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Light rail in Phoenix: what's that costing them?

9:57 PM, Oct 12, 2010   |    comments
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PHOENIX (Part 2 of 2 in a series) - It's immediate success quieted many of its long-time critics.  But not everyone in the Valley of the Sun is ready to accept METRO Light Rail as a worthwhile investment.

The project - given the green light by Phoenix and Maricopa Co. voters 10 years ago - is similar to the one voters of Tampa and Hillsborough Co. will have to vote on in November.  While providing money for roads and buses too, the headline-maker is the funding for light rail.

Part I: Light rail rising in Phoenix
Photo Gallery: Phoenix's light rail

"All (light rail) does - in every city across the country that has it - is make huge deficits," said Becky Fenger, who has been fighting transit in Phoenix for 14 years.

The initial 20-mile line cost $1.4 billion and about 56 percent of the funding came from sales taxes in Maricopa Co.  The rest of the money came from federal grants.

Phoenix $402 million
Tempe $144 million
Mesa $21 million
Maricopa Co. $198 million
Federal $647 million
TOTAL $1.4 billion

A ride on the METRO Light Rail costs just $1.75 per trip or $3.50 for the entire day.  And even though the ridership numbers have far surpassed initial estimates, collected fares account for just 25% of the rail's operating costs. 

Initial Projection 26,000
2009 Actual 34,800
2010 Pace 40,000

"We could have the most streamline bus with plush carpeting and topless waitresses and flat-screen TVs for half the price of light rail," said Fenger.

But light rail advocates say all transportation is subsidized by taxpayers.  They point out excise and gasoline taxes that subsidize roads; federal funds that subsidize highways; and other local taxes that subsidize buses.

"(Rail) is an investment in infrastructure," said Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman, who once opposed the light rail effort.  "We invest in roads, we invest in sidewalks, we invest in freeways, we invest in water lines, we invest in sewer may not pay us back immediately, but eventually it will."

Hallman cites $5.9 billion in private development near rail lines and stops between 2004 and 2009 as one of the main reasons the area's economy has bounced back better than Florida's.

"The private-sector investment in areas of our community that were having great struggles for decades," Hallman said, "has been a miraculous turnaround."

According to METRO Light Rail, the transit was largely responsible for a net increase of 27 restaurants, 17,000 residential units, 9 million sq. ft. of commercial space, and 3,200 hotel rooms.

"Those are impressive numbers in a down economy," said Hillary Foose, spokesperson for METRO Light Rail.  "(Rail is)like libraries and parks and community centers - we're a public service; we're a public asset."

State 6.6% 6.0%
County 0.7% 1.0%*
City 2.0% 0.0%
TOTAL 9.3% 7.0%
*An approved transportation referendum would increase to 2.0%  




Not everyone in the valley is convinced the construction was a good thing.  Many shops in downtown Phoenix went out of business.  While the economy contributed to some of the struggles, many owners blamed the light rail project.

"The streets were always dug up and we lost a lot of business," said Diane Simonian, who has owned C&G Jewelry in Phoenix for more than two decades.  "Our customers couldn't get to our store and (construction) took away a lot of our parking."

The conveniences of light rail may be easy to spot, but for some Phoenix-area residents, the jury is still out as to if the investment was a good one.

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