Light Rail Killing Another Transit System

I have written frequently that light rail tends to kill transit systems (Randal O-Toole has been a Cassandra on this subject for years).  Rail is so expensive to build and operate, and so inflexible in its routes and service structure, that once constructed it sucks resources from other modes (especially buses).   This leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that these huge investments actually in the long run end up reducing transit system coverage and service and reducing ridership.  In particular, the poor, who depend on public transit as their lifeline rather than as a publicly subsidized alternative to buying a Prius, tend to get hammered.  Their bus service is cut and the light rail seldom runs where either their work or their homes are located.  Light rail is in effect a shifting of transit focus from serving the poor to serving the middle class (who wouldn't be caught dead on a yucky old bus but who like trains).

Enter Phoenix.  For the capital cost of $75,000 per daily rider, and large operating losses, we built ourselves a light rail line in one of the most dispersed cities in the country.  In other words, we spent $1.4 billion to serve a single 20 mile corridor which represented a tiny fraction of the city's commutes.  I predicted a while back two outcomes:

1) Light rail fares skyrocket to cover their immense operating deficits and capital costs, giving the lie to politicians that sold these systems as helping working poor.

2) Bus service, the form of transit that serves most of the working poor ...  is cut back to help pay for rail.

So, here is what I woke up to on the front page of our newspaper:

Phoenix's bus system, the largest in the Valley, may see a $16 million budget cut next year to avoid a deficit in 2012, transit officials say.

Bus-system officials will discuss the issue with the Citizens Transit Commission today.

The looming deficit is more bad news for bus riders. Cost-cutting in December and July reduced the frequency of some Phoenix routes and eliminated early morning and late-night service. Also, bus fares went up in all metro Phoenix cities and for Metro light rail this year.

Of course, as with all government analyses, the problem is not enough taxes:

Phoenix is going through multiple rounds of belt-tightening because sales-tax revenue, a crucial part of Phoenix's $171 million transit operating budget, continues to drop because of the economic downturn.

Transit 2000, the 0.4 percent sales tax that voters approved in March 2000, is bringing in less than projected. The tax was expected to generate $21.4 million during the first two months of this fiscal year. It brought in $14.3 million, said Lauri Wingenroth, assistant public-transit director.

Here is what they say don't say in the article, but should:  Most of the 2000 sales tax increase was allocated to the capital costs of light rail construction.  Those can't be cut back, because they are already sunk.  That means that most of these taxes are dedicated to paying off light rail bonds for the next 30 years, and those expenses exist no matter what they do.  So with no way to cut back on light rail expenses, buses (which have more variable costs than rail) are cut.  All exactly as predicted.

PS- Hilariously, right next to this article which should have been labeled a light rail fail, is an article about the "tragedy" that Phoenix is not on the Obama light rail boondoggle map.  Everyone else gets to waste a ton of federal money, why don't we have the same right?  If you read the article, you will find that a lot of countries that are orders of magnitude more dense and have much shorter inter-city travel distances than in the US are way ahead of us.  Left out of the article is the much higher percentage of freight that moves by rail rather than road in the US.


  1. Roger Clark:

    While I agree that it is a boondoggle, this is not "light Rail" since bullet trains need their own special tracks and are very heavy rail. This would be even more expensive and a larger waste of money than the light rail trolleys.

  2. LoneSnark:

    Maybe the message would spread better if it were looked at differently. Do the statistics exist to say how much it would cost to add a dedicated bus-lane along this route and a fleet of buses? I suspect it would be a tiny fraction of the $1.4 billion spent and would produce almost identical service. Can anyone help show that?

  3. spiro:


    Wouldn't make a difference to the people in power. The light rail fad is NOT about convenience or transit, it is about hydrocarbons. The politicians and activists who push for this system (notice, NOT engineers) are convinced that buses run on combustible gases with visible emissions (see: tailpipe), while light rail systems run on good intentions and love for the common man -- no tailpipes to be seen, just magic wires (nevermind Newton and his silly laws about energy generation).

  4. spiro:

    Re: bullet train article

    Why do the people on the Left have such a hard-on for a bullet train out west?

    1) we have a faster mode of transport = airplanes
    2) anyone who has flown over the western United States knows that there is A LOT of pristine wilderness out here -- why would the supposed Earth-loving lefties want to tear that apart with their super speedy 100 ton deer smasher?
    3) Who the F--- would ride this boondoggle? I imagine 35-45 year old white hipsters with black glasses and very specific tastes in coffee. If the government has to spend money on something, why not something that helps poor people advance?

  5. antiplanner:

    Roger Clark:

    The "light" in light rail is short for "light-capacity rail transit," as opposed to "heavy rail" or "heavy-capacity rail transit" (subways and elevateds). For safety reasons, light-rail must be operated several minutes apart, so light rail has a lower capacity for carrying people than buses. That's why it doesn't make sense unless your only goal is to spend a lot of money.


    The light-rail fad is NOT about hydrocarbons. It is about spending money. Hydrocarbons is just an excuse, and not a very good one, because the plants generating the electricity powering light rail mostly burn coal.

  6. antiplanner:

    Roger Clark:

    I see now you were writing about the high-speed rail, not light rail. The funny thing is, high-speed rail uses rails that are about the same weight as light rail. That's because light-rail vehicles weigh about 50 tons each, about the same as high-speed rail cars and more than true bullet train cars (which are made especially light to save energy).

  7. Clark Morris:

    Light rail and streetcars can run on close headways but as those who actually have ridden bus systems found out really frequent scheduling leads to bunching among other things. Since a two unit train will carry as many people as 4 regular buses or 3 articulated buses with ONE operator, at comparable loading factors, light rail is cheaper to operate. Also light rail cars don't idle in traffic spewing fumes. Check the federal government figures on light rail versus bus. On a passenger mile, basis the light rail is cheaper. A single light rail vehicle costs more to operate than a single bus but it carries more people.

  8. Maddog:

    We live in Portland, Oregon. My son enjoys riding light rail but wondered about the costs and energy efficiency. We evaluated and found that when comparing the Portland transit system before light rail and after light rail there was a net increase in motor vehicle fuels used. This was on top of the electrical energy used by light rail. Counter intuitively light rail increased fuel use for some unknown reason.

    We also evaluated light rail carbon output nation-wide and compared it to various automobiles (Prius, the average new car, and our SUV). Light rail fared poorly and was more polluting than even our SUV (we average 2.4 passengers per trip). He received a good grade on the project but the teacher graded him down because the data was not believable. I guess the federal transportation statistics are not a credible source of information.

  9. nom de guerre:

    +1 @ spiro - "hipsters with very specific tastes in coffee".

    heh. i will of course be stealing that for later use.

    as far as cuts in bus service goes, it's obvious: ever ridden a city bus? it's loud, and dirty, and filled with scary, smelly poor people. clearly, buses are magnets for the 'wrong' element, and we need to get rid of them. when they show trains in europe in the movies, you *never* see people like that. hell, jason bourne had his own compartment when he went to zurich! THAT'S the kind of mass transportation we need.

  10. gofer:

    It's because the Europeans do it and that makes certain people envious. Light rail is one of those "smucky" things like bike paths and hiking trails. It's sooooo "earth friendly" and makes people "feel" good. Kinda like having a diet coke with a giant cheeseburger. It makes the other indulgences OK.

  11. Bob Smith:

    On a passenger mile, basis the light rail is cheaper

    Only if:

    1) you exclude capital costs, and
    2) you assume they run at 100% capacity

  12. tehag:

    Seems to me the best new amendment to the Constitution would forbid transfers of money between different levels of government.