Yesterday's joint Government Relations and Transportation committees meeting at the Tempe Chamber of Commerce was very interesting and very informative. The main agenda item was commuter rail which was presented by Mayor Hugh Hallman. Mayor Hallman has an obvious grasp on this subject and there was a lot of interesting discussion, but, let's face it… he's a politician, I am not. These are long term plans and this hack, wanna-be blogger likes to get the scoop on what is happening now with light rail. The commuter rail stuff was fun to learn about and there was some great discussion, but the light rail info is normally what I am looking for at these meetings.
Luckily, I was seated next to Jyme Sue McLaren with the City of Tempe. I am sure I have mentioned her before because I think she rocks and she has always been very nice and very helpful in providing great information on the light rail project. I learned that "official" ridership numbers for the light rail system will be out in two weeks from yesterday. If I remember correctly, there will even be breakdowns by station or specific area. To me, this stuff is VERY interesting as I believe people have embraced the system more than many thought they would. Some information that is out mentions early numbers for the park and ride lots which show 72% of parking is being done in the East valley, even though it consists of just 32% of the system.
Also present at the meeting was Bryan Jungwirth, Chief of Staff for Valley Metro R.P.T.A. Bryan mentioned that the Phoenix City Council recently voted to increase the base fare for a light rail ticket by $0.50 changing a one trip ride from $1.25 to $1.75. To me, this didn't sound that bad, I understand we are in tough times and the City is looking at any possible revenue source as a golden opportunity. It wasn't until he mentioned the fact that they are looking to double the price of a day pass from the current $2.50 to $5.00 that the conversation got really interesting. I had heard these numbers before but it seems to be getting closer to reality and is beginning to make me think of many things.
So far, I have seen a lot of enthusiasm from people that use the system regularly and from people that are "casual users." Kimber Lanning of Local First Arizona recently mentioned in the AZ Republic that many business owners have seen a larger than expected increase in business since the opening of light rail. I have also talked with several business owners and found similar reactions. Without a doubt, there have been many people visiting places along the line that would not have visited without the system in place and who are enjoying this new mode of transportation. One has to wonder how the effect of doubling the day fare this early on in the life of our system will push away the casual user.
Yes, there are those who need to ride and they will pay, but in the early days of the light rail system there appears to be many people using public transportation for the first time. These new users can easily go back to their cars without ever thinking twice. These new users can, in theory, also become riders of other public transportation. ie: Hey, this light rail thing is pretty cool, maybe I'll try the bus too.
The obvious reaction is that the fare increase is to pay for the light rail system. It is my understanding that this is not the case. The budget shortfall has to do with the entire bus, light rail, rapid bus, etc. and light rail has only been in place since December. Bryan Jungwirth mentioned to me that he is not aware of another light rail system in the country having a vote on a fare increase within the first 6 months of operation.
The Phoenix city council vote is not the final say in the decision to potentially raise the fares, and we will be doing some follow up in the near future. I believe Valley Metro still has a say as do the cities of Tempe and Mesa. Stick around, we will have lots more about this subject in the near future. What do you think?