Friday, January 24, 2014

No, we can't drive in this crap

Once every few winters, it happens. A winter storm brings freezing rain, sleet and even a few flurries into the Houston metropolitan area, and everybody panics. The local TV news stations go into the OMG EXTREME WEATHER !!11! frenzy they usually reserve for hurricanes. Schools close. Kids rejoice. Flights get canceled. Business gets disrupted. People up north find out about it and laugh their asses off at us.

But there's a reason why this city shuts down at the slightest bit of ice: as the carnage wrought by this morning's ice storm once again illustrates, we don't know how to drive in this shit.

Driving in icy conditions is simply not a skill that the typical Houston motorist (transplants from up north aside) possesses. We just don't see these kinds of weather conditions often enough to know how to deal with driving in them.

Many of us readily admit that we do not know how to drive in these conditions. We simply stay off the roads. A substantial percentage of locals, however, either cannot admit that they don't know how to drive in icy weather or simply do not realize that driving in such conditions requires special skills that are not required for normal driving. These are the folks that get on the roads and get into wrecks, get stranded on ice-covered overpasses, or otherwise validate the decisions of those of us who choose not to drive in these conditions.

Sure, sometimes people down here can get a bit too ridiculous about it. Yesterday afternoon, everybody was in such a hurry to get home before the ice hit that my trip from The Woodlands (where I was attending meetings) to my home in Bellaire took two whole hours. This in spite of the fact that the freezing precipitation wasn't expected until much later in the evening. And the local news hype, complete with "team coverage" of reporters standing at busy intersections around town or B-roll of TxDOT trucks spraying salt on bridges and people wrapping their plants with blankets, doesn't make matters any better. 

But that's just the way it is down here, where icy weather is a rarity and where knowledge of how to drive in it is simply not a skill that is required 99.9% of the time. If we wanted to drive in this crap, we'd be living in Wyoming or Minnesota.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

High speed rail between Houston and Dallas: what you need to know

Last Monday, former Harris County Judge and current President of Texas Central Railway Robert Eckels came to the Houston-Galveston Area Council to make a lunchtime presentation (video here) of his company's plans for a bullet train that, as early as 2021, would make the trip from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes or less. Here are some of the highlights from his presentation:
  • This train is intended to be privately-financed and operated. Texas Central will work with government agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, and is in fact working with them on environmental studies right now, but the train itself will not be operated nor subsidized by the government.
  • This train's speed could top out at 205 miles per hour on the Houston-Dallas run, due to relatively flat topography and overwhelmingly rural development between the two cities. 
  • The train's city-to-city travel time of 90 minutes is competitive with flying, when time getting through security and boarding the aircraft is taken into account.
  • Seven different alignments are under consideration, but all try to use existing rights-of-way (along I-45 or existing Union Pacific or BNSF trackage) to keep land acquisition costs as low as possible. 
  • The train will be fully-grade separated, as all bullet trains are in Japan. 
  • Train departures will be as frequent as every half-hour, which matches frequencies currently offered by Southwest Airlines between Hobby Airport and Love Field. 
  • Ticket prices are expected to be slightly less than the current commercial airfare between Houston and Dallas, but a fare structure is nowhere near finalized.
  • Station locations in Houston and Dallas are still under study but downtown termini appear to be preferred; getting into downtown Dallas from the south is going to be easier than getting into downtown Houston from the north due to the way the two cities have developed. 
  • As of right now, there are no plans for any intermediate stops between Houston and Dallas. This is probably not something that folks from Bryan/College Station or The Woodlands want to hear, and there may be opportunities to provide those stations in the future, but initially this is envisioned to be a non-stop service. 
  • Likewise, these trains will not stop at any airports, because it is not economic to do so at this time. Right-of-way for a future extension from Dallas to DFW airport and Fort Worth will be preserved, however.
  • The vociferous opposition from Southwest Airlines that killed a similar plan for high speed rail in Texas in the 1990s has not materialized. This is because Southwest's business model has changed significantly in the last 20 years. This is due to factors such as the expiration of Wright Amendment restrictions on service to and from Love Field in Dallas, the fact that Southwest is now a truly "national" airline, and increases in jet fuel costs that make the short-haul flights that Southwest used to rely on, such as Hobby-to-Love, less profitable. 
  • The price tag for the train's construction is a nice, round $10 billion.
Eckels noted that the challenges to building this bullet train are financial, rather than environmental or technical in nature, but that private funding sources are being sought and that if things "pencil in," then this project will become a reality. He says he's "cautiously optimistic;" I'm somewhat less optimistic, if for no other reason than rounding up $10 billion in private capital is a significant hurdle to clear. I'm also worried that actually getting the trains into the centers of both Houston and Dallas will be a lot harder than Texas Central anticipates.

On the other hand, it's clear that Texas Central is not some wild-eyed, pie-in-the-sky operation. Eckels leads an experienced and politically-savvy team, their backing from Central Japan Railway is real, and their plans are being taken very seriously by federal, state and local authorities. It's all about being able to ensure that their investors make a profit, and to that end Texas Central is not looking just at fares but also development opportunities around stations for maximum value capture.

I've ridden the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, and I would take that over a cramped seat on a 737 or a boring car ride on I-45 any day. So while I have my doubts, I'm nevertheless rooting for Eckels and Texas Central to succeed.

Finding one's self... On Google Earth

Google Earth recently updated its imagery for the Houston area. I zoomed into my house to discover that it shows exactly what I was doing in the early afternoon of Halloween 2013.

At the time this picture was taken, I had just gotten off from work (I took a half-day) and was getting ready for the tailgate for that evening's football game against South Florida at Reliant Stadium. The white top of my ice chest is clearly visible in the open trunk of my car, as am I, walking to the right side of my car carrying a grocery bag in my hand (which you can see if you zoom into my shadow) which I was about to put into the car. If I recall correctly, the bag contained tortilla chips as well as candy - it was, after all, Halloween.

I don't mind that Google Earth's aerial photography found me. It's not like I am readily identifiable in this picture taken from miles above, and since was in the front of my house in plain view of the street I had no expectation of privacy to begin with. It's just a little piece of my mundane existence which has been captured and will forever reside in Google's servers.

And I actually think it's kind of cool.

Why nobody attends UH basketball games

University of Houston President Renu Khator has taken to Twitter to exhort the UH faithful to come out and support the mens' basketball team. The 11-7 Cougars are averaging 3,128 tickets sold per game this season - the worst attendance average in the 10-team AAC - and the number of people actually in the seats at any given game is significantly smaller than that. Folks on UH sports message boards have begun to referring to Hofheinz Pavilion as "The Tomb" due to the lack of people in the stands.

The UH athletics department probably hoped that the Coogs' surprising upset over UConn on New Year's Eve would ignite interest in the basketball program. But that hasn't happened - hence, Dr. Khator's tweet - and John Royal explains why it's probably not going to happen:
It's been three decades since UH basketball was a national power. Two decades since the program could be counted on to make a postseason appearance. There's been a lot of bad decisions made (Clyde Drexler, Ray McCallum, the installation of the bunker-like suites at the top of the Hofheinz concourses and many, many others). And those bad decisions have led to a point where it just appears that, but for a few hundred diehards who come out every night, nobody really gives a damn about Houston Cougars basketball.

UH's 77-55 win over Rutgers yesterday wasn't the most eagerly anticipated of games. UH had just been blown out by Louisville three nights earlier. Rutgers is a no-name, mediocre program that won't even be in the conference next season. The early tip time was dictated by the needs of television. But this game could've been played in prime time on a Saturday night and the attendance would've still been the same.

This is what happens when nobody cares. When the fan base has reached that point of apathy that it can't even draw fans for a game against UConn, one of the country's storied powers. The discussion's no longer about when the fan base will return. The discussion should now be about if the fan base will ever return.
I freely admit that I'm part of the problem; I rarely attend UH basketball games these days because, well, the games just aren't much fun for me anymore. Sure, I should be a good alumnus and support my school's hoops program through thick and thin. But when the team plays one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the nation but still only manages an 8-5 record, when the program has made exactly one NCAA Tournament appearance in the last twenty-two years, when the head coach is an aging retread who was coaching middle school girl's basketball when he was hired, when attending Cougar basketball games feels less like entertainment and more like a chore... Well, I guess I've just reached "that point of apathy" that Royal writes about. There was a time when I really cared about UH basketball. Now I couldn't even tell you when the next home game is.
I'm a UH grad. I understand. I get it. The basketball program's been nothing better than mediocre since Pat Foster departed. Tom Penders had some success and consistently got the team into postseason play, though only once to the NCAA Tournament, but he's long gone. Most of the other coaching hires have been disasters. The team's failed time after time to build on positives. And while there's talent on this roster, it's still a bit of a mediocre team that will for the most part struggle when facing the big boy programs which dot the American Athletic Conference.

So I understand the apathy. Why buy into the promises yet again? Why drag yourself to a dreary building on a glorious Sunday morning when a game's being played at a time dictated by a television network and that's not the best time for fans. I don't necessarily like it, but I get it, and I understand.
UH basketball has simply been too irrelevant for too long; the fan base has been worn down to almost nothing, and it's going to take a lot more than a tweet from Dr. Khator to get people - myself included - interested in the program again.

(Also, it's worth mentioning that as President, Dr. Khator can do a lot more about the state of the hoops program than simply tweeting about it, if she chose to do so.)

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Houston 24, Vanderbilt 41

The Cougars stumbled out of the gate, rallied, but then fell short in a 24-41 loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama last Saturday. This was Houston's fourth loss in five games and their largest margin of defeat of the season.

The Good: The third quarter. Houston rallied from a 24-point halftime deficit to tie the game. The offense gained an astounding 309 yards in the quarter, with touchdowns coming on a Kenneth Farrow run and John O'Korn passes to Markeith Ambles and Deontay Greenberry. Ambles caught 5 passes for 95 yards in the third quarter, while O'Korn was 10-17 for 213 yards in the period. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, could only manage 47 yards of offense and was unable to score in the third quarter; over the course of the game the Cougar defense forced three turnovers and held Vanderbilt to 2 for 17 on third-down conversions.

The Bad: The other three quarters. The Cougar offense was clearly not prepared to start this game, and the first half was a bad comedy of incomplete passes, turnovers and sacks. The team did not manage a first down until midway through the second quarter, and could only manage 22 yards of total offense - and no points - in the entire first half. After their third quarter explosion, the offense reverted to form, gaining only 50 yards and scoring no points in the fourth quarter; John O'Korn was intercepted twice. The UH defense, meanwhile, finally succumbed to exhaustion and allowed Vanderbilt to score the game's final 17 points.

The Ugly: The Cougar offensive line was thoroughly manhandled by Vanderbilt, which was one of the reasons for the offense's overall ineptitude. It didn't help matters that offensive line coach Glenn Elarbee left before the bowl game to take a coordinator position at Arkansas State, but the o-line has been a weakness the entire season and a new o-line coach will be a critical offseason hire for Tony Levine.

Oh, and eight penalties for 72 yards. Not pretty.

What it means: I'm not too upset about this loss. Yes, it would have been nice to end the season with a bowl win against an SEC team, and no, I don't like the way the offense came out flat and unprepared, but at the end of the day there was nothing more than pride riding on this game. This wasn't even the worst bowl loss in recent UH history: the 13-42 thrashing by Kansas to end the 2005 season or the 20-47 interception-fest against Air Force to end the 2009 season were far more discouraging.

What I'm more concerned about is how the offense regressed over the second half of the season. Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham left for TCU after the season ended, which made several UH fans who were unimpressed with his abilities - myself included - happy. However, rather than engaging in a national search for a new OC who could get the most out of the Cougars' offensive talent, Levine simply promoted running backs coach Travis Bush, who was acting OC in the 2012 season, back into that role. If this game is any indication of what 2014's offense is going to look like, color me unoptimistic.

All things considered, however, 2013 was a respectable year for Houston Cougar football. In spite of not having a true "home" stadium to play in, the Cougars notched an 8-5 record, and could have won even more games had they caught a break or two here or there. The big story of the 2013 team was the stout defense, something not seen in Houston for years, if not decades. Hopefully the Coogs can maintain that momentum in 2014, a season that's going to be notable simply because UH will finally have a brand new stadium to play in.

I'd like to bid farewell to the 2013 college football season with heartfelt congratulations to my father's alma mater, the Florida State Seminoles. They were the only team in FBS to go undefeated, and their victory over a great Auburn team in the BCS National Championship Game was truly a classic.

And now, the offseason. Ugh.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Coming full circle with the Mean Green

The very first University of North Texas football game I ever watched was against Nevada - Las Vegas.

It was the evening of Thursday, September 2, 1999. I had finished grad school and begun working for the City of Denton just a couple of months before, and being the college football fiend that I was, Idecided to buy season tickets to watch the local team play.

(I ended up with seats on the 45 yard line, home side, of Fouts Field, if that provides any indication of just how sparse the Mean Green's fanbase was.)

The Rebels were playing their first game as members of the new Mountain West Conference. John Robinson was their head coach. And UNLV handily defeated the Mean Green, 26-3.

North Texas, which hadn't had a winning season in five years, would only win two games in 1999. They would see some success a few years later, winning the Sun Belt Conference four consecutive years between 2001 and 2004, but would return to the dregs of college football afterward. The Mean Green strung together eight losing seasons in a row between 2005 and 2012, including a three-season stretch where the team managed a 5-31 record. The North Texas program struggled with poor coaching and obsolete facilities.

That changed in 2011, when the Mean Green introduced Dan McCarney as their new head coach. That fall Apogee Stadium opened. Last year, UNT made the move from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA. And in 2013, the Mean Green put together their first winning season since 2004, notching an 8-4 record and a bowl appearance.

Needless to say, as I watched North Texas defeat UNLV, 36-14, in yesterday's Heart of Dallas Bowl, I couldn't help but think that things had come full circle for the Mean Green.

One winning season does not a trend make, of course, and only time will tell if UNT will become a good college football program in the years to come. But the ingredients for success are certainly there: a state-of-the-art stadium, good coaching and location in the talent-rich DFW Metroplex.

Both UNT and Houston still have open dates on their 2014 schedule, so there's speculation that the Coogs and the Mean Green could play each other. Which is fine with me, as I had a great time the last time the two teams met.