I have chastised our city on many occasions (more here) for spending enormous amounts of money on a new light rail / streetcar system for Phoenix. These light rail systems can be twenty or more times as expensive, per mile or passenger carried, than a similar bus system. But what really, really makes light rail nuts for Phoenix is the lack of flexibility. Our hugely expensive new light rail system serves just one corridor, in a city that really does not even have a downtown. Phoenix is characterized by a nearly infinite number of commuting routes that don't overlay nicely on a suburbs to city-center pattern as they might in, say, Chicago. Further, the current route arguably follows the least congested route of any in the city!
The incremental cost of light rail over bus systems has been justified to us by our government overlords by economic development. The argument goes that light rail creates more business development along their routes than a bus system. Now, I am skeptical of this, given the region justified building a billion dollar stadium for the hapless Cardinals on the same justification (not to mention numerous subsidies of a couple of college bowl games that add little to an area that is going to get holiday tourists because of its climate whether there is a football game or not.
But what about Portland? Supposedly Portland light rail is the go-by which all we unplanned cities should emulate. But the Anti-Planner brings this helpful observation about Portland's experience with light rail and development:
Streetcar advocates often say that 7-mile-per-hour streetcars aren't about transportation, they are about economic development.
But they expect the Department of Transportation to pay for them out of
highway user fees. Why didn't they ask the Department of Housing and
Urban Development for the money?
Of course, the Antiplanner doesn't believe
that streetcars catalyze economic development. Instead, they merely
catalyze more tax subsidies for economic development. Portland spent
$90 million on a streetcar line and $665 million on subsidies to
development "” then credited the development to the streetcar line.