Phoenix Light Rail Update: Half Billion Dollars More Spent, Transit Ridership Continues to Fall

Valley Metro, the agency that operates light rail and most bus service in the Phoenix area, has published its 2016 annual ridership numbers, and they are awful (the agency is on a july-june fiscal year).  Over the past year, they have opened two extensions of the current light rail line, spending $o.5 Billion to extend the line 6.2 miles.  So what did we get for this?  Falling transit use.


To begin with, we must again look past Valley Metro's downright bizarre chartsmanship, where differences in bar length bear absolutely no relationship to the values graphed (just try to figure out the bar lengths for the last three years of light rail data).

We see that light rail ridership is up 9%.  This appears low, given that the line and total investment were increased by about 33%, but the new extensions were not available for the whole year.  My guess correcting for opening dates is that on a full year basis this represents about a 20% increase.  For May, June, and July light rail ridership has been running 19%, 26%, and 20% above the same month last year (before either extension was opened).  This is well below the increase in line length (31%) and line total investment (36%)

I have always argued that the first 20 miles of the light rail line cut through the densest part of the city, including the downtown area (such that it is), the two highest visitation sports stadiums, and ASU  -- and as such any future expansions were going to have a much harder time justifying themselves (ie, as in this case, a 31% expansion in length would yield something less than 31% increase in ridership).  Light rail supporters have argued in return that I had things exactly backwards, that network effects would mean that ridership increased faster than route length.  My sense is that this argument will pretty clearly tip in my direction by the time we have 2017 data.

By the way, with total investment up to over $2 billion and average weekday round trip ridership at about 23,500 in fiscal 2016, then the total capital cost (not including annual operating subsidies) of the line sits at about $85,000 per round-trip rider.   Whenever Valley Metro supporters defend the line against my attacks, they will often quote various riders saying how much they love it.  Of course they do!  They damn well should love it -- we taxpayers spent $85,000 for each one of them to open the line AND subsidize every single one of their rides.

But if you really want to see the cost of these subsidies, look at the bus and total transit ridership in the chart above.   Total transit ridership in the area has fallen to the lowest point since before the light rail line was first opened, despite the fact the city it serves is still growing.  This is because bus ridership has fallen off the map.   Just last year, for every 1 rider gained to the light rail line expansions, 3.6 were lost on busses.   To see how far bus ridership has fallen, you have to go back further than the chart above shows.  Here is an older Valley Metro chart I annotated for a previous article:

click to enlarge

You can see from this that bus ridership in Phoenix fell to a level we have not seen since 2003!  This is despite the fact that the Phoenix MSA has added about a million people since that time.

As it does in every city, light rail costs are starving the rest of the transit system.   By shifting transit dollars into a mode that requires 10x  more money to move a single passenger, the numbers of passengers served has to fall.  You can see from the chart that Phoenix transit ridership was rising steadily from 1997 to 2009.  But once light rail was completed, transit ridership absolutely stopped growing, despite population increases and large increases to total transit budgets.  Without light rail, we might very well have seen transit ridership as high as 90 million today, if past ridership growth trends held.


  • CC

    Why did trolley cars go away? They are fixed in their route and conflict with (and hit) cars. Everyone saw that they were less efficient and more expensive than buses. Somehow urban planners fell in love with an antique technology. Of course the reason is that they are nicer than buses. The cost is so outrageous. In Phoenix it makes even less sense because it is so spread out.
    I don't take public transit because I live in the suburbs, but even if I go to downtown Chicago, the uncertainty of the bus and train system puts me off. I always end up having to walk a long way at some point and try to catch a bus/train that comes when it feels like it. If you have a stroller and shopping bags, just too much fun.

  • J Calvert

    "By shifting transit dollars into a mode that requires 10x more money to move a single passenger"

    To the transit bureaucrat, this is not a bug, but a feature. They view light rail as a perpetual money machine.

  • Craig Anderson

    You should see the debacle that has taken place in Seattle, where every govt project ends up way, way over budget, and produces precious little. They put in a light rail line from the airport to downtown Seattle, were *billions* over budget, and are determined to make the same mistake to the suburbs. Ridership is abysmal and so it has to be subsidized.

    The problem isn't light rail itself. It's old technology, yes, but there's enormous pressure from the construction industry on the politicians to do this stuff. The goal is not to move the masses, but to provide subsidies to the industry and line the politician's pockets. That's why the pols are pushing ahead with light rail in San Antonio when the voters voted 70% against it.

  • slocum

    To the urban planner, the low cost and flexibility of buses are problematic and the high cost and inflexibility of rail transit are key advantages. With high-cost rail transit, the planner's decisions can have real teeth. The cost drains funds from buses and road building & maintenance while the inflexibility of rails is intended to force development to follow the rail corridors the planners have laid out. If this all works as intended, rail will be left as the only good option for getting around (in comparison to an increasingly threadbare road network and bus system) and proximity to rail stations will become a driving force behind (high-density) development.

  • SamWah

    Orrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, driving people out of the city to the suburbs, and staying there.

  • Robert Rounthwaite

    And imagine if they had spent that money on more buses enabling more frequent pickups and better routes, or on extended hours.

  • Robert Rounthwaite

    I live in Seattle, I'd love to see hard numbers like the one's that are posted here for our region.

  • mlhouse

    Another reason why politicians, particularly liberal politicians, love "rail" projects is because that is what the "cosmopolitan" Europeans have for transportation as well as the glamorous East Coast cities. They want to be cool like the New Yorkers or Europeans whom they model their lives on. That is why they cannot recognize the differences in population density impacting their precious subway-lites. The other aspect they really don't care about is that the existing subways in New York and Boston might be huge successes, their construction was done with low wage, Irish immigrant labor. When you try to build even a lite rail using the exorbitant unionized labor of modern times it is simply not fiscally feasible.

    And, sometimes that is hard to understand. In Minnesota there exists a "commuter" rail that runs to downtown Minneapolis from the outer northwest suburbs. This commuter rail is a little over 40 miles long but runs along previously existing track. Including the terminous at Target Center Field, there are 7 platforms in total. Total cost, including a $107.5 million payment to BNSF for rail use, was $317 million. That is a huge when you consider what the system really delivers. A handful of runs in the morning and a handful of runs in the evening. It is amazing that tax payers are so easily swindled.

  • Blackbeard

    Construction projects, such as rail lines, pay off for politicians in several ways that extra spending on buses don't. Of course there are lots of jobs for expensive union construction workers. In addition, there are big pay days for investment bankers, environmental consultants, engineers, bond lawyers and all the other experts needed to get a big capital project done. And all those who profit will be appropriately grateful to the elected officials who made all this possible. Note that I am not suggesting bribery, although certainly that sometimes happens. This is just the normal give and take of our political system.

  • GoneWithTheWind

    You are making the mistake of believing that the light rail is for the commuters or to improve traffic flow. Au contraire, mon frère.

    Light rail is for the unions. It is wealth transfer in return for votes and power. Simple as that.

  • Craig Anderson

    You might start by reading the information here:

    One interesting paragraph:
    On the other hand, the $2.5 billion Sound Transit capital expenditure over a decade to construct and buy vehicles and equipment for the light rail line has vastly exceeded the approximately $100 million per year capital expenditure for Metro Bus equipment and facilities over a comparable time period.

  • Craig Anderson

    You might also read this article in the Seattle Times about the cost overruns on the light rail project so far. The government "estimates" it is 86% over original stated cost. 86%!

  • MJ

    The 2015 data for Seattle's light rail line indicate that it handled about 11.5 million (unlinked) boardings. Its operating costs were around $61.7 million and it collected about $18.2 million in fare revenue. So it ran an operating deficit of roughly $43.5 million, or about $3.77 per boarding. This doesn't count the capital costs Craig mentioned.

  • slocum

    But escaping is harder to do in Phoenix because, to a large extent, it contains its own suburbs. Phoenix is huge -- at over 500 square miles, it's 3 1/2 times the size of Detroit and about 12 times the size of San Francisco.