If you’re a frequent rider of buses and light rail systems in the Phoenix Metro area, odds are you already know of the sweeping service cuts beginning July 26. The cuts, which eliminate or significantly reduce service to six major bus routes and declare Black Friday among five new transportation holidays, stem from ongoing budget problems at both the state and city levels.
Of course, no one with any knowledge of the state of the local economy will be surprised by this move. Arizona remains among the slowest recovering states following the infamous housing bust and subsequent recession that, despite technicalities, often even still doesn’t feel like it is over. Governments and businesses of all shapes and sizes are cutting costs and raising prices (or taxes, as it applies).
Which is exactly why funding a rail system in Phoenix makes absolutely no sense. Sure, light rail lines are becoming quite trendy—railways even helped win Salt Lake City the 2002 Winter Olympics—but for most U.S. cities they make about as much fiscal sense as burning dollar bills to keep warm or renting a helicopter to go to the grocery store. Even Salt Lake City, which has continued to develop the rail lines that began as a piece to their Olympic resume, loses roughly $300 million each year on public rail systems.
Advocates for public rail are quick to cite great rail successes. New York, Tokyo and most European cities have very successful rail systems, for example. Each of these examples share a particular minimum density– high density housing and central business districts that create common destinations for large numbers of people. With enough traffic going to and from the same places, the density of these cities is able to trump the inflexibility of rail.
Phoenix does not share the density of New York, Chicago or even Portland. The single-family housing that prevails in Phoenix suburbs makes for great holiday barbeques and private pool parties, but it also undermines the densities required to make rail work. Phoenix business districts are similarly decentralized, spread from Glendale to Mesa and Scottsdale to Buckeye.
In our rush to be among the best cities in the world, Phoenix must remember that not all trendy public policies will work in Arizona. In the case of our $1.4 billion rail system, Phoenix simply doesn’t have the density to make it work. We’re sprawled from San Tan to Surprise with very few centers to our population or our commerce. Which is why we’re bleeding money—about a million dollars each week—attempting to maintain a rail presence. And we will continue to hemorrhage if the rail lines are expanded, a multi-million-dollar misfortune already familiar to officials in Salt Lake City.
Tough times are no time to be trendy. Success in cutting costs requires decisions to be made on economic, rather than political, grounds. Instead of cutting bus services—a very practical form of mass transit for suburban cities—Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale and Mesa should be capping the fiscal leak created by rail; killing the vampire that is sucking fiscal life from our economy.
Or we could leave things the same. That’s working out real nice.