The Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG) has proposed the continuation of a half-cent sales tax beginning in 2005, the proceeds of which would be spent on a wide range of transportation measures for Maricopa County. Public transit plays a key role in the plan, with about 14 percent of sales tax revenues dedicated to the construction of light rail in the Valley and 16 percent dedicated to various forms of bus transit.
MAG's public transit plans deserve close scrutiny. Use of urban public transportation systems has been in decline since the end of World War II, when public transit provided 50 percent of urban travel. Last year, only three percent of urban travel in America was provided by public transit. This decline has occurred despite prodigious government efforts to prevent it. Governments now spend 30 to 40 times as much on public transit as for roadways. But evidence suggests that transit is not the most effective use of public transportation dollars.
Of all the options in the public transit mix, light rail deserves the most scrutiny. Because it requires its own special track, it lacks the flexibility of buses, which use existing city streets. And because tracks would be constructed on existing city streets, light rail in the Phoenix region is actually projected to increase traffic congestion. Furthermore, in no city in America does light rail transit account for much more than one percent of urban person-miles of travel. The Phoenix light rail system is projected to account for only two-tenths of one percent of travel in the region.
The average cost of light rail per passenger-mile is around $1.50, almost double the cost of bus transit, and five times the cost of automobile transportation per vehicle-mile. On average, taxpayers pay nearly 90 percent of the cost of light rail passenger travel, considerably more than for all other transit modes. Worst of all, light rail would do almost nothing to relieve traffic congestion. Because 80 percent of new light rail passengers in Maricopa County would be former bus passengers, light rail would remove less than one car in 1,000 from traffic.
Instead of squandering taxpayer money on light rail, the Valley should focus transit dollars on bus transit. Better yet, the Valley should work to expand freeways and improve the efficiency of freeway use through measures such as congestion pricing.