Watching Phoenix’s 104: “Propping Up” Light Rail

Tom Lane posted an interesting article on his SmartGrowthUSA website this morning about the impending Phoenix vote on Proposition 104, which asks Phoenix voters to tax themselves (along with everyone in Phoenix who doesn’t vote) to fund a $13 BILLION dollar expansion of Valley Metro Rail. The election is August 25th, about six weeks out.

While Tom’s article mostly focuses on rail-funding election statistics from his hometown of Seattle, he also says that in Seattle,

Now, nearly 10 years later, the light rail lines are only taking 1% of all [commuter] trips. Gridlock on the freeways has increased and new  freeway lanes have been added. There have been at least three lawsuits over light rail. 60% of gas taxes are spent on transit, with only 40% on new freeway lanes.

The Phoenix metro area has seen similar results, proving the occasionally-admitted truism that light rail isn’t a transportation solution, it’s a real estate development tool. Decisions about light rail are made by politicians (with the consent of uninformed voters…and sometimes WITHOUT their consent) who get campaign contributions from developers, as well as construction companies who build rail systems, and manufacturers who make the components.

What is not said in Tom’s article is that funding for real transit solutions (like the more distributed and accessible bus system) is always cannibalized to subsidize money-losing rail operations.

I had an experience recently in which my family and I wanted to ride the light rail into Phoenix for lunch. Good luck finding a place to legally park your car at the nearest rail stop.

Not only is there very little dedicated parking, there’s no practical way to locate it. Valley Metro Rail’s website sucks. There’s no polite way to say it. If these folks really wanted you to ride the rail, they’d make it a little easier for you. And I’m sure it’s a huge burden on private property owners along the route, where parking lots are full of “no light rail parking” signs. All of which proves yet again that rail isn’t a transportation solution.

Also I noted that reading further down Tom’s website, beyond Tom’s article Matthew Kenney of the Taken for a Ride Committee is quoted,

31 billion dollars will buy every man, woman and child living in Phoenix Arizona today, a smart car…. Out of the goodness of Phoenix taxpayer’s hearts, we could also purchase a smart car for every man woman and child who lives in Tucson Arizona. This is just bad policy, we should vote no on Prop 104.

Dicing the statistics and cost another way: When Valley of the Sun residents were first considering light rail, I said that the estimated capital cost would have bought every projected light rail RIDER a brand new BMW…a very NICE one (of course, capital costs were vastly underestimated along with operating cost, and ridership naturally was overestimated).

Obviously many of the folks who use mass transit are “transit dependent.” Some are classified thus because they don’t own cars, but many can’t drive because of physical and/or legal challenges.

So forget about buying them cars. Get them vouchers for Uber or Lyft on-demand ridesharing, which is privately capitalized (i.e., the drivers own their own cars), and can now operate legally in Arizona (Phoenix Biz Journal).


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  1. This reminds me of the Simpson’s episode on the “monorail” that was to save their town. See you just keep throwing money at it and “good things happen!” Right, things have happened. You see Phoenix needs it to make “good things happen!”

    Ugh, so the city of Phoenix is going to “tax its way into prosperity” with more money going down the light rail dream. Where is ONE article showing the economic benefits of light rail? Where is a fluff piece even with – John Q. Businessperson saying – Light rail made me the rich person I am today! Look at my sales, I attribute that to light rail! –

    Yeah, those don’t exist. What does exist is the small businesses saying all the construction for light rail has either killed their business or had a significant impact on it. Nowhere is the “rebound” of business from its completion? So far Scottsdale is ‘safe’ from light rail, so far. Just remember we have some council people who think it is the ‘right thing’ for Scottsdale – right after they help supporting the renaming of the McDowell Corridor. You know priorities.

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