Friday, February 19, 2016

Bayport cruise terminal likely to close

Can't say I'm too surprised about this:
An ambitious, expensive and maybe misguided project to lure the cruise ship industry to Houston, and perhaps away from Galveston, is failing and will most likely be re-purposed for another use.

“I understand the port is considering several options -- one to use it as a retrofit for incoming automobiles,” said Sen. John Whitmire.

The Port of Houston would not confirm specific plans for Pasadena’s Bayport Cruise Terminal.
“There are other opportunities it can be used for and we’re going to continue to explore those opportunities,” Port of Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther said.

Both Norwegian Cruise Lines and Princess Cruises confirmed to Channel 2 Investigates the companies’  plans to remove their ships from the Port of Houston’s $108 million cruise terminal after the current season ends.

“The cruise lines have made a decision, a business decision, to go elsewhere,” Guenther, said.
As early as late April, the cruise terminal will be left with no cruise ships, a familiar problem.
The facility sat unused for its intended purpose for about six years before NCL and Princess Cruises signed on in 2012.
Given how cheaply NCL and Princess had been offering staterooms on cruises out of this terminal - I kept my eye on them because I was considering vacationing on one of them - it was clear that this facility was struggling to attract travelers. Its location was a liability, as Pasadena is nobody's idea of a tourist paradise, even if you're just going there to get on a ship:
“All you (have) to do is look at the location and use some common sense,” Whitmire said.
The Port of Houston’s cruise terminal, located in Pasadena, is at the end of a road that's home to heavy industry.

But the bigger problem in terms of location, Whitmire said, is for the cruise lines themselves, a point also made by Sen. Paul Bettencourt.

“In the end, you’ve got a logistical problem," Bettencourt said. "You’re moving a boat farther up the Ship Channel than what can be serviced by competitors right down in Galveston."

The trip from the Port of Houston’s Bayport Cruise Ship Terminal adds hours to time spent in intercoastal waters, where onboard casinos are not licensed to operate.
I also seem to recall hearing that heavy fog over the bay was also an issue, as it impeded ships from being able to navigate to the Bayport terminal in time for their scheduled disembarkation. That's not quite as much of a problem at Galveston, because it is closer to the open waters of the Gulf.

In the end, perhaps trying to operate two separate cruise terminals within a relatively short distance of one another was simply too ambitious. It's probably best for the Port of Houston to focus on what it does best - being one of the largest maritime freight terminals in the nation - and let the Port of Galveston handle cruise passengers.

Royal Caribbean and Carnival will continue to operate out of the Galveston terminal. No word as to whether NCL or Princess will one day operate ships from there as well.

Are you ready to travel to Cuba?

It's about to get a lot easier:
Houston's two dominant airlines are seeking approval to offer scheduled flights to Cuba.

On Tuesday, U.S. and Cuban officials signed an agreement previously announced in December that will restore scheduled air service between the countries.

United Airlines said in a statement that it will apply for flights between some of its global gateways and Havana.

Henry Harteveldt, founder of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry research company, said it is possible that United will offer flights from Houston to Cuba, but the airline will ultimately choose airports based on the largest market opportunity.
Southwest Airlines will also contend for the coveted flights.
Houston is not guaranteed any direct flights to Cuba; the airlines themselves will determine where the flights to Havana and nine other Cuban airports will originate and I'm sure Miami and New York will get the lion's share of those flights. That being said, given Bush Intercontinental's status as United's Latin American gateway, I'd be very surprised if Houston didn't eventually end up with some sort of nonstop service to Cuba.

Even if flights between Houston and Cuba become a reality, there's still a catch: American citizens still can't travel there as tourists. Your travel has to be focused around one or more of twelve categories of allowable travel. But even then, the categories are broad enough to allow people to get creative:
"Almost every American should be able to travel to Cuba under one of these categories," Sen. Jeff Flake, a major sponsor of the new policy, told me last month. One lawyer who specializes in Cuba-US issues told the New York Times that if you can’t think up an itinerary that fits into one of the 12 categories, "you’re not trying." This doesn’t mean you need to be deceptive or dishonest. Instead, you can build a trip around the broad and inclusive language of the new regulations. Be forthright about the reason of your trip, and be ready to show an itinerary in the unlikely event that an American customs worker asks you for one.

The categories all contain the qualifier that your time in Cuba will not "include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule."

The language is meant to discourage lolling on the beach and lazily sipping mojitos at your hotel bar. As long as you have productive plans that fall within your category of choice, you can honestly certify that your travel is legal, even if you take a couple of extra hours to absorb the view while visiting the historic Morro Castle.
Should flights between Houston and Havana ever become a reality, I think I will need to do some professional research on Havana's bus system, or its commuter rail network!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

2016 UH Cougar football schedule released

Last week, the 2016 University of Houston Cougar football schedule was released:

     Sat Sep 03     Oklahoma (Advocare Texas Kickoff, NRG Stadium)
     Sat Sep 10     Lamar
     Thu Sep 15    at Cincinnati
     Sat Sep 24     at Texas State
     Thu Sep 29    UConn
     Sat Oct 08     at Navy
     Sat Oct 15     Tulsa
     Sat Oct 22     at SMU
     Sat Oct 29     UCF
     Sat Nov 05    (off)
     Sat Nov 12    Tulane
     Thu Nov 17   Louisville
     Fri Nov 25     at Memphis

All in all, a pretty good schedule. The Coogs play two schools from “Power 5” conferences, including a blockbuster season opener against the Sooners at NRG Stadium. Two of the Coogs’ five away games are in-state, and there’s only one instance of back-to-back road games early in the season. The Cougars spend what amounts to a month at home between the SMU game and a Black Friday matchup at Memphis.

I could do without the two Thursday night home games – those always negatively impact attendance – and I would prefer the off week to be a couple of weeks earlier, but really, there’s nothing horrible about this slate of games. I’m already penciling in roadies to San Marcos and Annapolis on my calendar.

Given last year’s success, there’s every reason to expect this fall to be a good one as well. I’m not going to go so far as to predict an undefeated season, however; Oklahoma is going to be tough, Central Florida and Tulane will probably be much improved this fall, and Cincinnati, Navy and Memphis will all be looking to exact revenge against Houston at home. There’s also the reality that the Cougars are losing a lot of talent from last year’s team on both sides of the ball.

That being said, it's hard not to be excited about the 2016 season, and the wait until September is going to be very agonizing!

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Tom Herman's impressive recruiting haul

With the caveat that I am skeptical of recruiting rankings because they tend to be biased in favor of "Power 5" schools - just look how the ratings of Bellaire's Courtney Lark and Manvel's D'Eriq King fell after they committed to University of Houston, as opposed to a P-5 school - I want to express my admiration and appreciation to head coach Tom Herman for bringing in the highest-rated recruiting class in program history last Wednesday. ESPN's Sam Khan, Jr. explains:
The Cougars signed the nation's 30th-ranked recruiting class, the highest finish ever for a school outside of a power conference (Power 5 currently or BCS previously). Houston also became the first non-power conference program to sign a five-star recruit since ESPN began ranking recruits in 2006.

Coming off a 13-1 season that included an American Athletic Conference championship, a win over Florida State in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and a top-10 finish in the polls, it is yet another victory for Herman's budding power.

Still, without the resources and facilities afforded to Power 5 conference programs that battled with the Cougars for ESPN 300 recruits, how did the Cougars land their historic class?
Khan goes on to explain how Herman and his staff forged relationships with high school football players and their coaches, focused their efforts on the talent-rich Houston area, and refused to accept that they couldn't recruit top-quality athletes simply because they weren't a "Power 5" school:
When coaches were out in the city during the evaluation period, they feared no Power 5 program.

"The mindset was we're going to go recruit these Houston-area guys and present something to them and not be afraid to compete against people for these local guys," offensive line coach Derek Warehime said.
UH's recruiting strategy seems very simple and logical, in theory. But it's not always easy to accomplish in practice; previous Cougar head coaches such as Art Briles (now head coach at Baylor) and Kevin Sumlin (now head coach at Texas A&M) never signed a class as talented as this one. But Herman and his staff were able to use this strategy to bring in a big "get" - a highly-rated, heavily-recruited five-star defensive tackle from Westfield High School by the name of Ed Oliver - and in turn build recruiting momentum:
Oliver valued the longstanding relationships he had and believed in the vision the staff sold. [Defensive line coach Oscar] Giles said Oliver called him often just to talk and he got to know Oliver's family well: "I knew who his girlfriend was, his brothers, mom, his great was a relationship that was built over time."

When Oliver verbally committed to the Cougars in May, there was no hat ceremony, no grand announcement on Twitter, just Oliver placing a phone call to the coaching staff. The news quickly spread, to the bewilderment of many who were surprised a prospect of that caliber pledged to a program in a non-power conference.

That moment, however, turned the "H-Town Takeover" from a simple hashtag and concept to a genuine, successful recruiting movement.

"I think it was like a big rock dropping into a big pool. Splash," Giles said. "Everybody knows the guy. They're like, 'They must be serious over there.' It gave us some credibility that we were doing it the right way."

Added [assistant coach Corby] Meekins: "That kind of broke the seal and made it OK to come here. When you get a player that's caliber and can go anywhere -- we have a lot of players in this class who could go anywhere -- but that made it OK."
To be sure, the power schools of the SEC and Big 12 did not passively sit by while Herman and his staff made their recruiting push. The Washington Post's Chuck Culpepper explores how Houston had to stave off 'poachers:'
That word can describe recruiters from other programs who, in the 147-year-old traditions of the sport, bring silver tongues and poaching arts and try to help players renege on prior commitments. That did foil Houston once, when the coveted Houstonian receiver Tyrie Cleveland changed his mind from Houston to sweet-talking, blue-blooded Florida, whose coaches jumped up and down upon learning the news.

It did not derail Houston. Rivals ranked its class No. 44 in a sport with 65 top-tier programs. ESPN slotted it at No. 30. Representing the underlings fiercely, Houston held onto Ed Oliver, the Houstonian defensive tackle generally bestowed the ultimate five stars, and when Oliver didn’t budge, he became both the only one of Rivals’ top 100 players to sign with a Group of Five program, and the day’s biggest upset according to ESPN. Courtney Lark, the four-star receiver, also held firm to help redefine his hometown’s atmosphere.

For their second recruiting class, Herman and his staff had fostered relationships with their signees, then had gone 13-1 with a major bowl win.

“And I think what that was able to do, then, was to solidify our position a little bit when the poachers came calling,” Herman said.

They did come calling, and the process was “nerve-wracking,” Herman said.
Other schools tried to sow doubt in the minds of Houston's commitments by using the by-now-tiresome trope that Herman would be leaving UH for a "bigger" program soon:
The 40-year-old coach proclaimed a 7-1 record against Southeastern Conference poachers, even as every recruit asked Herman what every poacher put in every recruit’s mind: How long are you staying?

“What I tell them is the truth,” he said, and then he went on a long, bountiful description of his pitch. It included that “in my opinion, the American Athletic Conference has undoubtedly separated itself from the other non-Power Five conferences” (what with Navy, Temple and Memphis also having successful seasons). It included a comparison of going 7-5 at some top-tier program — “It’s no fun going 7-5. It stinks, in fact. It’s really, really not fun” — set against this: “What’s really fun is when it feels like the whole city of Houston rushes onto the field, you’re kissing the trophy, holding it up, and there’s confetti falling, and you go to a New Year’s Six bowl game, and you’re playing one of the blue bloods, and you’re beating them by two touchdowns in the Peach Bowl.”
Highly-rated local recruits looked at what the Cougars accomplished last season, and brought in to Herman's pitch.

Obviously, getting these kids signed is just the first step in a process that includes their becoming and academically qualified, enrolled in school, and performing on the field. But if highly-ranked recruiting classes do correlate with success on the field, then the Cougars have a bright future ahead of them.

Which is why I just renewed my season tickets for 2016, even though kickoff is still over 200 days away.

Stupid journalist tricks

Transit consultant Jarrett Walker takes issue with a recent Los Angeles Times story regarding declining ridership on LA's public transportation network. While the drop-off in bus and rail boardings is a legitimate concern, especially given the amount of money LACMTA is investing in new rail lines, Walker argues that the story's writers, Laura Nelson and Dan Weikel, are making the problem appear worse than it seems by making two critical errors:
  1. Using one or two data points to determine a "trend," and
  2. Using an arbitrary "starting year" as a point of comparison.
I'm very familiar with these two "mistakes" (if you could call them that, because I tend to believe that they are deliberate) because I see them used by journalists all the time and in stories about a variety of subjects. Walker is, rightfully, calling these reporters out for using these misleading tricks in order to generate a "story" that doesn't accurately reflect what is actually happening:
The chart in the article shows that ridership has been falling for one year, based on just one data point (Later in a Tweet, Nelson told me she had two data points, with ridership down in both calendar 2014 and ’15, but that’s not in the article or the chart.)
                                                                                                                                                            Los Angeles Times

Based on these one or two points, the authors propose a vast and ominous trend:
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.
Accelerating? You need many data points to support this claim, because you are saying not just which way the line is going but also how it’s curving.  What the published chart shows is that:
    • There’s a larger interesting story about the broad fall in ridership across the 90s and dramatic recovery across the 00s.
    • Ridership has been generally flat since 2006, going up and down in about a 10% band, with no sign of strong movement in any direction.
Walker explains that transit ridership is very "noisy," with yearly boarding totals affected by a variety of factors from weather to gas prices to the overall economy, so it takes a long time, and multiple data points, before a trend can be determined.
When a journalist says some grand thing has been happening since year y, you should immediately ask: “why year y in particular?”  Again, here’s how the article opens:
For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
Why “almost a decade”?  Why not just a decade?  Because if you compared 2015 to 2005 instead of 2006, ridership wouldn’t be down, and the authors wouldn’t have a story.

Sure, ridership is down 10% since 2006. But it’s up since 2011 and way up since 2004.  Want to talk about the grand sweep of history?  Nelson says that ridership is lower than it was 30 years ago, which sounds terrible, but it’s higher than it was 25 years ago!
Indeed, you can create any story about ridership you want simply by choosing a "starting year" on the graph above: "This “arbitrary starting year” trick is a very common in misleading journalism. Be suspicious whenever you see a single past year is cited as a point of comparison."

I completely understand the pressure for journalists to create a neat "story" that will generate all-important page views; as a commenter on Walker's blog says, "part of the problem with journalism is that you want to have a snappy headline. 'Transit Ridership Goes up and Down' won’t do it." However, journalists do a disservice when they use tricks such as the ones Walker identifies to exaggerate, or even fabricate, stories such as these. This is especially true of something as politically polarizing and as poorly understood as public transportation. Maybe it's another reason why journalism should come with warning labels.

In a second post, Walker takes issue with the same LA Times article for its apparent assumption that short-term ridership is the only worthwhile measurement of a transit system's success. In a third post, Walker picks apart a post by anti-transit extremist Randal O'Toole regarding LA's ridership decline; anybody who wants to understand why I, as a transportation planning professional, have very little respect or use for O'Toole and his screeds should read it.