In the Pay of Big Transit?

I am always amazed at the lengths to which some folks will try to put lipstick on the light rail pig.  One example I found today.  Michael Graham Richard wrote on treehugger in June:

The sprawling city of Phoenix, of all places, is showing us how light rail should be done. They just opened a 20 mile line with 28 stops last December, and ridership statistics are beating all forecasts (evidence that the same might be true in other cities where they are afraid to invest because their forecasts are too low) with 40,000 daily riders instead of the 25,000 expected.

But here are the ridership figures from Valley Metro, who runs Phoenix Light Rail.  This is weekday ridership (actually number of daily boardings) -- weekend ridership is much less:

  • Jan:  30,617
  • Feb:  35,277
  • Mar:  34,376
  • Apr:  37,386
  • May:  33,553
  • Jun:   29,469
  • Jul:  26,554

It is hard to see where one gets a 40,000 figure, especially since a true daily rider/boarding figure would have to average in the lower Saturday/Sunday numbers.

And who cares if it meets some sandbagged forecast or not?  Is 40,000 even a reasonable number?  Note that even at the higher 40,000 figure this implies just 20,000 round trip customers.  This higher ridership number would still make the capital cost of the $1.4 billion line to be $70,000 per round trip rider, and ABSURD subsidy.

Update: The ridership numbers will likely pick up when Arizona State is back in school.  ASU and the baseball stadium are about the only major destinations on the line through dispersed, low-density Phoenix (it goes through our "downtown" but that is not saying much  -- it is not a big center of employment).  Did we really build light rail as another subsidy for ASU students?

Update #2: Let's say there are 50,000,000 big city commuters in the US in cities outside of Boston/NY/Chicago with large transit systems.   Serving these commuters at $70,000 each would create a capital cost of $3.5 trillion for light rail.   Who on the planet really thinks this is reasonable?  Sure, you would get some network effects as you built out lines that increased ridership, but these would be offset by diminishing returns (presumably the first Phoenix line was built on the most promising corridor, and all future corridors will be less promising).


  1. Scott:

    I think your numbers are off. Are you saying that it cost $1.4 Billion a day to run this? That can't be right.

  2. Bryan:

    @ Scott
    No the light rail doesn't cost that much to run.

    Warren isn't talking about operating costs, he's talking about -capital- costs. It goes back to his idea that instead of building a light rail line it would have been cheaper to buy every daily rider a Prius.

    He also says that the operating cost are more expensive than keeping those cars filled with gas.

  3. Bob Smith:

    That 1.4 billion is capital cost, not operating cost. You could give every rider a brand new car, gas for life, and still save hundreds of millions of dollars. That's why light rail is a terrible idea.

  4. rod:

    Lets compare that to the new ICC under construction in Maryland:

    Cost: $2.566 billion
    Estimated daily trips: 85000
    Length: 18 miles

    Given these numbers, the cost of building a new highway is 30,000 per driver. The light rail is just over twice the price...which would you rather have in your community?

  5. Allen:

    For the ICC, keep in mind that's 85,000 vehicles. That's 136,000 trips per day. And at that tolls are projected to finance 30-40% of the projects capital costs. Another nice plus is that it'll server 4k-5k express buses each day that otherwise wouldn't be able to travel as fast.

    As for Michael Graham's numbers, the other thing to ask is who came up with the 25,000 trip projection? If it's the folks building the line, their incentive is to come up with as low of a number as possible and yet be high enough to secure funding. The number of trips may be exceeding their expectations but were their expectations purposely low to start with to help ensure they'd be exceeded?

  6. John Moore:

    I'd rather have the new highway myself - much more flexible, offers more freedom.