Phoenix Light Rail: We Spent $1.4 Billion (and Growing) To Subsidize ASU Students

The AZ Republic has some of the first information I have ever seen on the nature of Phoenix light rail ridership.  The first part confirms what I have always said, that light rail's primary appeal is to middle and upper class whites who don't want to ride on the bus with the plebes

Light rail has changed the demographics of overall transit users since the system opened in 2008, according to Valley Metro.

Passengers report higher incomes than bus riders, with more than a quarter living in households making more than $50,000 a year. Many riders have cars they could use.

The 20-mile system running through Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa recorded more than than 14 million boardings last year. Still, census data estimate less than one-third of 1 percent of Phoenix commuters — or about 2,000 people — use rail as their main transportation to work.

.0033% huh?  If we built similar facilities to serve everyone, it would only cost us about $420 billion at the rate of $1.4 billion per third of a percent.

But I thought this next bit was the most startling.  I always had a sneaking suspicion this was true but never have seen it in print before:

While the much larger bus system reaches most corners of the Valley, light rail connects specific destinations along a single line. Nearly half of light-rail riders are enrolled in college.

I must have missed this in the original sales pitch for the light rail line: "Let's pay $1.4 billion so ASU students can get to more distant bars."   Note that by these numbers, students likely outnumber commuters 10:1.  Doesn't bode well for light rail extensions that don't plow right through the middle of the most populous college campus in the country.

Postscript:  They don't break out people riding to get to sporting events downtown, but sporting events make up most of the largest traffic days on the system.  From my personal acquaintances, many people use light rail as a substitute for expensive downtown parking at sporting events, parking (often semi-illegally) near light rail stops and taking the train the rest of the way in.  On the whole, its not very compelling as a taxpayer to be helping to subsidize someone else's parking.  And from a municipal fiscal standpoint, it means that light rail fares may be cannibalizing (on a much greater ratio than 1:1 given the price differential) parking fees at municipal parking lots.


  1. Brad Warbiany:

    To be honest, though, the fact that automobile owners are subsidized is kinda the point, isn't it? "Public transit" advocates aren't doing this to help the poor, they're doing it to get people out of cars.

    Granted, 0.0033% proves that they're pretty terrible at this goal, too, but that's the goal.

    Oh, and the fact that ASU students are the primary riders is a feature, not a bug. This is how they brainwash train the next generation of public transit advocates!

  2. Daublin:

    0.33% I believe.

    The raw number is more eye-popping, though. All this trouble for 2000 riders.

  3. Chris:

    The only times I have used it are as you said Warren, for heading downtown for an event and parking my car in a lot that said no parking for light rail.

  4. HenryBowman419:

    I live in New Mexico. The 6-8 times I have taken the "Rail Runner" (a regular train between Santa Fe and Albuquerque), I've noted that many on the train are students commuting to school. It's cheap transportation for them, at least (they get a healthy discount).

  5. jon49:

    I used to ride the small bus/shuttle to ASU from my apartments. They were free. I didn't ride them very often, but they were nice when I needed it. Not sure why it was free though. Waste of money. Not sure why they need light rail to shuttle students; the buses/shuttles worked just fine.

  6. Brian:

    Here's my analysis on light rail.... Abut the dumbest idea out there..

  7. MJ:

    To be honest, though, the fact that automobile owners are subsidized is
    kinda the point, isn't it? "Public transit" advocates aren't doing this
    to help the poor, they're doing it to get people out of cars.

    I've come to the conclusion that this is not really why transit advocates promote these kinds of projects. Promoting the notion of getting people out of their cars might resonate with (some) voters, at least those who haven't the time or the inclination to examine the issue in depth.

    Even many environmentalists who have taken the time to examine the track record of light rail understand that whatever minimal energy consumption or emissions reductions result can come only at extremely high cost. Others just ignore the evidence, of course.

    In my opinion, the biggest group of advocates, and this includes a coalition of urban planners, transit enthusiasts, and big-city mayors (often in tandem with some vested real estate interests), promote these projects not as transportation improvements (they largely aren't), but as a means to a desired urban form. That is why so much effort is expended trying to win the support of middle-class taxpayers, even when they are very unlikely to actually use it and when most of the actual users are the transit-dependent poor who were previously using buses.

    Notice the architectural renderings of most the stations when these projects are pitched to the public. They are of dense urban environments surrounded by coffee shops and low to mid-rise apartment buildings catering to mostly white, upper-middle class (and often childless) singles and young couples. That is the endgame. It doesn't matter how many billions are spent on the street furniture at the center of it all, or how many millions it requires to operate, or whether it does anything to reduce traffic congestion. That's not "our problem" from the perspective of the advocates, and is why these region-wide tax schemes and proposals to force the federal government to pay half the costs are so often pursued. Just make it 'look nice'.

  8. Morven:

    Seattle's "Big" light rail -- the LINK between the airport and downtown -- gets about 10x the monthly boardings that Phoenix's does. So at least it's being used. However, I think the benefits accrue more to (a) out-of-towners doing business in downtown; (b) property developers; its route down the poor and run-down Rainier Valley has caused prices to rise even more than the city as a whole and I'm sure some well-connected people made out very nicely indeed there; (c), whose offices are in downtown and benefit hugely from it, especially since they hire so many kids straight out of college who'll be looking for those cheaper condos and apartments getting built down the Rainier Valley; and (d) the stadiums; they and the city have been aggressively pushing the "park out there, ride the train into town" idea, which gives the light rail nicer ridership numbers and the stadiums more money in attendees' pockets to be spent on concessions.

    And it's so not surprising that the extension they're currently building is to the University of Washington.

    However, it is definitely faster than a bus and gets the truly bus-dependent a quicker ride to Downtown's jobs.