There’s always something to howl about

(not)Railing at light rail…

The Arizona Republic blows warm, wet kisses at the light rail system currently (and essentially perpetually) under construction in Central Phoenix. It really doesn’t do to gripe about this thing. It will happen, no matter how much it shouldn’t. But the article itself is funny, presumably without intending to be. I am obliged by my agreement with the Republic not to make fun of it, so please understand that I am only drawing attention to the particular lines of text I quote below. Like this:

The spring weather is starting to heat up, and after a short bus ride to the station at Central Avenue and Camelback Road, you’re cooling your heels under one of the shade structures on the station platform.

See, the thing is, the light rail is not actually intended for people who live in Phoenix–at least not for the tax-payers, nor for the current users of public transportation. The two largest concentrations of adult bus passengers are in Sunnyslope and South Phoenix, but the trolley goes nowhere near either place. The actual ‘audience’ for the light rail are tourists. They won’t actually ride it, nor will the tax-payers, but the City wants to be able to shout, “Phoenix, too!,” to the light rail-afflicted world. It seems likely that out-of-towners are the ‘audience’ for this article, too, since everyone who lives here knows how unbearably hot it is outdoors, even in the shade.

You’re ready to get on board. Looking around, you see people heading for work, Arizona State University students, airline travelers with suitcases, and a few transient types.

Of course, prosperous people love ‘transient types.’ That’s why you see so many expensive suits on the bus. That’s why hitch-hikers jump for joy when they see a $50,000 SUV–a free ride with lumbar support!

There are no advertisements inside or outside. Valley Metro put a moratorium on ads for the first year, then will decide whether to allow them.

Here’s an important fact: Light rail is very expensive to run. Not just to build, mind you, although it’s hugely expensive to build; the system in Phoenix will run to more than $1,000 an inch before we’re done. But even after it’s built, light rail costs a lot more to run than do bus systems. That might matter if people who vote were users of public transportation, which they aren’t, or if users of public transportation voted, which they don’t. In any case, you can bet that Valley Metro will start taking advertising just before they publish the first year’s deficit figures. They probably won’t start cutting bus routes–the ones used by the actual users of public transportation–until the embarrassment of the second year’s deficits.

Rolling down Central, you check out the construction on the western side of the street and wonder once again why you didn’t have the foresight to buy land. Oh well.

A lot of speculators did buy land, of course, but we probably won’t read much about the current owners who have had many future uses of their land pruned by the Transit-Oriented Development zoning overlay.

At 44th Street, people get off with suitcases and duffel bags to catch a shuttle bus to Sky Harbor International Airport. Someday, an automated People Mover is supposed to whisk folks from here to the airport. But with an estimated billion-dollar cost, it won’t come anytime soon.

A thoughtful person could think to ask, “Why not run the eight-billion-dollar trolley through the airport?” The routes are parallel, essentially one mile south of the current route, and the train would chug into Tempe on University Drive, which would also make better sense–which is not to say that any of this makes sense.

You stop at Mill Avenue and step off with a gaggle of ASU students.

It seems reasonable to me to conjecture that the actual purpose of building a new ASU campus downtown is to fill up this silly trolley–with people who are young and prosperous, rather than older and poor. The downtown campus will offer major-field-of-study classes, but the core curricula will still be taught in Tempe. At least one round-trip a day for the kids who get stuck downtown, but they’ll be shiny, happy transit-patrons.

But: It doesn’t pay to gripe about this. It’s a done deal, as dumb as it is. It will set Phoenix back a lot in money and opportunity costs. It will not empty a single car, but it will make traffic and pollution worse. Valley Metro freely concedes these unhappy facts. But when other cities brag about their empty trollies running past their empty Convention Centers in their empty downtowns, Phoenix will be able to stand at the head of the line. It’s hotter than blazes outdoors, so our civic boon-doggles will always be even emptier. No that’s something to blow warm, wet kisses about!


3 Comments so far

  1. tabjohnson September 16th, 2006 6:31 pm

    I am a new reader in Houston, TX. You have your Trolley, we have our Toy Train. Along our train line all the small businesses failed due to construction, and the Metro bus routes started being cut within 18 months to subsidize the Toy Train. Our train has reduced traffic and pollution a bit by smashing into cars that must turn across the rail line.

  2. […]  Further reading: I have written a lot on this general topic over the years. Here are some links to pursue: A workable Downtown Phoenix City Hall 101 (not)Railing at light rail… Revenge of The Shiny People An open letter opposing the ASU bonds […]

  3. […] Well… I pretty much agreed with him. Greg’s very first article on BloodhoundBlog compared the “popular” (read that “politically correct”) heralding of Phoenix’s light rail with The Goldwater Institute’s forthright white paper on light rail. […]