That is the deadline state Sen. Joe Simitian and other key legislators have set for the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) to demonstrate that its economic and ridership projections are based on more than incorrect methods, as alleged in a recent technical review commissioned by the Legislature.
Two earlier analyses, one by the highly regarded state Legislative Analyst's office in March 2009 and one by State Auditor Elaine Howle just released in late April, raise serious questions about the rail authority's initial studies relating to economics, costs and ridership for a system currently estimated to cost more than $43 billion.
The auditor said the project suffers from poor planning, inadequate risk assessment and a poorly done business plan, and warned of potential major delays, cost overruns or even an incomplete system.
The third heavy blow to the authority's credibility was the late-June release of an analysis of ridership projections. The Legislature commissioned the analysis by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, whose experts concluded that the authority's projections were so shaky that they couldn't predict whether the system would be profitable or run deeply in debt. The analysis said the projections, done by consultant Cambridge Systematics, were inadequate as a basis for making policy decisions.
The three critical reports are replete with technical details, but the summations are withering.
The findings confirm whatt critics, such as the Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD), have been saying for months. Yet the response from the authority thus far has been weak, consisting primarily of a statement that it supports the Cambridge conclusions.
If confirmed, the purported flaws in the ridership analysis could undermine the selection of Pacheco Pass/San Jose over an Altamont Pass (East Bay) alternative route.
Simitian is blunt: "At some point, folks need to come to grips with the fact that this isn't just the case of isolated concerns or misguided complaints or rampant NIMBY-ism," he said following release of the state auditor's report. "They are real and legitimate concerns and they need to be addressed sooner rather than later." And, he warned, "We are getting very close to a point where, if there's no significant changes and improvements in the way business is done, I will no longer be able to call myself a supporter of 'high-speed-rail done right.'
"Once members (of the Legislature) start to back away in such a way, I think it puts the project in great jeopardy."
The technical criticisms are being rolled out against a broader backdrop, largely but not completely based on concerns by Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton and other Peninsula cities relating to the impact of building and operating a high-speed-rail system through the communities. Menlo Park Mayor Richard Cline, chair of the Peninsula Cities Consortium, correctly cites the authority's "enormous credibility problem."
The venerable but economically strained Caltrain system is under dire threat of becoming unable to maintain its commuter operations. It had hoped that an infusion of funds from the rail project would help it upgrade and electrify its aging trains. But there recently has been a distancing by Caltrain, which is finally asserting itself in seeking a share of $2.25 billion of federal stimulus funds for transportation upgrades despite opposition from the authority.
Like Simitian, we have been supporters of the rail project, assuming the legitimate concerns of affected communities are resolved. But time and patience are running out.
Roelof van Ark, the highly respected and brand-new CEO of the rail authority, has a mess to clean up and numerous credibility problems to solve — and he doesn't have much time.
We're with Simitian. If there aren't wholesale changes in the way the authority is operating by the beginning of next year, we'll join the chorus to put an end to this exciting but badly botched transportation initiative.