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:
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.