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 California High-Speed Rail Authority has used to project ridership figures for the Southern-to-Northern California 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 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, Alexis and Councilman Larry Klein agreed in an interview at the Weekly.
Alexis, who lives in Palo Alto, posted all the ridership documents on the CARRD Web site, www.calhsr.com. She said the group aims to make the rail design process more transparent and to encourage more community involvement in the planning process.
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 and Caltrain.
"You started with some bad data and you got bad results," 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 Rail Authority's deputy director for communication, said the ridership model has undergone a series of revisions and will continue to change as the agency gathers more information. There's nothing strange about the latest revision getting left out of a report, Barker said.
"We are constantly updating the ridership model, but we're not republishing it every single day," Barker told the Weekly. "This is a model that will continue to be refined and tweaked."
He also said the agency's decision to choose to run the rail line through Pacheco Pass and up the Peninsula instead of through the 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 consideration, 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," Kimsey wrote in an e-mail response.
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 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," 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."