Some More Light Rail Facts

I was chatting with a friend about light rail, and she said she heard that Scottsdale was the largest city in the nation lacking a light rail system.

That didn’t sound right to me so I did a little digging. Unfortunately, my results neither confirm nor deny that assertion, but there are a lot more cities without light rail than with it.

Here’s a list of light rail systems ranked by total boardings. I’d like to see the list expanded to include cost and cost/boarding!

However, in the course of my research I turned up an interesting and factual article by Randall O’Toole.

Quotes include:

Light rail costs 14 to 35 times as much to move people as highways.

How successful is light rail? In 1980, before Portland began building light rail, 9.8 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. Today, it is 7.6 percent.

Since 1980, Portland has spent more than $2.3 billion, half the region’s transportation capital funds, building light rail. Yet light rail carries less than 1 percent of Portland-area travel. That’s a success?

I was also reminded of an interesting fact I heard some time ago. I thought I’d written on it, but couldn’t find it on ScottsdaleTrails. So I backed out to Wikipedia and pulled this excerpt. Phoenix had light rail before the turn of the 20th Century:

Phoenix Street Railway

The Phoenix Street Railway provided streetcar service in Phoenix, Arizona, from 1887 to 1948. The motto was, “Ride a Mile and Smile the While.”

The line was originally founded in 1887 by Moses Hazeltine Sherman and used horse-drawn carts. Beginning in 1893, however, the railway was completely electrified. The line was popular with the locals and was partly responsible for the growth patterns observed in the early history of Phoenix. In 1911, the first of several planned interurban lines opened to Glendale; additional lines were planned but never built to Tempe, Mesa, and Scottsdale.[1] The system reached its height in the 1920s with several line extensions. In 1925 there were 33.6 miles of track on six lines.[2]

A potential competitor, the Salt River Valley Electric Railway, in 1912 hired engineers to build lines east from downtown Phoenix to Mesa via Tempe and Scottsdale, and a Southside line, to run from Phoenix to Tempe on the south side of the Salt River. The Salt River company later announced its lines would “connect Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Alhambra, Glendale and Peoria.” However, other than some digging on Van Buren and Monroe Streets, the line never managed to complete any construction, and was abandoned in 1914.

In 1925, the city of Phoenix purchased the Street Railway line and soon instituted numerous reforms, including increased frequency and new streetcars, which increased ridership. Two of the new fleet of streetcars, which entered service Christmas Day 1928, may still be seen at the Arizona Street Railway Museum in downtown Phoenix.

On October 3, 1947, a catastrophic fire destroyed most of the streetcar fleet. City officials faced the decision to either rebuild the fleet or use buses. Buses were ultimately chosen, and the streetcar system was abandoned in February 1948.

I’ll close with a recent Local Quote of the Day from Jim McAllister:

Scottsdale is an upscale city with upscale citizens who won’t support expensive imitation 19th-century technology.

More articles on light rail:

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  1. Update: My friend just found the citation on the Scottsdale Wikipedia page.

    “Scottsdale is the largest American city that has never had a rail line.”

    The citation credits: ” Schwieterman, Joseph P. (2004). When the railroad leaves town: American communities in the age of rail line Abandonment. Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press. p. xxiv. ISBN 1-931112-13-4″

    I’m sure this statement was ferreted out by a light rail supporter. However, for purposes of a factual discussion about light rail, it is meaningless…or worse for the proponents. Since cities larger and smaller than Scottsdale have had and abandoned light rail, the statement could be read to mean that Scottsdale is just smarter than the rest for not every hopping on the band wagon to begin with!

  2. It’s important to note that the Wikipedia quote says “rail,” not “light rail.” In other words, Scottsdale is claimed to be the largest U.S. city never to have had any sort of rail within its borders — whether that’s light rail, heavy rail, commuter rail, intercity passenger rail, or a freight railroad. There are larger cities without light rail, and there are smaller towns with freight lines or Amtrak running through them. Although we disagree on light rail, I agree that this particular Wikipedia quote is not relevant to the discussion.

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