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.