Light Rail Killing Another Bus System

As predicted by skeptics of light rail, like myself, the Phoenix light rail system is starting to kill bus service.  This is a familiar pattern -- in most cities that have added rail, from LA to Portland, total transit ridership has fallen as light rail systems have been built.  That is because rail is so expensive, and its costs are mostly fixed (ie bond payments for construction costs) and absolutely inflexible (ie you can't shift routes).  Since rail costs far more, even orders of magnitude more, per rider than buses, this means that even with modest increases in total transit budgets, total ridership falls when capacity is being shifted to much higher cost rail.  Bus service is inevitably cut, because even if you close rail lines, the costs remain.

So here we are, in Phoenix.  The article is mainly about the regional transit coalition falling apart, which I have no opinion or interest in, but you can see what is going on anyway.

A bad economy has meant that building a regional bus system in the Valley is no longer a regional endeavor.

A half-cent sales tax was supposed to be the magic bullet that paid for transit and roads. But as tax revenues continue to shrink, cuts to the plan have become inevitable.

Avondale leaders say the toll includes the decimation of future West Valley bus routes and the end of the regionalism that Proposition 400 promised....

Paul Hodgins, capital-programming manager for Valley Metro, which operates the transit system,said every region took a 25 percent cut in transit dollars.

Here is what is going on, though the article only sort of alludes tangentially to this way down in the last 2 paragraphs.  Half of the transit dollars in the sales tax increase went to rail, and half to buses.  The rail money is almost all for debt service on capital spending which has already occurred.  This money has to be spent or the local authorities will default on their bonds.  The other half was for bus operations.

Now, there is a 25% cut in the sales tax dollars from this sales tax increase.  The half that went to rail can't be touched.  So the 25% cut results in a 0% cut in rail and a 50% cut in buses.  Further, since bus service carries a lot more passenger trips per dollar spent than rail, this 25% cut will end up affecting well over 50% of the total ridership that benefited from the sales tax funds.

It is clear from the article that folks probably understand this, but no one from the AZ Republic to the transit agencies are yet ready to admit it.  Expect the proposed solution to be in the form of more taxes rather than a rethinking of transit strategy.  Rail is an albatross, and I wonder how often it has to drive failures like this before people start recognizing it as such.

  • http://harqueb.us Mike S

    I wonder if the public employees and media are so effective at denying and hiding reality that other metropolitan areas never learn the full truth of the failure of rail everywhere else, and so can be talked into trying it again.

  • DensityDuck

    A model train set costs thirty bucks, and would solve all these people's train-fetish issues.

    The sad part is that once national HSR gets rolling, we'll ALL be seeing services get cut to fund the building of a train that goes from nowhere to nowhere...

  • John White

    I was in Manila, Philippines, and it seems to be a similar story. I cannot find the story on line, but it was saying that as the MRT did not have enough passengers, that the buses that ply the major route should be reduced. A major difference is that the buses are privately owned, so penalise private owners so that the MRT will get extra passengers. There is a reason of course why the majority of people get buses, they are cheaper and go where people want to go.

  • Noah

    Yet another example of Gresham's law "Bad money drives out good."

  • http://lightrailblogger.com Tony Arranaga

    "This is a familiar pattern — in most cities that have added rail, from LA to Portland, total transit ridership has fallen as light rail systems have been built."

    If this is the case, how do you explain the fact that those systems you mentioned are not only still running, they're also expanding?

  • Noah

    "If this is the case, how do you explain the fact that those systems you mentioned are not only still running, they’re also expanding?"

    You are going to have to pry light rail out of the cold dead hands of the politically powerful who made light rail happen in the first place.

  • James H

    "If this is the case, how do you explain the fact that those systems you mentioned are not only still running, they’re also expanding?"

    See comment by Density Duck about train fetishes. Doesn't the rail look so cool, sexy, and utopian?

  • http://www.cogfactory.net colson

    "If this is the case, how do you explain the fact that those systems you mentioned are not only still running, they’re also expanding?"

    The question isn't whether Warren can explain this fact, it is the politicians who have to explain this fact. And if you ask a politician, they'll start sounding like the voice in Kevin Costner's head telling him that if he builds it, they will come.

  • MJ

    If this is the case, how do you explain the fact that those systems you mentioned are not only still running, they’re also expanding?

    Increased subsidies.

  • rox_publius

    I am sympathetic to the argument, however...

    I bought my house, at least in part, based on the proximity to a trolley line (1920’s style light rail). Traffic between my house, and my workplace in center city Philadelphia means that it takes 15 minutes longer to drive than by trolley and subway. By bus it would be an additional 20 minutes or more longer than by train. I had a similar experience living in Washington DC, where I wouldn’t consider living anywhere without easy access to the Metro.

    I fully understand the density and layout differences between the east coast and a city like Phoenix, but it appears that you are trying to paint with a broader brush than that. Perhaps a setup like the greenway in Pittsburgh, where certain buslines have a dedicated road would achieve the same effect?

    And furthermore, how do I square my libertarian, limited gov’t beliefs with my real world practical behavior? Or maybe it’s sufficient to say that my house, which was built in 1928, was built without gov’t mass transit access regulations, and the trolley line was put in by a private company?

  • Nick

    I thought you'd be interested in what's going on here in Wisconsin. The governor-elect has vowed to kill the federally-funded high speed rail project between Madison and Milwaukee, and the current gov. just suspended work on it to figure out what's next.

    http://www.nbc15.com/home/headlines/UPDATE_High_Speed_Rail_Debate.html

  • Emil

    ... most amusing: http://www.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=14829 "On Nov. 24, the Port Authority of Allegheny County voted to enact massive service cuts, fare hikes, and layoffs that would cripple public transportation in Pittsburgh."

    same Pittsburgh ?