Wanted: A Positive Story About Light Rail in Phoenix

This might be how light rail looks in Tempe, but in Phoenix . . . not yet.

by Sarah Fenske

I have to admit, I was pretty amused by this story in the Baltimore Sun. Reporter Laura Vozzella reveals that the city of Baltimore wants to give journalists and/or bloggers all-expenses-paid trips to Phoenix and three other cities with light-rail systems.

The only catch: the "journalists" would be forced to hang out along our light-rail line — and the free trips would come "in exchange for positive stories in local newspapers or blogs about the transit tours before, during and after." Turns out Baltimore is trying to sell light rail to the masses. And, hey, what better way to get everybody onboard for the project than to talk about what a great experience we've had in Phoenix?

Ummm, exactly.

Vozzella's story focuses on the huge ethical conflict of journos accepting free airfare, hotel rooms, and meals in exchange for favorable press coverage. She's right: It would be completely, 100 percent wrong.

But just as wrong, I think, would be to hold up the Phoenix system as some kind of model.

Maybe this is just me, because my office sits smack dab in the middle of a section of line that's still lined with orange barrels and marked by capricious lane endings — more than three years after the light-rail project began. Maybe I'm just cranky because I went to a bar on Central earlier this week and noticed that, even though the rail line there is finished, the concrete islands in the middle of the road have made left turns so difficult that drivers have yet to return. The once-bustling thoroughfare was an eerily quiet ghost town at 8 p.m.

Or maybe it's just that the jury is still out as to whether light rail is a good bet financially. Sure, people are going to ride the thing, but will it be a significant increase over the number of people who'd be riding the bus? The Republic has noted recently that bus ridership is way up — but unlike buses, rail can't expand to add new routes without major upheaval (e.g., nearly four years of construction). And bus is much cheaper. Rail is more expensive to build ($1.4 billion here) and to operate. (The General Accounting Office determined that the Denver rail line was 80 percent more expensive to operate than its bus system.) At a time when fuel prices are so high, and bus demand is on the rise, we may regret spending so much money on one 20-mile track.

The fact is, we still don't know whether light rail has been a good move for Maricopa County. And we can't know, and won't know, until the trains finally start rolling, the buzz dies down, and we see whether or not they really do reduce traffic problems. At this point, it's a big question mark.

I suppose that might be why Baltimore is looking to bribe its journalists: You'd have to be in somebody's pocket to say, at this point in time, that the system in Phoenix should be emulated.

But what the heck. Maybe I'm just grouchy because nobody offered me a free trip. Hey, Baltimore — I could change this blog post to something positive for a pretty low price. Say, dinner at Durant's?? I've heard the train is going to go right by there . . . one of these days.

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