As we've noted, the number of riders on the new Metro light rail system can be seen as either a train half-empty or half-full. There's no debate, however, on the idea that ridership should keep increasing.
But now, Valley Metro has cast doubt on light rail's ability to hit its goals with a stiff fare increase.
With the pall of summer's heat still a couple of months of away (we pray), the board that oversees public transportation in the Phoenix metro area has decided to raise the cost of an all-day pass from $2.50 to $3.50 -- starting July 1. One-way rides are going from $1.25 to $1.75. And if you buy an all-day pass on a bus, (they work on buses or the train), you'll have to shell out $5.25.
"Absolutely we're concerned about the impact on ridership," says Metro spokeswoman Hillary Foose. "We're at such a critical stage right now with building our ridership."
About 60 percent of light-rail riders also use city buses, so folks who don't want to overpay need to seek out the light-rail fare boxes and other places to purchase all-day passes, other than on the bus. We imagine the confusion and inconvenience of the differing fares might alone discourage some people from climbing aboard.'
"We hope that riders stick with us, and that they still see the system as convenient," Foose says.
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In probably would have been better to have the fare hike before the December 27, 2008 opening of light rail, Foose says.
While the timing was unfortunate for the trains, it's been easy riding for bus users since 1994, the last time Valley Metro raised its fares.
We can think of three major categories of light-rail riders likely to be most affected: The poor (naturally), college students and the joy riders -- you know, the freshly scrubbed retirees, teens and parents who last rode public transportation when they left their East Coast hometowns.
Most commuters will tough out the fare hike. But it seems likely another group of riders will swell in ranks: Freeloaders.