Debate Over How to Measure Ridership Plagues HSR Project

The UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies has issued a report questioning ridership projections on the $43+ billion, 800 mile, voter-approved California High Speed Rail project. Cambridge Systematics defends their numbers.

It appears to be a debate between consultants, called "the best firm in the business" by Samer Madanat, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley" and ITS itself as to how to forecast ridership for California's most important public works project. The High-Speed Rail Authority board will meet in Los Angeles on July 8 to discuss the finding - the authors of the Institute of Transportation Studies will present its report,and "Cambridge Systematics will defend their forecasts.

"The forecast of ridership is unlikely to be very close to the ridership that would actually materialize if the system were built," said Madanat.

"The UC Berkeley report found several problems with the model, including using a technique later proven inaccurate to determine whether riders would choose to drive, fly or take high-speed rail..."

From Dan Walters: Projections of bullet-train ridership take a hit: "The most important factor in the economic viability of California's bullet train project is the High-Speed Rail Authority's projection of ridership, which critics have contended is much too rosy.

The authority has stoutly defended its projection, taking refuge in a Cambridge Systematics study that said, in effect, ridership would generate sufficient revenue to cover operating costs and investor profits."

From San Mateo County Times: Transportation experts: Don't trust high-speed rail rider estimates:
"A lot is riding on the ridership estimates being accurate.
In addition to being a main justification for spending $43 billion on the state's largest project, the ridership projections are tied to claims that the system will pay for itself once built - with no taxpayer subsidies - and fund extensions to Sacramento and San Diego.

Cambridge CEO Lance Neumann, in responding to the report, said they "stand firmly behind" their work, citing nearly 40 years of experience."

"We emphatically disagree with the author's conclusions that the model is not reliable," Neumann said.

Robert Cruickshank of the California High Speed Rail blog says that the focus on the Berkeley report has over shadowed a study by CALPIRG that shows the success of high-speed rail around the world, and that the media does not understand the high-speed rail story.

Full Story: High-speed rail ridership estimate doubted



Correction Request

Robert Cruickshank's California High Speed Rail Blog, to which I am a contributor, is ***NOT*** affiliated with the California High Speed Rail Authority in any way whatsoever. It is purely a grass roots volunteer effort.

In fact, there is no "official" blog at all - just the CHSRA web site.

Irvin Dawid's picture

"This is more than an academic squabble between competing...."

Columnist and leading California politics columnist Dan Walters wrote, "This is much more than an academic squabble between competing teams of analysts. Ridership demand is the foundation of the entire project. If the projection is unrealistic, the bullet train could become an expensive sinkhole." He goes on to suggest that unless the UC report dispute can be resolved, "the bullet train should be derailed". However, Walters is no fan of HSR - never has been, as shown by his assertion that HSR is "a solution in search of a problem."

Still, never underestimate Walters' assertions.

Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

Irvin Dawid's picture

LA Times, June 09: Ca HSR panel defends ridership and revenue..

From California state panel defends ridership and revenue estimates for high-speed rail project: How do you debate amongst models - does this become just a squabble between technocrats and academics?

"One of the authors of the (UC Berkeley) critical review acknowledged that the agency's patronage projections followed standards widely used in the transportation industry. He suggested that was part of the problem, that many such studies aren't reliable."

"It's caused, I think, a lot of problems when it turns out later on the actual ridership is way off from the forecasts," said UC Irvine professor David Brownstone. "This is a problem with almost all existing work." He called on the board to "go beyond standard practice … and do it right," particularly given the project's massive public investment."

It would seem to this writer that if UC is questioning CHSRA ridership estimates using their flawed model argument, then the ridership projections of every project must be questioned - which may not be such a bad idea - but it does seem flawed to simply point to this one without explaining the argument is actually against all.
Irvin Dawid, Palo Alto, CA

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