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High-speed rail authority defends ridership estimates in new memo

(The following story by Will Oremus appeared on the Daily News website on March 5, 2010.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Facing criticism of its ambitious-sounding ridership estimates, the California High-Speed Rail Authority on Thursday published an eight-page response to claims of skewed numbers and a flawed peer review process.

In the document, authority Executive Director Mehdi Morshed defended the ridership model, saying it provides "sound information." He attached a three-page memo from the principal of consulting firm Cambridge Systematics, who said his company stands by its work.

Legislators, activists and self-styled watchdogs have questioned the authority's forecast that 41 million people would ride the planned Los Angeles-to-San Francisco line by 2030.

Skepticism intensified when The Daily News reported in February that the Palo Alto-based watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design found discrepancies between the ridership model published for peer review and the one actually used to generate the forecasts. The authority disclosed the actual numbers after the group questioned aspects of the published model.

Among other things, the actual model appeared to place 60 times more emphasis on the effect of infrequent train service on overall ridership. Critics said that could explain why later forecasts showed the line would have more riders if it ran through San Jose instead of through the East Bay, an alignment favored by some.

In the memo, Cambridge Systematics principal George Mazur repeated the authority's explanation Elizabeth Alexis of Californians Advocating for Responsible Rail Design could not be reached for immediate comment.

Friday, March 5, 2010

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