Friday, March 25, 2016

Taking a breather

As my readers (if there are any of them remaining) may have noticed, this blog has not seen a lot of activity lately. There are several reasons for this, from the fact that my home computer is not working properly (it has an annoying habit of randomly shutting down, so I need to get it repaired), to the fact that changes in my personal life have left me less time to blog (did I mention that I have a new girlfriend!?!?), to the fact that I just haven't found much of anything interesting to write about lately (football season is over, I haven't taken any major travels since last summer, and the presidential race disgusts me).

So, I'm going to be taking a break from Mean Green Cougar Red for awhile. While this is not the "permanent hiatus" I keep threatening to make, it is likely that this will be my last post for a few months. Aside from getting my computer fixed, there are a lot of important activities I need to undertake over the next few months - among them, deciding on a middle school for Kirby, moving out of my home of the last four years when the lease is up, and oh, did I mention that I have a new girlfriend!? - that will leave no time for blogging.

If I come across or experience something that I urgently feel the need to write about, I will; otherwise, I'll probably be back at the keyboard sometime this summer.

Take care!

Will the oil bust cost Houston its international air connections?

Anybody who follows this blog knows that I have been obsessively covering the additions (and subtractions) to the list of international air connections from Bush Intercontinental (and Hobby) airport to the rest of the world. As Houston's population and economy have grown, so has the city's status as an international air travel hub. However, problems in the energy sector could slow or even reverse that trend.
Declining demand for business-class tickets due to the slumping oil business could make it more difficult for the Houston Airport System to continue luring international airlines.

"It won't be as easy as it was in the past," system director Mario Diaz said Monday after a State of the Airport event sponsored by the Greater Houston Partnership.

More than 10 international airlines - including Air China in 2013 and Air New Zealand last year - have added flights to Bush Intercontinental Airport since 2013. Many of those airlines were drawn by the chance to sell higher-margin seats to business travelers during the height of the oil boom.
They and other airlines remain committed to Houston, although some are now flying smaller planes or reducing the frequency of flights, Diaz said. Scandinavian Airlines stopped its nonstop flights between Bush Intercontinental and Stavanger, Norway, in late October.
Emirates, likewise, has discontinued using the double-decker A380 on its flights between Houston and Dubai, opting to use a smaller 777 instead. And by virtue of being Houston's largest single carrier, United is especially exposed to the pinch:
United Airlines, the major carrier at Bush, said Monday that low oil prices had disproportionately affected its business travel. Earlier this year, United said it would shift capacity from Houston to more robust airports.

If low oil prices persist for more than a year and a half, Diaz said, some of the smaller airlines may be "rethinking the value of remaining in Houston."
Unfortunately, the prospects for recovery in the price of crude, at least in the short-term, are highly dubious. And while I appreciate Diaz's desire to put a positive spin on the situation, I'm not sure I'm buying this:
But there is a silver lining for tourists or the friends-and-family traveler. With low fuel prices, he said some airlines are offering cheaper economy tickets to help offset the decline in business travel.

"I think the Houston public can expect a really, really good vacation," he said.
Selling cheaper economy tickets will not likely recoup the revenue lost from selling pricey business-class tickets, unfortunately.

While I'd hope that Houston's population is large enough, and its economy diversified enough, to continue to make this city a lucrative destination for international carriers, it's possible that we will see at least a few airlines discontinue service to Houston before things get better.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A "Purple" alternative for I-45 downtown

I actually became of Purple City’s impressive plan for the “downtown ring” – an alternative to TxDOT’s plans for completely reconstructing I-45 in and around downtown Houston – over a week ago, but haven’t had the chance to offer my two cents’ worth until now.

In a nutshell: it’s excellent.

It addresses a lot of flaws in the TxDOT plan. For example, the “managed express” (toll and high-occupancy vehicle) lanes that are discontinuous in the TxDOT plan are connected via the Pierce Elevated in the Purple City plan, meaning that buses and toll-paying vehicles traveling from Kingwood to the Texas Medical Center, or from Pearland to The Woodlands, don’t have to merge into general traffic lanes in order to get around downtown. The Purple City plan also retains the Polk Street crossing over 59/69 on the east end of downtown that the TxDOT design eliminates; a major flaw that will have an impact on car as well as transit operations between downtown and the east end.

Most importantly, the Purple City alternative asks an obvious question about the TxDOT plan: what is the logic in tearing down the Pierce Elevated, only to replace it by condemning almost 20 blocks of land on the east side of downtown to create a wide trench for 59/69 and 45?
In the East End, the 9/15 Plan demolishes the entire entertainment and nightlife district that has grown up around Saint Emanuel Street. This segment of the plan alone removes more land from the tax rolls than removal of the Pierce Elevated will add, assuming that corridor is redeveloped commercially.
The Purple City alternative hits on a variety of issues near and dear to my heart, including urban highway aesthetics. For example, can elevated highways be retrofitted to be more “urban-friendly?” The plan also reduces the need for right-of-way consuming frontage roads, eliminates confusing left-hand exists, and focuses on bicycle and transit connections in a way that the TxDOT plan does not.

I have a few quibbles with the Purple City alternative. For example, it replaces the planned University Line light rail along Richmond with a bus rapid transit line running between the University of Houston and the intersection of Westpark and Post Oak using managed lanes along 69/59. While this is a sensible transit service - it would require replacing the existing single, reversible HOV lane along 59/69 with a two-way, all-day structure, which needs to happen anyway – it would be of no benefit to the mixed-use, transit-friendly neighborhoods of Montrose and Upper Kirby that the University Line would serve. It also significantly reduces the potential for over-the-freeway deck parks that are a feature of the TxDOT plan.

All in all, however, the Purple City plan for I-45 has a lot of advantages over the TxDOT plan. Which raises the question: now that Purple City has put so much thought and effort into this alternate schematic, what's next? This plan has apparently been presented to TxDOT, which is an obvious first step, but will Purple City also be presenting this plan to area stakeholders, to the management districts in and around downtown, to decision-making bodies such as City Council, the METRO Board of Directors, and the H-GAC Transportation Policy Council?

Take a look at the report and the schematic, and stay tuned. Swamplot and Kuff have more.

On a not-entirely-unrelated note: while Houston decides what to do with their existing freeways in and around downtown, Lafayette, Louisiana is deciding if they want a new freeway to go through their downtown at all. In my grad school report about urban freeway aesthetics, I used I-49 through Lafayette as an example that urban freeway-building, for all the issues it creates, is not dead. I'll be following this story closely.