A just-released report by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Berkeley finds that the ridership projections prepared by Cambridge Systematics (CS) for the California high speed rail system are "not reliable."
Authors Samer Madanat (director of ITS-Berkeley and a professor of civil and environmental engineering), Mark Hanson (UC-Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering) and David Brownstown (chair of the Economics Department at UC-Irvine) essentially reported that the projections had such large error margins that the system could either lose a lot of money or make a lot of money:
... the combination of problems in the development phase and subsequent changes made to model parameters in the validation phase implies that the forecasts of high speed rail demand-and hence of the profitability of the proposed high speed rail system-have very large error bounds. These bounds, which were not quantified by CS, may be large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may achieve healthy profits and the possibility that it may incur significant revenue shortfalls.
Biased High Speed Rail Projections: Given the overwhelming history of upwardly biased ridership and revenue projections in major transport projects, it seems far more likely that reducing the margins of error would produce projections with much smaller ridership numbers and major financial losses. Major research by Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius (a Swedish transport consultant) and Werner Rottenberg (University of Karlsruhe and former president of the World Conference on Transport Research) covering 80 years of infrastructure projects found routine over-estimation of ridership and revenue (Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition). The evidence is so condemning that Dr. Flyvbjerg has referred to the planning processes for such projects as consisting of "strategic misrepresentation" and "lying" (his words) to advance projects that might not otherwise be implemented.
Broad Concern about the Reliability of California High Speed Rail Projections: The University of California report joins other reports that have questioning the veracity of the Cambridge Systematics projections. During the run-up to the 2008 statewide bond issue, the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, chaired by Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) indicated concerns. Illustrating continuing concerns, the committee commissioned the University of California study.
Doubts have been expressed by the California Legislative Analyst and the California State Auditor. The Reason Foundation Due Diligence Report, authored by Joseph Vranich and me in 2008 estimated the ridership projections to be at least 100% high (see High Speed Rail: Untimely Extravagance presented at the Heritage Foundation last week in Washington).
Investment Grade Projections Far Lower: The Cambridge Systematics ridership projections publicized that were used in the statewide bond election were more than 150% above the "investment grade" projections that had been produced by Charles Rivers Associates for the California High Speed Rail Authority a decade ago. Even "investment grade" projections can be high, as the recent bond default and bankruptcy of the Las Vegas Monorail indicates. In that case the "investment grade" ridership projections were 150% above the actual achieved average, nonetheless bond holders lost their investments. (Our 2000 report accurately projected the Monorail ridership).
Undermining GHG Emissions Reduction Claims: Meanwhile, the California high speed rail proposal has come under criticism with respect to its environmental claims. The high speed rail line has been promoted as a means for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the state. Yet another recently released University of California report indicates that it could take as long as 71 years to save enough GHG emissions by attracting airline passengers and drivers to cancel out the emissions produced in constructing the project. More defensible ridership projections could lengthen this period considerably.
Response to Criticism: The body of the University of California high speed rail study is 10 pages, followed by approximately 40 pages of comments and response by Cambridge Systematics and a letter from the California High Speed Rail Authority requesting that the University of California authors to consider the comments. This review is performed by the University of California authors, as they reject virtually all Cambridge Systematics criticisms in the final four pages of the report.
Photograph: Cover of Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition