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An influential group formed to review ridership estimates for the California High-Speed Rail Authority has withdrawn some of its earlier criticisms, even as it urges improvements to a forecasting model being used to guide decisions ranging from ticket prices to train schedules.
Though short of a final endorsement of the model developed for the rail authority by an outside contractor, the peer group's upbeat review appears to address one of the more widely cited weaknesses in the contentious project.
Numbers generated by the rail authority's revised model for estimating ridership were listed in the recently released draft environmental review of the project's first segment, expected to begin construction late next year between Merced and Bakersfield.
Among the report's findings:
- Assuming bullet train tickets are priced at 83 percent of air fare levels, more than 13 million passengers can be expected to ride the system in 2020, its first year of operation between Anaheim and San Francisco. That figure is expected to top 69 million in 2035, when the system is to have expanded to San Diego and Sacramento;
- If tickets are priced at 50 percent of air fare levels, nearly 19 million passengers are projected to ride on the system in 2020. At that price level, annual ridership is expected to grow to more than 98 million once the full system is operating in 2035;
- Actual ridership will depend on many uncertain factors, such as the price of gasoline.
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The ridership model developed by Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics Inc. may be used to forecast ticket pricing options, train schedules, operation capacity scenarios, competition from airlines and impacts from population growth, rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall noted in an email.
The ridership estimates are expected to play an important role in the widely anticipated business plan scheduled for release by the rail authority next month. The reason figures produced by the model were included in the draft environmental review, Wall said, was to measure the largest possible effect the rail project could have on the state and its various resources.
A focus of criticism
One of the project's leading critics, Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, remains skeptical. She noted that the peer group merely approved of the progress being made, and that "there are still issues and concerns."
To be sure, Cambridge Systematics' ridership model has undergone revisions -- and will continue to do so, Wall said -- under heavy scrutiny.
In a June 2010 study commissioned by state lawmakers, researchers at the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Berkeley pointed to several "significant problems" with an earlier version of the model.
The researchers concluded that Cambridge Systematics had made a number of bad assumptions, starting with Californians' preferences regarding modes of transportation.
They also noted that the contractor had failed to take into account how important service factors such as travel time are to different kinds of travelers -- airline passengers versus car drivers, for instance.
One of the institute's researchers, Samer Madanat, said last week that he had not seen the latest version of the ridership model, and that his colleagues at the university probably had not, either.
Signs of progress
Nevertheless, the group's criticisms were considered and to a degree reiterated by the rail project's ridership peer review group, which issued its latest findings and recommendations in a report issued Aug. 1.
The report says Cambridge Systematics had addressed concerns related to a lack of supporting documentation, and that the new information "demonstrates that the model produces results that are reasonable and within expected ranges" for the environmental review and the business plan. Even so, the report noted that certain problems with using the model over the long term "remain unaddressed."
The peer group report makes it clear that the ridership model is a work in progress, and it encourages Cambridge Systematics to continue seeking out new data to test the ridership mode's accuracy. Such tests "will enhance the credibility of the model with policy-makers and potential investors," the report states.
The report also finds that "significant progress" has been made on several fronts, including concerns that an earlier version of the model was not sensitive enough to passengers' preference for transportation -- which was one of the UC Berkeley group's criticisms.
Overall, the peer group expressed satisfaction that the ridership model is adequate for the purposes it is being used for now -- the environmental review and the business plan -- even as more work will have to be done if the model is to remain relevant.
Members of the five-person peer review group include a professor of civil engineering at Northwestern University, a transport planning and systems professor of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, a member of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and an economics professor at the University of California at Irvine.
This story resulted from a partnership among California news organizations following the state's high-speed rail program: The Fresno Bee, The Sacramento Bee, California Watch, The Bakersfield Californian, The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The (Riverside) Press-Enterprise and The San Diego Union-Tribune.