Posts tagged ‘Lauri Wingenroth’

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.