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Calif. high-speed rail to again study rider, revenue estimates

(The following story by Mike Rosenberg appeared on the San Mateo County Times website on April 7, 2010.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Facing a relentless stream of critics, the state's high-speed rail planners said Wednesday that they have hired three expert groups to again determine how many people will ride the train and how much money it will make.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority, in amending the business plan it updated in December, said it has hired Cambridge Systematics and a UC Davis transportation group to produce new ridership and revenue estimates. Both factors are considered crucial in determining whether the rail project will succeed.

For the past four months, the Legislative Analyst's Office, state lawmakers, and Peninsula residents and officials have questioned the ridership and revenue estimates in the rail authority's latest business plan. The agency expects 41 million riders and $2.87 billion in revenue per year by 2035.

Some have assailed the rail authority's projections, saying the agency was expecting many more riders — and thus more revenue — than what appeared possible. But the rail authority has stood by its forecasts and said it has been updating them since 2007.

In addressing another criticism, the new study will include potential ridership figures for various scenarios that could hurt the high-speed rail line, such as slower than expected population growth and unexpected improvements to airline and auto travel.

The UC Davis group, called the Urban Land Use and Transportation Center, also gives advice and support to the state Department of Transportation. Cambridge Systematics, meanwhile, is the same Massachusetts-based transportation specialist that generated the rail authority's current ridership estimates.

The Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley was contracted to peer review past and current ridership and revenue forecasts. The group was hired at the urging of the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

The new forecasts should take 15 to 18 months to finish, although some data may be available as early as December, agency officials said.

The changes were outlined in a 43-page addendum released Wednesday. The document also addresses issues such as the project timeline, funding risks and operations insurance.

Most of the details in the original business plan remain unchanged or were slightly altered. For instance, the funding expected for the project is now pegged at $40 billion to $45 billion, instead of $42.6 billion, which is the exact cost of the project.

It also includes updates from the past four months, including the $2.25 billion stimulus award and the actions taken in the wake of a lawsuit brought against the rail authority by Menlo Park, Atherton and four environmental groups.

The full report, plus the original business plan, is posted at cahighspeedrail.ca.gov.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

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