High-speed-rail ridership figures challenged

Local watchdog claims rail authority based figures on flawed, undisclosed model

The agency charged with building California's controversial high-speed rail system is basing its ridership and revenue forecasts on a deeply flawed model that hasn't been adequately reviewed, a Palo Alto-based watchdog group is alleging.

Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), said she learned last week that the model the rail authority has used to project ridership figures for the controversial rail line differs from the one the agency has disclosed in public documents. The group has been scrutinizing high-speed-rail reports, monitoring pending legislation and promoting more public participation in the planning process.

Rail officials acknowledged that the ridership model used in the latest business plan included coefficients and constants that were not disclosed in the final report. But they maintain that the updates were so minor that they didn't warrant publication.

But Ms. Alexis, a financial analyst, said the new business model -- which had not been subjected to a peer review -- is seriously flawed. Last week, she obtained a memo from the rail agency's transportation consultant, Cambridge Systematics, indicating that regional transportation officials made a conscious decision not to publicize the most recent methodology in the final report, completed in July 2007.

The memo, written by Cambridge manager George Mazur and addressed to Nick Brand of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said the decision not to include the updated model in the final report was made by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission -- the agency that commissioned Cambridge to do the study.

"The client, MTC, elected not to update the Task 5a report nor to include the final coefficients and constants in the final project report," Mazur wrote.

That sentence makes the document a "smoking gun" memo, Ms. Alexis and Palo Alto Councilman Larry Klein agreed in an interview at the Weekly.

Ms. Alexis, who lives in Palo Alto, posted all the ridership documents on the CARRD website, She said the group aims to make the rail-design process more transparent and to encourage more transparency and community involvement in the planning process.

Ms. Alexis told the Weekly that the rail authority's failure to publish a more detailed model is worrisome given that the ridership figures it yields are used to justify numerous decisions about the design of the $44 billion system -- including the decision to build the rails along the Pacheco Pass route rather than through the Altamont Pass.

She made a similar argument Sunday, when she discussed the rail project on Philip Maldari's radio show on KPFA. Alexis appeared on the show with Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt and Robert Doty, director the Peninsula Rail Program for the rail authority.

"You started with some bad data and you got bad results," Ms. Alexis said.

But transportation officials dispute her characterization and say the differences between the 2006 model, which was publicized in rail authority documents, and the 2007 model, which was not, are subtle and would not have made a difference in the Pacheco vs. Altamont debate.

Jeff Barker, the authority's deputy director for communication, said the ridership model has undergone a series of revisions and will continue to change as the authority gathers more information. There's nothing strange about the latest revision getting left out of a report, Mr. Barker said.

"We are constantly updating the ridership model, but we're not republishing it every single day," Mr. Barker told the Weekly. "This is a model that will continue to be refined and tweaked."

He also said the authority's decision to choose Pacheco Pass and up the Peninsula instead of Altamont Pass in the East Bay was based on many factors, including environmental impacts and input from local officials and transportation agencies. The ridership figures were just one of the factors under considerations, he said.

MTC Planning Director Doug Kimsey also said the differences between the older model and the updated one were too minor to warrant publication.

"Bottom line is that the final changes in the 2007 model update were minor enough to neither update the final report nor undergo additional peer review," Mr. Kimsey wrote in an e-mail response.

Mr. Doty, who is in charge of the Bay Area segment of the line, said on KPFA that it's impossible for the authority to obtain predict exact ridership numbers at this time. He compared ridership predictions to conducting a weather forecast in terms of accuracy.

But he agreed with Ms. Alexis that it's important to have the figures as close to reality as possible in order to design a system that makes sense.

"My immediate concern is making sure it's designed for the right requirement," Mr. Doty said. "If they're feeling like it doesn't sound right, or doesn't feel right, we have a problem and we need to correct it."

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Like this comment
Posted by Lenore Hennen
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 9, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Many thanks to Elizabeth Alexis and to the other members of CARRD for their outstanding work in making sure that the HSR Authority is appropriately challenged and held accountable for the information they have been disseminating to the public. As someone who will be greatly (and I believe negatively) impacted by HSR, I am thankful to CARRD, Kathy Hamilton, Martin Engel, and many other individuals who have stepped up to comment on and be involved in this crucial process, especially since they are all volunteering their considerable efforts. I also hope that our area cities fully recognize the importance of this issue and allocate appropriate city resources to the task.

Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Feb 9, 2010 at 2:25 pm

I would like to see Ms. Alexis' background in HSR design or any projects of EQUAL SIGNIFICANCE in which she has been involved.
She is just another one of those spoiled locals who does not want to have her petunias' petals fall off when the bullet train passes by.

These are the kind of people who fought Steve Jobs' who wanted to tear down and build and who remained in his house, that groups with spokespersons like people like Ms. Alexis, wanted to make into an HISTORICAL monument. It was a horrible mess of a house with no significance by the architect of modest fame, and Jobs just let them harass him for 8 years as paid his attornies and finally won and the county is stuck with the ugly turkey.
Women like this have to be the loudest to protest anything which will disrupt the life they thought they were going to live here forever.
Well, the Banks closures, the Silicon Valley job losses and the homes they bought in their gated communities have all lost value.
That is what all of us are going through. Get over it. Drastic change means work for those without money or employment.
I would bet that she is not even a Californian.
The idea DEARIE, is to get to San Francisco, not Sacramento.

Like this comment
Posted by Proud NIMBY
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 9, 2010 at 3:20 pm

R.Gordon, what planet are you from? You cannot provide constructive argument to Ms. Alexis' conclusion, so you resort to personal attacks and try to discredit those who have a different view. Who pays you to write such tripe? Those of us who have been paying attention know that CHSR has been a fraud from the get go, premised on costs, ridership, revenues and job claims that are preposterous even now that they have been changed by a factor of two. CHSR is a train out of control with no adult supervision. It will inevitably end in a train wreck as more and more real Californian's wake up to how their current and future tax dollars are being wasted.

Like this comment
Posted by G Reid
a resident of another community
on Feb 9, 2010 at 4:56 pm

R Gordon clearly does not own property adjoining the railroad tracks. Will he ride the train when it's built?

A commuter CalTrain just went by my office, with just 5 cars attached. Last I heard, CalTrain was having trouble making its ridership numbers, and it's ALREADY BUILT. Why we need to make a Big Dig style construction project to destroy the fabric of the peninsula when we already have a train, is beyond me. CHSR should just stop in San Jose, and the people who want to go to San Francisco can get on a CalTrain. How hard is that? To save $30 billion, it seems like it would be worth it. We could probably PAY all the riders $100 apiece to take CalTrain from SJ to SF and it would be a very long time before we spent tens of billions of dollars. In fact, you could pay $100 to 4.4 million people a year for 100 years and you'd finally hit 44 billion dollars.

Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Feb 9, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Not one of you addresses her credibility.
Just your own insular *Peninsular* life styles.
30 billion AIN'T for trains.
Also, it's more like 40-45 billion plus. HSR is not an inter zip code plan.
It is a plan to have bullet trains which connect California major cities and put thousands upon thousands to work who do not complain about the Caltrain noises which seem to make you suffer so.
Ask Ms.Alexis EXACTLY what trains and what areas about which she is speaking. It has NOTHING to do with Caltrain....
The taxes alone that the investment bankers of San Mateo County did not pay a nickel for in the past ten years would have taken care of the construction of a bullet train to NY. They WILL be 'Maddoffed' and do time.Meanwhile, they are eating it financially like everyone.
3/4 of Stanford graduate students are FOREIGN and in ECONOMICS. That should be an eye opener for ONE of you.

Like this comment
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Feb 10, 2010 at 10:41 am

R. Gordon should be made a ward of the court.

Like this comment
Posted by truth
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Feb 10, 2010 at 10:43 am

Mr. Gordon, you are the best thing that ever happened to the effort to get HSR to stop, listen, evaluate and build it right. The arrogance with which you carry yourself at first can catch readers off guard, but then once you actually get past the CAPITALIZED words and the INCOMPREHENSIBLE GIBBERISH you realized that this is exactly what the problem is...

Ignorant angry people pushing a product with incomplete data, insufficient funds and inexcusable negligence.

People have asked me to help explain the concern with the people pushing this down our throats, and aside from the complete lack of experience at the board level, I say to all of them...READ ABOVE!


Hey Gordon, did you write those numbers on your hand in case your forgot them?

I have an idea what you can do with your tea bag.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard Hine
editor of The Almanac
on Feb 10, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Richard Hine is a registered user.

Please get back on the topic of high-speed rail, instead of attacking other posters.

Like this comment
Posted by R.GORDON
a resident of another community
on Jul 6, 2010 at 11:34 am

R.GORDON is a registered user.


That you permitted that personal attact on me which went on for a few paragraphs, would NEVER have been permitted by me....NOR do I do that childish junk.
You tend to favor certain people and I am aware of it even though my assets and investments and contributions more than likely outweigh "the TRUTH" directs insults and commentaries which are of no value, and I just dismiss him. You should be more professional.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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