I am constantly amazed at just how dogged the support for even god-awful light rail projects is among city-leader-types. The projects cost orders of magnitude more per passenger mile to move people, they are inflexible once built (you can't move them if commuter flows change) and they tend to actually reduce total transit ridership in a city because they suck resources from bus transit. Readers will know I have been a critic of Phoenix light rail for years. Its capital cost was something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider and it was built in the least dense major city (meaning the least appropriate major city for rail) in the world.
Well, Phoenix is just about to spend $100 million per mile (!!) to extend our line 3.2 miles. The extension is expected (by the optimistic people who support it) to attract 5000 daily riders, which actually means 2500 daily round trip riders by the way they do the numbers. Yes folks, that math is right -- using the optimistic sure-to-be-exceeded cost numbers from the supporters and the optimistic sure-to-be-too-high ridership numbers from supporters, this will cost $120,000 per round trip daily rider, or enough to buy each daily rider a Prius and still save nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. (By the way, with the low density in Phoenix and the fact the most promising route was built first, it should be no surprise there is a decreasing bang for the buck, even including network effects).
Why? Why, why, why spend $300 million to benefit 2500 people? I think this is the answer:
“It’s critical to Phoenix and the area of 19th Avenue. We can’t be a great city unless we have a great light-rail system,” said Greg Stanton, mayor of Phoenix and chairman of the Metro light-rail board.
So, just like you can't be among the elite in Manhattan without a house in the Hamptons, you can't be a real city without a light rail system. We are spending billions solely to enhance the prestige of our city officials. Ayn Rand had a great essay decades ago on public officials and prestige, I think as an essay included in the Virtue of Selfishness. For those of you who are libertarian-ish but perhaps are jaded on her novels (I am increasingly in that category), you should definitely check out some of her essay work. All the great philosophical thinking and defense of capitalism without the cardboard characters.
PS- at this rate, it will only cost us $384 billion to serve the entire 3.5 million people in the Phoenix metro area with light rail.