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Ridership forecasts on a California high-speed rail project unclear, study says

July 1, 2010 | 11:59 am

Ridership forecasts for the California high-speed rail project are so unreliable that is it difficult to predict whether the proposed bullet train will be profitable or suffer severe revenue shortfalls, according to a report released Thursday by transportation experts at UC Berkeley.

The analysis by the Institute of Transportation Studies challenges the optimistic ridership forecasts by the California High-Speed Rail Authority that indicate the 800-mile system from San Diego to San Francisco would be profitable.

Predictions of ridership are crucial to the $42-billion project because they form the basis of ticket income, public funding forecasts, private investment decisions and equipment needs.

Recent ridership predictions by the authority estimate that the system will have between 88 million and 117 million passengers a year by 2030. However, under various scenarios offered by the rail authority, the number of passengers could be as low as 40 million passengers a year.

“The forecast of ridership is unlikely to be very close to the ridership that would actually materialize if the system were built,” said Samer Madanat, a civil engineering professor and the institute’s director. “As such it is not possible to predict whether the proposed high-speed rail system in California will experience healthy profits or severe revenue shortfalls.”

The 57-page study is the first academic analysis of the rail authority’s ridership forecasts, which were included in the state’s successful application for federal stimulus money. In January, the Obama administration awarded the project $2.25 billion in funding.

In a written response to the researchers, the rail authority’s chief executive officer, Roelof van Ark, took particular issue with the new report’s conclusion that the bullet train could experience revenue shortfalls. He called it an “extraordinary statement” without foundation, adding his agency still believes its ridership estimates are a “sound tool for high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis. “

The firm that prepared the authority’s ridership projections, Cambridge Systematics, defended its work, saying it had followed standard modeling practices, brought 40 years of experience to the effort and had its work reviewed by experts. It said the rail authority and teams that developed the projections are of the “firm belief” that they meet their goals, including being “appropriate for preparing ridership and revenue forecasts.”  

The UC Berkeley review was requested by the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, which oversees the high-speed rail project. Funding came from the high-speed rail authority.

Researchers reported a variety of problems with the project’s ridership analysis, including inadequate sampling of long-distances travelers, statistical methods that exaggerated the importance of frequent service, and false assumptions about which station travelers would choose to use.

Cambridge Systematics developed its high-speed rail ridership forecasts for a variety of scenarios that included different routes, ticket pricing, travel time and frequency of service.

“The consulting firm is very well-regarded. One of the statistical methods it used was thought to be accurate at the time,” Madanat said. “But based upon our review, we believe that a new model is necessary if policy makers want to accurately forecast high-speed rail demand in California.”

-- Dan Weikel and Rich Connell