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.
#1 Light rail will reduce traffic congestion in the
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.”
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.
#2 Light rail helps the environment.
to Valley Metro communications director Dana Mann, light rail
will eliminate 12 tons of pollution per day.
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.
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.
#3 Light rail has been successful in other cities.
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.
#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
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.
#5 Light rail will promote economic development.
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.”
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
#6 Light rail transit is the wave of the future.
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.
#7 It’s too late now--light rail is a “done
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.”
#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.
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.
#9 As the rail system is extended into the suburbs,
more people will want to ride.
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
#10 There aren’t any other ideas on the table
for reducing congestion and pollution.
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.
#11 Performance standards will ensure that light rail
will be evaluated thoroughly before the 37-mile extension is
allowed to be built.
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.
#12 The proposed regional plan is Maricopa County’s
last chance to improve its transportation infrastructure.
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
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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