End of the Line


In March the voters of Maricopa County, Arizona, (which includes Phoenix) were asked to approve a half-cent hike in the sales tax. The money would go to pay for a mammoth $8.4 billion regional transportation network, including a rapid-rail system.

Proponents of the plan spent millions promoting it. It was backed by most of the mayors and all of the city councils covered by the proposed system. It was endorsed by the Arizona Republic, other newspapers, and a preponderance of civic leaders. There was no well-organized opposition to the plan, only scattered small groups, spending altogether maybe $100,000. It looked as if Phoenix was about to join the ranks of modern cities with rapid-rail public transit—despite mounting evidence that rail systems are poorly suited to serving modern cities.

Imagine everyone's surprise when the voters soundly rejected the plan by a 3-to-2 margin. Some postelection analysts believe voters were uneasy because the plan did not contain enough detail. Train routes were mapped only vaguely in milewide corridors. Perhaps voters suspected the $8.4 billion price tag might be a lowball estimate. But it's also possible that voters rejected the plan because they had learned from the mistakes of others.

Since the mid-1970s, about a dozen major cities have added trains. Not a single rapid-rail system in the country operates in the black. Planners are notorious for underestimating costs and overestimating ridership. Because they have fixed routes, rail systems simply can't cope with changing living patterns. (See "You Can't Get There from Here," page 34.)

Even in the New York-New Jersey area, long a bastion of train-riding commuters, rail service no longer accommodates many people's needs. New Jersey is rapidly becoming a network of urban centers, rather than bedroom communities feeding into New York City. Jobs are being created twice as fast in the suburbs as in Manhattan, but the state's transportation system still assumes most people want to go downtown—to Manhattan, Philadelphia, or Newark.

As a result, reported a recent New York Times article, commuters can no longer depend on public transit. The story described the plight of William R. Wright of Newark, a die-hard train buff and assistant sales manager for a freight company. For 28 years, Wright took a 40-minute train ride into Manhattan every workday. When his employer moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, Wright's mass-transit commute became a four-hour epic journey each day on a train, then the subway, and then a bus. Finally, he quit his job.

Some planners' first thought is to add new rail routes. But New Jersey taxpayers may be as reluctant as those in Arizona to invest billions in new public transit "infrastructure" that will be obsolete the next time people and businesses inevitably shift from existing locations to thinly populated (hence less expensive) areas.