Posts tagged ‘Valley Metro’

Phoenix Transit Ridership Continues to Fall as Light Rail Investment Goes Up

Well, the numbers are in for the 2017 fiscal year (which ends June 30) and after another huge investment in light rail, Phoenix has lost more transit ridership.   From the Valley Metro web site:

First, credit where it is due.  After years of bizarre chartsmanship where bars on their graphs bore only a passing relationship to the numbers being graphed, Valley Metro seems to have adopted a new (or their first) graphing program.

As you can see, while light rail trips were up by about a million, bus trips were again down by over 2 million, for a net loss in transit ridership of over a million, the fourth year in a row this has been the case.  I had expected rail ridership to rise, since in 2016 the rail system was expanded by 31% in length and 36% in cumulative investment.  This extension resulting in a 15.6% increase in rail ridership between 2015 and 2017.  Early on, I got in a debate with supporters of the line arguing that since they had cherry-picked the densest corridor in town to start, incremental extensions would actually reduce ridership per mile because they would be serving less promising routes.  Supporters argued that I was ignoring network effects and that ridership would rise faster than line length.  I guess we are sorting out that argument now.

In the ten years leading up to the opening of the light rail line, transit ridership grew by an average of 6.7% a year in Phoenix.  In the 8 years since the rail line's opening, total transit ridership has fallen 1% per year.  This is a well known effect (at least well known to all but rail die-hards) that Randal O'Toole, among others, has been pointing out for years.  Since light rail is an order of magnitude more expensive to operate per passenger-mile, and since transit budgets are never infinite, growing light rail tends to strangle bus traffic, because bus routes and service have to be cut to feed money into the light rail money pit.  Since every dollar spent on rail moves fewer passengers than a dollar spent on buses, transferring money from buses to trail reduces total ridership.  It is worth noting that had the line not been built and bus transit had been allowed to grow as it had before the line, there might have been over 40 million more trips last year assuming pre-2009 growth rates.

Phoenix Light Rail (Continued) Fail

In 2014, I published  an article based on Valley Metro's (our transit operator in Phoenix) very own ridership chart.  Here was the chart I showed:

click to enlarge

My point was that the huge amount of money spent on light rail, which essentially constituted a single commuting route in this enormous and spread-out city, was cannibalizing bus service.   The cost and investment to carry a light rail passenger is at least an order of magnitude greater than that needed to carry a bus passenger, and no public system can long endure this sort of cost increase to shift passengers from a relatively cheap transit mode to an expensive one.  Inevitably, bus service (which mainly benefits the poor) is terminated to pay for the train (which benefits middle and upper class riders who would not be caught dead on a bus).  I am pretty sure the train would have been harder sell if they had been honest and said that they were going to have to cut bus service for the low-income working folks so that ASU students and Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Suns fans could have a better way to get to the ballgame.

Anyway, Valley Metro has updated the chart for 2015 and it continues to look bad:


They were smart to cut off history on this one so you can't see how they killed the growth trend with the advent of light rail.  But you see that total transit ridership fell, with a small fall in light rail ridership and a huge fall in bus ridership.   Oops.  As an aside, they still have not fixed their terrible chart plotting.  You can see this years bar for light rail being longer than the one for 2013 despite the fact the number is lower.

The 2016 numbers will be interesting.  Since 2015 they will have opened several light rail extensions and got themselves a huge new tax increase approved (over my stern opposition).

Update:  In retrospect, the bus ridership fall was significant but "huge" probably is an exaggeration.  I was fooled by looking at the bar lengths, which again seem to have nothing to do with the actual data.  They are clearly drawing this manually -- no automatic charting program would get it this wrong.

Phoenix Light Rail: We Spent $1.4 Billion (and Growing) To Subsidize ASU Students

The AZ Republic has some of the first information I have ever seen on the nature of Phoenix light rail ridership.  The first part confirms what I have always said, that light rail's primary appeal is to middle and upper class whites who don't want to ride on the bus with the plebes

Light rail has changed the demographics of overall transit users since the system opened in 2008, according to Valley Metro.

Passengers report higher incomes than bus riders, with more than a quarter living in households making more than $50,000 a year. Many riders have cars they could use.

The 20-mile system running through Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa recorded more than than 14 million boardings last year. Still, census data estimate less than one-third of 1 percent of Phoenix commuters — or about 2,000 people — use rail as their main transportation to work.

.0033% huh?  If we built similar facilities to serve everyone, it would only cost us about $420 billion at the rate of $1.4 billion per third of a percent.

But I thought this next bit was the most startling.  I always had a sneaking suspicion this was true but never have seen it in print before:

While the much larger bus system reaches most corners of the Valley, light rail connects specific destinations along a single line. Nearly half of light-rail riders are enrolled in college.

I must have missed this in the original sales pitch for the light rail line: "Let's pay $1.4 billion so ASU students can get to more distant bars."   Note that by these numbers, students likely outnumber commuters 10:1.  Doesn't bode well for light rail extensions that don't plow right through the middle of the most populous college campus in the country.

Postscript:  They don't break out people riding to get to sporting events downtown, but sporting events make up most of the largest traffic days on the system.  From my personal acquaintances, many people use light rail as a substitute for expensive downtown parking at sporting events, parking (often semi-illegally) near light rail stops and taking the train the rest of the way in.  On the whole, its not very compelling as a taxpayer to be helping to subsidize someone else's parking.  And from a municipal fiscal standpoint, it means that light rail fares may be cannibalizing (on a much greater ratio than 1:1 given the price differential) parking fees at municipal parking lots.

Why Valley Metro (Phoenix Light Rail) Can't Be Trusted and Shouldn't Be Given More Tax Money to Play With

I was reading this article in the Arizona Republic (which is generally an unskeptical cheerleader for light rail investments) and looking at the claim that Valley Metro (the operator of Phoenix light rail) had a 45% fare recovery ratio in 2013.  One would think that means that their fares cover 45% of their costs -- which would be awful for any real enterprise but is pretty good for government-run rail systems.

But in fact, Valley Metro (along with rail supporters in the Administration) stack the deck by defining most of the costs out of this metric so it looks far better than it really is.  In fact, by my reading of their financial statements, the true fare recovery is at best 15.2% and likely much worse.

Here are the Valley Metro financials for 2013, from their annual report



Look at their costs of $75+ million and fares of about $12.8 million.  How do they get to 45%?  Simple -- they leave the majority of their costs out.  They exclude administrative costs, financing costs, and depreciation (essentially their capital cost) from the equation.  This means that their fare recover is 45% -- IF you ignore their large administrative costs and you ignore the $1.4+ billion the line cost to build.   Further, because of the way the government does its finances, it is also missing any financing costs (interest and such on debt).

So the true cost recovery, stated in a way that  a reasonable person would think about such a number, is 16.8% at best.  If one takes into account the $8.28 million in "non-operating expenses" the number is 15.2%.  And it is even lower if you were to include interest and other financing costs.

I am sure Valley Metro will argue that this is the way the Feds measure it.  I don't care.  It has an obligation to accurately report its financial position to the public who is paying for it, particularly when the public is considering further investments in the form of higher taxes.  The 45% is a meaningless number that is crafted solely to make light rail look financial stronger than it really is.

This, by the way, is why total ridership of rail + buses has stalled since the construction of the light rail line.  Light rail is so expensive per rider that it is starving cash from the rest of the system.

I Just Don't Understand the Appeal of Short Street Car Lines in Low-Density Towns

More street car craziness.  I love the phrase "modern street car".  Like an up-to-date stagecoach.

Despite mounting construction costs and uncertainty over federal funds, Tempe is still seeking to be the Valley's first city with a modern streetcar system traveling through its downtown.


Valley Metro executives Steve Banta and Wulf Grote reviewed the project with the Tempe City Council this month.

The new alignment has lengthened the route from 2.6 miles to 3 miles and increased costs. The cost range is now $175 million to $200 million depending on the type of vehicle technology used.

First, there is no way it comes in for these numbers, but even accepting the mid-point of their estimates this is $62.5 million a mile or $11,837 per foot.  Of course there is also the operating cost, which will certainly lose money since there is no way people are going to pay much for a maximum 3 mile ride.  My prediction is that they will sell the project promising that there will be a fare that helps cover costs but they will drop the fare quickly once implemented  (because no one will ride this thing unless it is free).  And and don't forget the cost of the loss of an entire lane of roadway each way to the trains.

Just consider how much less 4 buses running in a 3-mile circle would cost, and they would only consume a tiny fraction of the existing road capacity, rather than taking up an entire lane just for themselves.  This is just a huge upper-middle class subsidy, a special favor to rich people who think buses are too low class to ride but are OK being seen on a train.  Madness.

My best guess is that these kinds of projects have become prestige projects for government officials.  This is the way they show off to each other and act as a portfolio for them to seek larger jobs in bigger cities.

Exaggerating Transit Use for Fun and Higher Taxes. Or How PIRG Supports the 1% over the 99%

The Arizona PIRG has a report that can be summarized as "transit is increasing fast, driving is falling, all of our future investment should be in transit".  The Valley Fever blog has the story:

Arizonans are driving less, and relying more on public transportation, according to a report from the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The shift is causing the Arizona PIRG Education Fund to recommend that public officials shift funding away from more highway projects, and more toward other transportation options."

"We recommend that transportation officials and elected leaders look at the data today, and not outdated assumptions, to make sure that any highway projects are absolutely necessary," Arizona PIRG Education Fund executive director Diane Brown tells New Times....

In the Phoenix metro area, the light rail opened in late 2008 and is already experiencing ridership numbers that weren't projected to be reached until the year 2020. In 2013, the Valley Metro transit system experienced a record high annual ridership, and between 2007-2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million - an increase of 25 percent. The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority recently saw its highest monthly ridership in October 2013. And in Yuma, ridership on Yuma County Area Transit has tripled since 2011.

The report suggests that public officials re-allocate their focus and funding, away from building new highways and toward more transportation options.

This is a fantasy.

There is an enormous amount of obfuscation going on here.  The percentage rise of public transit trips is actually the miracle of small numbers -- small changes on an even smaller base.  The point of these charts is to try to say that Arizonans use a lot of transit and we should dump more billions into these projects.  As it turns out, despite all the huge public investment, transit is still a rounding error.

Note that, from their own report, driving vehicle miles per capita are 9175 per person per year.  So lets look at transit.  They exaggerate by showing averages for Phoenix and Tucson, where transit use is higher, not for the whole state like they show vehicle miles.  The total state transit miles per person in the same year, using their numbers, turns out to be as low as 64 (if no one outside of Phoenix or Tucson uses transit) and as high as 110 (if everyone outside of Phoenix and Tucson uses transit at the same rate as in the cities).  The likely number is around 75.

This means that after all these billions and billions of transit spending, transit trips are 0.8% of vehicle trips (75 vs. 9175). That is a rounding error.  You sure wouldn't get that impression from the report.  The Public Interest Research Group has a funny view of "public interest", putting the desired transportation mode of the 0.8% over the desired choice of the 99.2%

Well, you say, I should compare the increase in transit to the decrease in driving.  OK.  Again using their numbers:  Vehicle driving miles went down 348 per capita over the study period.  In the same time, per capital transit miles went up by about 26 in Phoenix and Tucson (likely less in the state as a whole).  So, at best, transit ridership accounts for about 7% of the drop in driving.

This is not nothing, but hardly justifies the enormous increase in transit spending over the last 15 years and the billions and billions in capital investment.

Oh, and by the way, Phoenix Light Rail ridership has cannibalized bus ridership about 1 for 1.  That means all that investment in light rail has just shifted riders to a more expensive, less flexible transit mode.  But that is another story.

Phoenix Spent $1.4 Billion To Cannibalize Buses

I have written many times about my problems with Phoenix light rail -- examples are here and here.  We paid $1.4 billion in initial capital costs, plus tens of millions a year in operating losses that must be subsidized by taxpayers, for a line that carries a tiny tiny percentage of Phoenix commuters.  Capital costs equate to something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider  -- If we had simply bought every daily rider a Prius, we would have save a billion dollars.

But, as with most things the government does, it is worse than I thought.  Over the last several years, I have been treating these daily light rail riders as if they are incremental users of the area's transit system.  In fact, they are not, by Valley Metro's (our regional transit authority) own numbers.  Here is the key chart, from their web site.

ridership report chart graphic

Compare 2009 to 2012.  Between those years, light rail ridership increased by just a hair under 8 million.  In the same time period, bus ridership fell by just a hair over 8 million.  So all new light rail ridership is just cannibalizing buses.  We have spent $1.4 billion dollars to shift people to a far more expensive transit platform, which does not offer any faster service along its route (the light rail has to fight through traffic lights on the surface streets same as buses).

This is a pattern seen in most cities that adopt light rail.  Over time, total ridership is flat or falls despite rising rail ridership, because rail is so expensive that it's operation forces transit authorities to cut back on bus service to balance their budgets.  Since the cost per rider is so much higher for light rail than buses, a dollar shifted from buses to light rail results in a net reduction in ridership.

Postscript:  Looking at the chart, light rail has achieved something that Valley Metro has not seen in decades -- a three year period with a decline in total ridership.  Sure, I know there was a recession, but going into the recession the Valley Metro folks were arguing that a poor economy and rising gas prices should boost their ridership.



Another Enormous Subsidy of a Pitiful Few Train Riders

From the AZ Republic

Valley Metro is set to break ground today on the first light-rail expansion, a 3.1-mile stretch into downtown Mesa that city leaders hope will bring a sorely needed economic boost.

The $200 million extension is expected to attract thousands more East Valley riders daily and potentially nurture new development along the line.

If we assume "thousands" means two thousand, then this means the metro area is spending $100,000 per new daily rider for this expansion, not including the additional operating subsidies that will be required to run the trains.  Given that none of these people will likely be able to give up their car, since the route goes so few places, why should they get a $100,000 subsidy?

How about we charge them what it costs?  The payment on a 30-year 5% bond is around $13,000,000 a year.  So if there are 2,000 additional round trip riders boarding or debarking at these new stations each day, that is 1.46 million trips.  So the tickets should be $8.90 per trip plus the cost of actually running the train.  We'll round it to $10, though the cost is probably higher.  If people really think this train is so great, they should be more than willing to pay the $10 a trip it costs for the expansion.

No, they are not?  What this means is that people think this is a really go idea as long as someone else pays.

PS-  If these seem unreasonably high, or simply an artifact of looking at this expansion on a stand-alone basis, think again.  For the original system, the capital cost was $75,000 per round trip rider and the public subsidy in 2010 was $32.73 per trip.  In other words, on the main system, riders would have to pay $32.73 a trip more to be actually covering the cost of the service they are receiving.  So if anything, these incremental numbers for the expansion are probably optimistic.

PPS - I am sure transit authorities would argue that the public did support paying for other people's transit by approving the sales tax increase for this purpose a few years ago.  But the train piece was packaged in with a bunch of highway improvements in the same proposition that people really did want.  It would never have passed on its own.  Transit official may disagree, but the proof is in their actions - they have never allowed the public to vote on the transit piece alone.

Light Rail and Sustainability

Let me offer up a definition of sustainability that I think most environmentalists and progressives would accept:

We are acting in a sustainable manner if we are achieving our goals in a way that does not hamper the ability of other people in the world, or of future generations, to achieve their goals.

Most environmentalists and progressives would call light rail lines in US cities a "sustainable" technology because of its notional impact on fuel use and CO2 output (yeah, I know, but we are not going to address those assumptions today).

Let me present one fact, from Federal Transit Administration's 2009 survey of public transit authorities, whose data is linked in various ways here.  Or you can download the summary spreadsheet here.  For all US light rail systems in total:

User fares paid per passenger-mile:           $0.18

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $2.22

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $2.04

Since I live in Phoenix and the Phoenix light rail system seems to get particular praise as a "success" from light rail supporters, here are the Phoenix light rail numbers;

User fares paid per passenger-mile:          $0.07

Total cost per passenger-mile:                     $3.89

Taxpayer subsidy per passenger-mile:       $3.82

So there, folks, is your sustainable technology.  As I have written before about sustainability, "I do not think that word means what you think it means."

Nationwide, non-users of light rail pay for 92% of its costs.   In Phoenix, non-users pay for 98% of the costs.  Taking the Phoenix system as an example, resources are drained from literally millions of people so that 17,000 or so people can ride it round trip each day.   Using resources from millions of people, and building up debts that will last into the next generation, to support the transit of just a few people, seems to be the antithesis of sustainability.

If there is any common denominator among progressives, it is that they have little respect for how individuals spend their money.  So they might be unmoved by the loss of resources from so many.  So lets just look narrowly at transit, which I presume the do care about.

Before Valley Metro operated a light rail system in Phoenix, they also operated a bus transit system.  This system still requires a subsidy, but it is much lower than the light rail subsidy.  In 2009, the bus subsidy was $0.74 per passenger-mile.  This means that for the same amount of taxpayer funds, Valley Metro can provide 1.0 passenger-mile by train or 5.2 by bus ($3.82/$0.74).   I can guarantee that cities building light rail are not having their budgets quintupled.  So the result is that, as light rail gets built, total transit ridership falls in most cities as rail costs crowd out existing bus services.

Update: Most light rail articles in our local papers, which have been mindless boosters of the system, generally consist of asking riders if they like the system, who inevitably answer "yes!"  This is somehow a proof the system is great.  Well, duh.  I too am likely to be happy with a service where I only pay 2% of the costs.

Update #2:  Last year, there were about 3.2 trillion passenger miles driven by urban drivers in cars in the US.  My point about light rail is that we can barely afford it for just a few people, given that we spent $1.3 billion to build a rail line for about 17,000 daily round trip riders in Phoenix.  If it were truly a sustainable technology, it could be applied to all commuters.  But at a national average taxpayer subsidy per light rail passenger mile of about $2, this means that to roll light rail out to everyone would cost $6.4 trillion a year, almost half our annual GDP.  If it required the subsidy rates we have in Phoenix per passenger-mile, such a system would cost over $12 trillion  year.  In fact, the numbers would likely be even higher in reality, because light rail in most cities is almost certainly built on the highest populated corridors with the most bang for the buck (though some of the diminishing returns would be offset by network effects).

Phoenix / Valley Metro Light Rail Report Card: F

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.

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.