Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rockets win first postseason series since 2009

And they did it against the hated Dallas Mavericks, no less...

It's been 20 years since the Rockets' last NBA championship, and while as a fan I'd love to see them win it all again this season, I just don't see that happening. The team has suffered some key injuries, they collectively aren't great at the free throw line, they don't match up well with either of their possible second round opponents (LA Clippers or San Antonio Spurs), and one gets the feeling that this is just Golden State's year anyway.

Still, this is a team that is fun to watch, it's good to see the local team have some success in the postseason once again, and hey... anything can happen in the postseason, right?

Speaking of that 1995 championship: do yourself a favor and read the Houston Press's wonderful oral history of that amazing playoff run.

Some thoughts about TxDOT's plans for I-45 North

Last night I attended an open house at the HCC Central Campus regarding the Texas Department of Transportation's grand plans for Interstate 45 around and north of downtown Houston. This ambitious endeavor would re-route I-45 to the east and north of downtown, demolish the Pierce Elevated, put the freeway in a trench (possibly topped by green space) between downtown and 610, and massively widen the freeway between 610 and Beltway 8. Some thoughts:

This project, if it happens, will be the biggest single public works project in Houston's history. Dredging the ship channel, building the Astrodome, creating the NASA Johnson Space Center... Those are all iconic public works milestones in this city's history. But in terms of sheer cost and impact, they won't compare to this one. The cost - last night a TxDOT engineer told me that the estimated price tag for the entire project is "over six billion dollars" - dwarfs the cost of recent freeway rebuilds like the Katy or the Northwest. And the project will completely alter Houston's urban landscape around, and to the north of, downtown.

                                                                   Texas Department of Transportation
The reconstruction of I-45 won't just affect I-45. The project's limits extend all the way past downtown to I-69/US-59 in the Montrose area, where the Spur 527 split occurs. As anybody who has traveled through the "Montrose Trench" knows, this is a huge bottleneck in the eastbound/northbound direction at all hours of the day, as six lanes of traffic are forced down to three. This project would extend the trench to 288 and add lanes, thereby easing the bottleneck. The 69/59 intersection with 288 will also be completely rebuilt, as will the entirely of 69/59 east of downtown and I-10 north of it.

The over-the-freeway parks being proposed for 45 between downtown and the loop and for 45 east of downtown (where it would run concurrently with 69/59) need to happen. They are currently not included in project cost, but they would be wonderful urban amenities that would reconnect neighborhoods, boost surrounding property values and enhance the city's quality of life. For a good idea of what these green spaces could look like and how they could be used, take a look at Margaret T. Hance Park over I-10 in Phoenix, Freeway Park over I-5 in Seattle, Lake Place and Leif Erikson Parks over I-35 in Duluth, or the new Klyde Warren Park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in Dallas.

The fact that below-grade freeways sometimes flood is a feature, not a bug. Yes, this project is going to put a big chunk of Houston's inside-the-loop freeway network below grade. And yes, these freeway trenches will occasionally flood. However, by acting as temporary floodwater retention, these trenches will help to prevent surrounding neighborhoods from flooding during major rain events. Sure, there is the inconvenience of these freeways being closed (and the cost of a few cars being flooded out, for people dumb enough to drive into rising water), but it is exponentially less disruptive or costly than entire neighborhoods, houses, businesses, etc. being destroyed by floodwater. This is something I wish more people would understand. 

I admit it: I'll miss the Pierce Elevated. Sure, it's constantly congested and it serves as a physical as well as psychological barrier between downtown and Midtown. But I'll miss the views it provides as it swoops past all those skyscrapers on its west and south ends. Oh, and while I love the idea of the Pierce Sky Park - Houston's answer to New York City's High Line - I think pressure from real estate and developer interests to convert what is now the Pierce Elevated into developable property is going to prevent that from becoming a reality.

Right-of-way requirements are going to cause significant residential and business displacement. On the east side of downtown alone, popular restaurants like Kim Son and Huynh, Dynamo fan hangouts like Little Woodrow's, and residential complexes like the Lofts at the Ballpark and the Clayton Homes housing project will have to be demolished. And don't even get me started on all the businesses that will need to be taken in order to widen I-45 between 610 and Beltway 8. Obviously, a huge percentage of the "over six billion dollar" cost of this project will be dedicated to right-of-way acquisition, as the demand for land is so enormous. TxDOT will provide relocation assistance, but this project is still going to cause a lot of inconvenience for a lot of people.

Oh, and it's going to take many, many years for the entire project to be completed, as well.  I'm thinking a decade, give or take a few years. Construction will likely occur in stages, so that only one area of town is torn up and rebuilt at a time. I think it will be worth it once it's all complete, but there's a lot of aggravating and disrupting construction between now and then.

This project still has a few missing pieces, especially in terms of transit connectivity. There needs to be a connection from the 288 managed lanes (that are supposed to get underway soon) to the I-45 managed lanes proposed as part of this project, so that people who live in The Woodlands can get to their jobs in the Texas Medical Center or people who live in Pearland can get to their jobs at ExxonMobil's Springwoods campus. Right now, all of these managed lanes lead directly into downtown, even though a significant number of commuters (be they in cars, vanpools, or METRO and Woodlands Express buses) would likely want to use these hybrid HOV/toll lanes to go to destinations other than downtown. Also, the reconstruction of I-69/US-59 from the spur to 288 is a perfect opportunity to incorporate a portion of the fabled University Line light rail which would connect midtown with The University of Houston: since there is going to be right-of-way acquisition and construction in that corridor anyway, why not lay down tracks parallel to 69/59 between Main Street and the Alabama Street bridge?

A lot of work has gone into the current design, but it is not final. This project is not yet set in stone concrete; there's still a lot of design work to be done, and then of course there is the small detail as to where to find the "over six billion dollars" to pay for this. It's probably going to be at least five years before construction begins in earnest, so there's still time to get things right. TxDOT is soliciting comments until May 31st, 2015. Feel free to add your voice to the discussion.

The project website (including massive schematic drawings in all their take-forever-to-download glory) is here. Kuff and Swamplot have further discussion.

UH names its new Athletics Director

They didn't have to look very far to find him:
Hunter Yurachek has been named vice president for intercollegiate athletics and athletic director at the University of Houston, the school announced Tuesday.

Yurachek replaces Mack Rhoades, who announced in March he was leaving to become the new AD at Missouri.

"Hunter Yurachek is the best leader and administrator for where we are, and where we are going," UH president Renu Khator said. "He brings both a fresh perspective and a keen understanding of our strengths and opportunities."

Yurachek has spent the past 14 months serving as UH's associate vice president and chief operating officer for intercollegiate athletics, the No. 2 official in the athletic department.

"This is an exciting time to be at the University of Houston, and I embrace the challenge of leading our athletics program to the next level." Yurachek said.
Some UH fans I know are underwhelmed by this hire. They think that Houston should have found a "name" AD, or at least hired somebody with strong connections to the "Power 5" conferences that Houston wants to join. Others think that Yuraheck is going to be little more than a "yes man" for President Renu Khator and Chairman of the Board of Regents Tillman Fertitta. Still other UH fans seem to be happy with this hire, citing Yurachek's accomplishments as AD at Coastal Carolina - he was named the Football Championship Subdivision athletic director of the year in 2013-14 - and the fact that he has already had a successful tenure as second-in-command at Houston:
At UH, Yurachek has been responsible for the day-to-day oversight of UH's athletic program that comprises 17 varsity sports, more than 400 student athletes, 175 employees and a $40 million-plus operational budget.

Yurachek served as chair for a campus steering committee to oversee the grand opening of $120 million TDECU Stadium last August and helped secure a 10-year, $15 million naming rights deal for the on-campus football stadium. He also was liaison with the architectural design firm on the Cougars' $25 million basketball development facility that opens this summer and oversaw the development of $1 million in upgrades to the men's and women's basketball locker rooms at Hofheinz Pavilion and the Athletics/Alumni Center, including the addition of a student-athlete nutrition center Cougar Café.

Yurachek was also part of the search committee to hire football coach Tom Herman and men's basketball coach Kelvin Sampson and women's basketball coach Ronald Hughey.
Which makes me wonder: while Yurachek was doing all this work, what was Mack Rhoades doing?

Snark aside, Yurachek has a lot of work ahead of him: he needs to grow the season ticket base for football, get locals interested in basketball, renovate Hofheinz Pavilion, and make the Cougar program attractive to a P5 conference by the time the next round of conference realignment occurs. He also needs to raise funds, groom donors, and ensure that players graduate. Oh yeah, the programs (at least the revenue ones) need to win, as well.

Best of luck, Hunter!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

United to serve free drinks on long-haul flights

I regularly use this blog to beat up on United Airlines, so I should be fair and give them credit when they do something good for their passengers:
United Airlines passengers will no longer have to reach for their wallets if they ask for wine or beer on long-haul international flights. Not even in economy.

United says it will upgrade the food in its economy cabin, too, offering "a hearty three-course service" that will remain complimentary. Beyond that, the carrier will start selling the same light snacks that it already offers on its domestic flights.

The changes begin June 1, covering United's long-haul flights between the United States and Europe and Asia. They'll also include United flights between the U.S. and Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
Many long-haul passengers, myself included, like to have a couple of adult beverages in-flight because it relaxes and makes the flight a bit more bearable. So why is United abandoning what is obviously a lucrative source of revenue?
The return of free drinks and the upgraded meal service on the long international routes will likely be welcomed by United's economy customers. But the effort also comes as United faces stronger competitors, both in the U.S. and abroad.

American and Delta already offer complimentary wine and beer in the economy cabins of their comparable long-haul routes. So do many foreign carriers that fly to the USA, including Germany's Lufthansa, Japan's All Nippon Airways and Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco, calls United's latest changes a needed first step in bringing United into line with other global carriers.

"Their alliance partners – as well as competitors – offer an open bar," Harteveldt says. "It's a small thing, but United doesn't want to lose a sale just because they're charging people for drinks in economy and other airlines are not."
This new policy, which begins June 1st, applies to beer and wine but apparently not hard liquor. And again, it only applies to transcontinental international flights, so if you're flying to Mexico, the Caribbean, Ecuador or even Hawaii, you'll still have to pay up.

Still, it's a step in the right direction for United. Cheers!

My excitement awakens

I saw the latest trailer right after it was released. Rob Tornoe sums up my feelings perfectly:
(I've been watching all six Star Wars movies with my son, and I had forgotten just how absolutely awful the prequels were: the overuse of CGI, the stilted dialogue, the wooden acting, Jar Jar Binks... I hope I'm not setting myself up for disappointment come December.)

New flights to New Zealand

The influx of international carriers into Houston continues:
Air New Zealand announced Wednesday it will add Houston as its North American destination with a flight to Auckland.

This new nonstop flight marks the 11th new international carrier added in Houston since April 2013. Air New Zealand will fly a Boeing 777-200 from Bush Intercontinental "up to" five times a week. The flight will start in mid-December with ticket sales available in May.
Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance member, so it makes sense for them to plug into fellow member United's largest hub.

Speaking of United, it's worth remembering that they had planned to offer Houston-Auckland service themselves a few years back, but canceled that flight as part of their temper tantrum when Southwest was given permission to fly internationally from Hobby.

Houston will be Air New Zealand's fourth US destination, after Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco.