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Light Rail is Wrong for Arizona Taxpayers

August 21, 2018

by Adi Dynar
August 21, 2018

In May 2017, Valley Metro published a report evaluating light rail expansion from Mesa into Chandler. The 250-page report attempts to support light rail expansion into Chandler. This support isn’t surprising, since Valley Metro has a vested interest in light rail expansion: Its mission is to “develop and operate the regional bus and light rail systems.”

However, a careful reading of the report reveals that light rail expansion is not supported by the data.

John Semmens, who worked as an economist at the Arizona Department of Transportation for 32 years, has authored over 300 articles on transportation issues. He went through the Valley Metro report line by line to determine its veracity. His response, Light Rail is Wrong for Chandler, reveals the reality of spending taxpayer dollars on an outdated form of public transit.

Here are some takeaways from the Semmens report that residents of Chandler and all Arizonans should keep in mind before they endorse any additional light rail expansion:

Light rail ridership will be too low to justify building it.

Valley Metro’s own optimistic estimates state that light rail capacity utilization will be 18 percent during rush hour and 11 percent otherwise. Compare these numbers to individuals driving cars without carpooling. In a typical car seating five passengers, the capacity utilization is 20 percent at a minimum. If the car carries two people, the capacity utilization is 40 percent. Simply put, cars are more efficient than light rail.

The project cost per light rail passenger trip is $20 versus $7 for a comparable bus trip.

The 20-year amortized cost per passenger using light rail would be around $20 per rider. This means that, taking the capital cost and annual net operating cost into account, it would cost taxpayers $20 to get a single passenger to take a single ride on light rail. That passenger would only spend $2 out of pocket for a single-ride ticket, or $4 for an all-day pass—and all the rest would be made up of tax dollars. This is on top of the taxpayer-dollar sinkhole that is the existing light rail route in Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa. Taxpayers are already picking up 87 percent of the cost of every single ride on that line.

People have good reason to not ride light rail.

Arizonans have good reason not to ride light rail. In fact, it never really made fiscal or common sense to build it in the valley. It can’t provide point-to-point travel like an Uber for the same $20 cost—which matters a lot in a sprawling urban setting like Phoenix. And Arizona’s weather is a major disincentive for people to walk roughly a mile to and from the nearest light rail stop for each roundtrip journey—and wait in 120-degree heat for the next train.

Light rail will not improve traffic congestion or pollution.

The carrying capacity of the road lanes that must be sacrificed to install light rail exceeds the number of cars removed from traffic by people choosing to ride the train. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: When Valley Metro had studied putting in light rail in Central Phoenix and the East Valley, their own findings showed that both traffic congestion and air pollution would actually be slightly worse if light rail was built. Remember, Valley Metro’s numbers are based on the assumption that traffic and pollution will continue to grow. Now, their own numbers show that putting in light rail will make them worse.

None of this is new: Decades of research by the Reason Foundation and others have shown that the idea that light rail reduces traffic congestion is a myth. As James V. DeLong writes, “Support for rail voiced by drivers is based on a hope that others will use rail transit and open up the road, and in fact rail riders are taken out of buses, not cars.” People with access to cars will continue to use them. Light rail tends to attract people who are already using public transportation anyway.

As the Semmens report demonstrates, Valley Metro’s own report fails to justify expanding light rail into Chandler. The world—with innovations in the marketplace such as Uber, driverless cars, etc.—is headed forward. Arizona shouldn’t step backward, into the world of fixed tracks and trains. Light rail expansion is wrong for Chandler, and wrong for taxpayers. Cities such as Chandler would be wise to reject it.

Adi Dynar is a staff attorney at the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.



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