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Kevin Brady

A really dumb “Trump and the train” article

Ugh.

Texas is closer than ever to building the first high-speed train in the United States, thanks to President Donald Trump’s fascination with these transportation projects and a well-timed pitch to his administration.

Now developers nationwide are looking to the privately owned Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.

Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.

What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.

“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.

The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.

The question now is whether private investment — coupled with regulatory relief — is a model the Trump administration could use to finance and expedite his promised $1 trillion infrastructure push, and not just in Texas.

[…]

California is building a 220-mph high-speed rail system, but that project has been delayed by political opposition. Its trains also have to meet more rigorous federal standards for crash protection because they will share tracks with commuter trains, Amtrak and some freight.

By building a self-contained system where trains will not intersect with street traffic or encounter slower trains, the Texas project can employ off-the-shelf technology in use in Japan for more than 50 years.

“It’s going to be a lot easier than the California project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates and chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, both advocacy groups that support the Texas project. “They’ll have a little harder way to go in California than in Texas.”

[…]

High-speed rail has been a topic in Texas for 30 years, but Keith thinks its moment has come.

“What’s happening in Texas is private entrepreneurs are saying, look there’s demand, there’s pent-up demand,” he said. “We can meet the demand.”

The biggest obstacles for the railway could be back home in Texas. Some landowners along the route want to derail the project, and they have help from allies in the state Legislature.

“You’re talking about property rights. In Texas, we love our land,” said LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates.

LeCody said Texas was changing and needed a transportation system that addressed road congestion and population growth.

“We’re such a growing state,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to move people from point A to point B without highways.”

See here for previous Trump-and-the-train coverage. Where to begin with this article?

1. The article makes it sound like interest in high speed rail is something unique to Dear Leader Trump. In fact, President Obama had national high speed rail ambitions, which included plans for Texas that unfortunately didn’t pan out due to our own lack of initiative. To be sure, that was government funding for high speed rail, while Texas Central is all about private funding. I’m just saying that the idea of high speed rail here did not originate with Trump.

2. The opposition to Texas Central is barely acknowledged in this story, much less analyzed. There’s a full court press in the Legislature, which Texas Central itself acknowledges as an existential threat. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the likelihood of success for the Texas Central opponents, mostly because they don’t appear to have grown their base beyond the mostly rural counties in East and Central Texas, but they are working hard at this and they have some powerful and influential Senators on their side. Not talking to a Brandon Creighton or Lois Kolkhorst about Texas Central is at the least a disservice to the readers. For crying out loud, the story uses a Texas Central booster to discuss the opposition. Even as a Texas Central supporter myself, I say that’s just lousy journalism.

3. Outside the Legislature, there is a fervent grassroots opposition to Texas Central as well, with a lot of that coming from county and municipal governments in the affected areas as well as from private citizens. There’s already been litigation over access to the land needed for the TCR right of way, and there will surely be more for as long as this project is in its planning and construction phase. One might also note that this opposition comes from places in the state that voted heavily for Trump. Maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that might get a voter to change their mind about a President, but again, not at least acknowledging this leaves the reader with a false impression.

4. Finally, the opposition to TCR includes two powerful Republican Congressmen from Texas, one of whom chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. If you don’t think it’s possible that Rep. Kevin Brady could slip a rider into the budget that guts Texas Central, much like Rep. John Culberson did to Metro and the Universities line, you’ve got an insufficiently active imagination.

Other than that, it was a fine article.

And as if to prove my point, we have this.

The Texas Senate’s chief budget writers Wednesday added a provision to its proposed state budget aimed at limiting state assistance in a private firm’s efforts to build a Dallas-Houston bullet train.

The budget rider approved by the Senate Finance Committee would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending funds to help plan, build or operate a high-speed train.

The company developing a 205-mph bullet train between Dallas and Houston called the language a “job killer.” Texas Central Partners has vowed it won’t take any state funds to develop the 240-mile line between Texas’ two largest metropolitan areas. But, the company said, it still needs to work with state transportation officials.

“Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state’s growth,” said in a statement released by the company Wednesday.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, denied that the budget rider he wrote was meant to kill the project.

“If we are being told that this is never going to take any bailouts, they need to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

A similar amendment nearly killed the project two years ago, but was eventually omitted from the state’s final budget.

See here and here for the background. Note that it was Sen. Schwertner who tried this trick in 2015 as well. We’ll see what happens with it. I trust you see my point about why this article sucked.

Trump and the train

This could be interesting.

A privately-funded bullet train between Dallas and Houston and a passenger rail line connecting suburban North Texas are among a litany of transportation projects considered priorities by President Donald Trump’s administration, according to The Kansas City Star.

But what that means for the projects either financially or in a regulatory sense wasn’t immediately clear Tuesday.

The Star reported that the document doesn’t detail how the listed projects “would be funded, how the federal government prioritized these projects or any timeline for completion.” It is not known if the document is finalized or a draft, according to The Star.

Trump earlier in the day signed an executive order that aims to expedite the environmental review process of infrastructure projects, something that can often take years and cost millions of dollars.

[…]

In a statement, Texas Central said it was “pleased” to be considered a priority.

“Texans are looking for safe, reliable and productive transportation options,” the statement said. “The high-speed train answers that call for the region, state and country. We look forward to working with the new administration, moving ahead with the project’s free-market approach.”

To the extent that one believes Trump actually intends to push for an infrastructure bill (*), this is the sort of thing that would be appealing to him, and independent of that scaling back on environmental regulations may well help speed this along. That said, one should remember that Texas Central has some high profile opponents among Texas’ Republican caucus, and I doubt that they will be swayed by any of this. That said, TCR can use and will be happy to have all the help it can get. We’ll see what comes of it. The Press has more.

(*) – For what it’s worth, Democrats have their own infrastructure proposal, which differs in a few key respects from the as-yet-unspecific Trump plan. I don’t know how or if Texas Central would fit into that, and there’s a zero percent chance that it gets taken up for a vote in Congress, but it’s there if you want an eventual point of comparison.

The high-speed rail fight has officially shifted to Congress

Nothing like a little eminent domain action to spur some people on.

In the four years Texas Central Railway unveiled plans to link Dallas and Houston with the country’s first bullet train, officials with the private company have talked a lot about how quickly the line will whisk travelers between two of the country’s largest, fastest-growing urban areas, about how darn Texan the early investors are, about the stellar safety record of the Japanese rail technology they’ll be using.

By contrast, the company has talked very little about its planned use of eminent domain, which is the legal term for when a government, or frequently a private company that has the government’s endorsement, takes someone’s land. When the topic has come up, the company has typically responded by stressing its strong preference for negotiating with landowners to find a mutually agreeable price for their land.

The problem with that response is that it fails to acknowledge some fundamental truths about human beings in general and landowners in the rural areas along the bullet train’s proposed route in particular. People, as a rule, don’t like having their property sliced in two by large infrastructure projects. People in places like Ellis and Grimes counties really, really don’t like having their property sliced in two by a private, Japanese-backed venture whose only benefit for them will be the privilege of marveling at the wondrous bullet-train technology as it zooms by atop a 14-foot berm. If the line is ever going to get built, Texas Central will have to use eminent domain against hundreds, maybe thousands, of landowners.

Texas Central now admits as much. In filings last month with the federal Surface Transportation Board, which regulates the operations of the freight and passenger rail market, the company indicated that it’s ready to start acquiring right-of-way for its track.

“In many cases, that involves negotiating agreements with landowners who are willing sellers,” the company wrote. “Texas Central is already beginning those negotiations. Inevitably, however, some landowners along the route will not be willing to sell, or even negotiate. If some of those negotiations reach an impasse, Texas Central plans to use its statutory eminent domain powers to establish the properties’ condemnation value.”

In the weeks since the filling, the Surface Transportation Board has become the site of a pitched battle between Texas Central and its opponents, with powerful surrogates on both sides. Several members of Texas’ congressional delegation, and about a dozen state legislators, have waded into the debate. Congressmen Joe Barton of Ennis and Kevin Bradyof suburban Houston have filed letters opposing Texas Central while Dallas’Eddie Bernice Johnson and Corpus Christi’s Blake Farenthold offering statements of support.

The stakes are high. Texas Central says it needs Surface Transportation Board approval in order to begin using eminent domain under Texas law, an obvious prerequisite for actually building and operating a railroad.That means the Surface Transportation Board represents a regulatory choke point, a rare point where opponents can conceivably derail the project in one fell swoop.

See here for some background. If you look at Rep. Johnson’s letter, you will see that it was also signed by Rep. Gene Green of Houston. No surprise, since urban Democrats have been big supporters of the rail line so far. The surprise was Rep. Farenthold, as his district isn’t in the path of the train and is more rural than urban. Gotta give him credit for that – he didn’t have to get involved, and having at least one Republican in their corner will help TCR make its case. I don’t know what the timeine is for the Surface Transportation Board, but I agree that this is a potential choke point, and it could have a disproportionate effect on the ultimate outcome. I’ll keep an eye on that.

High speed rail opponents pick up another Congressional ally

Welcome aboard, Smokey Joe.

In a filing with the Surface Transportation Board, North Texas Congressman Joe Barton (R) Arlington has come out against a high speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.

Barton, whose district encompasses parts of Tarrant County and the city of Arlington that supports Texas Central Railway’s high speed rail line, claims that Ellis and Navarro counties in his district will be dissected.

Barton, who in the filing dated May 9, 2016 said that while he generally supports private investment in high speed rail projects, voiced that the project would not be economically feasible or necessary. He claims that inexpensive air travel is available between Dallas and Houston and there are few delays on I-45 between the two major regions.

In his letter to the STB Congressman Barton said that county and state roads would be closed off if the rail line is built and that few jobs would be created in construction of the 240 mile rail line.

“Congressman Barton obviously has been getting bad information from his staff on this project because the Texas Central website has a whole different story,” according to Texas Rail Advocates President Peter LeCody. “It’s a shame that a Congressman who champions private investment would be so misinformed.”

You can see Barton’s letter here. Barton is not the first member of Congress to come out against the high speed rail line; Rep. Kevin Brady was already there. And if you’re wondering what the Surface Transportation Board is, there you go.

Barton’s letter came a couple of days after TCR formally asked the STB to get involved.

Developers of Texas’ high-speed train have asked the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to confirm it has oversight of the project, bringing it in line with the nation’s other major passenger and freight railroads.

Texas Central recently filed a formal petition to the STB, asking that the agency affirm its jurisdiction over the project and to weigh in on critical next steps that will include construction and operation of the passenger link between North Texas and Houston, with a midway stop in the Brazos Valley.

Texas Central is required to seek STB certification of the project, thus complying with the federal regulatory process that all newly constructed rail lines must follow. Links here and here to the two STB filings.

This request does not seek to remove protections afforded to landowners under Texas law. It merely clarifies the STB procedures that Texas Central must follow and does not change or override any state landowner protections.

The STB will not issue a final decision until the environmental review is completed but Texas Central asked the board to issue an interim order as soon as practicable.

[…]

The STB requires a project to outline its goals and objectives so that the agency can consider its role. Texas Central’s petition explains that Texas high-speed rail meets the conditions needed to gain STB jurisdiction, similar to other passenger and freight railroads in the country. Among the factors supporting Texas Central:

* It is a transportation infrastructure project of national importance, providing “a safe, reliable, convenient and environmentally friendly travel option.”

* The Texas route – between two major commercial hubs – fills a gap in existing passenger service and significantly adds to the country’s general passenger railway network.

* Its planned passenger stations – in Dallas, Houston and Grimes County – are designed to enhance local and interstate transportation connections.

A draft environmental impact statement from the FRA, which began work on that last year, is expected this summer. There will be more hearings on the proposed routes after that, with construction aimed to begin in late 2017, although Texas Central has suggested the timeline may slip into 2018. Assuming this happens at all, which if the opponents keep piling up powerful allies may be in doubt. I’m still mostly optimistic, but there sure are a lot of obstacles out there, and in the end it may only take one.

Don’t expect Congress to pay for a Gulf Coast floodgate system

I sure don’t.

After nearly a decade of bickering and finger pointing, Texas scientists and lawmakers finally seem to agree that building some version of a “coastal spine” — a massive seawall and floodgate system — would best help protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane.

But with a price tag sure to reach into the billions, the spine will almost certainly require a massive infusion of federal money, state officials agree. Whether Texas’ congressional delegation has the political backbone to deliver the cash remains to be seen.

While state officials say the project enjoys the full support of Texans in Congress, almost every member has been silent on the issue, including those who hold the most sway.

“Everything depends on how long it takes us to get Congress,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a local economic development organization. “We could have a hurricane in three months.”

In March, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like. Scientists, experts, and public officials say that such a hurricane would kill thousands and cripple the national economy.

Building some sort of coastal barrier system around Galveston and Houston would rank as one of the nation’s most ambitious public works projects and would be unlikely to succeed without champions in Washington. State leaders and Houston-area congressmen cited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin Brady of Houston as those most likely to fill the role of standard bearer.

Cornyn and Brady, both Republicans, declined repeated interview requests about the coastal project over a period of months. The state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, is busy running for president, and his staff has said he is waiting results of further studies. Of the 36 members representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, only five agreed to interviews on the subject.

At the state level, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has made coastal protection one of his top priorities, said he hopes for support from Brady, who chairs one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House. He also mentioned Cornyn.

Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said he is already pushing the issue, but added that a senator’s support will be critical.

“John Cornyn, of course, a senior senator, majority whip over on the Senate side, would be a great one to champion the cause,” he said.

[…]

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also just started studying the issue, and Cornyn’s office emphasized that he signed a letter last October in support of that effort. But the study will take at least five years.

In another letter sent last November, 32 members of the House delegation urged the Army Corps to speed up the process even though it is at the mercy of funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, the next hurricane season is just two months away.

“Don’t just write a letter and think that you’re done with it,” said Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, an industrial town on the Houston Ship Channel that was nearly wiped out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. “Let’s get some dollars flowing down here and let’s build it.”

Republican Congressman Pete Olson said the Corps is taking too long and should have started its efforts earlier. But for years it didn’t have the money to study hurricane protection for the Houston region. The agency was able to start last fall only because the Texas General Land Office agreed to pay for half the $20 million study at the insistence of Bush.

Congress is supposed to provide the rest, but the Army Corps will have to ask for it every year until the study is complete.

Asked if he thinks Congress will commit to the $10 million, Olson said the Corps had never given him that dollar figure. “They told you that, but not me that,” he said.

[…]

Weber said he thinks the federal government should help pay for a hurricane protection barrier, but he wouldn’t comment on whether his colleagues in Congress agree with him.

“I don’t know, well, maybe,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I say the odds of Congress agreeing to pony up some $10 billion or so for a coastal floodgate system are pretty damn low. I cannot imagine Randy Weber’s nihilistic teabagger caucus members going along with it. Hell, I’d bet money right now that the Texas Republican Congressional caucus is not all on board with the idea, and I’ll even exclude Ted Cruz from consideration. Look at the recent track record of Congressional Republicans not wanting to appropriate funds to places that had been hit by actual disasters (two words: Superstorm Sandy) and ask yourself why they would vote to spend money on a disaster that hasn’t happened and may never do so in their lifetime. All spending is political now, and the death of earmarks makes dealmaking a lot harder. The fact that there isn’t unanimity about the best kind of flood mitigation system doesn’t help, either. Maybe someday, in a different political climate, but not now. Don’t be surprised if you see another article like this being written a couple of years from now.

2016 primaries: Congress

Rep. Gene Green

Rep. Gene Green

The big story here is that Rep. Gene Green not only survived, but won big. He was up 65% to 32% in early voting, a margin of about 4,000 votes; in the end he won by about 58-38, for a margin of about 5,000 votes. I had a hard time getting a feel for this race. Green was on TV a lot, but I saw more people than I might have expected expressing support for Garcia on Facebook. Garcia homed in on some issues for which Green might have been vulnerable, and as I said before, he ran the campaign I’d have had him run if I’d have been running his campaign. In the end, people weren’t ready to fire Gene Green. I doubt he faces any more serious challengers between now and whenever he decides to hang ’em up. The Press has more.

The only other Democratic Congressional primary of interest was in CD15, where Rep. Ruben Hinojosa declined to run for re-election. Vicente Gonzalez and Dolly Elizondo were leading the pack, with Gonzalez over 40% and Elizondo at 25%. As noted before, Elizondo would be the first Latina elected to Congress from Texas if she won, but she has a lot of ground to make up in the runoff if she wants to get there.

On the Republican side, multiple incumbents faced challengers of varying levels of crazy. The only one who appeared to be threatened as of when I turned it was Rep. Kevin Brady in CD08, who eventually made it above the 50% mark against three challengers, the leader of whom was former State Rep. (and loony bird) Steve Toth. That would have been one butt-ugly runoff if it had come to that, but it won’t. Reps. John Culberson and Blake Farenthold were winning but with less than 60%. No one else was in a close race.

The one Republican open seat was in CD19, where the three top contenders were Jody Arrington, Glen Robertson, and Michael Bob Starr. Of the latter, John Wright noted the following for the Observer before the results began to come in (scroll down a ways to see):

Finally, in West Texas’ Congressional District 19, retired Col. Michael Bob Starr has come under fire from other GOP candidates for participating in LGBT Pride runs when he served as a commander at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene. If Starr wins, one of the nation’s most conservative districts would be represented by someone who is arguably moderate on LGBT issues, and the outcome could serve as a barometer of where the movement stands.

Starr was running third when last I checked, but he was behind the leader by fewer than 2,000 votes, so the situation was fluid. That said, as interesting as a Starr victory would be, he’d have to survive a runoff first, and I’d be mighty pessimistic about that. But we’ll see.

Democratic statewide resultsRepublican statewide results

Catching up on United versus Southwest

There have been a few news stories of interest since we first heard about the Southwest Airlines plan for international flights at Hobby Airport, which is being vigorously opposed by United, who wants to keep IAH as the only international airport in Houston. United has a couple of Congressmen on their side.

In this corner...

Two local congressmen have asked Mayor Annise Parker not to turn Hobby Airport into an international operation because they are concerned Houston would not get sufficient customs staffing to avoid long delays for international travelers.

The opposition of U.S. Reps. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, and Al Green, D-Houston, casts doubt on whether Houston should become a two-international-airport city, even if city-commissioned studies indicate it would be an economic boon.

In a letter sent to Parker this week, Brady and Green echo an argument made by United Airlines, which has been lobbying against the project at City Hall, saying they oppose equipping Hobby with a federal inspection services facility because they fear it will divert customs officers from Bush Intercontinental. Resulting delays, United argues, will cause international passengers to book flights through another hub.

Brady and Green argue that an international Hobby would “divert, not increase” the number of customs officers in Houston.

[…]

In his annual State of the Airports address Thursday, [Houston Airport System Director Mario] Diaz lamented what he described as persistently low customs staffing at Bush Intercontinental.

Last week, Diaz told the Houston Chronicle that if council approved an international Hobby, “the city could make a very, very good argument that those (customs) services should be enhanced.” Several times on Thursday, Diaz acknowledged the challenge in lobbying for federal funding.

“If we can make the correct understanding to the Appropriations Committee that (we need more) Customs and Border Protection … staffing, they’ll have to find something else that they may be able to cut, but that’s a budget problem,” Diaz said.

The story quotes an expert who notes that the level of Customs agent staffing at a given airport is determined by the demand for international passenger arrivals at that airport. Keep all that in mind for now.

This story questioned the effect on air fares of Southwest’s arrival on the international scene.

And in this corner...

According to data compiled by Hotwire.com, average airfares from Houston to Cancun and other Mexican destinations have increased steadily since March 2009 and were higher across the board last month than they were in 2007 before the onset of the recession and also in 2008 when record high-oil prices jacked up all types of airfares.

High-priced oil also factors in the escalating fares now, along with an improving economy.

Average airfare from Houston to Cancun last month was $630, compared to $495 a year ago.

[…]

Airfare analysts say the increased competition probably would bring fares down to some extent, but probably not as drastically as fliers are envisioning.

Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, said Southwest probably would start out by offering sales reducing fares up to 40 percent and then “settle down” a few months later into a price range reducing fares 5 to 10 percent.

Still, he said, “when you add capacity to a route, prices are going to be lower.”

But with high jet fuel prices and tougher competition from merged mega-carriers like Delta and United, which are able to charge higher fares on certain routes where there is less competition, it’s not as easy for Southwest to offer the startlingly low fares that made it famous as the country’s pioneering domestic budget carrier.

“A lot of those things that allowed Southwest to keep the price points really low are not as easy today,” Seaney said, noting that it depends on how intent Southwest is “to make a stronghold.”

“My guess is since this is the first time Southwest would actually be flying international, it’d be top on their priority list,” he said.

If that’s not good enough for you, Southwest is now making the job creation pitch in their favor.

Opening Hobby Airport to commercial international flights will create 10,000 jobs, bring 1.6 million more air travelers through Houston annually and inject an additional $1.6 billion a year into the local economy, according to a Southwest Airlines executive who has seen city-commissioned studies on the matter.

“We’re asking for an opportunity to invest $100 million in a new building in your city to provide more passengers, 1.6 million a year, a huge economic gain for the city,” Ron Ricks, executive vice president and chief legal and regulatory officer for Southwest Airlines, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board Tuesday.

[…]

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said repeatedly at the editorial board meeting that Southwest is not asking for any city investment in the terminal expansion and Customs facility addition to Hobby. The $100 million cost of the project is to be covered by debt backed by Southwest and paid off through ticket surcharges.

Clark said Customs waits at IAH are among the worst in the nation. “If Houston can secure additional agents, they should be deployed to address the chronic understaffing IAH experiences every day,” Clark said.

But Ricks asked, “Is Houston going to let 20 Customs agents stand in the way of a $1.6 billion-a-year economic impact? If we can’t solve finding 20 Customs agents in this economy, then Houston, we do have a problem.” Ricks said staffing is covered by a $17.50-per-international passenger fee.

Kelly said he believes Southwest’s entry into the Houston market will drive down prices and increase passengers at both airports.

“If you make the air fares affordable, the people will fly – a gigantic increase. We’re arguing to you the pie is going to increase,” Kelly said.

United says “Nuh uh!” in response to that:

United Airlines officials said Wednesday that allowing international commercial flights at Hobby Airport would force the carrier to cut 1,300 Houston jobs and dozens of flights from Bush Intercontinental Airport, and that city-paid consultants and Southwest Airlines are using unrealistic data to support the proposal.

In a letter to Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday, United CEO Jeff Smisek said “the assumptions that underlie the analysis are so contrived it is clear they were designed to reach a predetermined conclusion.”

Smisek said United is commissioning its own study and urged Parker to “delay this decision, which you agree will impact Houston’s aviation industry and economic future for decades to come.”

Golly, couldn’t United mitigate those job losses by moving all the people they relocated to Chicago after the “merger” back to Houston? I’m just saying.

Nene Foxhall, United’s executive vice president of communications and government affairs, said if the Hobby proposal goes through, the airline will have to rethink proceeding with the next stage of an expansion project at Bush Intercontinental’s Terminal B – a potential $1 billion investment.

United claims that Southwest’s study was made on excessively optimistic assumptions. I have no trouble believing that, but I’m not particularly inclined to give United and its blackmail attempt a whole lot of credence.

Smisek says in his letter, which you can see here, that United “welcomes competition from AirTran, Southwest and all carriers for international service at IAH, where there are ample gates and facilities.” And with that, I turn the blog over to Tiffany once again for her long-awaited followup analysis:

First, thanks to all who responded favorably to my previous guest post. And yes, it’s been more than a weekend since I promised to write a follow-up. Unlike my spouse, I’m not conditioned to getting up at 5 am daily to create blog content, so it took me a while to work this in.

I’ve been reading with interest the “debate” around whether or not creating an international terminal at Hobby would be dilutive to the US Customs presence at Intercontinental. I’ve seen numerous comments from people saying things like, “the lines are too long at IAH as it is, this will only make it worse! They’ll take agents away!”

This got me thinking about the real numbers involved in the lines at International arrivals. Basically, it’s a function of how many people are getting off the plane at once. A busy airport like IAH has multiple flights coming in at the same time, especially when long haul flights from Europe and Asia arrive. An international terminal at Hobby would, at least in the beginning, have a much smaller number of flights and no 747s dumping 450 people at a time on Customs and Border Protection. Do the math:

The proposed Hobby scenario is 25 flights a day at 5 gates. The average capacity of a 737 in the Southwest fleet is 137 people. Southwest flies ONLY 737s. Even if they added the biggest, baddest 737 out there to give themselves greater range or capacity, they will top out at about 180 passengers. So 25 flights a day, spread over 10 hours – we’ll be generous and say 3 flights an hour, then round up capacity and say 500 people an hour through customs at Hobby, closer to 600 if they go with new 737-900ERs. This number is too large, in any real sense, but keep it in mind as we continue our mental math.

Compare that to IAH, where United and all of the other international carriers land something like at least twice that number of flights an hour (peak times when long haul flights come in from Europe or Asia) with an average capacity of a 747 or a 777 at 450 passengers PER PLANE. Look at the data, which I have taken straight from the Customs and Border Protection website, which can generate this handy table for any date range you select. This one is for 1 January 2011 to 1 January 2012.

So at peak times, Border Protection sees an average of 1100 or more people an hour through IAH. That makes our 500 passengers an hour through Hobby seem crazy-big. But stay with me. The data from CBP can’t be cut by day of the week, so I can’t tell if it’s appreciably worse on certain days. I’ve been on enough overnight flights to be leery of the low averages between 8 and 10 am, for instance. If you look at just 2 of the arrival schedules for cities in question with the proposed Southwest expansion, Mexico City and Cancun, as pulled from the handy schedule tool at http://fly2houston.com/:

You can see that United doesn’t bring in more than one 737 from either departure city before noon (at least on a Wednesday, the day I pulled the data). The majority of the flights come in during those peak average hours on the CBP chart. So it’s unclear to me that taking some passengers OUT of those IAH averages would be a bad thing. Given that the IAH Master Plan for 2011 (the last one available on their website) is estimating a 3.9% annual growth rate in international travel alone between now and 2015, and diversion of traffic from Cleveland when United (probably) draws down that hub in favor of Chicago, it seems to me there is still PLENTY of growth going on at IAH to sustain demand for international flights, even if you add a potential 500 passengers an hour that could go through Hobby instead.

The advantage I’d see for potential international travelers at Hobby, and frankly for CBP as well, is that at least in the short run, Southwest would be the only international carrier at Hobby, and for that length of time, the average number of passengers coming through per hour would be highly predictable and consistent. That would make staffing easy to model, and certainly have a smaller swing from valley to peak than they have at IAH. As a traveler, I’m having a hard time seeing a downside with this.

The funding mechanism for Customs agents has always seemed opaque to me. On the one hand, United is claiming that IAH is already understaffed and opening Hobby would take agents away form IAH. This presumes the number of customs agents in a city airport system is a zero sum game. Of course United also contended that they didn’t have an issue with Southwest flying internationally as long as they do it out of IAH, which as I’ve shown above is absolutely silly in terms of wait times for the passengers. If they could add more agents to IAH to handle that added traffic, why couldn’t they add agents at a new airport, making passengers at IAH no worse off, and possibly with an improved option for lower fares and reduced customs wait times at Hobby relative to IAH?

This all presumes that new aircraft types don’t drastically change the throughput of arrivals in the IAH customs hall independent of anything Southwest might or might not do, of course. Surely United wouldn’t be planning to add more folks to what is already an overcrowded CBP system, right? That’s what they’re trying to protect us all from! And yet, look at the data. According to Boeing’s order book, the old Continental ordered 25 787s and United ordered 25. It’s true that I can’t tell where these planes are INTENDED to go in the United Route system, or even if those 50 orders are still “firm” in Boeing’s books, but think about it for a few minutes. This aircraft is slightly larger than the 737 (210-290 passengers, depending on configuration), with a range suited for flights between, say Houston and Delhi, India. Imagine the customs issue at IAH when you add 75 extra people per flight.

But you might be more concerned about the Airbus order book. The A380 holds 525 passengers. Imagine IAH at peak hours with 525 people on each of the BA, Air France and Emirates flights and not the 450 currently on a 747. You won’t have to wait long to see what it will feel like. Lufthansa is bringing the A380 to IAH beginning this August, and that Frankfurt flight lands at about 2 pm, right before a number of those United flights from Mexico.

Color me skeptical about United’s position generally. They may lose some customers, and cut some flights, in response to Southwest opening international service. But even with the newest, longest range 737s, it’s still a 737. And that “fleet commonality” is a huge part of what makes Southwest able to do what they do to control costs. Trust me here, I wrote a doctoral thesis on it. For United, as for American and AeroMexico, the overall risk of passenger loss will go up over time as Southwest expands their schedule past the currently proposed 5 city pairs. But those airlines, with their diversified fleets and deeper, longer route structures (at least for the US-based carriers), will still have plenty of places to go that Southwest can’t get to in a 737, and passengers want to go those places. I find the Customs and Border Protection argument disingenuous, given the pressures already in the customs hall and the growth projections that are already part of the IAH Master Plan and the fleet growth plan of United, insofar as I can guess what it is from the Boeing order book.

It’s the customers who have the most to gain from a Hobby expansion gateway. And as a customer, I’ll bet on Southwest working in my interest before I’ll bet on the “new” United.

So there you have it. And what she didn’t tell you is that she did field work for her thesis with Southwest, Continental, American and Boeing. High time it came in handy. In any event, we should get those long-awaited reports Monday – the recommendation from HAS Director Mario Diaz about whether or not to expand Hobby, and the city’s economic impact studies – to be followed by discussion and eventually a Council vote on what to do. A statement from the Texas Organizing Project calling on the city to ensure all voices are heard in this process is here.

Another look ahead at redistricting

The short version of this Chron story is basically “Republicans would like to control every aspect of the redistricting process, while Democrats would at least like to win the Governor’s office and maintain some semblance of parity in the House”. A few points:

“The governor’s race is critical to redistricting,” declares U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, a former state legislator whose district is one of the fastest-growing in the nation. “A Republican governor increases the likelihood that the final map will be drawn by elected state representatives. A Democratic governor who vetoes the GOP Legislature’s plan ensures the federal courts will draw the final congressional map for Texas.”

That’s what happened in 2001, when the Democrats still had a majority in the House and Pete Laney was Speaker. The House and Senate could not agree on a redistricting bill, and the Congressional map was ultimately drawn by a three-judge federal panel in Dallas. That was the flimsy justification that Tom DeLay then used to force his re-redistricting scheme in 2003, that since the map wasn’t drawn by the Lege it wasn’t legitimate. A Republican triumvirate would ensure a Lege-drawn map; a Democratic Governor and/or House would likely mean another map job for the judges. This time, a do-over in 2013 would almost certainly not happen, as there isn’t really anyone in the Texas Congressional delegation who would have the juice to make it happen.

Without White in the governor’s chair, the Democrats’ only leverage would be the Justice Department, which has reviewed Texas districts for the past four decades as part of a “pre-clearance” process required in states with legacies of institutionalized racial discrimination.

For the first time since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, the Justice Department is controlled by Democrats – something that makes Texas Republicans a bit nervous.

The GOP’s suspicion of the Obama administration has given birth to a novel legal strategy: Republican leaders in Austin are privately discussing the possibility of bypassing the Justice Department and filing any redistricting plan directly with the U.S. District Court in Washington.

This has come up before, and I confess I’m fuzzy on the details. It would have been nice for the story to explain it a bit more. The bottom line is that the GOP would prefer to take its chances with some activist judges than with a Justice Department that actually takes civil rights enforcement seriously.

Back in Texas, both parties have been gearing up for political combat for a year. Party leaders have convened training sessions for their operatives, legislative redistricting committees have begun holding hearings and congressional Republicans have chosen Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, as their point person in the process. The Democratic delegation has not yet picked its redistricting leaders.

But the political calculations are complicated by demographic realities. West Texas, a region dominated by Democrats, is likely to lose power in the legislative and congressional redistricting processes because of the concentration of population growth in the Houston area and along the I-35 corridor from Denton to Laredo.

What’s more, redistricting is just one of the hot-button items on the legislative agenda for 2011, along with a state budget dripping with red ink, education policy and funding, border security, the future of the Texas Department of Transportation and much more.

Here I will note again that the Trib floated the possibility of a redistricting compromise, agreed to in advance, which I believe the Lege would take if it were offered to them. Whether that’s still a live possibility at this point or not, I have no idea. I do know that the Republicans have to be at least a little careful, lest they do to their Congressional delegation what they did to their State House membership, which is to say lose a bunch of ground after initially overreaching. How they try to save Mike Conaway, in a district that was barely justifiable in 2003 and which owes its existence entirely to Tom Craddick’s insistence on separating Midland/Odessa from Abilene and Lubbock will be worth watching in itself. I feel quite confident that the electorate in 2012 will be more Democratic than it was in 2002, which complicates things further for them. Especially if Chet Edwards loses, holding serve and protecting their incumbents may look pretty good to them. But who knows? As Molly Ivins once said, our state motto ought to be “Too much is never enough, and wretched excess is even more fun.” Why should this be any different?

Woodlands regional crime lab

I’m glad to see that there’s a new regional crime lab being opened up in Montgomery County to assist numerous law enforcement agencies in the area. But I’m especially pleased to see this tidbit in the story about it:

Local law enforcement agencies that have had to wait six months or longer for forensic test results from overworked crime labs will soon be able to turn to a new crime lab in The Woodlands for help solving cases.

The federally funded Sam Houston State University Regional Crime Lab opened this year to help alleviate chronic case backlogs. It won’t begin taking cases until the end of the year, when it’s expected to receive accreditation.

The lab, which is part of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, will handle up to 6,000 cases a year from as many as 200 law enforcement agencies in Southeast Texas.

“Instead of having to endure long backlogs at labs in Houston and Dallas, our local law enforcement agencies will be able to get their tests performed and analyzed more timely,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who began pushing for funding to create the new facility about three years ago. “Saving taxpayer money and precious time means more efficient law enforcement,” Brady said.

Emphasis mine. Yes, those evil, filthy federal funds, doing good while costing less. I guess as long as it’s being used on apprehending criminals, and not helping sick people get health care, it’s okay. Just so long as we’re all clear on the fact that those criminals were apprehended through the benificence of that over-reaching, tyrannical federal government.

We hate you! Now do a better job!

Actions do have consequences, even to teabaggers.

You may have heard that GOP Rep. Kevin Brady, staunch tea partier, is protesting that the taxpayer-funded D.C. Metro didn’t adequately prepare for the anti-government 9/12 rally. He’s even suggesting Metro’s failure to transport tea partiers may have hurt turnout.

A Democrat, however, points out to me that Brady voted against Federal funding for the very same Metro he’s blaming for offering the tea partiers substandard service.

Soon after the 9/12 march, Brady released a letter he sent to D.C. Metro griping that it had failed to transport tea partiers to the protest. Brady said they “were frustrated and disappointed that our nation’s capitol” failed to “provide a basic level of transit for them.”
Brady’s office complained about a train shortage. “METRO did not prepare for Tea Party March!” he tweeted. “People couldn’t get on, missed start of march. I will demand answers.”

But earlier this year, Brady voted against the stimulus package. It provided millions upon millions of dollars for all manner of improvements to … the D.C. Metro.

That’s pretty much the modern conservative philosophy: We refuse to pay for the things we demand. I suppose it would be unkind of me to point out that instead of that socialist (or is it fascist? I can’t keep track) public transit system, there was a fine free market solution available. We call them “taxis”. Amazingly enough, the existence of a public option has not driven the private providers out of business. Who knew that was possible? Steve Benen has more.

By the way, remember how in 1996, Brady defeated the wingnut Gene Fontenot (who had previously failed in an expensive effort to win what was then CD25), and that at the time one could have viewed that result as a win for (relative) sanity and pragmatism? I don’t know that I could tell the difference between Brady and Fontentot any more. That to me is as clear an illustration of how degraded the GOP has become as a party as any I can think of.