Boosting The Prestige of Phoenix City Officials

I am constantly amazed at just how dogged the support for even god-awful light rail projects is among city-leader-types.  The projects cost orders of magnitude more per passenger mile to move people, they are inflexible once built (you can't move them if commuter flows change) and they tend to actually reduce total transit ridership in a city because they suck resources from bus transit.  Readers will know I have been a critic of Phoenix light rail for years.  Its capital cost was something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider and it was built in the least dense major city (meaning the least appropriate major city for rail) in the world.

Well, Phoenix is just about to spend $100 million per mile (!!) to extend our line 3.2 miles.  The extension is expected (by the optimistic people who support it) to attract 5000 daily riders, which actually means 2500 daily round trip riders by the way they do the numbers.  Yes folks, that math is right -- using the optimistic sure-to-be-exceeded cost numbers from the supporters and the optimistic sure-to-be-too-high ridership numbers from supporters, this will cost $120,000 per round trip daily rider, or enough to buy each daily rider a Prius and still save nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.  (By the way, with the low density in Phoenix and the fact the most promising route was built first, it should be no surprise there is a decreasing bang for the buck, even including network effects).

Why?  Why, why, why spend $300 million to benefit 2500 people?  I think this is the answer:

“It’s critical to Phoenix and the area of 19th Avenue. We can’t be a great city unless we have a great light-rail system,” said Greg Stanton, mayor of Phoenix and chairman of the Metro light-rail board.

So, just like you can't be among the elite in Manhattan without a house in the Hamptons, you can't be a real city without a light rail system.  We are spending billions solely to enhance the prestige of our city officials.  Ayn Rand had a great essay decades ago on public officials and prestige, I think as an essay included in the Virtue of Selfishness.  For those of you who are libertarian-ish but perhaps are jaded on her novels (I am increasingly in that category), you should definitely check out some of her essay work.  All the great philosophical thinking and defense of capitalism without the cardboard characters.

PS-  at this rate, it will only cost us $384 billion to serve the entire 3.5 million people in the Phoenix metro area with light rail.


  1. Donnie Plunkett:

    I agree light rail is ungodly expensive relative to the number of riders it benefits. It is supposed to increase property values (and generate more property taxes) from the parcels along the rail route which bus routes don't do. However, we are talking old, somewhat dense sites that are too small for any real development, 0.3 acre taquerias, auto shops and the like. It is so difficult to assemble anything along there to build Transit Oriented Development apt or office bldgs. I think the only way it makes financial sense is for the gov't to condemn way more land than it needs along the light rail route (say its for train storage barns that they later 'realize' they don't need), then have parcels that are 2-5 acres along the route that you can then sell to developers to build something substantial, like Toll Brothers City Living, a new corp HQ or something like that. Which is unconstitutional anyway. You'd generate a big spread between the current market values of the individual parcels vs. the post-light rail values of the larger assembled parcels which you auction to developers (and generate way more property tax revenue in the future).

  2. Broccoli:

    If you agree that light rail doesn't serve its intended purpose better than other options like buses, but it does increase property values and taxes and so the government should confiscate a bunch of land. Why not just get rid of the deadweight lightrail project and just have the government confiscate ghettos and resell it. I think most people would have a big moral problem with that.
    And by the way, I believe up in Connecticat or New York the government basically did exactly that, confiscated land not for a government project but for a private entity that couldn't convince the rightful owners to sell. Local government declared the land blighted and then had the private developer pay a pittance for the land and the owners were forced to sell because of imminent domain. Believe the Supreme Court upheld it too.
    Here it is, Kelo v. City of New London.

  3. tex:

    I think it most common that the cities give tax breaks along the tracks to attract development. I assume they have to.

  4. Donnie Plunkett:

    I was being sarcastic. How the Supreme Court upheld Kelo v. City of New London is beyond me. I think Alito is brilliant, but some of the recent picks were poor.

  5. SamWah:

    First you need Major League Baseball team, and then a football team. Oh, you have them. Yup, light rail is next on the list!

  6. Don:

    "at this rate, it will only cost us $384 billion to serve the entire 3.5 million people in the Phoenix metro area with light rail."

    But Warren, just think about the great game room or man cave you can make out of your garage when you have your own personal stop on the light rail system to carrier the mile and a half (or whatever it is) to your office. Think how much that will increase the value of your house (but don't think about the tax-payment-that-looks-like-a-mortgage-payment you'll be paying to cover the cost)!

    Surely, you're anti-man-cave!

  7. James H:

    Why do I need to pay more taxes for a train I'll rarely (if ever) ride, just to increase someone else's property values? That's an even worse reason than any others! Taking money from most of the metro area so that a few people on the route can have higher property values is pretty disgusting, but I guess normal these days. Also, in addition to MLB and NFL, we also have NBA, and don't forget NHL! We even have a symphony orchestra I believe!

  8. LarryGross:

    re: " they are inflexible once built (you can't move them if commuter flows change) "

    you got this bass ackwards (as usual).

    How "flexible" are interstate highways and freight rail?

    the theory from the Smart Growth folks is that land adjacent to the rail becomes prime residential and commercial venues.

    see: Tysons Corner in Fairfax County in Norther Va (google it).

  9. Don:

    Larry, if that were true, we wouldn't HAVE an Interstate high way system, we'd have a interstate RAIL system, and all the highways would end at a rail terminal. When was the last time you hopped a train to take a cross-country family vacation?

    And local "light" rail makes even LESS sense financially, than interstate rail (e.g. AmTrack).

    Freight rail is not in any way related because, by law, you cannot move people and freight on the same section of track at the same time. If that law went away, there would be no need for amtrack and rail travel would likely become a viable alternative once again (pricing out somewhere between bus travel and air travel, and probably be much faster that the current AmTrack schedule for travel outside the North East) because rail operators could make extra money with their unused engine capacity pulling a couple of Pullmans like they used to (but then again, maybe not, considering the liability that would surely go with it).

    Building roads and highways are a fraction of the cost per user/mile that rail is, even in rural settings, and comparing Fairfax County to Maricopa County is a blindingly dumb comparison for EXACTLY the reason Warren pointed out, Phoenix is the least-dense big city in America (I know, I live in San Antonio, which is only slightly more dense, and the idiots here are making the same arguments that his village idiots are making there - only we're not falling for it, thankfully - yet).

    Perhaps you can't comprehend the kinds of spaces and densities we have in the west (I know a lot of folks along the coasts can't), but to give you an idea, I live on 50+ acres, my closest neighbor is about 200 yards from my house, and if you look me up on google earth, the patterns you see are mostly fields and pastures, not urban blocks. That's in the suburbs of the 6th largest city in the country. With that kind if low density, not to mention the fact that there simply aren't the kind of concentrations of services in western cities that there are in the east and you MUST drive to get places, riding a train makes very little since.

    Also, unless you're building a train from an undeveloped area to another undeveloped the field-of-dreams "build it and they will come" mentality doesn't work because there's already STUFF at both ends of the line blocking that growth you're counting on. Are you suggesting that we bull-doze down-town Phoenix (or maybe the Alamo) so that we can build ultra-modern sky scrapers and bodegas and make our cities New York, DC, or Philly?

    No thanks, I'll keep my car, you keep your trains.

  10. LarryGross:

    If you follow the history of rail (before the interstates), people started moving to the suburbs when rail was put in to serve the cities. People used to rail to get to their suburban homes.

    I can comprehend the west. I live on acreage myself though not as much as you but do you know how the rails obtained land for their right-of-ways in the west and how cities grew up along the rail lines?

    I'm not a big supporter of light rail but the theory behind it is that if you build that right-of-way that people will find the land adjacent to it much more appealing than if not.

    And you have to admit that growth nowdays generally will follow the interstates - not the old winding roads of yesteryear.

    Look at the old roads going out of Phoenix and compare them to the Interstates .... in terms of growth following them.

  11. mesocyclone:

    I suppose this is one of the reasons AZ has gone from a low tax state to a high tax state in the decades I've lived here. And that's probably because too many Californians, driven out by their policies, brought their dumb ideas with them.

  12. mahtso:

    Right on time: I just saw an announcement that fares for buses and light rail are going up (effective next month, I believe).

  13. agassiz830:

    If you think light rail is bad, wait until they get a bug up their butt about needing a heavy rail commuter route to be a "real" city. It looks like Arizona DOT is doing it's part to fan the flames.