Published Saturday, February 6, 2010, by the Palo Alto Daily Post
Ridership estimates slammed
Questions raised about rail authority's methods
By Diana Diamond
Daily Post Associate Editor
Charges that the state agency that determined the potential ridership of the high-speed rail system in California had inaccurate models and "significant" flaws in a study it conducted landed like a bombshell yesterday at a meeting of the Peninsula Cities Consortium <http://peninsularail.com
>, a group of Peninsula cities studying the pros [BATN: really?] and cons of bullet trains going through this area.
The presentation by Palo Alto resident Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design <http://calhsr.com
>, prompted some local officials to say they had new questions about the High-Speed Rail Authority's methods.
Alexis told consortium board members at the meeting in Menlo Park's City Council chambers yesterday that there were numerous errors in developing the ridership models for the high-speed rail system, there were no updates and there still were no final ridership figures available on paper.
In one instance, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, or MTC, forecast 60 times more ridership than possible and never revised initial figures, she said. And it was those nummbers on which MTC based its future models, she said.
"Months ago we told the High-Speed Rail Authority that we had issues with their data, but the model assumptions were not reviewed," Alexis said.
Atherton City Council member Jerry Carlson said Alexis' report "raises a fundamental question" about the riderrship projections.
"If the information submitted to voters in Proposition 1A (in November 2008 for $995 [BATN: sic; $9.95] billion funding of the high-speed rail system) -- if this is not correct or was an outright lie, that is very serious," he said. "We need to think carefully about what this means."
Charles Rivers Associates developed the original data for rail system ridership in 1996, Alexis said. But in 2004, MTC took the lead in the ridership analysis, and then exaggerated the numbers, all in concert with the rail authority, Alexis said.
Alexis charged that MTC failed to validate the original ridership predictions, and the final July 2007 report to rail authority [BATN: sic] contained "flawed" inforrmation.
The ridership numbers are critical because the high-speed rail system, which will cost at least $42.6 billion, is dependent on ridership in order to make any profit.
In its original business plan, the rail authority said there would be more than 100 million riders annually, but that number was adjusted downward to 41 million in a revised business plan released in mid-December.
Authority: Estimate needs revision
Jeff Barker, deputy director of the rail authority, told the Post yesterday that it still is difficult to predict ridership projections in 2030, and that the authority will continue to refine the numbers.
He. was aware of Alexis' charges but said the authority is satisfied, for now, with the MTC figures, because their current concern is their environmental impact report, adding that the "MTC numbers will eventually have to be refined."
That will occur when private entities get involved in investing in high-speed rail, he said.
The 100 million ridership figure was in the original business plan as a way to gauge the broad impact the bullet train could have on California -- "we were not using it for an accurate prediction," Barker said. As for the 41 million ridership figure, "that was used for the purpose of showing our financial viability.
"It is very difficult to predict airfare or gas prices in 2030," he said. "We will continually have to revise our figures, but we are not at that point yet."
Whole process questioned
Alexis' group says serious questions have been raised about both the methodology and results of MTC's study, including that those sampled were primarily already train users.
Menlo Park Mayor Richard Cline, chair of the consortium, said the report raises questions "about governance, and shines a light on the very beginning of the high-speed rail process."
Barker told the Post that Prop 1A was not promising a certain number of riders to Californians, or a certain amount of cost of a trip -- "The ballot measure was only there to ask voters to put money toward the system."
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt said it is "premature" to draw conclusions and the data is not something the consortium should take on directly.
[BATN: See also:
HSR ridership estimates, assumptions questioned; may be "invalid"
Letter: Deficits abound; HSR ridership projections keep shrinking
Anti-HSR Palo Alto, Menlo Park officials feign ridership worries
Palo Alto HSR meeting: NIMBYs feign altruistic ridership "concern"