Light Rail is Wrong for Chandler

Light Rail is Wrong for Chandler   

By John Semmens[i]

Economist, Arizona Transportation Institute


For a printable PDF version of this paper,  CLICK HERE.



  • light rail ridership will be too low to justify building it
  • the project cost per light rail passenger trip is $20 vs. $7 for a comparable bus trip
  • light rail is more dangerous than bus or auto travel
  • traffic congestion and air pollution would be worse if light rail is built
  • a decision to go forward with light rail will burden taxpayers by an extra $65 million per year



In May 2017 Valley Metro published the Fiesta-Downtown Chandler Transit Corridor Study to evaluate “high-capacity transit” (HCT) route options to connect Mesa with Chandler[ii].  The report recommends further study and development of HCT to connect with the existing light rail line at Dobson and Main, going south to Southern Avenue, east to Arizona Avenue, and then south along Arizona Avenue through downtown Chandler to Pecos Road.  Although the report does not make a recommendation between light rail transit and other HCT options (such as bus rapid transit), a careful reading of the report reveals that light rail transit is not supported by the available data.


Forecast Ridership for Light Rail is Too Low

On page 30 of the Study, Table 10 shows weekday ridership forecasts for the year 2040 and projects a boarding total of 10,100 light rail passengers per weekday and an average of 840 per stop.[iii]  Given that Valley Metro’s light rail trains have the capacity to carry 350 riders per two-car train[iv] and an average passenger-mile of travel of less than 7 miles per boarding,[v] the average capacity utilization will be only 11 percent.  Even during rush hour, capacity utilization will still be under 18 percent.[vi]  Note also that the 10,100 passenger figure is based upon an “enhanced land use scenario,” which assumes that transit-oriented development increases population and development concentrations in the transit corridor.[vii]


The Cost of Light Rail is Too High

On page 34 of the Study, Table 12 provides an estimated capital cost of $1.08 billion and an annual net operating cost of $11.4 million for the recommended light rail route.[viii]  Those costs are far higher than the estimated capital cost of $222 million and annual net operating costs of $6.85 million if bus rapid transit is used to provide equivalent frequency of transit service.[ix]  The 20-year amortized cost per passenger boarding for light rail would be around $20 per rider.  The amortized cost per passenger boarding for bus rapid transit would be around $7 per rider.[x]  Clearly, bus rapid transit would be the more cost-effective alternative.


Light Rail Will Not Improve Traffic Congestion and Pollution

On page 38 of the Study, Table 13 compares the “build” and “no build” effects on traffic congestion on the streets in the light rail corridor.  While traffic congestion is projected to be bad in 2040 regardless, it is projected to be slightly worse if light rail is built than it would be if light rail is not built.[xi]  The reason for this is that the carrying capacity of the road lanes that must be sacrificed to put in light rail exceeds the number of cars removed from traffic by drivers choosing to ride the train.

This finding is not unusual.  The Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail Project: Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared by Valley Metro prior to the beginnings of the current light rail line showed that both traffic congestion and air pollution would be slightly worse if light rail was built compared with not building it.[xii]  The main reason was that building the light rail system was expected to reduce vehicle miles of travel by 0.04 percent (one car in 2,500) in the Phoenix metro region and 0.13 percent (one car in 750) in the corridor served by the light rail system.[xiii]  In other words, very few people switch from driving cars to riding light rail.


Impact of Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail on Daily Traffic
Auto Speeds Build Rail No Build
Region 22.3 mph 22.4 mph
Corridor 17.7 mph 17.9 mph
Source: This is a composite of Tables S-8 & S-9 in the Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail Project: Final Environmental Impact Statement (Valley Metro, November 2002).


Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail, Carbon Monoxide Parts/Million in Year 2020
  No-Build Build Light Rail Impact of Build Option
Average One Hour Levels 6.5 6.8 +0.3
Average Eight Hour Levels 4.6 4.8 +0.2
Source: Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail Project: Final Environmental Impact Statement (Valley Metro), p. 4-51.


Light Rail Will Require Higher Taxes

With $1.08 billion in capital costs and $11.4 million a year in operating costs, the Fiesta-Downtown Chandler segment of light rail would cost $1.3 billon over 20 years, not counting interest payments for money borrowed to fund construction.  Since the costs shown in the Study are already “net” of any earned revenues, an additional levy on the taxpayers of at least $65 million per year would be needed to fund the light rail construction, operations, and debt service.

Large taxpayer burdens are typical for light rail, because revenues earned from rail riders don’t even come close to covering the costs of transit service.  According to the Federal Transit Administration, light rail operating costs in the Valley in 2016 (not counting capital costs) were $35.1 million, while fare revenues were only $13.5 million.[xiv]  Taxpayer funds for the Fiesta-Downtown Chandler segment of light rail could come from a variety of sources: city tax increases in Chandler and Mesa, similar to the Phoenix transportation tax hike begun in 2015; an extension of the 2004 Prop 400 transportation sales tax increase, which is set to expire in 2025; and, federal income tax monies in the form of grants from the Federal Transit Administration.


Light Rail Is a Failure Everywhere

The highest share of traffic for any light rail system in America is in Portland, Oregon, at between one and two percent of passenger miles traveled.[xv]  The share in the Phoenix area is much smaller, at 0.2 percent of motorized passenger miles.[xvi]  Indeed, light rail ridership in the Phoenix area may be falling.  According to the Federal Transit Administration, the Phoenix area saw a drop in bus and rail ridership of 1.2 million rides from 2009 to 2013.[xvii]  Such small shares of travel demonstrate the failure of light rail to make a significant contribution to meeting transportation needs.  Testimonials from the tiny fraction of the Phoenix-area population that uses light rail are not a useful guide to decision making.  After all, taxpayers are picking up 87 percent of the cost of their rides.[xviii]  Light rail is also dangerous, with traffic fatality rates per passenger mile that are higher than bus fatality rates and that are even higher than urban automobile fatality rates.[xix]



Chandler’s General Plan 2016 document declares that the Plan “does not authorize light rail or any form of high capacity transit. A separate process for any consideration of light rail as the mode of transit may occur in the years to come.”[xx]  Thanks to the data available in Valley Metro’s Fiesta-Downtown Chandler Transit Corridor Study, light rail has already been considered — and found to be too expensive, and too ineffective in increasing the mobility of Chandler citizens.  The results of the Study are clear: if Chandler wants to build a “high capacity transit” system to connect to Mesa, it should build bus rapid transit instead.

Chandler should also consider alternatives to public transit.  In the Phoenix area, even bus transit is on the decline, making up only about 0.6 percent of passenger miles traveled in the Valley.[xxi] Most people choose to own cars and use them because they offer a higher quality of service and are more convenient than riding mass transit.  The future very likely belongs to new technologies and methods that can improve on what automobiles have to offer.  Ridesharing services and autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars) relieve travelers from having to drive themselves.  Computers, smart phones and the Internet are increasingly reducing the necessity to commute to workplaces by allowing tasks to be handled electronically from home.  In the not-too-distant future, air taxis may become a reality.  All of these developments will reduce the need for mass transit.



[i] John Semmens is an economist with the Arizona Transportation Institute.  He worked as an economist and researcher with the Arizona Department of Transportation from 1976 to 2008.  He has also worked as an economics instructor, a newspaper columnist, and a freelance writer and policy advisor.

[ii] Valley Metro, Fiesta-Downtown Chandler Transit Corridor Study, Final Report, May 2017,

[iii] Ibid., p. 30, Table 10: 2040 Weekday Ridership Forecasts.



[vi] The capacity utilization is based on the passenger boarding data from Table 10 of the Study (Valley Metro, p. 30). The trains operate 22 hours per weekday — six “peak” (at ten-minute headways) and 16 “off-peak” (at 20-minute headways).  It is estimated that two-thirds of the boardings per weekday take place during the six-hour peak period.  The aggregate capacity utilization is 70,700 passenger miles using 617,400 seat-plus-standing-room miles for 11 percent.  The peak period is 47,110 passenger miles using 264,600 seat-plus-standing-room miles for 18 percent. The off-peak is 23,590 passenger miles using 352,800 seat-plus-standing-room miles.

[vii] Valley Metro, Fiesta-Downtown Chandler Transit Corridor Study, p. 29.

[viii] Ibid, p. 34, Table 12: Tier 2 Evaluation Summary.

[ix] Ibid, p. 35, Supplementary Findings.  “BRT can carry as many or nearly as many riders as light rail, but forecasts of actual BRT ridership have not yet been prepared.”

[x] Author’s calculation of 20-year amortization period.

[xi] Valley Metro, Fiesta-Downtown Chandler Transit Corridor Study, p. 38, Table 13: Roadway Segment Level of Service.

[xii] Valley Metro, Central Phoenix/East Valley Light Rail Project: Final Environmental Impact Statement, November 2002, p. S-18

[xiii] Semmens, John, Is Expanding Public Transit a Good Investment for the Phoenix Metro Region? (Draft 2003 report submitted to the Goldwater Institute, final version published Jan 8, 2004 as Buses, Trains and Automobiles: Finding the Right Transportation Mix for the Phoenix Metro Region), PDF pp. 34-39.

[xiv] Federal Transit Administration, Valley Metro Rail, Inc: 2016 Annual Agency Profile,

[xv] Federal Transit Administration, Transit Profiles for the National Transit Database Report Year ( and Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics 2010 (  It fluctuates between 1% and 2% from year to year. The same source shows that taxpayers pay an average of over 90% of the costs of light rail systems across the nation. For Phx Valley Metro taxpayers pay about 87% of the costs.

[xvi] O’Toole, Randal, Review of Phoenix Comprehensive Transportation Plan, Arizona Free Enterprise Club, July 2015, p. 12.

[xvii] O’Toole, p. 11.

[xviii] Federal Transit Administration, Transit Profiles for the National Transit Database Report Year, showing that taxpayers pay an average of over 90 percent of the costs of light rail systems across the country.

[xix] American Public Transportation Association, Public Transportation Fact Book (, Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics ( and Federal Transit Administration, Transit Safety and Security Statistics and Analysis (

[xx] Chandler General Plan 2016, p. 48.

[xxi] O’Toole, p. 11.



Is Expanding Transit a Good Investment for the Phoenix Metro Region

For a full version of the October 2003 Goldwater Institute transit study by John Semmens, CLICK HERE.



The Decline of Public Transit

Urban public transportation systems have been in decline since the end of World War II. At that time, public transit vehicles provided 50 percent of travel in urban regions. Last year, about three percent of urban travel in America was provided by public transit.

This decline has occurred despite Herculean government efforts to prevent it. Non-riders are forced to pay three-fourths of the cost of every transit user’s ride. Per person-mile of travel, government now spends thirty to forty times as much on public transit as it does for roadways.

The decline of public transit is the result of powerful demographic forces that show no sign of reversal. Basically, the demand for public transit is inversely related to personal income. As people’s incomes rise they can afford the more comfortable and convenient travel provided by owning and operating an automobile.

The “race” between the automobile and public transit is over. The auto has won. Nothing short of an economic debacle that drastically reduces urban standards of living can overturn this outcome.

Unwilling to face this reality, public transit’s devotees are busy repackaging an early loser in the race (trolleys), hoping that a new name (light rail) and a new public relations campaign can persuade people that the tax increases needed to try to resuscitate this dinosaur are necessary.

Light Rail Transit in Other Cities

Those who would raise taxes in the Phoenix metropolitan region in order to build light rail transit are mightily impressed by the alleged “success” of trolleys in other cities. Many have gone on pilgrimages to places like Portland and San Diego and returned with tales of great wonder and astonishment.

Why, these cities actually have trains. Frequently, there are passengers. Local transit bureaucrats and politicians rave about how wonderful these light rail trains have been for their cities. However, bureaucrats seeking to expand their empire or justify their budgets and politicians who have plowed millions of taxpayer dollars into these ventures have every incentive to exaggerate the benefits.

Inefficient, Unfair, Ineffective

Of all the options in the current public transit mix, for most cities, light rail is probably the worst possible choice. It requires its own special track (at a cost of around $40 million per mile to build), so it lacks the flexibility of buses which can be run over existing city streets. Yet, its carrying capacity is far less than that of heavy rail.

There isn’t a single light rail transit system in America in which fares paid by passengers cover the cost of their own rides. The aggregate deficit for 2000 (the latest year for which complete data are available) exceeded $1.4 billion dollars. The average cost per passenger-mile is around $1.50. These costs are far higher than the average cost per bus passenger-mile of about eighty cents. Of course, no transit option matches the average cost of automobile transportation, which, is about thirty cents per vehicle-mile.

Light rail’s inefficiency is matched by its unfairness. On average, taxpayers pay nearly 90 percent of the cost of light rail passenger travel. This is worse than the average for all transit modes. When all transit modes are considered, riders pay about one-fourth of the costs. Light rail ii compares even more unfavorably with auto transportation where private passenger vehicles currently pay around 100 percent of their share of the cost of the road system.

Light rail’s inefficiency and unfairness aren’t offset by effectiveness. In no city in America did light rail transit account for much more than one percent of the urban person-miles of travel. The average share of person-miles of travel was only three-tenths of one percent.

Light rail is touted as a means of reducing urban traffic congestion. The claim is that it will lure drivers out of their cars and, thereby, reduce traffic congestion. If all of the light rail passengers had been driving their own cars, light rail would, on average, be removing three cars in 1,000 from the roads. However, studies have shown that about 80 percent of new light rail passengers were former bus passengers. Taking this into account, the real impact on traffic is for light rail to remove less than one car in 1,000 from traffic.

The projected performance of a prospective Phoenix light rail system would likely be somewhat worse than average. Passengers are projected to pay only 5 percent of the cost of their own rides. The light rail system is projected to account for only two-tenths of one percent of travel in the region. Due to the fact that the rail lines will be constructed in existing city streets, light rail in the Phoenix region is actually projected to increase both traffic congestion and air pollution.


The transit numbers tell a tale of inefficiency, inequity, and ineffectiveness. In no city is transit run on sound business principles. There is little effort to try to generate compensatory revenues from customers. Huge and unending losses are the result. Riders are asked to pay a pitifully small share of the costs. Despite generous subsidies, transit in city after city carries only a small fraction of the person-miles of travel.

Modern urban travelers want convenience, comfort, and speed. The automobile best fits these requirements. This is why the auto is the choice for the overwhelming majority of urban travelers. The inconvenient, frequently uncomfortable, and slower transportation offered by public transit modes does not meet the needs of more than a small fraction of urban travelers. Given its inferior performance characteristics relative to other transit options, light rail is the most unappealing choice for trying to meet the needs of the small fraction of urban travelers who rely on public transportation.

Funds invested in the expansion of traditional forms of transit (buses and trains) will be squandered. Little will be accomplished in the way of moving people about town. The resources consumed will be unavailable for use on more effective ways of meeting transportation needs, reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality. Those seeking to lead the community and state to a better future must find more productive ways of using public funds than expending them on public transit.

Links to Older Publications by John Semmens  The Crisis in Public Finance: No Ways or Means
Congestion and Air Quality?   Government is Strangling Transit
Phoenix Taxpayers Derailed an $8 Billion Transit System   The Social Cost of Railroad Regulation