Light Rail to Heaven

An article in last week’s Arizona Republic and the following editorial in today’s edition lavish praise on the new Sky Train at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

Sky Train ridership is soaring


Ridership of the PHX Sky Train is well ahead of projections. This is wel­come news considering how much the thing cost.

The automated people mov­er  is averaging 70,000 riders a week on its route from Termi­nal  4 to the East Economy parking lot and the 44th Street light-rail stop. That puts it on track to reach 3.6 million rid­ers  in its first year, well above the projected 2.5 million.

If you spread the $1.58 bil­lion  cost over 20 years, that works out to nearly $22 per ride.

Still, that’s two-thirds of what it would have been under the projections.

We still believe it would have made more sense to run light rail to the airport. But once the bypass was designed, this people mover became necessary. Visitors expect a convenient link to public transportation.

And it provides a benefit light rail couldn’t. Some num­ber  of people who would other­wise  have been dropped off or picked up at the curb are us­ing  the 44th Street station, reducing, however modestly, congestion at Terminal 4.

The next time you’re caught in that traffic jam, consider whether you would give the people in front of you $22 to get out of your way.

As typical for the fixed-route-transit pom-pom squad, the Republic editors use some sort of “new math” that I don’t understand to justify their headlines. Spreading the capital cost out over a 20-year projected life and dividing by an estimated TOTAL number of passengers over 20 years, to arrive at a $22/passenger trip cost completely ignores the operational and maintenance costs of the Sky Train. The actually cost might even be double that number, and it’s NOT paid by the Sky Train passengers…it’s paid by ALL airport users to the tune of about $5/plane ticket.

I would guess that the average SuperShuttle fare to Sky Harbor is probably about the same as that calculated by the Republic. We could have just given every SkyTrain rider a SuperShuttle pass, and we could have eliminated the operations and maintenance costs.

It is good that the Republic brings up the subject of light rail in this context. It is my understanding that one of the major selling points of the Valley Metro light rail system was direct connectivity to Sky Harbor. I also remember that there was significant investment in light rail infrastructure on airport property, and specifically a station built underneath Terminal 4 when it was under construction. I don’t know whatever happened to all that, and I can’t find any information on it via Google.

I’ll note also that the ridership for the Sky Train appears to exceed that of the entire Valley Metro light rail system, and that the capital cost of the VMLR system was about $90,000 per passenger, if you divide the total cost into the number of presumed regular passengers, without assuming they are unique passengers every week.

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