ARIZONA REPUBLIC: Sun., Oct. 19, 2003

Maricopa County Voters, You're Being Railroaded
by Satya Thallam

Maricopa County voters are about to get railroaded.

If the county’s transportation plan goes through, close to 15%* of revenues from the half-cent sales tax continuation will be dedicated to the construction of light rail in the Valley. Before they tie their wallets to the tracks, Maricopa taxpayers need to educate themselves about the real costs of light rail.

Here are 10 reasons to stop the light rail project in its tracks.

10. Light rail is likely to cost far more than projected. U.S. Department of Transportation economist Don Pickrell argues that funding practices encourage local transportation planners to exaggerate ridership projections. Transportation expert Wendell Cox finds that construction costs are 50 percent higher than projections and operating costs are 80% higher. Fewer riders and higher costs lead to operating costs per passenger mile exceeding 250% of projections.

9. Few people will actually ride light rail. Even in densely-populated Boston, which has the highest use of light rail in the country, the daily passenger miles per directional route is 9,942. But USDOT reports that for the top 50 urban areas in the country, the average passenger miles per lane mile of freeway is 26,370. So even the most optimistic forecast on light rail ridership comes nowhere close to the normal capacity of a freeway mile.

8. Light rail is not cost-effective. The construction cost for a typical light rail project is about $25 million a mile, more than twice that for the typical freeway lane mile. Cost projections for Maricopa County vary between $30 million and $60 million per mile.

7. Light rail will do little to help the environment. According to Phoenix transportation expert John Semmens, [assuming that all transit passengers would otherwise drive cars] bus and light rail transit are estimated [by Valley Metro] to reduce key pollutants by about 800 tons per year--only two-tenths of one percent.**

6. Light rail is not appropriate for low-density cities like Phoenix. The area’s predominantly suburban makeup and low concentration of centrally located jobs should cause voters to pull the brake cable on the whole idea.

5. Light rail does little to attract people to transit. After spending millions of dollars, the city of San Jose saw rail’s share of all motorized passenger miles in 2001 was 0.4 percent, even though its population density is high relative to that of Phoenix.

4. Light rail does nothing to promote transit efficiency, and little to promote economic development. In 1995, Portland Metro’s John Fregonese stated, “Light rail is not worth the cost if you’re just looking at transit. It’s a way to increase the density of the community.” But in Portland, promises of new economic development were never realized. Transit-oriented developments were the result of large subsidies in the form of tax abatements and direct grants. At best, according to the Federal Transit Administration, rail transit only redistributes growth that would have occurred anyway.

3. Light rail cannot compete with automobiles. Cars will always be preferred because of their superior speed and convenience. Indeed, 80% of new light rail riders would likely be former bus riders, not drivers.

2. Light rail steals from Peter so that Paul can ride cheaply. Valley Metro claims that light rail will cost $12.39 per passenger trip. Semmens notes that for round-trip commuters, that adds up to over $6,000 per year per passenger. Taxpayers—99% of whom will not ride light rail—will be forced to pay for over 90% of passengers’ costs.

1. There are plenty of better options. Indeed, it may be fair to say that all other options are better. The Valley should focus on bus transit, freeway expansion, and freeway efficiency measures such as congestion pricing.

Pickrell once referred to the mania for rail transit as “The Desire Named Streetcar.” It’s time for Maricopa voters to examine this desire carefully. If they do, they will surely choose to derail light rail.

--Satya Thallam is a fiscal policy analyst at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based policy research organization.

*The figure in the original text was 30%, which is the total share of sales tax revenue dedicated to transit.

**The original text omitted the qualifications contained here in brackets. Additionally, the originally stated “two-thirds of one percent” has been corrected to “two-tenths of one percent.”