Phoenix / Valley Metro Light Rail Report Card: F

Folks who read this site know I have been critical of Phoenix light rail since well before it was opened.  So often, folks just willfully misinterpret my criticisms.   The actual rail line and its service is pretty nice, and the facilities are quite attractive (lets see what they look like in 10 years though).  If Santa Claus had just delivered the Phoenix light rail system for free to Phoenix, I would be thrilled with it.   But Santa unfortunately was not involved, and instead the rail line was paid for by area residents, and it cost them over $75,000 per daily roundtrip rider to build, plus annual operating deficits infinitely into the future.   I would be thrilled if an Aston Martin Vanquish showed up in my garage tomorrow, but I am not going to fork over a quarter of a million bucks for one.  Ditto the light rail system.

Anyway, the 2009 FTA transit database is out, and Randal O'Toole has helpfully summarized it in spreadsheet form, which you can download here.  You can peruse your own local system.  Probably the hardest thing to figure out are the mode codes, which are deciphered here.  Since 2009 was the first full year of operation for Phoenix light rail, we can finally look at data for Phoenix on an apples to oranges apples basis with other transit systems  (it is really, really hard to squeeze useful information out of the data Valley Metro posts on their site).

I am just going to highlight two numbers for Phoenix light rail (TRS_ID 9209 in the data).

  • The public subsidy per individual trip (that is one person boarding and riding one way) is $32.73!!   No one would pay this amount if it were the fare.   This equates to a public subsidy (beyond the fares paid) of $3.82 per passenger mile.  Remember, this is not a hostile analysis, but based on the numbers Valley Metro itself submits to the FTA.   Note the IRS reimbursement rate for the total cost (capital and incremental expense) of driving a car is 50 cents per mile, which drops even lower per passenger mile when the car has more than one person in it.  The average occupancy of a car is something like 1.5, which would make the cost per passenger mile of the average car to be about 33 cents per mile.  Ignoring the passenger fares, the public subsidy alone for light rail in Phoenix is 11.6 times larger [note: and yes, this includes the gas tax, so it includes a lot of the maintenance of the road infrastructure.  To include full cost of maintaining and building highways, it might have to be a few cents higher, but its not going to come anywhere in the ballpark of the light rail number].
  • But we are paying more for rail to save the environment, right?  Well, the BTUs expended per passenger mile for Phoenix light rail was 4402.  This compares to the average for passenger cars as determined by the DOE at 3437 BTU/PM.  So the train actually uses 28% more energy to move one rider one mile than does the average car.

Years before the light rail system was completed, I made my light rail bet:  That with the capital cost, I could easily buy a Prius for every daily rider, and still save money.  And for less than the annual operating subsidy, I could give all the new Prius owners free gas each year.  Already my bet has proved more than correct.  But now we know that under my Prius plan, we also would have saved energy, since the Prius uses less than 1700 BTU/pm, less than a third of what Phoenix light rail consumes.


  1. aczarnowski:

    Wow. I expected bad numbers but the people operating that setup have really exceeded expectations!

    I might just have to take a look for our own light rail fiasco here in the Twin Cities.

  2. caseyboy:

    I'm shocked. The rail system didn't pay for itself? I bet they are not counting the value of the carbon credits that Phoenix can cash in when Gore's carbon credit exchange opens up. You guys have got to be saving tons of carbon by keeping all those cars off the streets. Wait till that cash flow comes in.

  3. colson:

    Be careful caseyboy, some might take your post as being halfway serious. Most transit systems I've looked into start putting out big revenue numbers in a 3-card monty type of game - focus on the revenues and the environmental factors, ignore the costs, ignore the costs, ignore the costs.

  4. mahtso:

    “The actual rail line and its service is pretty nice, and the facilities are quite attractive (lets see what they look like in 10 years though). “

    I cannot agree with all of this because the rail line is covered with ugly poles and electric power lines.

    One problem (or a least one that I perceive to be a problem) that I have not seen addressed is how poorly integrated into the existing traffic and pedestrian facilities the stop at Montebello Street is. The stop is in the middle of the street at a busy intersection and it appears that the planners did not account for the people getting off the rail in the timing of the traffic lights or in the size and configuration of the platform itself. My poor descriptive skills and lack of time to write this a.m. mean people will have to go look for themselves to determine whether or not I am right.

  5. MJ:

    I might just have to take a look for our own light rail fiasco here in the Twin Cities.

    Light rail is nothing compared to the performance of the region's first commuter rail line. Using the more recent estimates of ridership, I've estimated (conservatively) that the subsidy per boarding, inclusive of capital costs, for the first year is above $40.

  6. Jack:

    As I tried to explain to everyone when we were voting on funding this boondoggle, for light rail to "work", you need a population density roughly a hundred times greater than what we have in Maricopa County. The light rail IS nice - and for $33/mile per rider, it OUGHTA be nice. But I'll confess I didn't expect it to be THIS bad.

    Thanks for doing the grunt work on this.

  7. Craig:

    "The actual rail line and its service is pretty nice, and the facilities are quite attractive (lets see what they look like in 10 years though)."

    Good point. Buffalo's subway, um, I mean "metro", opened in 1984. I remember how sharp the stations looked.

    Now, a quarter century later, they're dark, dirty brutalist testaments to government design. And don't even get me started on the economics.

  8. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    Well, Not to suggest I disagree with your conclusions in any way, but you are pretty much ignoring important unincluded infrastructure costs associated with the Prius bet -- the cost of roadways and unpaid parking areas, usually part of the "commons" element of the equation.

    I am largely the enemy of Mass Transit as an undebatable waste of Human Time, a far, far more valuable commodity than gas, oil, or dicarbon quadoxide.

    But you aren't quite comparing apples to oranges yet, with the above comparisons, as a result of ignoring the roadway and parking expenses.

  9. Mike C:

    OK, so how much is driving subsidized in Phoenix? I.e. how much goes into roads beyond that paid for registration, excise, gas taxes, and the like.

    Non-drivers or those who drive less have been subsidizing car drivers for years. Why should rail be any different?

  10. mahtso:

    "Non-drivers or those who drive less have been subsidizing car drivers for years. Why should rail be any different?

    1) Because the roads are also used to deliver groceries, clothes, etc.
    2) Trite it may be, but two wrongs don't make a right.

  11. Jack Urbani:

    Roads weren't always used to deliver groceries, clothes etc. That was predominantly done by train, until auto industry started being subsidized by the government. The world used trains as transportation. The auto industry had made certain that we will all be completly dependant on cars. The competition was closed. The entire world is investing heavily in rail, hi speed or other. It is only in America we still defend the absolute of the automobile. It is a little silly to think that investment in highways is any differnt than in mass transit. Just because YOU dont ride the train doesnt mean the reast of us are sitting in traffic on the 10