It's More Expensive, but Makes Up For It By Being Less Flexible

I have chastised our city on many occasions (more here) for spending enormous amounts of money on a new light rail / streetcar system for Phoenix.  These light rail systems can be twenty or more times as expensive, per mile or passenger carried, than a similar bus system.  But what really, really makes light rail nuts for Phoenix is the lack of flexibility.   Our hugely expensive new light rail system serves just one corridor, in a city that really does not even have a downtown.  Phoenix is characterized by a nearly infinite number of commuting routes that don't overlay nicely on a suburbs to city-center pattern as they might in, say, Chicago.  Further, the current route arguably follows the least congested route of any in the city!

The incremental cost of light rail over bus systems has been justified to us by our government overlords by economic development.  The argument goes that light rail creates more business development along their routes than a bus system.  Now, I am skeptical of this, given the region justified building a billion dollar stadium for the hapless Cardinals on the same justification (not to mention numerous subsidies of a couple of college bowl games that add little to an area that is going to get holiday tourists because of its climate whether there is a football game or not.

But what about Portland?  Supposedly Portland light rail is the go-by which all we unplanned cities should emulate.  But the Anti-Planner brings this helpful observation about Portland's experience with light rail and development:

Streetcar advocates often say that 7-mile-per-hour streetcars aren't about transportation, they are about economic development.
But they expect the Department of Transportation to pay for them out of
highway user fees. Why didn't they ask the Department of Housing and
Urban Development for the money?

Of course, the Antiplanner doesn't believe
that streetcars catalyze economic development. Instead, they merely
catalyze more tax subsidies for economic development. Portland spent
$90 million on a streetcar line and $665 million on subsidies to
development "” then credited the development to the streetcar line.
Yeah, right.


  1. Hunt Johnsen:

    North San Diego County has almost completed a 22 mile trolley line called the Sprinter - it will be interesting to see how much it finally costs and who rides it. This area has really nice roads and plenty of cars and I don't think there are that many people who need to get from Escondido to Oceanside - though hooking up with the Coaster system into downtown San Diego may make it worthwhile.

  2. Kim Scarborough:

    It seems to me that light rail would hinder economic development along the route, at least to the extent anyone uses it. If I'm driving down the road and I want to stop for coffee or I see a store I'd like to stop at, I can just pull in for a minute. I can't exactly jump off a train anywhere along the line... and even at a stop it's too much trouble to get off and back on to make it worthwhile for something small.

  3. Hunt Johnsen:

    Just Googled the Sprinter - turns out there's just a small cost overun and it's costing some 26 million per mile. There is also some concern as to its effect on traffic as it crosses a lot of major surface streets and this will affect traffic as the gates close for 40 seconds each time a train goes by.

  4. Patrick R. Sullivan:

    The first thing to understand about light rail is that rails were put down in city streets because it made it easier for the horse to pull the car. It's 19th century technology.

  5. WLS:

    It is interesting to read how these debates play out in less dense cities than my own eastern one. The discussion of subsidies ignores the huge subsidy of the automobile that has persisted since the 1940s. The belittling of Portland's policies in favor of light rail and street cars ignore the fact that many people are attracted to that city because of their transit system.

    Recently I was involved in planning the expansion of a bus depot. The reason that people hate buses is because they are loud and literally stink. So that is modern techology? Light rail is an update of 19th century technology - like cell phones. Maybe compact, transit oriented development, popular even in say, Dallas, for example, is an update on sprawl because people realize that sprawl is unpleasant? Or perhaps sprawl is the epitome of human advancement. You decide the next time you exit your car in a walmart parking lot.

    Tram lines operate next to cafes and the people happily sip their coffee and cognac. Not just in Switzerland - even in Houston (maybe more like a Shiner and a shot?). Is Phoenix so culturally different from Salt Lake City - now expanding its transit system?