On What Freaking Basis?

Tampa Rail writes (hat tip to a reader):

The new Phoenix light rail system is emerging as one of the most successful new systems in the country.  This is especially poignant for Tampa because in scale, project scope, and demographics, Phoenix represents the apogee of operating examples.

Over the course of its first year the system has received high marks in community integration, stunning ridership figures, and respectful financial constraint (making tough decisions on long-term planning that do not inhibit the value of its starter-line status today).  This is exactly what Hillsborough County is shooting for in its own implementation.  A perfect balance of conservative control and benchmarking combined with progressive action and democratic freedom, the latter which may finally come to Hillsborough County in the form of a referendum.  That all good stuff was achieved by such a strikingly similar auto-depenent culture is a great omen.  A starter light rail system can be championed by civic conservatives (Mark Sharpe), and civic progressives (Ed Turanchik) to great outcome....

Both pieces I link to here embarass anti-rail or anti-tax groups who are, as the Phoenix article notes, "muted" if not definetively silenced.  Their arguments against community investement were loud, often intelligent (once one bought into the ideological premise that rail systems must 'pay for themselves' and that community investement is somehow inherently evil - points not firmly established by any means among rationale individuals), and grossly atypical.  I will forever hype on how mechanical, unchanging, and how pre-web these attacks were formulated.

Ooh, how can I overcome my embarrassment?  Look, I don't think I have ever argued that Phoenix Light Rail was run poorly or didn't have pretty trains.   And I don't know if moving 18,000 round trip riders a day in a metropolitan area of 4.3 million people is a lot or a little (though 0.4% looks small to me, that is probably just my "pre-web" thinking, whatever the hell that is).

The problem is that it is freaking expensive, so it is a beautiful toy as long as one is not paying for it.  Specifically, it's capital costs are $75,000 per daily round trip rider, and every proposed addition is slated to be worse on this metric (meaning the law of diminishing returns dominates network effects, which is not surprising in this least dense of all American cities).

Already, like in Portland and San Francisco, the inflexibility of servicing this capital cost (it never goes away, even in recessions) is causing the city to give up bus service, the exact effect that caused rail to reduce rather than increase transit's total share of commuters in that wet dream of all rail planners, Portland.  Soon, we will have figures for net operating loss and energy use, but expect them to be disappointing, as they have in every other city (and early returns were that fares were covering less than 25% of operating costs).

PS- I get a lot of comments that I have some weird anti-train bias.  Actually, I have an n-scale model railroad in one room of my house, and spent a lot of my teenage years traveling along rural rail lines and photographing trains.  I love trains.  I just don't like stupid investments.

PPS- I was just thinking, on the basis the Tampa writer declares the building of Phoenix Light Rail a raving success, I could say the same thing about buying a super-size 100" flat screen TV for $50,000.  It is beautiful.  Everyone who sees it will love it.  It works flawlessly.  Lots of people will be able to enjoy it at one time.  In fact, it is the greatest, most sensible and successful purchase of all time as long as you never mention the cost.  Which is, by the way, why only one person I have ever met has one (I happened to be at a Reason reception the other night and the homeowner had such a beauty on his living room wall).

Update: I try to anticipate every argument in these posts.  The one other argument is that rails takes congestion off roads.  But for most of its length, Phoenix light rail displaced one lane of road in each direction.  These lanes had a capacity as large or larger than what Phoenix light rail carries.  The were also much cheaper to build.  I must say I liked my quote from that post

If running trains requires, as you suggest, draining resources from millions of people just to move thousands, how is it sustainable?


  1. roger the shrubber:

    what do you mean? the system's been in operation for *well* over a whole YEAR now, and it hasn't even declared bankruptcy or agitated for a tax increase/rate hike yet, right? in the 'train/light rail/monorail' game, that constitutes a **sparkling** success.

    i just wish there was a way to short these damn things - hell, i'd be a billionaire just on shorting the vegas monorail alone. and when the houston system admits the obvious and gives up the ghost.....shooooot. i'd be lending money to God. (prime minus a point: the big guy gets the good rates.) anyone know of any hedge funds specializing in that?

  2. Mesa Econoguy:

    You know this guy’s full of crap immediately when he says

    This is especially poignant for Tampa because in scale, project scope, and demographics, Phoenix represents the apogee of operating examples.

    What about public transport is “poignant?”

    I charge this idiot with Horrific Misuse of the Language (looks like a techie, so he’s unfamiliar with sentence construction and usage conventions).

    Yet another example: GSP â„¢

  3. Doug:

    I wish people here in Wisconsin would understand the pretty choo choo trains that are proposed for service between Milwaukee and Madison are going to have an outrageous capital cost that will have to be spent to maintain the trains whether there is money in the budget or not. It is going to be difficult for the project to be killed if it goes much further. Meanwhile, the "zoo" interchange in Milwaukee on I-94 that carries 349,500 cars a day through it has to quickly be rebuilt because it is falling a part. Truck traffic has been banned from it. Yet, we need the the trains for a few thousand people to go back and forth.

  4. dr kill:

    Rumors that Mr. Crist may switch parties were furthered by his appearance with Mr. Obama in Tampa on Thursday to promote a $2.5 billion Florida high-speed railway that the federal government is funding. "I want to thank him on behalf of my fellow Floridians. To be able to generate tens of thousands of jobs right now is mission Number One," said Mr. Crist.

    2.5 bill divided by tens of thousands of jobs? Would that be ten thousand 250k jobs? twenty thousand 125k jobs?
    I hate using Wiki as a sole source, but they say Amtrak has 19k employees on 21k miles of track. Maybe I should check with Charlie.
    It would be cynical to suggest politics could be the reason Charlie was there instead of Nelson.
    The tamparail.org site suggests that lightening strikes at unprotected bus stops is the real reason we need light rail.

  5. txjim:

    With each passing news cycle it becomes clearer why Warren Buffett went all in on the BNSF train last November. Crooked bastards.

  6. IgotBupkis:

    > how is it sustainable?

    The same way as all such boondoggles are -- by main force, either out of the pocketbook of all concerned or by forced ridership.

  7. IgotBupkis:

    > The tamparail.org site suggests that lightning strikes at unprotected bus stops is the real reason we need light rail.

    I know Florida is the lightning capital of the USA, but how much would it cost to put up concrete poles with lightning rods at each stop, or attach lightning rods for those with light poles already at the stops, just as a possible way to deal with this issue? Not that I believe it's really an issue, but what the heck, the idea that you need a friggin' billion dollar project to solve this problem is just flat out insanely brain damaged.

  8. Allen:

    @Doug, I can imagine the frustration. The idea of "needing" to connect the 39th largest US metro, one that's treading water and barely staying alive, with the 89th largest metro (smaller than Akron, Boise, Syracuse and Wichita among others) is baffeling to say the least.

    Coyote, it's funny you bring up the issue of light rail. How are things going with funding in Phoenix now that the fallout from the bubble's burst is clear? I'm curious because in Denver it now looks like their sales tax forecasts were wrong to the point that they are on track to pull in $4.2 billion for the Fastracks tax. The original projected cost for Fastracks was $4.7 billion. It was past $7 billion at the peak and since then between falling prices and massive design cut backs it's dropped to $6.5 billion.

    But the real problem was they were amateurs when it came to forcasting future sales tax revenues. They cherry picked a historic sweet spot for sales tax growth. From the early 80s right after the oil boom popped through the late 90s when the asset bubble's first wave, the tech bubble phase, was kicking in near full force. It was a time of huge population growth and, more importantly, huge wage growth. They averaged that assumed it would happen at that average rate going forward for the next 20 years or so. Not even a mild recession worked into their numbers.

    That along with hearing the MN's revenues are at 2004 levels go me wondering how many of these rail projects, there's been a huge boom in them this last decade, were planned out using revenue forecasts that were all too high. And now that they've been built, they can't pull in enough money to operate them.

  9. Foxfier:

    I get a lot of comments that I have some weird anti-train bias. Actually, I have an n-scale model railroad in one room of my house, and spent a lot of my teenage years traveling along rural rail lines and photographing trains. I love trains.

    *dryly* It shows.

    If you DIDN'T care, deeply, about trains-- or at very least find them incredibly nifty-- you'd go into rants about how out-dated, innately horrible, etc, they are; instead, you focus on "Holy CROW these are insanely over-expensive!"

    I keep trying to find a way to use the train-- it's a family tradition. Haven't found one where it would work. The problem may be that our country is just too big and open....

  10. Gösta Oscarsson:

    What often i forgotten is that it is through the interaction between a mass transit system and the localisation of future housing, jobs and services that you in due time get a system where transport and other investments interact. My case is Stockholm, where a bunch of crazy politicians in 1945 (sic) decided to establish a large subway system for a city with some 700 thousand inhabitants. But the trick was that almost all investments after that were structured by the transport system, which means that the present two million inhabitants use collective transport to a surprisingly high degree. A fringe benefit has been that the central city has an extremely high part of jobs in Stockholm. An obvious result as all parts of the transport system focus on that centre.

    So give your investment 50 years and allow future investment to be structured by it, then it will become both efficient and economically viable. Good luck!

  11. KTWO:

    re: "....Phoenix represents the apogee of operating examples."

    I was curious enough to check the definition and derivation of "apogee".

    It literally means farthest from Earth. A second usage is highest or culmination.

    These systems, as built in the US, usually are farthest from reality. La-LA land.

    A sad outcome from a given light rail system is not fated. There is not some genetic fault in the DNA of choo-choos.

    So why does it happen?

    It happens in the US of today because we do not build transportation systems. Instead we build political creatures which provide graft and self-esteem to politicians, and nearly lifetime employment to planners and builders. And immense profits to the banks and financial firms who deal with the bonds. And often merchants and land speculators.

    All phases of the conception, funding, construction, and operations are overlaid by multiple layers of bureaucrats, urban planners, and politicians who have a direct stake in seeing that as much subsidy money as possible pours into their system for as long as possible.

    After a few decades the system may have a few riders. Or many riders. That doesn't matter. It is irrelevant.

    There is one certainty: When matters go badly, no one is ever responsible.

    Consider for a moment the smoking of a cigarette. Smoke curls upward and away. The smoker has no interest in that. It is not why he smokes.

    The riders and revenues are only the smoke from urban transit. Epiphenomena of no concern. The system was not actually built to provide either

  12. Doug:

    Of course in 50 years, the budget busting choo choo may have caused us to dramatically increase taxes or cut services (most likely both). The problem is, our current fiscal reality is that passenger service between cities really have to be subsidized at a high rate. Trains running around a city, still have to be subsidized, but perhaps at a smaller extent. Our state budgets cannot afford such a legacy to our future generations.

  13. IgotBupkis:


    > The problem may be that our country is just too big and open….

    Indeed -- I would agree that they work in a high-density locale such as NYC, and large chunks of Europe, but probably 99% of the USA is not thus encumbered.

    > There is not some genetic fault in the DNA of choo-choos.

    Ah, there's the problem. It's actually a genetic fault in the DNA of coo-koos.

    > Our state budgets cannot afford such a legacy to our future generations.

    Welcome to the Strategy of Manufactured Crisis.

    These people seek the destruction of Western Civ. They are evil and culturally suicidal. Do not attribute to stupidity what is inarguably the result of malicious intent.


  14. Sol:

    I'd really like to see more model railroad blogging from Coyote...

  15. Gary H:

    America has a wonderful, cost effective, energy saving, well run, and ignored mass transit system. Freight Rail!

    Our strategy has been to move goods by rail more than people. For America, that is an excellent strategy. For most of our spread out and highly dynamic cities, buses and cars make the most sense for people. For most of our spread out and highly dynamic country, cars and air travel make the most sense for people.

    It is too bad that the left is so in love with the idea of being more like Europe that they never stop a moment to think and be more in love with the reality of America.

  16. MJ:

    Richard Green also questions the basis for considering Phoenix light rail a "success" here:


  17. me:

    Interesting point of view - China is building out their light rail system in a big way. (See: http://blog.foolsmountain.com/2010/02/04/high-speed-rails-in-china/). Now, payoff might not be economically feasible compared to European systems using current metrics (as the article points out, the economic savings are higher in Europe due to average cost of labor), but there is the argument that exchange rates and cost of labor in China will change; at the same time, labor is dirt-cheap there right now, so the cost of actually building light rail is at what will probably turn out to be an all-time low.

  18. Allen:

    @Gösta , if one has to wait 50 years for something to become "efficient and economically viable" then by it's very nature it is neither. More so, in this case the system is not economically viable even after 50 years of being built. 50 years during which the very powerful local governments have pushed people onto using the metro. 50 years of this and still fares only cover about 1/2 of the metro's capital and operational costs.