Sure, one way to look at it is that light-rail ridership "is off to a positive start," as a Valley Metro news release opines. Or, as the Arizona Republic put it this morning in a headline, "Rail ridership tops expectations."
That's the glass-half-full version of the story.
In fact, the "average weekday ridership" of nearly 31,000 people is about 60 percent of what the trains could carry.
True, it took people in other parts of the country a few years to warm up to their light-rail systems, but light rail seems nowhere near as popular as, say, the Loop 101 when it first opened up through Scottsdale. (The figures aren't handy, but it seems like that freeway blew through 60 percent capacity on the first day).
Another thing: Fare information is notably absent from Valley Metro's news release.
Hillary Foose, Valley Metro spokeswoman, tells New Times she doesn't have that information.
Which would be understandable -- except for the fact that those little fare boxes at the light-rail stations house computers.
In place of the data we requested, Foose sent this e-mail:
Just left you a vmail, but here are numbers from our Five Year Capital Program and Operating Forecast Summary:
For FY 08/09 (ending June '09), METRO's budget anticipates receiving $4.5 million from fares. The total operations & maintenance budget is $15.8 million for this same time period. METRO's goal is to achieve a 25% fare box recovery rate to support operational costs. The 25% fare recovery goal is outlined in the Valley Metro Regional Fare Policy covering bus and rail operations.
Hope this info is helpful...
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We also had asked Foose what the light rail's electric bill was for January, but she sort of brushed that one off.
Whichever way light-rail ridership in its first month of operation is perceived, the numbers are bound to fall in coming months. The novelty will wear off in a few months -- not unlike the deodorant of riders in the sweltering heat of summer. A fare increase, which is being considered, seems sure to discourage more people from boarding.
As long as the Valley's traffic jams worsen, the light-rail system's future will probably stay bright enough to require one of those movie-screen-sized roller shades used by the train's drivers.
For now, though, our billion-dollar-baby is sort of what you make of it.