Glendale’s Light Rail is a Fast-Track to Disaster

August 25th, City of Phoenix voters passed a ballot initiative to raise their sales tax for transit three cents to support a transportation plan that predominantly expands light rail.  An aggressive one-million-dollar-campaign led by the Mayor and transit groups against the opposition, who spent only several thousand dollars, concluded in only 55 percent of voters in favor of the initiative.   It takes a colossal campaign to convince residents they need to spend $31.5 billion dollars over the next few decades on public transit that serves less than one percent of the population.  Here is a quick recap of why Prop 104 was just bad for taxpayers, or a more comprehensive analysis of why light rail is a failure in the Phoenix metro area.

Now, other transit-champion politicians are seeing the “victory” in Phoenix as their permission to force-feed light rail down their tax payers’ throats.  The City of Glendale has jumped on the light rail train and is proposing voters foot the bill to connect to Phoenix’s system to downtown Glendale.  This is the same Glendale whose bond ratings were downgraded twice in one year.  The same Glendale who negotiated perhaps the worst sports teams deal ever.  Yes, it’s the same old Glendale alright who seems to have an insatiable appetite for debt.

So perhaps it should be of no surprise that Glendale is now on the light rail fast-track to financial disaster.  Glendale’s scheme is estimated to cost a total of $543 million, with $110 million coming from Glendale taxpayers. This ill-conceived plan relies on 67 percent of the funding to come from federal transportation funds which for years have been drying up and which typically only account on average for 25 percent of state and local transportation projects.  This is on top of Glendale’s already untenable financial situation.

And this assumes that projected costs are accurate.  Light rail construction is infamous for cost overruns.  In 1998 for example, Phoenix’s first 13 miles of light rail was reported to cost $30 million per mile.  Within six short years light rail was costing $96 million per mile.  The final cost at the time of completion was a staggering $110 million per mile – more than tripling the initial estimates.  This isn’t the exception for light rail, it is the norm.  According to reports by the Department of Transportation, between 1990 and 2013, only one light rail project in the country stayed within estimated costs for construction.

Glendale light rail supporters, such as Gary Sherwood, claim their city will see a boon of development if they “invest” in this boondoggle.  After all, Valley Metro claimed seven billion dollars’ worth of new development as a direct result of light rail in Phoenix, why can’t the same happen in Glendale?

If only it were true. Our own analysis of the economic claims being made by Valley Metro showed that virtually none of the economic development that occurred along the light rail could be attributed to light rail. Rather, most of the ‘claimed’ economic development along the light rail didn’t happen, received generous subsidies to be built or would have been built anyway.

Now observe the intended light rail paths in Glendale.

  • West on Glendale Avenue from 19th Avenue to 51st Avenue.
  • West on Camelback Road to 43rd Avenue, north on 43rd Avenue and west to 51st Avenue.
  • West on Camelback Road to 43rd Avenue, northwest along Grand Avenue to 51st Avenue and north to Glendale Avenue

Glendale is having a hard enough time attracting visitors to their community for major sports attractions.  The notion that they can build it and they will come…to Glendale’s downtown…is a little more than naïve.  Not only does this part of Glendale lack general allure, but the additional time it would take for light rail commuters would be an inhibitor.  From downtown Phoenix someone in a car can get to downtown Glendale in a matter of 30 minutes.  To take the light rail would probably take closer to 60-70 minutes.

Glendale, like Phoenix and most of the country is ill-suited for light rail.  The high capital costs are bound to require more financing from a city that is already way over-extended.  Glendale’s grand vision of a springing metropolis of development as the result of light rail is at best a pipedream.  And by the time they have realized the sinking costs, long time of construction and low usage – the imminent reality of driverless cars will have rendered the entire system all but obsolete.  Hopefully Glendale’s leaders will make the right choice and pump the breaks on the light rail collision course.