriented developments are so popular with residents who crave the opportunity to live in a walkable community that at least a dozen cities and suburbs across the USA are embracing the concept — even if they don't have rail.
"The market is changing much more quickly than our policymakers are responding," says Shelley Poticha, CEO of Reconnecting America, a national non-profit group that works to spur development around transit stops. "There is a real pent-up demand for transit all over the country, but these communities are getting built by the private sector."
Wizard: Actually, there is practically no pent up market demand for mass transit according to the latest American Community Survey. There is a pent up demand in political markets for mass transit. Always pay attention to what people actually do, not what they say.
Building housing near shops and restaurants is "very successful in and of itself," says Randall Lewis, executive vice president of Lewis Retail, an Upland, Calif., company that was one of Victoria Gardens' developers. "It's not transit that makes them successful. If you had transit, it would be the cherry on top of the whipped cream."
The funny thing about all of this is that much of this is happening in the suburbs. Also, do keep in mind that many such developments are built with tax breaks, TIRZ involvement, handouts and so forth.
You must know that many map collectors treasure 19th century maps of London. That is when the railroads were introduced and it was a period when you can see, literally decade by decade, the stretching and sprawling out of the City that the building of those railroads caused. True connoisseurs can tell you literally by year when new areas and neighborhoods were being developed. Sadly though, the 1800's are a little too early for my shop and I would say that maps from that era are not considered to be truly antique.
Were those the words of such august figures of urban affairs like Jane Jacobs, Robert Bruegmann, Randall O'Toole, or Smart Growth types like Andres Duany or ersatz sour heads like James Howard Kunstler? No gentle readers, those were (as best as I can remember) the words of a cultured and well educated antique map dealer named Tim Bryars who runs a shop called, appropriately enough, Tim Bryars Ltd, located in Cecil's Court, London.
I thought I would take the time out to write an epistle of true stories regarding my experiences and observations of London and southern England. I have spent over 2 out of my last six months in London on behalf of my company. Before this spat of visits, I also visited London in May 2002 for two weeks on holiday. I thought that I would share, in one fell swoop, a narrative of stories I have collected while I was over in the Imperial City.
I was over in London from April 6 - April 29. On my most recent trip I had trouble as usual with adjusting to jet lag, but after about 11 days or so I finally got into a rhythm and had no more sleeping problems. I made it a mission of mine to do something that 99 percent of tourists and short time visitors never do when they visit London. And what was that, gentle readers? Why go visit the suburbs of London of course! Yes sir, I made it a mission of mine to try to cover a decent swath of London during my time there. I managed to visit Camden Town, Islington, the Battersea Park area, Brixton (made famous by the Clash song), Notting Hill, Knightsbridge (where Harrods is located), Sloane Street, Mayfair, South Kensington, Chelsea, Pimlico, Belgravia, Highgate, Muswell Hill, the Richmond and Kew Gardens areas, as well as Hounslow, Acton Town (I have seen that Tube station, btw), and Ealing. I also took strolls around several major parks including Richmond Park (about twice as large as Memorial Park in Houston - you can see deer there), Regents Park, and Highgate Park. I would have to judge that London probably has more parkland than any other city in the world. Many tourists probably don't realize this, but London is loaded with golf courses in its outer suburban areas.
I should also state that in many of London's older areas with terraced housing, residents of particular squares will have a key and access to a private park that is encompassed by the square. They have this since of course the estates within 5 or so miles of the center of the city (nee the Strand or Houses of Parliament) are terraced housing which is part of a large building. They date from the 18th century onwards and do not have front or back yards the way that American house plots do. This tends to fade a bit as one gets to the outer suburbs like Richmond where one starts to see single family housing similar to what you see in American suburbs.
One thing that really burns me up about criticisms which the "Smart Growth" crowd fires at American suburban development is that America's suburbs are fully of cookie cutter "ticky tacky houses" that all look the same. Well I am going to take an opportunity here to launch a broadside counter attack at this piece of aesthetic snobbery on the part of the the urban planning and architect professions. You people have not truly beheld London's endless stretches of 2-4 story high row houses along narrow streets, nor have you experienced the joys of looking at narrow street after narrow street of the light tan colored buildings which line the streets of Paris. This might sound like heresy to many, but in both cities the monotony of each form of development easily matches the supposed monotony of America's suburbs.
More to the point, in each city one of the first things that one notices in walking around neighborhood after neighborhood is that both sides of every street are lined with endless lines of automobiles. I counted two parking garages in all of the area of London which I managed to cover. One garage is on Oxford Street while the other is in the City of London. My hunch is that it is zoning ordinances that are holding back the building of parking garages, especially in the inner areas of London. Otherwise property owners would be falling all over themselves to convert their buildings into parking garages in order to accommodate the endless lines of automobiles that line the streets. They could make a fortune charging for parking space. As it is, there are signs everywhere in the inner areas of London which warn would be motorists that they have to pay 20 pence every five minutes (2.40 pounds per hour) to park their vehicles. Vehicles have to be moved every 4 hours or they will be clamped down. I suspect that one of the things that is driving housing costs in the inner areas of London is that the value of that parking spot is being impounded into the sale or leasehold price of property. As of the Spring 2007, the average house price in London is 300,000 pounds - $600,000 U.S. The ratio of average house price to annual salary is now over 10:1 and the the papers run plenty of stories like this one which describe how younger people plot their housing situations in a city where they work, but in which they are priced out of the housing markets.
I took a quick survey of my co-workers at VLICA, how it was that they lived and how it was that they got to work. Two of my immediate co-workers now ride motorbikes to work from 10+ miles away. Why? That is because motorcycles are not charged under Lord Mayor Ken Livingstone's famed congestion pricing scheme - which has improved road travel speeds from a whopping 8 mph to 10 mph, BTW. The supervisor of the group whom I work with complained to me one day that he and my colleague used to share one of the four parking spaces set aside for motorcycles in the basement parking area. The problem now is that there are now 10 employees whom now are using motorbikes to get to work because of the congestion charge and there is a rivalry for the limited parking for motorbikes. One afternoon I decided to take a walk around the back of the building which faces the Thames. I noticed that there were some motorcycles parked along the back. When I went back there, I discovered that there was an entire line of motorcycles parked in a neat row. I counted 49 motorbikes in that row.
As for some of my other co-workers, one woman lives about 3 miles outside the town of Woking, where she has a nice detached house with a wonderful garden. Hint, you don't find this kind of housing in London. Her commute everyday consists of riding a bike 3 miles to the train station (she rides her bike there because the car park charge is 5 pounds per day), then she rides the train in to the Victoria Station, a 30+ minute commute. Then she walks from the train station for about 15-20 minutes to get to the company office. Her entire trip takes about 1 hour - 1 hour and 10 minutes. Another of my co-workers lives in Brighton where he pays 370 pounds per month to ride the train 70 kilometers to get to work in about 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Here is a story in the London Metro. which describes that the Tube had better performance 10 years ago:
Delays on the Tube are getting worse, it was claimed yesterday.
Despite a three-fold increase in fares and a major increase in Government handouts, there are now more delays on the London Underground than there were in 1997, research has revealed.
Commuters were hit with a total of 2,740 delays lasting 15 minutes or more in the 12 months up to April 1 this year. During the corresponding period ten years ago, the number was 2,656.
The rise comes despite fare rises which have seen the price of a Zone 1 single cash ticket go up from £1.20 to £4. A one-day travelcard covering Zones 1 to 4 during peak times now costs £9 – up £5.40 since 1997.
Five-minute delays have fallen by more than 5,000 to 21,255. And ten- to 14-minute delays fell from 4,660 in 1997 to 3,600 now.
Lengthy delays of 15 minutes or more fell by by more than 500 to 2,740 over the period.
BTW: I have experienced the wonderful pleasure of having trains canceled as well as having been rerouted in mid trip to train stations where I had to circumvent "engineering changes" and in which it took me another 90 minutes to get back to my hotel room. Here's a story from the April 26 edition of The Economist about the price of upkeep on the Tube.
I am currently reading two books which I brought at a Waterstones on the Tube. One is called The Story of London's Underground by John R. Day. The other is called Underground to Everywhere by Stephen Hallliday. Both are amazing books. I learned that most of the Tube that was constructed between 1920 and 1940 was because Britain was in the throes of 10% + unemployment after WWI and that rail construction was seen as a way of providing employment for many, that Tube patronage dropped from the mid 1950's to the early 1980's, that rail capacity has the same inherent problems of crowding that freeways do during rush hours, and that the transition to the modern day service based economy has been a minor disaster for railroads on account that factories used to (and still do) run on a 24x7 schedule, which was much more ideal for rail transit. Instead what we now have is a world where millions work 8am - 5pm, leaving rail managers with the huge problem of massive capital tied up in rolling stock not being utilized to its fullest. It's a pretty safe bet that the planners (as usual) didn't see the shift from a manufacturing economy to a more service based economy coming.
While walking back to my hotel on several late nights, I watched as the Tube stations closed for the night and looked onwards as the engineering crews came out to do maintenance. Few tourists or visitors can tell you of this story, but that is when the buses get crowded, especially on weekends. One night during my last week in London, I awoke in the middle of the night feeling extremely hungry. Rather than order room service, I walked down to the Spar convenience store located on the Strand. It was 2:45 am. The store was still open, as was the McDonalds next to it. And what did I see? London's famed red buses were still running at 2:45am!
I should say here that there are some people out there that have done some absolutely amazing work putting together websites detailing London's bus system. Briefly, Transport for London monitors private companies which operate both the Tube and London's buses. Try reading some of these websites if you want to read some of the amazing details which Britons have described their transportation. I especially like these two websites which describe bus borough reports and how to improve bus services. Though the last link was written in 2001, I especially like page 18 of the report:
The public transport market is not uniform across London but varies significantly between central and outer areas. Within central London public transport has an 86 per cent market share, a 75 per cent market share for trips into central London but only a 29 per cent market share for journeys outside the central area.
Car use and congestion has risen faster in outer London and in this area buses are generally the only mode of public transport readily available. Over 3 million bus journeys a day take place completely outside central London compared with just 400,000 daily journeys on the Underground.
I like how the Brits put things sometimes. London changes dramatically as you go outwards towards its suburban areas, but since many tourists and short time visitors don't do this, it is easy to think that everything looks like it does on Charing Cross. All I can say is that gentle readers need to get out to areas like Muswell Hill or Highgate, start walking around, and look at what the traffic patterns look like.
London is now more than twice the size it was in 1938, just before the outbreak of war. It has a population that is about the same as it was at that time, indeed it had declined to about 6.8 million in 1981. As is noted in the Wiki entry, Britain had a real problem with homelessness after the war. About 3-4 million Britons were rendered homeless after 1945. The post WWII governments built scads of highrises in various places in London to accommodate them, but most of their residents didn't like being packed into them. Ergo, by the beginning of the 1950's, the government began a new policy of relocating these people into so called New Towns. This policy was also enacted in the hope that this would help arrest the ongoing sprawl of London. A green belt was enacted around the city, aided and abetted by the nationalization of development rights but the only real effect of this policy was that the sprawl was simply exported and transferred to various counties in Southern England.
All of this from the country which gave America its heritage, which was the first country in the world to industrialize, which experienced sprawl before anyone else, and which has 60 million people living in 94,000 square miles of land.
Have a good evening gentle readers. I hope you have learned something new.
And so it was that I find myself in the Imperial City again. This time the weather is far better than it was during last January. The weather has been in the 60's and 70's during the day, with an occasional sunny day thrown in. I will write an analysis of London's transportation system very soon and hope to have some pictures thrown in of salient points as well. The purpose of this post is to draw attention to city issues which might interest people back home.
1) The 2012 London Olympic Games: Remember when the elites were battling furiously for Houston to be the host city of the 2012 Olympic Games? A former City of Houston council member named John Kelley founded an organization called the Houston 2012 Foundation and raised $6 million to try to
foist the games off on Houstonians bring the Games to Houston.
I forgot to write about the London Olympic Games when I was here in January, but the subject should have been something I could have committed to the blog. Briefly, the politics behind the cost of the games got really hot while I was here three months ago. Here are some web sites which discuss the final bill that Britons are facing for the privilege of hosting the Games. You gotta love that possible 9 billion pound final bill - about $17.5 billion at April 2007 exchange rates for a half month of taking in athletic pleasures. That is 4 times the original estimated cost of hosting the games. A combination of constructing new housing, new sports temples, providing security, and some transportation are all contributing to the cost overruns. Residents of London are (as of this writing) being taxed to the tune of 38 pence per week in order to help cough up 625 million pounds of local money to pay for the games.
And to think that all of this could have happened to Houstonians! One of the rationales for building the downtown Light Rail line was that it was mandatory because we were going to host the Olympic Games!
2) The famed London congestion charge: As one might have expected, London Mayor Ken Livingstone and his friends on the London Council both upped the congestion charge in 2005 for entering the City from 5 pounds to 8 pounds. Moreover, the size of the congestion zone was increased, essentially doubling in size. One person has commented that the municipal powers in London have raked in 677 million pounds from the charge as of February 2007, but that only a fraction of the overall monies have been used to improve transportation capacities. That brings into question the entire issue of whether municipal authorities anywhere should be charging for road use, if only on the grounds that the collected monies will not be used for transportation but for - say - paying off the transportation union workers. Apparently money was supposed to be used for improved bus service.
Another matter that cropped up was that motorists were apparently driving right up to the edge of the zone and then driving around to find a parking space. Once they found one they would then jump on the Tube or onto a bus to get the rest of the way to where they were going. This prompted outrage amongst the local residents in those areas who were finding their assigned parking spots being taken by commuters. The general complaint was that congestion was (and is) being shifted around, rather than being slayed.
3) Now a pollution charge is scheduled to come into effect. Motorists who own what are deemed to be heavily polluting vehicles will be slapped with a whopping 25 pound charge.
4) I watched on Saturday as Cambridge beat Oxford in the 153rd annual boat race.
Ciao for now. More later.
There are five of us in our family, and I am sad to say that we own five cars. This costs us over $27,000 a year. I have a car for business and pleasure. My ex-wife works; she has a car. Our son, away at college at Fort Worth, has a car; our eldest daughter has to have a car for college and her part-time job. Our youngest daughter recently got her driver's license and has a car to drive to school and to her music lessons. Cars are essential to my children's social lives. Neither I nor my ex-wife can afford to take time off from work to chauffeur the children, which they don't want or expect anyway. Even more horrifying, we can't afford to buy collision insurance for our children's cars. So if one has a wreck and is at fault, the repair bills will be astronomical; if a car is totaled, it will be need to be replaced somehow.
City of Houston Council Member Peter Brown, writing a note to authors Andres Duany, Elizabath Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck in Suburban Nation, The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream"
There are a horde of things I could write about this book, including claims by people like James Howard Kunstler that modern day suburbanization (notice that I didn't say American suburbanization or sprawl) creates neighborhoods which nobody cares about, but I would suggest that you tell that to the people that actually live in those neighborhoods. I think you would find a very different opinion as to whether the people who actually live in those places care about them or not.
Today is the birthday of your's truly. I happen to be writing this epistle from London where I will be holed up for the next few weeks.
A while back I wrote about that I would try to deal with the issue of development (or the lack of it) in downtown Houston. A number of weeks back, I walked around downtown Houston and surveyed the state of development in downtown. Downtown Houston has been the recipient of a vast amount of public largesse over the past 15+ years. Houstonians have watched as their public elites have built two sports temples located in downtown at the cost of circa $600 million, plus, a light rail line at the publicly stated cost of $325 million (most likely much higher than that), have torn up an array of downtown streets in order to put in fibre optic and other telecommunication lines, as well as a sewer line to Buffalo Bayou, a new County Courthouse, formed a TIRZ and two management districts, and who knows what else, all in an effort to "revitalize downtown! So why was it that after all that effort, the Houston Chronicle carried a story about how seven nightclubs closed within a period of two months, and that the Houston Press carried a story about how is was that three downtown "eyesore" structures, all of which were located right up against the downtown Light Rail line could not be developed? That was even after the effort on the part of "Smart Growth" architect Doug Childers to make an effort to get into one of those structures in order to make Smart Growth development work.
Meanwhile Houston Mayor Bill White has had to give away $14 million in public monies in order to get a commercial development to come to downtown, which itself has no residential development. At the same time, downtown office space in Houston's magnificent skyscraper skyline is getting scarce and vacant space is down below 10 percent. I can testify to this. My company, VLICA (the Very Large Industrial Company of America), which is located downtown and for whom I have been working for over the past 12+ years, is going to take another floor from our landlord and plans to rent two more over the next two years.
So what is going on? Why is it that the commercial market in downtown Houston is booming to the point where developers are thinking of building new skyscrapers while the desperately desired downtown residential market languishes at a few thousand residents and does not attract scores of thousands of "urban pioneers" which would suddenly make Houston's downtown streets blossom like London's?
The answer lies in the cost of measuring how much it costs to transport people, goods, or ideas per mile from one place to another.
As can be seen from Mr. Brown's epistle above, many people in the Smart Growth movement have tried with a frenzied desperation to point out how expensive it is to own and operate a car. I will not contest that owning and operating a car costs real money, but there are two things that the Smart Growth crowd overlook in their analysis of transportation and its costs. The first is asking that if it really is so expensive to own and operate a car, then why is it that people in wealthy developed areas of the world continue to buy and use cars and trucks, even in the face of rising gasoline prices? The second thing they fail to ask is that there has been some movement towards inner cities again, but how much of that can be attributed to Smart Growth type policies?
To answer these questions, I, The Mighty Wizard, as a mere student of urban affairs who does not work in the field of urban issues, had to go back to what the Master taught me while I was in school. And who was that Master? None other than Barton Smith. To answer these riddles, I found myself leafing through my faded and crumbling lecture notes from Smith's courses of ages gone by and from my textbooks. I read Smith's thoughts. They were questions, questions that needed answering.
And so it was that I found my answers.
You see, the Smart Growth types really do have a point. Owning and operating a car really does cost money. Say for just a moment that you have gone out and bought a brand spanking new and shiny car. That car has set you back $24,000, for which you were able to cough up a $4,000 down payment. You have put the remaining $20,000 on a 5 year payment plan at 9% interest. We will add to this picture. You are married. You and your spouse face the prospect that you have a job in downtown Houston and are trying to decide where to live. You have spotted a house in the Heights for $250,000 that is 4 miles away from downtown that is really nice, but there another house in Spring Branch that costs $150,000 that is acceptable, but happens to be another 7 miles away. The schools at least seem similar in quality and so do the neighborhoods.
So what is it that you are going to do? The Smart Growth crowd points to the fact that you are helplessly addicted and enslaved to your automobile, but is that really the case? More to the point, CM Peter Brown complained that he and his family spends $27,000 per year on cars. Surely CM Brown, who happens to be smart enough to have gotten elected to City Council, would not spend $27,000 on anything without getting something in return, wouldn't he? The real question is, what is it that we get when we buy automobiles or trucks? What is CM Brown getting in terms of accessibility and mobility when he
wisely spends wastes $27,000 per year on private automobiles?
The answer to that question is... miles. Let us do the math. You have a $250,000 house in the Heights verses a $150,000 house in Spring Branch. The house in the Heights is 4 miles from downtown, while the house in Spring Branch is 11 miles away. What would you prefer to choose?
If we put down at $15,000 down payment on both properties, a 30 year mortgage at 6 percent interest rate works out to $809.39 per month in the case of the $150,000 house, while the mortgage on the $250,000 house works out to $1,408.94. Add to that in that in Houston, the added property taxes usually amount to about 3 percent of the values of property (minus the 30 percent or so in deductions) means that the property taxes on the $250,000 home will be about $1,800 greater than the taxes in the $150,000 home.
What all of this means is that the annual carrying costs of owning that $250,000 home in the Heights will be about $9,000 per year greater than owning the home in Spring Branch. The question facing our prospective Houston residents is whether the added cost and frustration in commuting the extra 7 miles in distance in each direction every work day will be less than or greater than the $9,000 cost per year of living close in? To answer that question, we need to ask what is the cost of owning and operating a private vehicle such that it allows the extra 14 miles per day of commute and what is the prospective cost in time for the commuter to drive that extra 14 miles per day?
To answer these questions, let's take the Smart Growthers at their word. That $24,000 car which has a $4,000 down payment and a $20,000 note for 5 years at 9% interest will have a note of about $415.17 per month. We will throw in that the car will depreciate in value $14,000 over 5 years, so that it is worth only $10,000 5 years later. That means that the depreciation rate is $233 per month. The insurance rate is $150 per month, the $3 per gallon gasoline costs $195 per month if your car gets 20 miles per gallon and you drive it the 13,000 miles per year that Americans drive their cars ("enlightened" Western Europeans who have mass transit drive their cars 8,000 - 10,000 miles per year BTW), and to boot your car repairs cost you an average of $100 per month.
So what is the cost of owning and operating your car? If you add all of those numbers up, it costs a whopping $1,093 per month to own and operate your new and shiny car so that you can drive it the "typical" 13,000 miles per year that your average wasteful, environmentally hating and uncaring, carbon spewing American drives their car every year.
So what is the cost? If you multiply $1,093 x 12 months per year, that adds up to a whopping $13,116 per year to own and operate that evil car! Boy do the Smart Growthers and the train nuts have that straight! Or do they? What if you divide that number by the number of miles you drive your car? Then what kind of math do you get? The answer is that the cost per mile of driving that brand new spanking car is about $1.01 per mile. Bear in mind what happens to the cost per mile of owning and operating that car after you actually pay off that car and if you decide you are going to keep the car.
The second part of our equation is what is the value of commuting that extra 14 miles per day to our prospective Houstonian? Lots of econometric studies have concluded that people tend to value their time in commute at about 30-50 percent of the value of their pay at work. Say that our prospective commuter is an accountant who is getting paid $60,000 per year, which is $30 per hour. If we plug in $15 per hour (50% of his / her pay), then if traffic is moving at 30 miles per hour during his / her commute at 5:00pm rush hour, the value of that commute works out to about $7 per day ( $15 per hour of time valuation * 14 miles extra commute (7 miles back and forth in both directions) / 30 mph travel speed during the commute). So if our new Houston resident is "paying" or valuing his or her commute at $7 per day to travel that extra 14 miles, that means that the annual commute valuation is (at 50 weeks per year, 5 days per week of work), 250 days of work * $7 per day of value in commuting. That equals $1,750 in valuation of sitting in traffic.
We then throw in the fact that it costs $1.01 per mile to own and operate our vehicle (note that this includes the cost of gasoline, depreciation, cost of the monthly note and repairs!) and we are left with the fact that it will cost an extra $14.14 per day for our hapless and helplessly enslaved Houston commuter to commute from Spring Branch instead of making the environmentally friendly commute from the Heights. That means that at 250 commute days per year, the costs of operating that car equal $3,535 per year. Add $3,535 per year and $1,750 in commute times and what do you get? $5,285 in added commute costs for living in Spring Branch verses the $9,000 per year in added costs for buying property for living in close in the Heights.
The answer is that unless there is something really incredible that draws our prospective Houstonians to live in the Heights, our prospective Houstonians will decide live in Spring Branch, all other things being equal. Incredibly, in all 7 of the prominent writings which I have read from the Smart Growth crowd, all of them have wailed about the cost of owning and operating a car, but none of them have made the final step in analyzing that the real decision why it is that urban areas continue to sprawl out, despite the best efforts of planners and Smart Growthers to stop the phenomenon. The real decision lies in what it costs in owning and operating the car and that involves deciding how much is it going to cost to own and operate a car per mile.
Addendum - May 20, 2007: I saw an ad in the Sunday May 13, 2007 edition of the Houston Chronicle. There were two downtown lofts being advertised. I cannot remember the details of one of the lofts, but I do remember that the other was being pitched for $165,000. And what, pray tell, do you get for your $165,000? How about 704 square feet of living space. Isn't paying $230 per square foot for the equivalent of a one bedroom apartment a bargain?
Continuing: I can hear the endless bitching, wailing, objections, and complaints. You are wrong Mr. Mighty Wizard, end of story! What happens if these people don't have kids? What happens if they are buying "quality of life" and "lifestyle" and not housing? What happens if they don't own a car?
Sorry folks! Nice try, but you still are enslaved to these ideas. If you don't have kids, then you are free to be able to devote more of your pay to a mortgage and are able to purchase access closer in. That is the case if you are a 20-something hipster or if you happen to be a 55 year old couple whose kids are now raised and out of the house. However that doesn't necessarily mean that every person in those groups will necessarily decide to move closer in so that they will take advantage of the amenities of being close to town. Some will decide that they like living in rural or suburban areas anyway and not make the move in. As far as the numbers, all you have to do is change the numbers around to any figures you decide to plug in. Do the math and you will start to understand why it is that people decide to live where they decide to live. You can buy access to your job and your desired lifestyle. All you have to do is figure out how much it costs in terms of your time and your money.
It is ideas like these that go a long way to understanding why it is that downtown Houston is not drawing thousands of "urban pioneers" which Duany and Co. so desperately desire. It also goes a long way to understanding why it is that areas like Washington Avenue and Montrose are seeing booms in development while downtown Houston sees pressures in commercial space while few "urban pioneers" decide to move there. Why move downtown and pay downtown real estate prices when you can buy a condo or a house just a few miles away and have a 10 minute commute into downtown and have access to all of its amenities? While you are at it, you Smart Growthers and Peak Oil types might want to figure out what will really happen once the alleged end of petroleum comes and the price of a gallon of gasoline rockets to $10 per gallon or more. You might want to ask yourself what has happened to American driving patterns (and indeed the driving patterns of the rest of the world) in the face of the fact that the price of a barrel of oil has gone up from $25 per barrel to $60 over the past 6 years or so. What is going on with those upscale middle class folks (average income of $70,000 per year) who work in downtown Houston, yet take a subsidized Metro bus ride into downtown Houston to their jobs from 20 miles away via riding in on the HOV canyons which we have carved out just for them? What would happen if we took away those HOV lanes and gave them back to the general public?
Better yet, what is the price of CM Brown's transportation costs of his entire family averages 10,000 miles of driving per year per vehicle? The answer is that his family is spending 54 cents per mile to own and operate their entire fleet of vehicles. That would be a better way of understanding CM Brown's statement of his complaints regarding his purchasing of transportation for his family. Now then gentle readers, I ask you this. What would happen if CM Brown's family decided to drive 60,000 miles per year instead of 50,000 miles? What would be the cost per mile of his family driving that extra 10,000 miles?
Enough for now. This has been a long and tiring epistle. Still, it is one of the most rewarding ones I have ever written. Over the next 2 weeks, I will write about London and why it is that mass transit continues to draw big numbers in the Imperial City.
Ciao for now,
Barry Klein sent this one along. The article states that toll road transponders used to automatically deduct toll fee monies out of credit cards for users do have inaccuracies. Amongst the highlights are:
For example, the Harris County, Texas Toll Road Authority admitted yesterday that its use of an automatic vehicle classification device designed to catch "toll cheats" was instead cheating law-abiding motorists.
"It was sold to the Toll Road Authority with a promise it would be 99.8 percent accurate," an authority press release explained. "In fact, audits have found Harris County Toll Road Authority's does slightly better. It's 99.98 percent accurate."
With 335,236,106 individual tolls collected in 2006, even that apparently low error rate ends up charging 67,047 EZ Tag users as much as seven times the proper amount for a single journey.
"No technology is perfect," toll road Director Mike Stretch explained.
On Saturday Harris County stopped using the device following inquiries from television station KTRK which uncovered the local problem.
Now I am a big fan of toll roads and Smart Growth types should be too. The main part of such schemes that I like are that the person who is using the road is the person who is paying for that road. Ideally (and again, I say ideally), no tax monies would be used at all to pay for toll roads. Capital would be raised by private parties and tolls would be used to pay off the lenders.
The biggest reason why Smart Growth types should be fans of tolls or direct road pricing is that since the driver is directly seeing the cost of driving, that makes the driver more price sensitive to how much driving he or she is doing. It seems to me that a really Smart Smart Growther would think that they should be raising the costs of using automobiles not trying to tie them up with congestion in the hope that they will leave their cars en masse for mass transit, but by making the costs of driving more visible via the pocket book.
I get emails and gossip from my politically active friends from time to time. Some months ago, someone I know spoke about the saga of Kansas City and light rail. I hadn't followed through with the story for a while, so I decided to pay the matter a visit.
So what did I find? I found that the people of Kansas City indeed voted for a rail transit plan in the November 2006 elections, thanks primarily to the efforts of one Clay Chastain. You see, Mr. Chastain brought the rail issue up for a vote 7 times before his pet project, which he said publicly would help make Kansas City world class, finally passed by a 53-47 percent margain 4 months ago. In the run up to his year 2000 attempt at getting the issue passed, Mr. Chastain actually bought a house down South, but didn't move. This story mentions that Mr. Chastain is currently living in Bedford Virginia and was so at the time of the 2006 elections when his light rail initiative passed. One wonders why it is that someone would want to foist some scheme on people when the person who is demanding the compulsory action doesn't even live in the area.
From the November 8, 2006 story above:
The measure was opposed by Kansas City’s entire political establishment, along with the Area Transportation Authority and the Regional Transit Alliance, which said Chastain had grossly underestimated the costs of his plan and overestimated the chances for federal matching money. Opponents also said that diverting the sales tax to light rail would cripple the local bus system, which currently receives that tax money.
Moreover, having won his gains through political force, Mr. Chastain's wife is now prepared to go to court to make sure that the Kansas City Council sticks to the ballot plan. In a scene this seems to be a eerie reversal of what is happening in Houston, the pro rail crowd is demanding that the powers that be stick to the ballot language and not deviate from it! Westpark really does mean Richmond! Meanwhile the main objections to the plan are that the plan, as called for, will run into legal problems because land and parks would need to be condemned which are owned by other state entities.
There are an immense number of lessons to be learned here. One is that politics, by its very nature, draws an awful lot of visionaries and dreamers. Too bad it doesn't draw many people who prefer to leave people alone. Two, is that Mr. Chastain's light rail plan is counting on a 50 percent federal match for capital startup, as is Houston's, not to mention dozens of other cities to boot. It is for reasons like this that I have strongly come to believe that the federal government has to get out of the transportation business altogether. That includes funding roads, airports, rail lines, everything. Federal involvement warps incentives which only creates more government, which distorts even more incentives, and so on down a vicious spiral.
This is a markedly different point of view from the so called Smart Growthers, if I am reading my Duany and Co. correctly. They want the feds to stop the funding of roads but keep funding for mass transit on the grounds. You see, according to the current generation of Smart Growth planners, the previous generations of planners lost their minds from the 1940's to the 1980's because we constructed the Interstate Highway system. Ergo, the only way to counteract this is to keep the federal empire in place, but to make the federal government "work smarter". Get it?
A brief aside, as one question comes to mind. If the previous generation or two of planners "really did get all things wrong" and caused "undesired" sprawl, then who are we to hold liable?
A large number of transportation issues are local issues. Getting the feds out of the transportation business altogether would immediately cause local authorities to come to their senses when it comes to funding transportation and quite frankly, I have no reason to be funding Mr. Chastain's dreams, nor should he be funding mine. Besides, we wouldn't be making anymore $15 billion decisions like this if we did.
Enough for now. Several days ago when passing through downtown to head north, I encountered 5 Metro buses in a span of 11 minutes between 7:11pm and 7:22pm. A future transportation entry will include an analysis of the proposed Northside BRT system.