Light Rail

Phoenix's Government Might Shut Down Over High Stakes Light Rail Fight

Local business owners say a new light rail line will kill their livelihood.


Danny Raustadt/

A bitter fight is breaking out in Phoenix, Arizona, between city officials eager to construct a new light rail line out to the poorer, southern reaches of the famously car-dependent city, and south Phoenix business owners, who fear the transit expansion will spell the end of their livelihoods and their community.

"They just want to get rid of us. The city of Phoenix doesn't want to listen to the people," says Byron Waldrep, the long-time manager of a south Phoenix fish and chips shop on Central Avenue, located right along where the new line is slated to go.

The past several months have seen Waldrep and other likeminded south Phoenix residents organize community meetings, circulate petitions, and provide testimony at increasingly contentious city council meetings. They are demanding that the light rail project as currently designed be stopped.

On Wednesday, they scored a temporary victory of sorts, when the eight-member Phoenix City Council—which has thus far rebuffed the group's demands to slow or change the rail project—failed to pass an operating budget. Four councilmembers voted "no" over concerns that the city was moving too fast with its South Central light rail extension. If the sixth largest city in America is going to keep its government up and running, its budget needs to be approved by July 1. "I have no idea what we do now," said Phoenix Mayor Thelda Williams after the budget vote failed.

The fight started in 2016, when the Phoenix City Council voted to accelerate the construction of the long planned 6-mile South Central light rail extension. The line was originally slated for completion in 2035; the City Council promised to have it done by 2023.

But there was a hitch. The plans for the southward extension called for tearing out two lanes on busy Central Avenue to accommodate the new light rail tracks.

This, says Waldrep, would spell death for his business and many others in the area.

"Two lanes one in each direction will kill everything," he tells Reason. "A lot of places won't make it, where they depend on having that room for having their semi-trucks, or their tow trucks, or their supply trucks."

As it became clear that half of the lanes on Central Avenue would be gutted in favor of light rail, and that this construction would shutter sections of the street for four years, businesses in the area started to organize. Led by Celia Contreras, the owner of a south Phoenix window tinting shop also on Central Avenue, they formed the group "4 Lanes or No Train," which demands that the lanes either be preserved or the rail project be abandoned completely.

Maintaining the current number of lanes, says Scott Smith, CEO of Valley Metro, the transit agency responsible for building and operating Phoenix's light rail system, is a difficult demand to accommodate.

"There has always been a challenge with extending light rail into south east," Smith tells Reason. "Many of the businesses were built 40, 50, 60years ago, so the space is somewhat tight."

This left Valley Metro with the option of either eliminating two lanes or tearing down some 60 buildings to make room for an expanded transportation corridor. They opted for the former as the less disruptive of the pair. The decision was not taken lightly, says Smith, who stresses that the new, reduced lanes will still be wide enough to accommodate service vehicles.

Nevertheless, when faced with what they see as two bad options, many South Phoenix residents have come to reconsider the desirability of light rail itself. They've found an enthusiastic ally in City Councilmember and light rail critic Sal DiCiccio.

"It's completely inefficient. It's 1800s technology in the age of Uber and Lyft and ridesharing," says DiCiccio, telling Reason the costs of light rail are simply not worth it in a car-centric city like Phoenix.

The numbers support his point: Valley Metro spent $1.4 billion building its initial 20-mile light rail line, and it saw an average of 45,000 boardings a day in May 2018, down 7 percent from last year. By comparison, segments of Central Avenue carry about 25,000 vehicles a day.

Assuming each of those boardings represents an individual rider, Phoenix's light rail system carries about 1 percent of the region's 4.5 million people each day.

In 2016 the system clocked 104 million passenger miles (the sum of all miles travelled by every train rider.) That's compared to the roughly 32 billion vehicle miles travelled on Phoenix-area roads in the same year. Going by this measurement, light rail serviced about .002 percent of the region's ground transportation needs.

Whatever it might lack in customer volume, light rail more than makes up for with the economic development it brings, says Smith.

"We've seen development in places where there hasn't been development in thirty years," Smith claims. Some $8.2 billion in investment has gone in along Phoenix's existing light rail line (three-quarters of it private investment) since construction first started in 2005. Extending light rail out to South Phoenix will give that region a slice of this prosperity, Smith insists.

In response to mounting criticism, the City Council this week voted to ask Valley Metro to study alternatives to the current two-lane configuration. They hope to find a way to make everybody happy.

DiCiccio is less optimistic. He wants to put the South Central expansion to the test on a city-wide ballot initiative.

"It's total bullshit," DiCiccio tells Reason. He maintains that light rail will be a disaster for South Phoenix. "These small businesses are going to be out of business. How do they survive on one lane in each direction?"

NEXT: H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., RIP

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  1. I think Britches is flirting with BUCS.

    1. If he starts talking about the myriad even greater bullshit in Tucson then he’ll have my heart.

  2. It will take longer and cost more. They always do. This will be no different.
    The operating costs will also require tax payer money forever.

    1. Hmm, sounds just like the roads & highways that will require billions more in taxpayer subsidies forever.

    2. Absolutely. “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley” – Robert Burns

  3. So where’s Mr. Sarwark? The formerly esteemed Chair of the LP is supposedly running for Mayor of Phoenix and should be jumping all over this – but he’s MIA.

  4. At least they’re only attempting to fuck the particularly poor South Phoenix region.

    1. ~?^?~ Spoken just like a used car salesman. You’ll have better luck soaking your clientelle if you move closer to an Indian reservation. ~?^?~

  5. Whatever it might lack in customer volume, light rail more than makes up for with the economic development it brings, says Smith.

    “We’ve seen development in places where there hasn’t been development in thirty years,” Smith claims.

    This did actually happen when Norfolk installed light rail a few years ago. Most of the development was businesses that had been there for 30 years moving down the street because the light rail construction made them inaccessible to their customers.

    1. Whatever else it is, development is first a cost.

  6. Why do cities insist on building light rail trains?
    Who wants to travel to the poor part of town on a train?

    1. Poor people?

      1. Funny story – in order to pay for Norfolk’s (massively over-budget and under-popular) light rail, Hampton Roads Transit jacked up the cost of a yearly transit pass 500%. You know, to soak all those one percenters who rely on public transit. The immediate and totally forseeable result was a dive in light rail passenger numbers, which were never very impressive to begin with, and a massive increase in the number of poor people just walking places.

        1. I cannot fathom why it’s considered such a shining thing over just having buses. They use the infrastructure, they’re easier to make respond to demand.

          It’s probably just so politicians can have a big public works project to put their name on, but I still feel like it shouldn’t be that petty.

          1. It’s probably even worse. Poor people ride buses. The standard local pol wouldn’t be caught dead on a Phoenix city bus but can fake it for a few minutes on the light rail.

          2. There seems to be a Planned Development Theory that holds that Light Rail sparks prosperity in any area it services. You can see that in SIM City, which is chock full of Narrative Approved Development Theory, and other hogwash.

            In actual fact, the history of light rail tends to suggest that it kills neighborhoods. If it’s buried they may revive later, but otherwise they are permanent blight areas. Of course blight areas become targets for other Planned Development projects, which can LOOK like prosperity, if you pick your time window carefully.

            In general, Planning is the bunk. No government stooge or Ivory Tower academic has any real grasp of how messy human interaction gets, and they just can’t keep pace with the changes.

            Which is one reason they prefer rail over busses; rail is too goddamned hard to shift, so it helps anchor their bad ideas in place…at least until total economic failure sets in.

          3. “It’s probably just so politicians can have a big public works project to put their name on, but I still feel like it shouldn’t be that petty.”

            To put it bluntly yes. As you said buses are far better and more efficient in terms of costs per passenger mile. However for one to be taken seriously as a Transit authority you have to have a light rail system. Plus transit unions like them.

            1. Transit union’s don’t “love” light rail at all. They’d much rather have buses, which require many, many more union workers than light rail.

              One example is Salt Lake City, where in 2016 the buses moved 19.468 million rides vs. light rail which moved 19.220 million rides; a virtual dead heat.

              Yet to accomplish that, the bus division needed 1,028 employees while the light rail division needed only 563. No union in the world wants fewer members!!! Yes, they’d rather have light rail members than no members. But they’d much rather have more bus service and therefore more bus union members than light rail members.

              That’s also part of the reason that Salt Lake City spend about half of what it takes to run the buses on light rail; $128.663 operating buses vs. $67.203 operating light rail.

        2. In the year before light rail opened in Norfolk, 15.7 million rides were taken on their buses. The following year, 16.2 million took a ride on a bus and 1.4 million took a ride on the light rail train.

          In 2016, the latest data available, 1.4 million rides were still taken on light rail. Bus ridership was down to 13.2 million, but that’s more a function of lower gas prices than anything else.

    2. Before everyone goes crapping all over public transport, I just want to point out it works fantastically in many places. Hong Kong, New York, all of Japan, Singapore, Germany, etc. I personally much prefer to take public transport than sludge through traffic during rush hour. I can sleep on trains, read, check emails, do whatever. When I am stuck in traffic all I want to do is smash my face against the steering wheel.

      Subway is probably a better idea for places that can support (i.e. not Florida), but the trams they have in Germany are pretty awesome in my opinion.

  7. The best part about the original Phoenix light rail is that the cabs got in the way and succeeded in getting the nearest stop to the airport built a good mile away. I believe they’ve since fixed the glitch but likely at the cost of a few billion between friends.

  8. “By the time I get to Phoenix….”

  9. monorail–Monorail–MONORAIL!

    1. MY first thought as well.

      For those who don’t get the reference:

    2. Put a loop in it. The riders might as well get a few thrills for their money.

  10. Is it possible to import the argument (and the possible shut-down) to the state government of CA?
    Aside: In SF, Willie Brown championed a light-rail out Three-Street from the Embarcadero to Visitation Valley, and you don’t want to ride it more than a mile from the start. The printing service we used to buy from, the computer-service operation, and several other retail operations are now gone. They couldn’t possibly put up with the loss of revenue during the multi-year build and certainly couldn’t have dealt with the ‘no-parking’ run that Three-Street has become.
    That slimy piece of shit is repeating his disaster across down-town, with Union Square in its now third or forth year of business loss, courtesy of a political trade with an equally slimy Chinatown operator known as Rose Pack. We got lucky; that pile of shit died and can do no further harm.
    Willie Brown never had a job in his entire life, and SF would have been better off if he had died before he got elected Mayor.

  11. Valley Metro spent $1.4 billion building its initial 20-mile light rail line, and it saw an average of 45,000 boardings a day in May 2018, down 7 percent from last year. By comparison, segments of Central Avenue carry about 25,000 vehicles a day.

    Er, does the light rail run on those segments of Central Avenue? If so, and if most LR riders ride that part of the system, then there was an increase in the number of people traveling through those segments. But I can’t tell, because none of the numbers given in this article seem to be “apples to apples” – giving the number of people (or even vehicles) traveling a given section of street before light rail was built on it, and the number of combined LR and private vehicle riders (or LR riders plus private vehicles) on the same stretch after LR was built there.

    I can tell you that the light rail system I’m most familiar with, HBLR in Hudson County, NJ, has been a spur to new development, much of it somewhat upscale, and that the number of people using the corridors it runs through has decidedly gone up. Those businesses in Phoenix will surely get new customers who are light rail riders once the system is built. Why do they pretend that their only customers will be people driving? And BTW, it’s possible (even if not ideal for passenger throughput) to build the system in such a way that the tracks are embedded in the pavement, and other vehicles can use the same lanes as the light rail. Some portions of HBLR operate that way.

    1. “And BTW, it’s possible (even if not ideal for passenger throughput) to build the system in such a way that the tracks are embedded in the pavement, and other vehicles can use the same lanes as the light rail.”

      I am pretty sure that is how it is in Germany. I do not see why it should be super hard.

    2. “Why do they pretend that their only customers will be people driving?”

      Because they know goddamned well that A) cars stop more often than trains do B) for the duration of the construction (which will almost certainly take longer than projected) cars will be the only customers they have, and the cars access will be halved.

      Right rail MAY bring prosperity to an area…once the construction is finished and the trains start running. That can be years. Most businesses can’t wait years.

    3. Local business owners have a legitimate fear of going out of business during construction. During the last rail expansion one restaurant said business was down 60%. I avoided that same area like the plague because of long term construction.

      Democrats and other tax & spenders lauded the closure of actual businesses in favor of what might come. Local businesses closed and we got another Wal-Mart and national chain restaurants.

  12. Past history bears out that Dumb-o-crats go cuckoo for anything train/rail-related, no matter the costs involved, or, the inherent illogic of a given rail scheme, or, the predictably deleterious impacts on businesses and the local economy, or, the transparent absence of fiscal viability for such a system.

    The Dumbs must have their choo-choo trains, no matter what, as vanity-driven, self-congratulatory virtue-signaling trumps rationality.

    1. It gets back to progressives near fetish style love affair with the “pedestrian” lifestyle. It is born out of their arrogance of looking down on us grubby suburb dwellers who live in single family homes, drive cars and who shop for a week worth’s of groceries at a supermarket. They raise their noses at us as they say how enlightened they are by their Urban Apartment living. They shop in quaint little shops and only get a days worth of groceries. Their arrogance tells them that this is a superior to us so therefore it must be how everyone lives.

      It also gets into the progressives desire to return us to the urban living. Their dreams of utopia were chugging along great until after WW2. We were all going to live in our cookie cutter apartments and trudge along to our jobs on public transit all under the skillful planning of the progressive elites and their political machines that drive almost every major city in the US. However the working man left them at the alter after WW2. Thanks to cars they fled to the suburbs. They left the crime, corruption, lousy schools and municipal bureaucracies behind for single family homes and politics they could control. Progressives have been trying to get people back to the cities ever since. Pushing of light rail mass transit is a symptom of that.

      1. It’s not about snobbish elitism. It’s about simple municipal economics. Suburbs are desirable place to live only insofar as they are massively subsidized, typically by the denser parts of urban areas.

        You have to build and maintain roads that connect them to employment centers. You have to provide access to sewage, water, and electricity systems. Parents need reasonable access to schools. Public safety services have to cover wider areas. Businesses need tax incentives and zoning variances to find locating out in the suburbs profitable. And then, for all that, on a per-acreage basis, they generate less in terms of income, sales, and property taxes. They’re just too spread out.

        I am willing to bet that there are virtually no cities in this country where suburbs are net positive contributors to the cities to which they are attached.

    2. The Mass Transit Account which funds projects like the one being discussed here, was created by the late, conservative President Ronald Reagan. He did it because he realized that we can’t afford to continued to build still more streets & highways, much less expand the ones we currently have.

      We drivers only manage to pay 42% of the costs of our highways via fuel taxes and other direct fees. The local streets are largely paved with property taxes, not fuel taxes; yet another subsidy to we who drive. There are many other smart conservatives who also realize this!

  13. Light rail construction costs are only the beginning. When ridership doesn’t meet projections, taxpayers will have to foot the bill for operation and maintenance costs for decades.

    1. And even then maintenance back logs will build. Corruption and transit authorities is the norm not the exception. Kickbacks, bribes and cronyism are rampant in metro transit systems.

    2. And yet, in city after city, light rail costs less than the buses that it replaces. Go figure!.

      Even here in Phoenix, far less has been spent on light rail than has been spent on the buses. Since the start of construction on the first light rail line, through 2016 the latest data available, Phoenix has spent $2.525 billion more combined operating & capital on buses than on light rail.

      1. You need to do the analysis of riders per mile. You did it in your post on Norfolk. I’m betting that expense per rider/mile for buses is a lot less for buses than it is for light rail.

        1. Unfortunately that is incorrect, buses always cost more to operate. Their capital costs are less than rail’s, but rail beats them when it comes to operating costs.

          In the case of Phoenix it costs 33.5 cents per passenger mile to operate the light rail trains. It costs $1.181 per passenger mile to operate the buses. Making things worse for the bus is the fact that light rail riders cover 38.38% of their operating costs at the fare box while bus riders only manage 17.48%.

          If I were to include capital costs amortized over the life of the assets, it costs 75.4 cents per pax/mile to run the light rail trains and $1.312 per pax/mile to run the buses.

          The cost per ride taken is $2.25 for light rail and $5.67 for the bus.

          That’s all 2016 data, the latest available from the National Transit Database.

  14. When the lightrail routes were proposed, it was essentially going to connect the airport to the stadium districts, various college campuses, and malls. Putting aside the obvious problems with that line of thought and lightrail in general, what else happened? The Cardinals moved way out to Glendale (which is now on a proposed 7 mile lightrail extension at around $100 mil+ per mile), the Diamondbacks want the taxpayers to build them a new stadium (it’s only about 20 years old), Tempe is building a “Street Car” system for all the ASU bar hopping and nobody seems to go shopping at malls anymore. Even with all the new condo and apartment developments along the rail line, the train just doesn’t go to too many places people want or need to go on a daily basis… but it makes a great rolling air conditioned homeless shelter in the summer.

  15. Love the picture of light rail standing still while the city in the background in moving rapidly on – – – – – –

  16. I am skeptical of light rail projects generally, but Reason’s coverage of transportation issues is so consistently pro-Uber that I have to wonder if there isn’t some kind of back-room promotion deal going on.

    Ridesharing is not an adequate substitute for mass transit. It just isn’t. Maybe there are places that don’t actually need mass transit where Uber provides some kind of release valve on private car usage. But major corridors with lots of people traveling to the same areas are not places where you want more car drivers, which is what ridesharing adds.

    When I saw the headline for this story, I’d assumed the problem was about vehicular throughput or parking, but it would appear we’re not even talking about that here. We’re talking about businesses that store trucks on public streets? Is that right? It’s so strange to me that the appropriation of public space for use by private businesses should pass without comment here.

  17. As a (former) native resident of the Valley of the Sun, I must concur with the critics. South Central Ave. is the home of small businesses. South Phoenix used to be the slums. Not anymore because entrepreneurs have established their small businesses. South Phoenix is where most Valley dwellers go for some fine Mexican food – while you wait for your car’s interior to be refurbished.

  18. I lived in San Francisco when Market Street was torn up to accommodate the BART system. It was only supposed to be for a brief period of time – that dragged on and on and on. All of the respectable stores either moved or went out of business. Market Street turned into a seedy skid-row – the only businesses left were fly-by-night cheap discount stores selling cheap and knockoff merchandise with permanent signs that read “Going out of Business”. Market Street never recovered despite San Francisco’s efforts. Gone with the wind – actually gone with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
    Don’t let this happen to your city.
    Now California wants to spend billions of dollars on a high speed rail system. The last thing California needs is for Southern Californians to bring their gangs and dope up to Northern California and all points in the middle. If it’s ever built (hopefully not) it will be nick-named the “gang and dope highway” – poison coursing throughout the state, unrestricted. Then again, California keeps hurling itself towards disaster – sooner or later, it’s bound for ruination.

    1. Gangs aren’t going to ride the high speed rail line if it’s ever actually built. Gangs drive cars; they don’t pay a hundred or more per ticket to ride a train.

      As for BART, Phoenix could only hope to be so lucky as to get it. BART is one of the most efficient systems in the country, costing only 34 cents per passenger mile to operate, the same as light rail in Phoenix. Phoenix buses average around $1.05 per passenger mile.

      And BART riders cover more than 60% of their operating costs at the fare box, unlike most other systems around the country which come in much lower. Phoenix light rail riders cover 38% of their costs while bus riders only manage to cover 17.5% of their operating costs.

      1. Thanks for your reply. I do hope you are correct about gang-bangers not wanting to ride the train. Personally, I have misgivings, contending it could be an easy and fast way to extend their distribution and/or contacts network. Hopefully, this project will never attain completion.
        Interestingly, BART has worked out better than expected. There was a point, actually for years, when the system had such limited service in terms of the points they “went”, that critics were proclaiming that for the quantity of folks riding BART, the San Francisco Bay Area could have bought each one of them a Volkswagen and come out ahead of the game financially. I never established the veracity of this claim.

  19. Well one thing is for sure, the moment an unaccompanied minor uses the Phoenix Light Rail system, some local Prog busybody that is currently crying about wrenching babies from breasts in McAllen TX will leap into action and bring the full force of The State down on their poor working mother.

    Its perfectly fine if kids travel 1800 miles unaccompanied, or trafficked, but let them ride 18 blocks, and they have to be separated from their parents

  20. “These small businesses are going to be out of business. How do they survive on one lane in each direction?”

    To be fair, how the fucking fuck do other businesses on such roads survive?

    There are plenty of VALID reasons to object to the Light Rail. THAT ain’t one of ’em.

    What a fuckwit.

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