Light Rail Electric Bill for January was 38 Percent of Fare Revenue; System Took in Estimated 69 Cents Per Rider

The electric bill for the Metro light rail system is slightly different than yours, naturally.

For one thing, it's not just one bill -- it's about 125 separate bills. There are bills for each station, bills for the juice in the overhead lines that make the 90-foot-long, 50-ton rail cars move around, bills for the lights in the park-and-ride lots and bills for the system's operations center.

Metro officials say they're still sorting through all those bills and still don't know exactly what light rail's electricity costs were in January (much less February), but it's estimated to be about $237,500. New Times met last week with light rail spokeswoman Hillary Foose and the system's finance guy, John McCormack, following our February 19 blog post on the new system's first report on ridership.

The $1.4 billion light rail system began began rolling on December 27, 2008 and carried about 912,000 people in January, according to Metro's best guess.

Here's the breakdown of power cost estimates:

Average power bills - estimated per month

Propulsion power (Electric) $141,000
Substation Overhead $ 21,000
Operations & Maint Facility $ 27,500
Stations $ 24,000
Park and Ride / Transit Ctrs $ 24,000

McCormack also released the amount of money the system took in from the automated fare boxes at the stations: $553,000.

Metro light rail also took in approximately $72,000 more from the sale of three-, seven- and 30-day passes at other outlets. McCormack can't say for sure how much money was brought in by the passes, which are also accepted by the bus system. The pot of pass money is split up and apportioned to each transit system using a formula based on the estimated number of riders.

For light rail, this means the power bill for January was about 38 percent of the fare revenue, if official estimates bear out.

The roughly $625,000 in light-rail fare for January works out to about 69 cents per rider and easily covered the estimated power bill, which was 38 percent of the revenue. At this rate, if you took all of the money left over -- $387,500 -- and applied it to the construction cost, the 20-mile system would pay itself back in 301 years.

But, of course, that doesn't figure in the plethora of administrative and employee costs.

As mentioned in a February 24 blog post by Arizona Republic reporter Sean Holstege, the system's goal is to pay about $2.80 per boarding in operating costs. Fare collections should average 84 cents per rider -- based on an estimated 26,000 daily boardings. If ridership decreases, so will the revenue.

One thing that will help with collecting money is experience. Workers are still exterminating the software bugs and other glitches that reduced revenue in January, like scanners that didn't register swiped fare cards and fare boxes with jammed tickets. Only about 80,000 tickets were scrutinized by inspectors when that number should have been twice as high, meaning more freeloaders may have gone unnoticed.

Trouble is, summer ridership is bound to be light, and a fare hike is still under consideration.

How well light rail does at reducing its subsidy by charging riders remains to be seen.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.