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A Ticket to Ride or a Ticket to Nowhere?
by John Semmens, The Independent Institute, and Satya Thallam, The Goldwater Institute
22 January 2004

Is your city or county advocating raising your taxes for a light rail system? This article exposes the reality behind some of the biggest light rail myths, focusing on the City of Phoenix's proposed plan.

If voters approve the half-cent sales tax continuation proposed by the Maricopa Association of Governments, close to 14 percent of revenues--$2.2 billion--will pay for the construction of light rail in the Valley. With so much at stake, voters deserve to know about the myths and realities of light rail.

Myth #1 Light rail will reduce traffic congestion in the Valley.

Most voters know that they will almost never ride light rail, other than once a year to a baseball game. But many support light rail because they hope that other people will ride light rail. As Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano told a reporter, “Even some people who might not use it themselves will support it to get the people in front of them on the freeway out of their cars.”

Reality: You’re probably not going to ride light rail, and almost no one else will, either. According to Valley Metro’s projections, light rail will remove less than one car in a thousand from traffic, and transit as a whole will make up only one percent of vehicle-miles traveled in the Valley over the next 20 years. Since 1980, transit’s share of travel in the region has never hit even one percent, and Valley Metro projects that light rail ridership will reach only 0.04 percent [four-hundredths of one percent] of passenger-miles traveled. At the same time, the loss of roadway capacity due to light rail tracks occupying street lanes leads Valley Metro to project that traffic congestion will actually increase by 0.45 percent if light rail is built.

Myth #2 Light rail helps the environment.

According to Valley Metro communications director Dana Mann, light rail will eliminate 12 tons of pollution per day.

Reality: Twelve tons a day sounds impressive, until you learn that the Phoenix area produces over a thousand tons of pollution every day. Thus, 12 tons is little more than one percent of total pollution, or less than one day’s worth of pollution. But even that tiny impact is premised on the assumption that all train riders would otherwise have driven cars. It also ignores the consequences of reduced roadway capacity from placing rail lines in the street. As a result, Valley Metro’s environmental impact statement admits that pollution may actually increase by a small amount if light rail is built.

Because clean air is an important goal, we cannot rely on light rail or even bus transit to improve our environment. To combat pollution, policymakers should target automobiles, which make up 99 percent of all travel in the Valley. One way is to target the relatively few super-emitting automobiles that cause the most pollution. Options include a vehicle license surcharge for high-polluting vehicles, modified emissions fees, retrofitting of older vehicles with catalytic converters, accelerated retirement of older vehicles, and mobile emissions enforcement.

Myth #3 Light rail has been successful in other cities.

Reality: Light rail has had a miniscule impact on traffic congestion. In no city in the country does light rail ridership equal more than 1.2 percent of travel. 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 the U.S. Department of Transportation 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 usage of a freeway mile.

Myth #4 Light rail may not have a lot of riders in the Valley as a whole, but it will have a significant impact along Central Avenue, in downtown Tempe, and elsewhere in the corridor it serves.

Reality: According to Valley Metro’s own figures, light rail will reduce vehicle-miles traveled in the light rail corridor by less than one percent. And Valley Metro projects that traffic congestion in the corridor will increase by 1.2 percent if light rail is built, due to reduced roadway capacity.

Myth #5 Light rail will 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.”

Reality: Light rail does little, if anything, to promote economic development. In Portland, promises of new economic development were never realized, and 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.

Myth #6 Light rail transit is the wave of the future.

Reality: The usage of public transit in America has declined steadily since World War II. Transit’s share of urban travel has ridden a downward slope, from 51 percent of urban travel in 1945 to three percent today. Urban residents increasingly prefer the speed and convenience of automobiles, and that trend shows no signs of reversing.

Myth #7 It’s too late now--light rail is a “done deal.”

Reality: While it’s true that Phoenix and Tempe have already provided for the first 20 miles of the light rail route, the next 37 miles are far from being a sure thing. At present, several state legislators are working to split the ballot so that voters will have a chance to vote in favor of freeways and bus transit, but against light rail. Even if they are forced to vote up or down on the entire transportation package, voters may decide to vote against the whole plan and send county planners “back to the drawing board.”

Myth #8 We already have a sunk “investment” in the first 20 miles of light rail, so we have no choice but to continue with the 37-mile expansion.

Reality: It’s never too late to get off a sinking ship. In the private sector, when investors realize that an investment has gone sour and that there is no chance of realizing a return, they cut their losses and move on to wiser investments.

Myth #9 As the rail system is extended into the suburbs, more people will want to ride.

Reality: The initial 20-mile light rail route was chosen because it was projected to have the highest ridership. As lines are extended further into the suburbs load factors will decrease and the average cost per passenger will rise from the $12 per passenger trip ($6,000 per year per daily commuter) forecast by Valley Metro.

Myth #10 There aren’t any other ideas on the table for reducing congestion and pollution.

Reality: The Valley has many preferable, proven alternatives for reducing congestion. Improving roadways yields 40 times the benefit as spending on light rail. Investing $2.2 billion in light rail will eliminate funds that could be used to build over 100 lane-miles of new freeway capacity. Higher frequency mini-bus service would reduce one of the main disincentives to transit use—waiting time. And tax incentives for telecommuting, flex-time and compressed workweeks would all yield more benefits per dollar invested than light rail.

Myth #11 Performance standards will ensure that light rail will be evaluated thoroughly before the 37-mile extension is allowed to be built.

Reality: According to Valley Metro’s data, light rail will be inefficient, ineffective, and unfair. So it’s unclear how much worse its performance would have to be before state and county politicians finally decide to pull the plug. As it is, the cost per trip for light rail as forecast by Valley Metro will be over $12, and non-riders would pay 95 percent of that cost. For comparison, note that when all taxes and costs are considered, automobile drivers currently pay around 100 percent of the cost of roads and freeways through their car, gasoline and sales taxes.

Myth #12 The proposed regional plan is Maricopa County’s last chance to improve its transportation infrastructure.

Reality: If policymakers force county residents to vote up or down on the entire transportation package, without a split ballot on the light rail question, they risk losing the whole plan. But even if the plan were defeated, the county would not be at a dead-end on transportation issues. The future belongs to automobiles, freeways, and competitive bus transit. A revised county plan, or various city plans, could provide for new freeways and improved bus transit.

Maricopa County needs to expand its transportation infrastructure, especially given the quickening pace of population growth. But those needs should not be shackled to an ill-considered plan for light rail. Valley residents should be given a chance to get off the light rail trolley before it leaves the station.

John Semmens is a Phoenix transportation expert and Research Fellow at The Independent Institute, and Satya Thallam is a fiscal policy analyst with the Goldwater Institute. Semmens’ new report on county transportation, Buses, Trains and Automobiles: Finding the Right Transportation Mix for the Phoenix Metro Region, is available here.

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