Folks who read this site know I have been critical of Phoenix light rail since well before it was opened. So often, folks just willfully misinterpret my criticisms. The actual rail line and its service is pretty nice, and the facilities are quite attractive (lets see what they look like in 10 years though). If Santa Claus had just delivered the Phoenix light rail system for free to Phoenix, I would be thrilled with it. But Santa unfortunately was not involved, and instead the rail line was paid for by area residents, and it cost them over $75,000 per daily roundtrip rider to build, plus annual operating deficits infinitely into the future. I would be thrilled if an Aston Martin Vanquish showed up in my garage tomorrow, but I am not going to fork over a quarter of a million bucks for one. Ditto the light rail system.
Anyway, the 2009 FTA transit database is out, and Randal O'Toole has helpfully summarized it in spreadsheet form, which you can download here. You can peruse your own local system. Probably the hardest thing to figure out are the mode codes, which are deciphered here. Since 2009 was the first full year of operation for Phoenix light rail, we can finally look at data for Phoenix on an apples to oranges apples basis with other transit systems (it is really, really hard to squeeze useful information out of the data Valley Metro posts on their site).
I am just going to highlight two numbers for Phoenix light rail (TRS_ID 9209 in the data).
- The public subsidy per individual trip (that is one person boarding and riding one way) is $32.73!! No one would pay this amount if it were the fare. This equates to a public subsidy (beyond the fares paid) of $3.82 per passenger mile. Remember, this is not a hostile analysis, but based on the numbers Valley Metro itself submits to the FTA. Note the IRS reimbursement rate for the total cost (capital and incremental expense) of driving a car is 50 cents per mile, which drops even lower per passenger mile when the car has more than one person in it. The average occupancy of a car is something like 1.5, which would make the cost per passenger mile of the average car to be about 33 cents per mile. Ignoring the passenger fares, the public subsidy alone for light rail in Phoenix is 11.6 times larger [note: and yes, this includes the gas tax, so it includes a lot of the maintenance of the road infrastructure. To include full cost of maintaining and building highways, it might have to be a few cents higher, but its not going to come anywhere in the ballpark of the light rail number].
- But we are paying more for rail to save the environment, right? Well, the BTUs expended per passenger mile for Phoenix light rail was 4402. This compares to the average for passenger cars as determined by the DOE at 3437 BTU/PM. So the train actually uses 28% more energy to move one rider one mile than does the average car.
Years before the light rail system was completed, I made my light rail bet: That with the capital cost, I could easily buy a Prius for every daily rider, and still save money. And for less than the annual operating subsidy, I could give all the new Prius owners free gas each year. Already my bet has proved more than correct. But now we know that under my Prius plan, we also would have saved energy, since the Prius uses less than 1700 BTU/pm, less than a third of what Phoenix light rail consumes.