HSRA critics to sue over "clearly ridiculous" MTC ridership model
- Published Tuesday, February 9, 2010, by the Palo Alto Weekly (Online)
High-speed-rail critics prepare for new suit
Watchdog groups say rail authority misled the public, used a flawed ridership model
By Gennady Sheyner
Palo Alto Online Staff
A coalition of nonprofit groups is calling for a fresh probe into the state's high-speed-rail project after learning that California High-Speed Rail Authority based its ridership forecasts on a model that didn't go through a peer review.
The findings were first reported by the Palo Alto-based group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, which has been closely monitoring high-speed-rail documents and rail-related legislation. Last week, the group posted newly obtained memos and other information about the rail authority's ridership models on its website, <http://calhsr.com>.
These included a list of constants and coefficients used in the most recent ridership model and a Jan. 29, 2010, memo from Cambridge Systematics indicating that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission elected not to publish the updated information about the model in the final report on ridership numbers in 2007.
MTC had commissioned the Cambridge study on behalf of the rail authority.
Now, a coalition of groups and cities is considering mounting a new legal challenge based on the data uncovered by CARRD. Stuart Flashman -- the attorney who represented Menlo Park and Atherton and the groups Bayrail Alliance <http://bayrailalliance.org>, Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF) <http://transdef.org>, California Rail Foundation <http://calrailfoundation.org> and the Planning and Conservation League <http://www.pcl.org> in a recent lawsuit against the rail authority -- said he is in the process of getting his clients to sign off on re-opening their suit.
The coalition's previous lawsuit centered on the rail authority's selection of the Pacheco Pass over the Altamont Pass as the preferred alignment for the Bay Area segment of the $42.6 billion rail line. In August, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge upheld the rail authority's selection of the Pacheco Pass but ordered the rail authority to correct some flaws in its environmental review for the controversial project.
Flashman acknowledged that it's very uncommon for courts to re-open cases after a judgment has been issued. But he argued that the new information about the previously undisclosed ridership model warrants a fresh look at the case.
"The fact of the matter is that ridership and revenue numbers were key factors in determining which of the alternatives to consider seriously and which to choose," Flashman told the Weekly Tuesday. "From a professional analysis, there was a major change in the model."
The group also consulted a transportation-model expert, Norman Marshall, who confirmed CARRD's findings about the flaws in the ridership model. Marshall, a principal in the Vermont-based firm Smart Mobility, concluded that the coefficients and constants in the updated model were "completely different" than those presented in official rail-authority publication.
The rail authority had argued that the updated model included revisions that were too minor to warrant peer reviews and publication.
Specifically, Marshall's found that the "same frequency coefficients" in the newer model have been increased to "implausible and invalid values." Those values imply, for instance, that train riders would be as discouraged from riding the rail line if there were an extra hour between train departures as they would if the train trip were 9.94 hours. He called the implications of the updated coefficients "clearly ridiculous."
Marshall also noted that the constants in the revised model imply that "if both HSR and conventional rail had the same time, cost and frequency, that the conventional rail would be preferred by a wide margin." He called this implication "nonsense."
"Furthermore, I conclude that the final coefficients and constants introduce unacceptable biases into the model, and that the model as presented in the January 29, 2010, memo is invalid for forecasting future HSR ridership and revenue," Marshall wrote.
Jeff Barker, deputy director of the rail authority, disputed critics' allegations that the changes to the ridership model would have impacted the rail authority's selection of Pacheco Pass as its preferred alignment. Barker told the Weekly on Monday that the ridership model was one of many factors the rail authority considered, along with environmental impact and impact from stakeholders.
He also disputed the assertion that the updated model for ridership numbers was intentionally hidden from the public.
"As we continue to tweak and improve the numbers, we are not, at every step of the way, immediately making them public," Barker said. "It's quite frankly not something that too many people are looking at."
But Richard Tolmach, president of the California Rail Foundation, said the new findings by CARRD suggest that rail officials had intentionally falsified the ridership model by "radically changing the inputs" and making people believe that the older, peer-reviewed model was used. Tolmach accused the rail authority of "playing fast and loose with the data" and said he was in favor of reopening the lawsuit.
"This is clear evidence that they gamed the ridership numbers in order to select Pacheco," Tolmach said. "We now see that the process is corrupt and that we cannot trust the numbers."
The rail authority's latest ridership numbers also drew some scrutiny at a Jan. 21 public meeting in Palo Alto, hosted by state Sens. Joe Simitian and Alan Lowenthal. Both senators expressed skepticism about the rail authority's revenue and ridership projections and requested more information from rail-authority officials.
Lowenthal said some of the authority's ridership projections "don't pass the smell test."
"There were numbers that seemed to me to be pulled out of a hat," Lowenthal said at the meeting. "It smelled funny."
[BATN: See also:
HSR ridership challenged; group cites flawed, undisclosed model
Groups aim to reopen HSR EIR lawsuit over MTC's ridership meddling
Peninsula watchdog group blasts HSR ridership prediction methods
HSR ridership estimates, assumptions questioned; may be "invalid"