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.
July 5, 2010, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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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.

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Published on Friday, July 2, 2010 in San Francisco Chronicle
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