It has been interesting to watch supporters of light rail try to explain away its exploding cost and how projects such as the South Phoenix extension have turned into reckless boondoggles for taxpayers.
As has been reported by multiple news outlets, the cost for South Phoenix rail extension has tripled in three years to $1.35 Billion dollars. At $245 million per mile it is now one of the most expensive rail projects in the country. And with the Federal Government reducing their funding share to 39%, Phoenix taxpayers are now on the hook for an additional $400 million in cost overruns.
Now a little-known comedian named Hasan Minhaj has decided to enter the fray, putting out a short video attempting to demonstrate why light rail isn’t such a bad deal after all. In doing so he inadvertently provided more evidence on the absurd cost of the South Phoenix rail project and why other transit options (such as expanded bus, dial-a-ride, ridesharing, etc.) would make much more sense.
His first critique is that opponents to light rail have ignored their economic development benefits for the community. This is simply not true.
Maybe during his extensive research on the issue Mr. Minhaj missed the fact that our organization already looked into Valley Metro’s $11 Billion-dollar economic development claim and discovered that it was a sham. Virtually every project on their list was either government funded/subsidized or had nothing to do with light rail. Unless, that is, Mr. Minhaj wants to argue that QuikTrip gas stations, car washes, the Phoenix Police forensic lab, the Maricopa County Sheriff Office and a Tesla Auto Dealership were built because of light rail.
He then complains that our organization and others have messed up by overstating the actual costs of light rail. Using an uncited, non-existent transit “industry standard,” Mr. Minhaj declares that the true cost for the South Phoenix project is only $14 per rider. He arrives at this figure by calculating the number of projected boardings over the next 30 years (105 million) and divides that into the cost of the project.
One small problem: he confuses riders with ridership. These are not all unique individuals, unless Mr. Minhaj believes that the entire population of Arizona, California, Texas, Virginia and Florida all plan to visit South Phoenix and ride the light rail. Perhaps for educational reasons people will flock to the area to see how many small businesses light rail has bankrupted, but we doubt it.
Now Mr. Minhaj is correct that the projected daily boardings for the South Phoenix extension is 9,600. It is a figure that some light rail opponents have used to determine that it would be cheaper to buy every rider a Tesla than expand light rail ($1.35Billion ÷ 9,600 riders =$140,000). In reality they were being way too forgiving—since actual daily unique riders will be half that amount (around 5,000), the true cost is closer to $280,000 per rider. Forget Teslas, it would be cheaper to buy every rider a condo than build the South Phoenix extension.
This doesn’t mean that the $14-dollar figure Mr. Minhaj arrives at isn’t significant. Thanks to him, taxpayers now know that they will be paying at least $14 to move someone up to 5 miles in one direction on the light rail ($2.80 per mile). Given that the average 5-mile uber/lyft ride is around $10, it would be cheaper to issue 100 million rideshare vouchers over the next 30 years than it is to build the South Phoenix project.
We give Hasan Minhaj credit for trying to inject some humor into the light rail debate. It is too bad that he assumes that opposition to costly light rail is only because of some deep seeded irrational hostility to transit or involves an evil Koch brother hiding behind every bush.
Light rail is simply too costly and will end up consuming the city’s transportation budget if expansion is not stopped. That doesn’t just mean canceled road repairs, but reduced bus and dial-a-ride service as well. There are better options available, and we intend to continue to advocate for transportation solutions that benefit all residents, not just the 1% of the population that use light rail.