Light Rail Is the Worst Transit Option for Phoenix

Saturday, July 15, 2006
Published by the Laissez Faire Institute

The Decline of Public Transit

Urban public transportation systems have been in decline since the end of World War II. At that time, public transit vehicles provided 50% of travel in urban regions. Last year, 2% of urban travel was provided by public transit (Public Transportation Fact Book, American Public Transit Association, Highway Statistics, Federal Highway Administration).

This decline has occurred despite Herculean government efforts to prevent it. Non-riders are forced to pay the majority of the cost for every transit rider’s transportation (Public Transportation Fact Book, American Public Transit Association). Per person mile of travel, government now spends twenty times as much on public transit as it does for roadways (Highway Statistics, Federal Highway Administration).

The decline of public transit is the result of powerful demographic forces that show no sign of reversal. Basically, the demand for public transit is inversely related to income. As incomes rise people can afford the more comfortable and convenient travel provided by owning and operating an automobile. The “race” between the automobile and public transit is over. The auto has won. Nothing short of an economic debacle that drastically reduces urban standards of living can overturn this outcome.

Unwilling to face this reality, public transit’s devotees are busy repackaging an early loser in the race (street cars), hoping that a new name (light rail) and a new public relations campaign can resuscitate this dinosaur.

Public Transit in Other Cities

Those who would build light rail transit in the Valley are mightily impressed by the alleged “success” in other cities. Many have gone on pilgrimages to places like Salt Lake City and Dallas and returned with tales of great wonder and astonishment. Why, these cities have trains. Frequently, there are passengers. Local transit bureaucrats and politicians rave about how wonderful these light rail trains have been for their cities.

The Worst Possible Choice

Of all the options in the current public transit mix, for most cities, light rail is the worst possible choice. It requires its own special track (at a cost of around $80 million per mile to build, according to the estimate in the MAG Regional Plan), so it lacks the flexibility of buses which can be run over existing city streets.


There isn’t a single light rail transit system in America in which fares paid by passengers cover the cost of their own rides. The aggregate deficit for 2001 (the latest year for which data is available) was over one-and-a-half billion dollars. The average cost per passenger mile was around $1.80 (Transit Profiles, Federal Transit Administration). These costs are higher than the average cost per bus passenger mile of about eighty cents (Public Transportation Fact Book, American Public
Transit Association). Of course, no transit option matches the 35 cents per vehicle mile cost of automobile transportation (Statistical Abstract of the United States, U.S. Census Bureau & Highway Statistics, Federal Highway Administration).


Light rail’s inefficiency is matched by its unfairness. On average, taxpayers pay over 90% of the cost of light rail passenger travel (Transit Profiles, Federal Transit Administration). Light rail compares unfavorably with auto transportation where highway users pay 98% of the cost of the road system (1999 Update of the Arizona Highway Cost Allocation Study, Arizona Department of Transportation).


Light rail’s inefficiency and unfairness aren’t offset by effectiveness. The average share of person-miles of travel was only three-tenths of one percent (Transit Profiles, Federal Transit Administration & Highway Statistics, Federal Highway Administration).

Light rail is touted as a means of reducing urban traffic congestion. The claim is that it will lure drivers out of their cars and, thereby, reduce traffic congestion. According to Valley Metro, though, light rail in Phoenix is expected to take only one car in 2500 out of traffic (Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail Project: Final Environmental Impact Statement). Because the Phoenix light rail will operate in the middle of the street—taking out lanes that could have been used by
motor vehicles—Valley Metro projects that the number of hours vehicles will spend in traffic is expected to increase.


The light rail transit numbers tell a tale of inefficiency, inequity, and ineffectiveness. In no city is light rail transit run on sound business principles. Huge and unending losses are the result. Riders are asked to pay a pitifully small share of the costs. Despite generous subsidies, in city after city light rail carries only a small fraction of the person-miles of travel.

Modern urban travelers want convenience, comfort, and speed. Given its inferior performance relative to other transit options, light rail is an unappealing choice for trying to meet the needs of the small fraction of urban travelers who rely on public transportation.

This document was published by the Laissez Faire Institute, 828 N Poplar Ct, Chandler AZ 85226; (480) 940-9824; e-mail: Permission to reprint this document, or any part thereof, is hereby granted. More information on public transit can be found in the Goldwater Institute’s Buses, Trains and Automobiles: Finding the Right Transportation Mix for the Phoenix Metro Region .

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