Monday, May 27, 2013

Summertime hiatus

All things considered, Houston had a pretty good spring, with cool temperatures lasting much longer into the season than normal. However, Memorial Day has come and gone, and it's time to accept that another miserable Houston summer is now upon us. I guess it's time for me to finally get my car's air conditioning fixed (although I must say that I've been getting great fuel economy without it...).

It's going to be a busy summer for me for a variety of reasons. I have projects I want to complete, trips I want to take, and other affairs that need tending. So I'm going to remove the distraction of this blog from my life for a few months while I get some other things done. If I feel absolutely compelled to write about something I will do so. Otherwise, this is probably going to be my last entry until late August, when I expect to return with my usual preview of the coming Houston Cougar football season.

Here's to hoping that my regular readers (both of them!), as well as anybody else that might come across this blog, has a safe and happy summer 2013!

Will Super Bowl LI mean the end of the Astrodome?

Houston was awarded Super Bowl LI (that's 51, for those of you who think roman numerals are pretentious) by the NFL last week. The 2017 game will be the city's third time to host the Super Bowl, and the fact that it's coming back is a good thing for the city's exposure and economy. Besides, it's always fun to listen to the whiny coastal sportswriters like this nobody bitch and moan when Houston gets picked.

However, Chronicle blogger Craig Hlavaty seems to think that the fact that Houston was awarded the Super Bowl also means that the Astrodome's fate is sealed, since the NFL would probably like to see that eyesore gone by the time their marquee event comes to Houston:
Since the Houston Super Bowl Bid Committee began the hunt to host another Super Bowl, the Astrodome’s days have seemed to have been quietly numbered.

Everyone involved in the transaction knows all too well that in order for Houston to open its doors to the NFL party apparatus and everything and everyone that comes with that, the Dome would have to be wiped from the city’s landscape to soothe the NFL’s concerns.

And now we know that Houston is getting Super Bowl LI in 2017.
As if on cue, a day after the announcement that Houston would host the Super Bowl was made, Harris County set a June deadline for proposals to re-purpose the venerable stadium. And while County Judge Ed Emmett claims that the game "was awarded based on a bid that had nothing to do with the Astrodome," the fact that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has hinted that the Dome be demolished for more parking makes me think that Hlavaty is correct and that the Astrodome will be nothing but a memory by the time 2017 rolls around.

New York Times sports columnist Jeré Longman bemoans the Astrodome's likely fate:
The Eighth Wonder of the World, as the Astrodome was nicknamed, with its 200-foot-tall roof and nine-acre footprint, became the most important, distinctive and influential stadium ever built in the United States. 

It gave us domed, all-purpose stadiums and artificial turf and expansive scoreboards. It gave us seminal respect for women’s sports when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs at tennis in 1973. It gave us the inventor of the end zone dance in 1969, Elmo Wright of the University of Houston. It gave us the first prime-time national television audience for a regular-season college basketball game, with the famed 1968 meeting between Houston and U.C.L.A. 

So it was despairing to hear that the vacant Astrodome might be torn down and its site paved over as Houston prepares to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Demolition would be a failure of civic imagination, a betrayal of Houston’s greatness as a city of swaggering ambition, of dreamers who dispensed with zoning laws and any restraint on possibility. 

A recent drive past the abandoned Astrodome at night revealed it to be unlit. It has been closed since 2008. The stadium was visible in silhouette, like a waning moon. 

In daylight, however, beneath the dust and neglect, the Astrodome’s silvery exterior continues to summon a city’s innovative past and futuristic promise. By contrast, Reliant Stadium next door is a dull football arena, designed with all the imagination of a hangar to park a blimp. 

James Glassman, a Houston preservationist, calls the Astrodome the city’s Eiffel Tower and the “physical manifestation of Houston’s soul.” New York could afford to tear down old Yankee Stadium, Glassman said, because the city had hundreds of other signature landmarks. Not Houston. Along with oil, NASA and the pioneering heart surgeons Michael E. DeBakey and Denton A. Cooley, the technological marvel of the Astrodome put a young, yearning city on the global map. 

“There was a confluence of space-age, Camelot-era optimism, and we were right there,” said Glassman, founder of the Web site “It really set us on the road for a go-go future.”
The Astrodome is indeed an icon, a testament to Houston's mid-century optimism. I will be just as sad as anybody when it is torn down. But as I noted a year ago, when I reluctantly came to the conclusion that it was time for the empty, neglected and dilapidated building to be torn down, "neither the public nor the private sector have the money or willpower required to rehabilitate the Astrodome into something useful, and it continues to sit as a sad and embarrassing eyesore" that is costing taxpayer money to maintain even as it wastes away.

I like University of Houston Architecture student Ryan Slattery's proposal for the Astrodome: strip it down to its metal skeleton, and make it a multi-use pavilion. Hlavarty says that "Slattery’s vision of skeletonizing the Dome for a pavilion concept is exciting, and you make use of the structure without completely demolishing history," and Longman applauds the idea as well:
Demolition “would symbolize that we’ve just decided to quit,” said Ryan Slattery, whose master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Houston offers a different alternative. 

Slattery’s plan, which has gained traction, involves a vision of green space. He would strip the Astrodome to its steel skeleton, evoking the Eiffel Tower of sport, and install a park. It could be used for football tailgating, livestock exhibitions, recreational sports. Other ideas have been floated through the years, some more realistic than others: music pavilion, casino, movie studio, hotel, museum, shopping mall, indoor ski resort, amusement park.
None of these pie-in-the-sky proposals for repurposing the Astrodome, of course, have come to anything approaching reality, and Slattery's idea, as novel and as sensible as it might be, will also cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to realize. Slattery's idea will need strong political backing, and that's probably going to be hard to come by when the easiest, and cheapest, option is simply to tear the Astrodome down.

Which means Commissioner Goodell will have a great parking space when he comes to Reliant Stadium for the Super Bowl in 2017.

Attila takes a swim

Michelle took this video at the dog park near our house earlier today. Attila really seems to enjoy the water, which is understandable given that he is part Labrador.

Attila's obviously gotten a lot bigger. His fur is also getting lighter.

How safe are our state's bridges?

On the heels of last week's collapse of a bridge along Interstate 5 in Washington, Chronicle science blogger Eric Berger points to a recent American Society of Civil Engineers survey of the state of the nation's bridges and discovers that, of the bridges in the state of Texas, 2.6% are considered "structurally deficient" and 16.6% percent are considered "functionally obsolete."
Due to the size and extent of its road network Texas has about 60 percent more bridges than any other state in the country, making it numerically the most vulnerable to bridge failures. Moreover, one third of the state’s bridges have been in service for more than half a century.

“Bridge maintenance spending must increase to ensure that service life expectations are met for new bridges represented by the increasing inventory level as well as for older bridges,” the engineers say.
To be fair, bridges that are rated "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete" are not inherently unsafe. "Structurally deficient" bridges are those that, because of design, damage or fatigue, are restricted as to the type of load they can carry. "Functionally obsolete" bridges were built under codes that are now out of date and were not designed to carry the volume and type of traffic they are now carrying. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, these bridges "do not have adequate lane widths, shoulder widths or vertical clearance to serve current traffic demands."

With that said, you would prefer bridges in your state's inventory not to be "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete." "Structurally deficient" bridges might have load restrictions on them that impede freight traffic and hamper local economies. The bridge on I-5 was "functionally obsolete," and it collapsed because a trucker with a high load hit the bridge's structure. Would that bridge have collapsed if it had been built to current clearance standards, rather than ones in effect when it was built in 1955?

The reason why so many Texas bridges fall into these two categories, of course, is simply because there's not enough money to maintain or replace them as they age. This problem is only going to get worse, because even as our transportation infrastructure gets older, we are continually reducing funding for its maintenance and construction. The Washington Post notes that spending on roads and highways has fallen off dramatically since 2008:
How did this happen? States and local governments are the biggest part of the story here. They’ve historically provided the vast majority of spending for roads, highways and bridges, and they’ve been pulling back on spending since 2008 as a result of the economic downturn and requirements to balance their budgets. California’s transportation spending declined by 31 percent from 2007 to 2009, for instance. Texas’s fell by 8 percent.

At the same time, Congress hasn’t filled in the gap. There was a one-time $46 billion infusion of transportation spending in the stimulus bill. But that wasn’t enough to offset the  drop at the state and local level. Meanwhile, the most recent highway bill out of Congress kept federal spending at current levels rather than increasing it.
Part of the problem is the federal (18.4 cents per gallon) and state (38.4 cents per gallon) gas tax. Neither has been raised in two decades, they are not indexed to inflation, and there is no political will for either of them to be raised anytime soon. That means less money from that funding source for transportation every year. Another part of the problem is the lack of a "fix it first" mentality in this country: we continue to want to build new roads even as we neglect the maintenance of what we already have. This, again, is rooted in politics: elected officials like to be able to claim credit for the new highways they've provided for their constituents, and there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for routine maintenance.

Fortunately, nobody was killed in last week's I-5 bridge collapse, and a temporary fix for this vital trade route to Canada is in the works. But this incident is just another example about why we need to start having a serious conversation, both at the state and national level, about adequately funding our nation's transportation infrastructure.

Bill allowing use of utility rights-of-way for hike and bike use signed into law

The Chronicle follows up on a subject I've previously written about:
Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a bill (described in this recent story) that could allow for more than 100 miles of idle land under power transmission lines in Harris County to be developed into hike and bike trails.

Bike advocates cheer this progress, which they say could provide a perfect complement to the city’s ongoing Bayou Greenway Initiative (a plan that includes $100 million in bonds approved by voters last fall and $100 million in grants and private donations). The city’s bayous run generally east and west, while many utility corridors run north and south.
Why this is a good thing: According to data compiled by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, in 2012 there were 1,263 crashes involving pedestrians and 674 crashes involving bicycles within the eight-county region. These crashes resulted in 106 pedestrian fatalities, and another 13 cyclists were killed; needless to say, when it's car vs person or car vs bicycle, the car is likely to win. The vast majority of these accidents (83%) and deaths (76%) occurred in Harris County. (These are, incidentally, huge increases over the number of bike/ped fatalities and crashes in 2011, but that's a topic for a different day. These are also crashes reported by law enforcement only; the actual number of incidents involving cars and either pedestrians or bicyclists is likely much higher.)

Obviously better enforcement and education would help to reduce the number of crashes and fatalities involving pedestrians and cyclists; this is something that the City of Houston's new safe passing ordinance is designed to address. But getting at least some of the pedestrians and cyclists off the roads and away from cars would also cut down on the carnage. That's what the expansion of hike and bike trails via the Bayou Greenway Initiative and this bill allowing CenterPoint rights-of-way to be used as trails is intended to accomplish.

Hopefully, with this barrier finally resolved, we can start seeing some new trails get built very soon.

Kuff has more.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Super Guppy

A couple of weekends ago several aircraft were on display at Hobby airport, including NASA's famous Super Guppy. Kirby and I went to check it out.
The Super Guppy is, needless to say, a rather unique-looking aircraft. It is used to transport outsized cargo for the space program. The interior cargo space is 25 feet in diameter at its widest and 111 feet in length. The aircraft's nose is hinged and opens to allow easy loading and unloading of cargo.
Four Super Guppies of this particular type were built and were used by NASA, the European Space Agency, and Airbus. This particular Super Guppy, which was actually built in Europe, is the only one still in use today. It is stationed at Ellington Field, so it didn't have to travel very far to be put on display at Hobby.
Admittedly, I was probably more impressed by it than Kirby. Still, it was nice to finally see this aircraft up close.

Forty by Forty update

Today marks the halfway point of my quest to lose forty pounds by my 40th birthday. How am I doing so far?

The good news is that I have indeed lost weight: twelve pounds since January 17th. The bad news is that I haven't lost enough weight to keep me on track towards my goal: I should be twenty pounds lighter by now.

Obviously, losing twelve pounds is better than not losing any weight at all, or, even worse, gaining. I'm not giving up, but I do need to work harder over the summer if I am going to reach my goal. I'm eating the right foods; I think I need to control my portions better and get more exercise.

I'll be back with a final report on my birthday.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hobby to Reagan National, nonstop.

Since I noted that both JetBlue and Southwest are about to begin service between Hobby and Boston Logan, I thought this was worth a mention as well:
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced on Tuesday that it would award Southwest Airlines two slot exemptions to operate the new service, which will be the first nonstop service from Hobby Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport just outside the capital, according to a statement.

The department's order requires Dallas-based Southwest to start the new service by Aug. 5.

United Airlines is currently the only airline that provides nonstop service to D.C. from Bush Intercontinental Airport.
No word yet on whether the DOT's decision is going to cause United to throw another temper tantrum.

In addition to this service and the flights to Boston, Southwest is also going to begin flights between Hobby and New York - La Guardia this summer (they already fly nonstop to Newark). This fall, nonstop flights to Memphis will start, as Southwest tries to chip away at what has been a fortress hub for Delta. So while there are still some major airports that cannot be accessed on a non-stop flight from Hobby (Chicago O'Hare, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Detroit, Salt Lake City and San Francisco among them), that list continues to get shorter and shorter.

Color photos of Houston in the late 1950s

Last week Chronicle local history blogger J.R. Gonzalez uncovered several fascinating aerial color photos of Houston from around 1959 or 1960. This is what the campus of the University of Houston looked like at that time:
                                                                                                                                                           Houston Chronicle File

The old Science Building, the Ezekiel Cullen Building, the Roy Cullen Building and what must have been a brand-new Heyne Building are located around the old reflecting pool and are still recognizable today. The rest of the campus, of course, looks completely different. Even what is now the M.D. Anderson Library in the background has been extensively expanded and remodeled. Notice how it used to be possible to drive through campus between Entrance 1 and Entrance 14.

Also, and as a nice follow-up to the 1957 home movie I wrote about last month, is this a picture of what was then Houston International (now Houston Hobby) Airport:
                                                                                                                                                                 Houston Chronicle File

Nowadays I think of Broadway Boulevard as the street that "goes" to Hobby, so it's rather striking to see what things looked like before it existed. The apron around the concourses is stained black from all the oil that the piston propeller aircraft of the day leaked. Of course, those old concourses have long since been demolished and the airport looks completely different today.

J.R. also found pictures of an early Texas Medical Center and of the Southwest Freeway under construction. The pictures are a particularly vivid reminder of just how much Houston has grown and changed over the past half-century. Very cool!

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Lows in the 40s. In May. I'll take it.

The cold front that blew through the city this afternoon is expected to push lows into the 40s tomorrow and this weekend, and Eric Berger thinks records could be broken:
Now let’s jump to Friday and Saturday. The record cold temperature on Friday (May 3) is 47 degrees, set in 1978, and for Saturday it is 44 degrees, also set in 1978. So we have a good chance of setting a record low on tomorrow morning.

Interestingly, for the entire month of May Houston has only ever recorded one day with a temperature below 45 degrees.  That is the 44 degree low temperature from May 4, 1978.  So a temperature of 43 degrees or lower this weekend would be the coldest May temperature Houston has ever had.
Works for me. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I'll take any cool I can get this time of year. The past several days have been humid with highs in the 80s and at this point its only a matter of days before we see highs in the 90s, as we did at this time last year.
Last year at this time highs were 90 degrees, lows were muggy at 70 degrees and a steamy summer was setting in.
This weekend, in contrast, will be exquisite. After the cold mornings discussed above, highs on Saturday and Sunday should rise into the mid-70s, with almost entirely clear skies on Saturday, and mostly sunny skies on Sunday.
The air will also be mostly dry rather than mostly humid.
It’s almost certainly the last weekend of high temperatures in the 70s until October, so don’t waste this weather.
"Almost certainly," as in, barring some sort of miracle, this is the best weather we're going to see for another five and a half months. We might get a "cool" front between now and then that knocks the humidity down for a few days, but otherwise...

Earlier this evening, I spent several minutes in the back yard, sipping coffee and watching Attila run around. I listened to the leaves rustle. I felt the crisp, autumn-like air buffet my skin. It was awesome.

Not looking forward to the summer.