For years advocates for light rail have been trying to convince the legislature to allow Maricopa County to extend the 1/2 cent transportation sales tax (currently set to expire in 2025) to include billions more for light rail. They know that they can’t pass light rail by itself, so they have been looking for ways to sneak it by lawmakers by tying it to other more popular transportation projects.
Their solution is SB 1147, a poorly crafted transportation omnibus bill that would eliminate the statutory spending caps on how much money can go toward light rail and other wasteful transit projects. The bill would also remove the requirements that funding go toward freeways and other regional roads, unnecessarily create duplicative and confusing new statutes for rural counties and allow new tax hikes to be considered on off-cycle election dates that are notorious for low voter turnout.
The evidence that light rail and similar fixed line transit is a bad deal for taxpayers is overwhelming. In 2017, the Free Enterprise Club published a study on the future of transportation policy in Maricopa County and the value of light rail in the Phoenix Metro Area. The conclusion was that light rail is a bad deal for taxpayers, commuters, non-politically connected landowners and anyone else that relies on the current bus transit system. Additionally, a cursory review of the wild-eyed economic development claims being made by proponents of rail are easily disproven as well.
The most critical facts when considering light rail include:
- Light rail will NOT reduce traffic congestion–it will INCREASE traffic congestion
A common myth pushed by proponents of light rail is that it will help in getting people off the roads and into public transit. The fact is that light rail will increase traffic congestion, and there are a couple of reasons for this. First, the only way to accommodate the new rail line will be to remove street lanes currently used by automobiles. And since street lanes can move more traffic per hour than light rail, congestion will be greater along the line. Secondly, since the rail line is moving at street grade, it will have to receive priority at every traffic light. This will disrupt signal coordination systems, spreading the disruption well beyond the light rail intersections. That is why every independent traffic analysis that has been done concludes that light rail increases traffic congestion.
- Light rail will NOT increase transit ridership and will HURT bus ridership
Another argument made by the light rail lobby is that building light rail will increase transit ridership. The fact is most light rail passengers are either individuals who already use transit or passengers who were forced onto light rail when existing bus service along the rail line was eliminated. Additionally, since rail costs substantially more to operate than buses, over time light rail will crowd out bus service and will result in a reduction of bus lines in the Phoenix metro area.
This is not speculation—this exact scenario has played out in every city that has built light rail. For proof, here is a chart showing transit ridership in the Phoenix metro area since 2000, courtesy of Valley Metro:
As can be seen by the chart, transit ridership was increasing steadily from 2000 to 2008, prior to light rail opening. After light rail opened, bus ridership began to plummet and is now at levels not seen since 2003. Even more troubling, after a decade of growth annual transit ridership has been in decline. The 2017 figures were just released and annual transit ridership is now LOWER than when light rail opened in 2009.
- The Economic Development Claims are False
Knowing that light rail cannot be defended for reducing congestion or increasing transit ridership, advocates usually pivot to the claim that rail should be built since it promotes economic development. This claim is easily disproven as well. After a careful analysis of the figures provided by Valley Metro, the Club proved that most of the economic development credited to light rail was either “planned or committed” development, projects that had nothing to do with rail (like the Phoenix Convention Center) or were projects that never occurred.
After discrediting their figures in 2015, Valley Metro released a new analysis, now claiming that billions in constructed projects have occurred because of light rail. How did they reach this conclusion? Valley Metro is now assuming that light rail is responsible for ALL economic development that occurs within 1/2 mile of the rail line. Since the rail line is 26 miles long, that means they are including 26 SQUARE MILES within their analysis. The idea that light rail is responsible for all economic development in an area the size of Queen Creek is laughable.
- SB 1147 Ignores the Blossoming Self-Driving Transportation Revolution in our own Backyard
The final nail in the coffin for light rail is that it is more likely than not that drastic advancements in autonomous vehicles will render the service useless and unused. Thanks to Governor Ducey, Arizona has become a leader in promoting and developing self-driving technology, and it is anticipated that such cars will be available to the public in the next five years. The idea that we are going to commit billions to human-operated, fixed line rail through 2045 when the technology will be beyond obsolete would be a huge mistake.
If lawmakers believe there is a need to update our existing transportation statutes or even consider extending the Maricopa County transportation tax, policy makers should make sure that the money is used on productive transportation projects that include plenty of transparency and oversight. Without drastic changes to SB 1147, the bill will remain a train wreck for taxpayers.