High-Speed Rail Ridership Projections May Be Faulty

Read the ITS high-speed rail report and the Rail Authority's response here »

The Institute of Transportation Studies report

The California High-Speed Rail Authority's response

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California's $40 billion high-speed rail project was based on faulty ridership projections, according to a recent UC Berkeley study, but project officials are standing by their numbers.

The June 30 study, funded by the California High-Speed Rail Authority and authored by researchers at the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, focused on the authority's data collection methods and projections, concluding that the ridership forecasts are unreliable for policy making.

"The key finding was simply that the forecasts were not accurate enough to make any judgment," said David Brownstone, economics professor at UC Irvine and a co-author of the study. "The conclusion that we draw is that we just don't know what the demand for this thing would be."

California's high-speed rail project - approved by voters in the November 2008 election - will run between San Francisco and Los Angeles, reaching speeds over 200 miles per hour. The project will be partially funded by about $10 billion in state bonds and $2.25 billion dollars in federal stimulus funds.

Cambridge Systematics Inc., the Massachusetts consulting firm that developed the forecasting models for the authority, surveyed select groups of travelers to estimate ridership levels, but that and other methods have since been found unreliable, according to Brownstone.

"(Surveying select groups) is efficient in the sense that it means you can save money in collecting the data," he said. "But it causes problems when you try to use this data."

In a June 25 letter to the study's principal investigator - Samer Madanat, director of the institute and UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering - Roelof van Ark, chief executive officer for the authority, said the original forecasts remain a "sound tool for use in high-speed rail planning and environmental analysis."

However, the study states that margin of error in the estimations could result in revenue shortfalls for the rail system.

"These bounds, which were not quantified by (Cambridge Systematics), may be large enough to include the possibility that the (high-speed rail) achieve healthy profits and the possibility that it may incur significant revenue shortfalls," the study reads, though van Ark said in the letter the study has no foundation for the claim.

The authority invited researchers involved in the study to present and discuss their findings at its meeting Thursday. Authority officials declined to comment further.

State Senator Bob Huff, vice chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, which commissioned the study, said the forecasts should be remade with a new ridership model.

"While no ridership model is 100 percent accurate, since models are based upon educated assumptions, the Berkeley report questions key assumptions made," he said in a statement. "We must have reliable, accurate investment quality data."

Huff added that although study points out flawed conclusions, it does not rule out the viability of completing the high-speed rail system.

Brownstone agreed that an additional study would provide more accurate findings.

"The sensible thing to do would be to do a larger study," Brownstone said. "If we're going to spend a couple billion dollars on the project then it's probably worth spending a couple million to get a decent forecast."


Contact Matt Burris at [email protected]

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