Light Rail: The real cost for taxpayers

During the Super Bowl, Valley Metro Light Rail set records for the number of passengers it carried.

The Saturday before the game, there were 126,000 boardings -- double the previous day one record, but we got to wondering, how many people actually pay to ride.

As we discovered, many don't and it turns out that's just the cost of having light rail.

Last year, over 14 million people boarded the light rail.  That works out to an average of 39,000 riders a day and most people who ride it love it, but who pays?

Whether you ride it or not, you do through taxes.

We rode light rail for several days recently and rarely saw anyone checking people's tickets.

"It's almost impossible to inspect 50,000 people in a day," said Adrien Ruiz, Valley Metro Safety Director.

Valley Metro Light Rail operates on the honor system.  It's called "Proof of Payment."  Most cities use it.  No turnstiles, gates or ticket booths.  You simply buy your ticket at a kiosk and you're good to go.

Do a lot of people ride light rail without paying?

"Oh yes, definitely.. no doubt about it, they do," said a passenger.

City transit officials readily admit getting everyone to pay is impossible.  And the truth is they don't want to check any more than 20 percent of riders a day.

"If you go over the industry standard of 20 percent or more.. you start to create an environment of harassment," said Ruiz.

In 2013, Valley Metro hired 38 private security guards to improve compliance.  Fines if you're caught range from $50 to $500, but most get a warning.  During several round trips recently, we ran into only one security guard checking tickets.

And the truth is, it's very easy to get on, ride to your destination and walk right off without ever paying.  It happens all the time.

Valley Metro claims 95 percent of people pay to ride.  Industry insiders will tell you the actual evasion rate is much higher, but this is all baked into the proof of payment model and not unexpected.  In the United States, not one light rail system pays for itself, not even the New York subway.

"At least in the New York area, all of the public transportation systems are not self-sustaining, they are all subsidized," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. 

"If I were making the perfect full recovery system, I would have barriers installed, a fare inspector at each end of the platform, fare inspectors on each and every car of every train.. the issue then becomes is convenience," explained Ruiz. "Do I want to stop every person that boards the platform?"

In Phoenix, they don't.  They want to encourage ridership.

Metro Light Rail, like all other public transit systems, rely mostly on federal and local tax dollars to keep it running. The goal is maximizing ridership, not revenue.

Valley Metro collects only $0.69 for every rider.  The remaining $1.31 on a $2.00 fare is paid for by taxpayers.  By any measure, a very expensive way to move people around, but one that many cities love, never mind the cost.

And light rail is actually nothing new.  Streetcars rolled in Phoenix beginning in 1887.  Service was stopped in 1948 because it gave way to the bus, which was more cost effective and  more flexible.

But now, light rail is back en vogue, featuring slick looking modern trains, with more than a dozen systems popping up around the country in the last 25 years.  And Phoenix is pushing hard to dramatically expand light rail with 31 miles of track. Work has already started along the northwest extension, which could eventually run all the way to Metrocenter Mall. 

Fare collection will never cover the costs, so the Phoenix City Council is preparing to push for a new tax -- nearly a penny on every dollar to pay for construction and upgrades. 

So the next time you climb on the light rail, whether you pay or not, just remember there is no such thing as a free ride.

If this new sales tax is approved, it would raise $17.5 billion.  For that amount of money, you could easily buy a brand new Toyota Prius for every household in Phoenix.


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