Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wind Power City

Up until 1870, St. Paul looked like it would be the largest city in Minnesota, which had become a state right before the Civil War. As the region began exporting timber and grain, St. Paul was poised to become another St. Louis or Cincinnati, a regional center located near a waterway intersection.

During the 1870s, Minneapolis boomed, growing from 13,000 to 46,000, right past its neighbor to the east. While St. Paul had the proximity to the Minnesota/Mississippi intersection, Minneapolis had St. Anthony Falls, the largest waterfall on the Mississippi.

Because the Midwest is fairly flat, no other major city in the region is built on a fall line. Minneapolis' unique access to water power made it an 1870s boomtown, during a time when every other high growth city - Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland - was benefiting from access to rail lines.

The first hydroelectric plant in the world was built in 1870 in England, and the first such plant for electricity in the U.S. was built in Grand Rapids in the 1880s. With no large scale production of turbines, hydropower was extremely expensive, and Minneapolis' ability to produce such power for industrial use at a much lower cost than any other large city overwhelmed transport costs that otherwise would have sent everyone to St. Paul to exchange goods.

Once companies like GE were formed, and more R&D was put into turbine technology, the cost of producing hydropower dropped dramatically, and the milling business that established Minneapolis shifted to towns further east, most notably Buffalo, that were closer to consumer markets, because transport costs began to account for a higher share of total production and shipment.

Wind power today is a lot like hydro 140 years ago, a natural resource with a declining cost. While often lumped together with solar in feel good news stories about alt energy, wind's capital costs are under $2,000 per kilowatt, compared to over $4,000 for solar. As a result, it has grown from just three tenths of 1 percent of U.S. electricity generation four years ago to about 1.2 percent now.

One of the biggest users of industrial wind is Google, which recently built a massive data center in The Dalles, Oregon, which is to wind generation what Minneapolis was to hydropower in the 1870s. Accessing that wind at low prices overrode typical data center connection costs that put most facilities near major Internet POPs in large metro areas.

But The Dalles is in no position to become any kind of regional hub, because Google hired just 200 people to work there, while spending $600 million to build its facilities there. This is the reverse of the late 19th century, where projects like the Pillsbury Power Canal and Tower Mill were built in Minneapolis at capital costs of less than a million dollars, while requiring thousands of workers to operate the mills that took advantage of the nearby hydro power. 21st century employee productivity simply won't allow a renewable energy center like The Dalles to become another Minneapolis.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

More End of Suburbia Hype

It's sad that urban analysis so often gets caught up with utopian nonsense. And few people who actually think about these things consider the suburbs any kind of utopia. But as much as I hate the chain restaurants, lawn mowing, and lack of pedestrians, the suburbs are not going away.

The latest silly article predicting the end of suburbia comes from Fast Company, a magazine which covers companies that are mostly based in suburbs. The story has the usual quotes from James Kunstler, the NY Times, and others who understand rants better than economics. Interestingly, it makes its point against the suburbs by claiming that 1 in 13 homes in Cleveland, a city, is vacant. While the census data shows an even higher rate, nearly 15% of housing units in Baltimore City and Detroit are vacant. These abandoned buildings have far less to do with subprime mortgages, greedy bankers, or other overcovered news stories, but rather neighborhoods that have been depressed for decades. Few suburbs can match the weeds and burnt out buildings that blanket Baltimore City.

The End of Suburbia crowd has been oscillating between high gas prices and a weak housing market as the reason for why suburbs are doomed. But while they speculate on the implications of more expensive oil, and more expensive credit, the populations of suburban areas continue to grow. Loudoun County, 30 miles west of DC, had 80,000 people, or one seventh the population of the District in 1990. Its grown over threefold in the last 19 years, and now has 280,000 people, or one half the amount of the distant center city. In between sits Fairfax County, with over one million people, or nearly twice as many as the District.

One of the most interesting stats of outer counties is their average household size. Rural Virginia counties like Louisa and Orange have about 2.5 people per home. DC and close-in Arlington County, Virginia both have 2.15. But Loudoun and neighboring Prince William have 2.9 people per household. Combined, these two counties have more people than DC, does anyone think these large households are all going to cram into 2 bedroom condos by Metro stops?

The reason the outer suburbs will survive weak housing markets and oil price hikes is that most of their residents don't drive downtown for work. Only 9% of Prince William citizens work in DC. Three and a half times as many work within the county itself. $5 gas might suck for the people going to DC, but they're a small minority.

Just because we don't want to eat at Applebee's or drive minivans doesn't mean others are going to stop choosing this lifestyle. If we don't like it, we just need to remember what former DC mayor Marion Barry said when he was re-elected in 1994 - Get Over It!

Friday, March 13, 2009

PHX Light Rail Ridership nearly 40% Ahead of Projections

They projected 26,000 per weekday for February, the second month of the line's operation, and got 35,000 . Still just 1,750 per mile, but a good start nonetheless for Phoenix Light Rail.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

With Dulles Rail, 60% of top 30 U.S. airports will have rail links

In 1976, just one top 30 U.S. airport was connected to a commuter rail or subway line - Logan Airport in Boston. Since then, JFK, Newark, Reagan National, Atlanta, Phoenix, Minneapolis, LAX, SFO, Midway, Philly, O'Hare, BWI, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and DFW have all been hooked into local rail lines, and the Sea-Tac stop on Seattle's light rail system is scheduled to open later this year. Portland and Oakland also have rail links, but both just miss being in the top 30 for enplanements. Dallas Love is also out of the top 30, and its DART stop should open in 2010.

Yesterday's announcement that the FTA will fund the DC Metro Dulles extension, puts that airport in line for a station sometime between 2015 and 2017. This will represent the 18th top 30 airport with a rail link, or 60% of the total, and assuming Seattle makes its December 2009 forecast, 11 will have opened in the 1990s and 2000s. Reagan National was the only that opened in the 70s, and Atlanta, O'Hare, Philly, and BWI were the only ones that opened in the 80s.

While it looks like the great airport-downtown rail boom is going to slow down now, these 18 airports account for 310 million boardings annually, or about 45% of all passenger enplanements. Of the 12 without rail, Salt Lake City looks the most promising, and Charlotte's new light rail system runs to the SW, not far from the airport. Some, like Denver and Houston, are too far from their urban cores to reach new light rail systems, while others, like Detroit and Orlando, don't have rail lines to connect to. San Diego and LaGuardia are very close to rail lines, but don't have direct links, although the 992 bus at San Diego gets you downtown much faster than most airport rail links. And LaGuardia was intentionally ignored for rail in order to make Newark and JFK more attractive for travelers heading into Manhattan.

The remaining four with no rail link are Tampa, Cincinnati, Honolulu, and Las Vegas. Cincinnati has no rail and a massive, underutilized airport 12 miles away in Kentucky. Tampa and Honolulu debating whether to start light rail, and the cabbies in Las Vegas have prevented the Monorail from stretching another mile south of the MGM Grand to reach the airport. So it is unlikely we'll get past 20 airports by the end of the next decade.

The economics of bringing rail to all these airports has largely been driven by the fact that people fly a lot more. In 1978, when airlines were deregulated and only Boston and Washington National had rail lines, 290 million passengers boarded planes at U.S. airports. That figure has grown steadily since, to 690 million in 2006. Without this more than doubling of enplanements, it would have been much harder to justify the cost of the rail link, and many lines, including the new Dulles and Sea-Tac connections, have been developed with the primary purpose of reaching the airport. Therefore, the environmentally unfriendly transport of air travel has helped create demand for environmentally friendly rail lines. Something to consider when looking at future transit-oriented developments that will sit near subway stops and light rail stations.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Dulles Rail Gets Construction Approval

I remember hearing in 1999 how there'd be rail to Dulles in 2010. Well, it's still coming, even if it's going to be 6-10 years late. The first phase of the project now has construction approvals and once it gets its $ from Congress next week, Tyson's Corner will turn into a construction zone.