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May 11th, 2008:

Gas prices and sports fans

The rising price of gasoline has many effects.

Soaring gasoline and food prices and the nation’s housing crisis have local sports fans reconsidering how they will spend their money this summer.

For now, most fans aren’t ready to part with season tickets, but the threat of $4-a-gallon gasoline has some rethinking how many times they will visit the ballpark this summer, the peak of the baseball season.

“When fuel goes up, so does everything else,” said John Heyde of Montgomery, who is retired from the U.S. Coast Guard. “My pension stays the same. I have to cut someplace, so I watch more games on TV. Other people like me that are retired aren’t going to games like we used to. We used to be diehard all the time.”

To offset the price of going to games, fans say they are willing to make sacrifices elsewhere, including cutting back on what they spend once in the ballpark. Others, like the McKee family, are getting creative by using the city’s mass transportation system, carpooling in groups to save on fuel and parking, and searching for discount tickets.

Good thing the various stadia are all easily accessible by the city’s mass transit system, no? That’s something that Sugar Land could not have offered the Dynamo.

When it comes to sports, consumers often have an open-wallet policy, said Dr. Merrill J. Melnick, a sports sociologist at The College at Brockport (N.Y.).

“When fans decide where they want to cut costs, denying themselves access to sports events might be real low on their list,” Melnick said. “The real identified fan isn’t going to let the pump determine whether they root for their favorite team. It seems to me that’s one area they are less likely to cut corners. The identification between a fan and a favorite team is a very strong bond.”

But, Melnick added, if gasoline reaches $4 a gallon, “that might put a fans’ loyalty to the test.”

I forget who said it, but someone on the Baseball Prospectus noted that a feature of modern stadia is their smaller capacity. They’re designed to cater more towards high-end customers and less towards the bleacher bums; thus the explosion of luxury suites and field-level seats with extra amenities like waiters for refreshments. You’d think this sort of season-ticket holder would be less sensitive to the price of gasoline, since they’re already paying a fortune to be at the game. If so, then I figure baseball at least will mostly weather this storm, though it may cause attendance figures to level off or decline a bit.

The fear of a slowdown in consumer spending hasn’t affected the city’s four major professional teams, with the Astros, Texans, Rockets and Dynamo reporting increases in season-ticket sales. The Dynamo, coming off back-to-back Major League Soccer titles, had a 25-percent increase from 2007 to this season, team president and general manager Oliver Luck said.

Luck credits affordable tickets — the average price to watch a game at Robertson Stadium is $18 — for the increase.

“We’re fairly inexpensive,” he said. “I think the fact we are affordable is a blessing for some families.”

Cheap seats will always be a draw. And as noted, assuming the downtown stadium ever gets built, being a stop on two rail lines won’t hurt them, either.

The “virtual fence” gains fans

Despite a bad review from the Government Accounting Office, the so-called “virtual fence” managed to impress some Congressfolk recently.

Sections of Texas’ border with Mexico eventually could be secured by the same kind of high-tech “virtual fence” that’s been deployed in Arizona, key legislators said Friday after touring the state-of-the-art surveillance network.

The comments by two subcommittee chairmen with the House Homeland Security Committee — Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, and Christopher Carney, D-Pa.– followed an inspection tour Friday of the $20.6 million virtual fence near Sasabe, Ariz.

The project links high-tech surveillance towers, cameras, radar, ground sensors and unmanned aerial drones along a 28-mile section of the 1,947-mile international border.

“In Texas, there is an outcry and a great deal of conflict over installing physical barriers along the border,” said Jackson Lee, chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on transportation security and infrastructure protection. “What I have seen here today can be a very effective 21st century tool to secure our borders.”

Carney, the chairman of the panel’s oversight subcommittee, called the virtual fence “a tremendous concept” that’s ready for eventual deployment elsewhere along the border “once we make sure the bugs are ironed out.”

Carney, who toured the area with Jackson Lee and five other lawmakers, said the virtual fence was best suited for sparsely inhabited stretches along the border. “If we can ever get the technology to match the dedication of the Border Patrol personnel here, we’ll have an impenetrable border,” he said.


Jackson Lee said the lawmakers’ inspection tour turned her from a skeptic into a believer that the blend of high-tech surveillance and targeted deployment of Border Patrol agents could intercept illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

Flaws in the system have been slashed from 53 to just four, she said.

“I’ve changed my assessment because the technology did not work — and now it does,” she said.

I remain skeptical for now. I’ll say again that given a choice between this and a physical fence, this “virtual” concept is a million times better, and likely to be a lot cheaper as well. It’s still not a fix for what’s actually broken with our immigration system, and as such I think it’s a mis-prioritization of our resources. But if it helps to appease the fence fetishists out there, it’s less objectionable than some other options. That’s the best I can say about it at this time.

Where the people will be

I love stories about demographics.

By 2050, the area between Houston, San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth will become a single “mega-region” containing 70 percent of the state’s population, city planning experts said at a national forum on Friday.

Experts attending the Washington conference, dubbed America 2050, said the Texas mega-region, which will be one of 10 in the U.S., will house 24.5 million of the state’s projected 35 million residents.

I wish the definition of this region were more precise. I presume it really means the Houston, San Antonio, and D/FW metro areas; if it does, then ten of the state’s 15 most populous counties, accounting for a bit more than half of the total population, are in it. And that doesn’t include runnerup counties like Brazoria, Bell, McClennan, Ellis, and Wichita (see here for an Excel spreadsheet with populations by county as of 2004). My guess is we’re already at about 60 to 65% of the whole enchilada as it is.

[Regional Planning] Association president Bob Yaro said the Texas Triangle is different from the nation’s other regions.

Large swaths of undeveloped land, he said, exist between the metropolitan areas in Texas, unlike Southern California or the Northeast.

Because the distances between the Texas cities are too great for automobile commuting and too small for cost-effective air links, he said, high-speed rail should be an important new approach.

If there’s some way that private companies could make money off of it, they would be interested in building a high-speed rail network, said Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But he added that the prospect of profit seems unlikely unless the firms are allowed to use existing rail lines. That, he said, “ain’t going to happen because we’re having enough trouble moving freight.”

True enough, though of course there is another option, that of government investment in such a rail network. Wasn’t the Trans Texas Corridor supposed to have a rail component? I’m not sure if that’s gotten lost amid the shouting over toll roads or if it’s been quietly dropped; the point I’m making is that just as investing in roads is an asset to managing growth, so may investing in alternate forms of transportation be. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

Yaro said he was impressed by Metro’s light-rail project.

“The fact that Houston’s there, moving ahead with this thing in what has been until recently the most automobile-dominated place in the country is really a big step forward,” he said.

Some of us certainly think so. We still have a long way to go with it, though.

Bike to work

You don’t need subtitles to enjoy this pro-bike-riding ad from Hungary:

But if you really want to know what they’re saying, Ezra has a translation.

Now here’s the real question: What kind of a reaction do you think an ad like this would get in Houston?