Greater Houston may be bigger than the Atlanta region; but is it better?
By Maria Saporta
HOUSTON — As the delegation of 110 metro Atlanta leaders got off the AirTran charter plane in Houston on the morning of May 15, one of the flight attendants parting words were: “Everything is bigger in Houston.”
That line became a metaphor for the 17th annual LINK trip — an opportunity for regional leaders to view how other cities address their urban challenges to see how metro Atlanta can benefit from the experiences of others. LINK stands for “Leadership, Involvement, Networking, Knowledge.”
This column will focus primarily on three areas — the Texas Medical Center, Houston’s recent advances in public transportation and its dominant role in the shipping and logistics industry.
In each of those areas, there are lessons for metro Atlanta and Georgia — valuable comparisons of how we compare, compete and contrast.
The first stop for the LINK delegation was the Texas Medical Center — a complex so impressive and massive that it really feels like its own city within a burgeoning city.
“It’s like a Mecca,” said Lisa Borders, former president of the Grady Health Foundation, after a bus tour of the Texas Medical Center. “I was impressed when I saw how massive it was. It is like a city. This is a business. It’s not just a hospital or a research facility.”
Robert Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said that nearly 100,000 employees work at the Center’s 54 institutions, including the famous M.D. Anderson medical complex.
Barbara Bush has called it: “Houston’s gift to the world.” People from Houston call it “the largest medical center in the world,” but Robbins said that is hard to quantify. “Compared to what?” he asked. Now he just says it is the world’s “largest gathering of life science and health care institutions in one geographic area.”
The vision for the Texas Medical Center came from Monroe D. Anderson, a cotton merchant with no children. He started a foundation two years before his death to create a medical center.
When he died in 1939, his estate was worth $19 million, and his foundation a large swath of land and established some covenants. Any nonprofit hospital, healthcare research, educational or clinical organization would have access to free land as long as they would be willing to collaborate with other institutions.
If they broke the spirit of the agreement, the Texas Medical Center could take back the land with all the improvements. Today, the Center covers 1,300 acres of land — larger than many downtown areas. It has an annual economic impact of $14 billion.
Robbins said he doubts whether such a model could be replicated in Texas today even though “everybody in Texas loves its Medical Center.”
Asked how Georgia, which is trying to nurture its bioscience and healthcare industry, could best compete with Texas, Robbins mentioned the presence of health information technology companies as well as a strong group of entities interested in public health.
Houston also has a disconnect. Although it has the incredible Medical Center, he said it is “one of the most unhealthy cities in the world.”
When it comes to public transportation, Houston is in a building mode.
On Jan. 1, 2004, the Houston METRORail opened its first 7.5 mile leg from downtown to Reliant Stadium with 16 stations including one major stop at the Texas Medical Center. The $325 million project was paid almost entirely with local funds. During weekdays, trains run at six minute intervals.
Now METRORail is building a 22-mile extension along three different corridors — projects that are expected to be completed in 2014 and 2015. The federal government now has approved $900 million for the expansion of Houston’s light rail system.
At the same time, most of Harris County — Houston’s home county — has a one-cent sales tax that supports METRORail. Harris County, with about four million residents, is able to generate about $600 million in revenues each year for its bus and rail transit system.
By comparison, MARTA’s sales tax generates significantly less than that, yet it has to serve almost twice as many transit riders.
That is one reason the base fare for Houston’s transit system is only $1.25 compared to MARTA’s $2.50. But the Houston system does charge higher fares for people who travel longer distances.
Tom Lambert, interim president and CEO of METRO, said that his system only gets $63 million a year from its fare revenues.
“The discussion the board is having (about whether to increase fares) — why were you created and what is your purpose,” Lambert told the LINK delegation. “You want to make it as cost effective and reliable as possible.”
Lambert went on to describe a concept of “fare elasticity” — that if fares go up too much “you are going to lose ridership.”
Houston have become a major investor in toll roads and managed lanes — and they have become ways to generate revenues to invest in its transportation network. It also is looking to develop bus rapid transit routes and transit oriented developments.
By comparison, with the exception of a 2.6 mile Atlanta Streetcar line that should open in 2014, the region has not developed any new rail transit in years. Currently, there is no funding available to invest in either the capital or operating costs for new rail projects.
The other area where Houston can claim bragging rights is with its port. The Port of Houston is often ranked No. 1 in the United States in foreign waterborne tonnage, first in U.S. imports and second in U.S. export tonnage. About 100 steamship lines offer service linking Houston with 1,053 ports in 203 countries. And it is the leading U.S. port in terms of break-bulk — cargo that is not transported in containers or in bulk, like grain and oil.
Col. Leonard Waterworth, executive director of the Port of Houston, told the Atlanta delegation that the Port of Houston and the Panama Canal are exactly the same age, but his shipping is not overly dependent on the canal.
“Ten years ago, we had zero China trips. Now we have 18 percent. By my big trade lanes are the Atlantic and South America,” Waterworth said. “Our two container facilities are at 40 feet. I will spend $150 million to deepen that to 45 feet.”
Waterworth said most of the shipping out of the Port of Houston is petro chemicals, oil and other energy-related products — items not shipped in containers.
That’s not the case for the Savannah Port, one of the fastest-growing container ports in the country. The state of Georgia trying to deepen the Savannah harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet so it can handle the larger container vessels that will be able to pass through an expanded Panama Canal.
Given Houston’s extensive highway, rail, air and shipping network, it will be hard for Atlanta to compete against the largest city in Texas when it comes to being the logistics center of the United States.
But if the Atlanta region can’t beat Houston in quantity, perhaps it can try to compete on the basis of quality.
And let’s not forget, there’s no argument that with Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the City of Atlanta does have the largest and busiest airport in the world.
Next week: LINK trips give metro Atlanta leaders an opportunity to “recalibrate.”