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.

Atlanta's Lisa Borders greets Houston Mayor Annise Parker

Atlanta’s Lisa Borders greets Houston Mayor Annise Parker

“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.”

Robert Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center (Photo: Atlanta Regional Commission)

Robert Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center (Photo: Atlanta Regional Commission)

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.

Texas Medical Center gets most of its revenue from parking. One of the most beautiful parking garages in the world is the Commons building adorned by roof to ground fountains (Photo: Texas Medical Center)

Texas Medical Center gets most of its revenue from parking. One of the most beautiful parking garages  is the Commons building adorned by roof to ground fountains (Photo: Texas Medical Center)

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.

MARTA CEO Keith Parker prepares to board Houston's METRORail (Photo: Maria Saporta)

MARTA CEO Keith Parker waits as Houston’s METRORail car pulls into station (Photo: Maria Saporta)

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.

MARTA's Keith Parker helps Atlanta group board rail car (Photo: Maria Saporta)

MARTA’s Keith Parker helps Atlanta group board rail car (Photo: Maria Saporta)

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.

Colorful lights tell people along Houston's Main Street that a train is coming - day view (Photo: Maria Saporta)

Colorful lights tell people along Houston’s Main Street that a train is coming – day view (Photo: Maria Saporta)

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.

Colorful lights tell people on Main Street that a rail car is coming - night view (Photo: Maria Saporta)

Colorful lights tell people on Main Street that a rail car is coming – night view (Photo: Maria Saporta)

“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.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

14 replies
  1. The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

    {{“Greater Houston may be bigger than the Atlanta region; but is it better?”}}
    …The Greater Houston region may be bigger than the Atlanta region, but not really by all that much with the Greater Houston region having a population of roughly 6.38 million residents to the Greater Atlanta region’s population of 6.1 million residents.
    As for the question of whether or not Houston is better than Atlanta…
    Houston may or may not necessarily be better than Atlanta, but one would have to say that Houston most certainly has a leg up on Atlanta when it comes to making the necessary investments in its transportation infrastructure so that the area will continue to be able to compete in the 21st Century economy.
    Houston’s investments in its transportation infrastructure may have leaned (and continues to lean) very heavily towards roads, but at least Houston can say that it is investing heavily in keeping people moving in some way, shape or form to and from a still somewhat fast-growing number of both current and future high-paying jobs, something that Atlanta cannot necessarily currently claim by any stretch of the imagination.
    Houston also seems to be expecting and planning for future population and economic growth with continued investments in its transportation infrastructure.
    Cities and urban regions like Houston and Dallas seem to expect future growth in jobs and population with continuing investments in roads, transit and water infrastructure while if one were not watching carefully, one might think that the Greater Atlanta region seems to be trying to undermine its own future economic and population growth prospects with sometimes ill-advised legislation by the Georgia Legislature and by stubbornly refusing to invest in its own transportation, education and water infrastructures where necessary so as to intentionally deter and repel future economic and population growth (…something that is not necessarily the wisest thing to do in an increasingly-competitive Sunbelt region and international economy).
    Atlanta may have an advantage when it comes to weather with Houston’s low elevation and extremely-close location to the hurricane-prone waters of the Gulf of Mexico making its summers much more humid and steamy than Atlanta.
    Atlanta also likely has a huge advantage in natural beauty and scenery with the Atlanta area being situated amongst the very heavily-wooded low rolling hills of the Piedmont and the foothills of the Blue Ridge chain of the Appalachian Mountains.
    Atlanta may also have an advantage over Houston when it comes to geographical location with Atlanta’s location in a South Atlantic state on the Eastern Seaboard relatively close to the cultural, educational, economic and political hubs of the Mid Atlantic and Northeastern U.S.
    Atlanta may also have a cultural and social advantage over Houston with Atlanta’s location at the confluence of the powerful Atlantic Coast (ACC) and Southeastern (SEC) Conferences and their robust post-secondary institutions of higher learning.
    Atlanta’s location at the confluence of the higher-learning institutions of the ACC and the SEC has helped Atlanta to frequently host such storied college athletic events as the SEC Football Championship Game, the ACC Mens’ Basketball Tournament, the SEC Mens’ and Womens’ Basketball Tournaments, the NCAA Mens’ Basketball Final Four, the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game (which opens up the college football season), the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl postseason college football game, and the new College Football National Semifinal game.Report

    Reply
    • Craig Kootsillas says:

      Planning?  Very tough to do in an environment in which the body responsible for it are unelected and dominated by the development community who view it as a source or capital.
      And then there’s our “citizen legislature” and legislative process in which everything is crammed into a short period so that the only ones really knowing what is going on are those pushing the bills.

      Then, once these “citizens” are done, they spend the rest of the year “working” for firms that have lobbied them.
      Big difference between Houston and Atlanta.  In addition, where we have to rely on taxes for infrastructure, the vast majority of government revenue in Texas comes from taxes on natural resources.
      There really is no parallel.Report

      Reply
      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        Craig Kootsillas Craig Kootsillas Excellent points.
        Though it’s not just about a lack of planning as in most cases the State of Georgia knows exactly what our infrastructure needs are, particularly when it comes to transportation and water.
        The biggest problem is the failure or even outright refusal of the State of Georgia to fund the infrastructure projects that it knows there is a clear and often overwhelming need for (infrastructure projects like heavy rail transit network upgrades and expansion, the implementation of regional commuter rail service, badly-needed freeway interchange reconstruction projects like I-285/GA 400 and the like, the badly-needed expansion of our water storage and flood control infrastructure, etc).
        Like in the MyAJC subscription section of today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution there’s an article talking about how the state still “can’t find” funding for a badly-needed freeway interchange reconstruction project at I-285 and Georgia 400 that the state has known has been badly-needed for over two decades now (TWO DECADES!).
        That’s despite Governor Deal declaring the I-285/GA 400 interchange reconstruction project “the state’s top transportation priority” in the wake of the unsurprising failure of last summer’s disasterous T-SPLOST debacle.
        The AJC article tells of how businesses in the area have gotten so desperate to see the project started and completed that a self-taxing business district in the area of the badly-needed I-285/GA 400 interchange reconstruction has agreed to make a financial contribution to the project in hopes of getting the project off the ground much sooner than 2031, which is the date that the state currently says full funding for the project MIGHT be available (…2031!…which is ridiculous).
        That I-285/GA 400 interchange needed to be constructed in 1991 as the state knew very well that traffic and safety would be a major problem on the interchange as it is currently designed after the Georgia 400 Extension opened in the early 1990’s with the deadly low and lower-speed merges from I-285 into the high-speed far-left lanes of both directions of Georgia 400.
        The state knew that the I-285/GA 400 interchange needed reconstruction in 1991 but will not come up with the funding that is needed to be complete the badly-needed project until at least 2031?
        Waiting 40 years to make badly-needed transportation improvements is no way to “manage” the transportation network and assets of one of the 10-largest and fastest-growing states in the Union.
        In fact, “managing” something as critically-important as transportation and water like that is simply just downright severely incompetent and totally pathetic the more one thinks about it.Report

        Reply
      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        Craig Kootsillas Also, even though as you point out that “the body responsible for (planning is) unelected and dominated by the development community who view (infrastructure planning) as a source (of) capital”, that still does not explain the lack of willingness of the state to invest in the type of physical infrastructure that the development community loves.
        The infrastructure planning process may be dominated by the development community, but developers still need  adequate transportation and water infrastructure in the form of roads, transit lines and reservoirs to make their projects profitable.
        Because no one is going to want to live in a place without water that they might have to sit in huge traffic jams for hours to get to and from.Report

        Reply
      • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

        Craig Kootsillas Also, even though a state like Texas may derive a very large amount of its government revenues from natural resources, that is NO EXCUSE for a state like Georgia to not invest properly in its transportation and water infrastructures as states (and provinces) that may be much lighter on revenues from natural resources (like Illinois and North Carolina) still have found ways to make critically-needed investments in their transportation infrastructures.
        Like the South Atlantic State of Georgia is home to the important multimodal logistical hub of Atlanta (which is the site of the World’s Busiest Passenger Airport at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Int’l Airport, a hub of transcontinental Interstate Highways and a major hub of freight railroad lines), the North Central/Upper Midwest/Great Lakes State of Illinois is the home to the important multimodal logistical hub of Chicago (which is the site of a major hub of transcontinental Interstate Highways, a major hub of freight railroad lines, a major hub of local, regional and national passenger railroad lines, and the World’s 5th busiest passenger airport at Chicago O’Hare Int’l Airport, an airport which was once the busiest passenger airport on the planet).   
        Though unlike its South Atlantic counterpart in the State of Georgia, the State of Illinois continues to invest in a large chunk of its transportation infrastructure without the help of the Federal Government with the utilization of user fees in the form of distance-based tolls on major roads like the I-88 East-West Tollway, the I-294/I-94/I-80 Tri-State Tollway, the I-90 Northwest Tollway, the I-355 North-South Tollway and the I-90 Chicago Skyway (the I-90 Chicago Skyway is actually owned, operated and maintained by the City of Chicago).
        Just the 4 roadways of the Illinois Tollway system alone grossed roughly $930 million in revenues in 2012 for the State of Illinois, while the 5th toll road in the state of Illinois, the City of Chicago-owned I-90 Chicago Skyway annually grosses roughly $70 million in revenues annually.
        Just those 5 user fee-funded toll roads in the state of Illinois alone bring in roughly $1 billion in revenues each year WITHOUT funding from state or federal fuel taxes which is not used to fund those toll roads.
        And the $1 billion in revenues that those 5 self-funded roadways take in does not even account for what the State of Illinois takes in fuel taxes each year.
        Compare the $1 billion in annual revenues that the 5 user fee-funded toll roads in the state of Illinois take in to the State of Georgia whose entire road maintenance budget only amounts to roughly $300 million each year that is funded almost solely with fuel taxes, with the exception of the revenues from the Georgia 400 tolls which are being eliminated this year.
        That means that Georgia’s already increasingly-inadequate fuel tax revenues will have to be stretched even thinner to pay for the maintenance on a major road that was once totally self-funded.
        If the major transportation hub that is the State of Illinois (which like Georgia does not derive a great deal of government revenues from natural resources) can fund its transportation infrastructure needs with user fees then so can the major transportation hub that is the State of Georgia.
        And even with the revenues that Texas derives from natural resources, Texas still pays for much of its road transportation needs with user fees as these days every new controlled-access highway that is built in Texas is funded with user fees in the form of tolls.
        Georgia could easily, and I mean EASILY, pay for its own existing and future transportation infrastructure needs without continuing to beg for financial assistance from a bankrupt federal government (see the Port of Savannah deepening episode) by eliminating the portion of the fuel tax that incompletely funds the maintenance of controlled-access superhighways and replacing the inadequate revenues from the increasingly-ineffective fuel tax with revenues from user fees on every major controlled-access superhighway in the state.Report

        Reply
  2. AlexDavis2 says:

    Voltaire said; “To know 6the future, is to create it”! What happens, if the future being planned for, changes? Creativity and vision have no “Substitutes”! Sorry…..Report

    Reply
  3. Chris Brooks says:

    After reading the comments, it seems that Atlanta’s insecurity fuels the fire for the article.  
    Sure, Atlanta has the busiest airport (by design …and that might not be the best business model); Houston has the 12th…  with the 2nd largest port and a prime location for transporting OIL to Houston (for refining andy transporting) from all over the continent.  Houston’s population growth has not slowed since the 30’s.
    Also, if measuring Highest-income places by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Per_capita_income, Harris County places four, Dallas County places one, Bexar County (San Antonio’s home) places one while Georgia has NONE.  
    If one were to combine DFW and IAH flights and compare them to Atlanta flights, one would find that TEXAS airports dwarf GEORGIA airports (without considering SAT or AUS).
    So, Georgia cannot compete with Texas in transportation (SEA, LAND or AIR), Heath Care, Economy, Public Transportation, Highway systems, Toll Roads…. yadda, yadda, yadda…    Atlanta has fewer than 500,000 people.   and Fulton County has just over 1million residents.  Houston has 2.1 residents and Harris County has well over 4 million.  
    Georgia has 16 Fortune 500 companies.  Houston has 26.  Dallas has 18 and Texas, as a whole, has 52 of the Fortune 500.
    Quit posturing, Atlanta.  You have the worlds greatest brand (Coca-Cola) and the world’s greatest airline (Delta).  Be proud.
    Don’t, however, be disillusioned that you have anything on Houston… or Texas.  You don’t.- See more at: http://saportareport.com/blog/2013/05/greater-houston-may-be-bigger-than-atlanta-region-but-is-it-better/#sthash.M04gdXxe.dpufReport

    Reply
  4. Chris Brooks says:

    No place in Georgia shows up in the top 100 for List of highest-income places in the United States.  Four cities in Harris County, TX.  One in Dallas County. One in Bexar County.Report

    Reply

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