Absolutely Predictable

Apparently, even before the first train starts carrying passengers (sometime in December), Phoenix's new light rail system is already forcing bus fares up.  (via a reader)

Before the Valley's light-rail service ever begins, the cost to ride the train and city buses may be headed up.

The issue of raising the Valley's regional fare policy has been brewing for several months as transit officials have struggled to cover
rising gas prices and other increased operation costs, said Greg Jordan, Tempe's transit administrator. Transit and light-rail costs are covered by a half-cent sales tax, which has fallen over the past year.

The real issue is that transit agencies are generally given a fixed pot of money for operating subsidies (in this case the proceeds of a half-cent sales tax) and rail tends to take a hugely disproportionate share of that money, starving out less sexy but more practical and cost-effective bus systems.  Even in the that wet dream of rail planners, Portland:

In fact, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit to work before the region build light rail. Today it is just 7.6 percent. In a story repeated in numerous cities that have built rail lines, rail cost overruns forced the city to raise bus fares and reduce bus service. That's a success?

This is even more likely in Phoenix, where buses make far more financial sense than rail, given our very low densities, lack of a real downtown area, and numerous commuting routes.  In fact, not only is it predictable, but I predicted it:

Rail makes zero sense in a city like Phoenix.  All this will do is create a financial black hole into which we shift all of our bus money, so the city will inevitably end up with a worse transportation system, not a better one.  Cities that build light rail almost always experience a reduction in total transit use (even the great God of planners Portland) for just this reason - budgets are limited, so since rail costs so much more per passenger, other transit is cut back.   But the pictures of the train will look pretty in the visitor's guide.


  1. Worried dude:

    I think we can say that every time government gets involved in things that should be handled by private enterprise, it screws things up.

  2. Worried dude:

    I think we can say that every time government gets involved in things that should be handled by private enterprise, it screws things up.

  3. K:

    I live near Phoenix. Too near. But it came to me over the years. I didn't move there.

    The light rail fiasco continues. So does the policy of spending every available dollar to fund a "vibrant" downtown. Downtown revival is the Holy Grail of planners. The fact that so many people fled downtown and never go there by choice is not considered.

    Regional transportation agencies are all immortal. No amount of fraud, waste, inefficiency, or idiocy will negate the determination of local governments to fund them.

    In such a situation the services that perform worst - in operations or finances - will get more attention and more funding to correct the faults. Any services that perform well, such as buses, will be looted to feed the losers.

    Light rail usually provides the least value. Therefore it gets an increasing share of any funding available. Hope light rail works at least somewhat. Otherwise bus service will have to be stopped.

  4. David D:

    I live 2 miles from the 44th St and Washington stop. And I drive 2 miles along the route to get to my office. The route is almost entirely industrial. I stopped today to buy firewood (try getting that on the train!) And I drive the other direction of the route into downtown occassionally. There is no housing for a half mile - north or south - of the tracks. Who is supposed to be riding this thing?

  5. Allen:

    David D, don't worry people will ride it once they build it..... or at least once the TOD developers get generous government subsidies to build "dense" housing next to the stations. It will be a success by THEIR standards; that I can promise. :)

    That may seem a bit snarky but the Denver Post recently rehashed a press release for an RTD sponsored study showing that housing prices in the city of Denver (not metro) increased around some stations while housing prices in metro Denver fell (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_10850014). Even though it openly admits this not to be the case for all stations in the city of Denver let alone those stations outside the city, it trumpets transit as a tool that increases the value of housing around it. So we spend billions to get a few thousand cars off the road and add a few % of value to a few hundred housing units in a metro of 2.5 million people. Yep, it's a success.

    How are these sales tax revenues causing issues in Phoenix? Here in Denver retail sales were up in the first half of 2008 (I don't know about the last half) yet RTD was wining about them being "down". How were they down? The increases weren't meeting RTD's projections!