The California High-Speed Rail Authority has until February to resolve a litany of recently uncovered problems with the planned rail system or risk losing state funding for the project, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, told the Weekly this week.
Simitian, who sits on both the Senate's Budget Committee and Transportation Policy Committee, is one of many local and state officials who have become increasingly frustrated with the voter-approved project in recent months as three independent reviews found a slew of problems in the proposed rail line, which would stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
The latest of these reviews, issued last Friday by the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at University of California, Berkeley, picked apart the model that the rail authority's consultant used to estimate how many people would use the new line. The ITS report concluded that these models have "large error bounds" and are "unreliable for policy analysis."
Simitian, a former Palo Alto mayor and Santa Clara County supervisor, said the ITS study is particularly troubling because it was issued on the heels of other critical reports about the rail project. Last year, the Legislative Analyst's Office called the rail authority's business plan incomplete and consideration of funding risks inadequate. And the State Auditor's report, issued in late April, summarized its findings in its title, "High-Speed Rail Authority: It Risks Delays or an Incomplete System Because of Inadequate Planning, Weak Oversight, and Lax Contract Management."
Simitian called the slate of problems identified in the recent reports "an unfortunate trend that needs to be turned around."
"This is just the latest in a series of observations from qualified, reputable third-party commentators who really don't have an ax to grind," Simitian said, referring to the ITS study.
Simitian said he believes the rail authority still has a chance to remedy the problems identified in the recent reports. The agency hired a new CEO, Roelof van Ark, in May, and legislators have decided to give the agency until Feb. 1 to present a list of reforms for dealing with the identified issues. If the agency fails to meet this target, state legislators could withhold some of the funding for the project, which has an estimated price tag of $43 billion.
"There's still time to get it right, but that time is slipping away quickly," Simitian said.
But even as critics pummel the rail authority's ridership model, the agency has indicated that it will stand behind its calculations. Both the authority and its transportation consultant, Cambridge Systematics, responded to the ITS report by highlighting the report's observation that Cambridge "followed generally accepted professional standards" in analyzing the ridership models. But they challenged the report's conclusion that the models are unreliable.
Lance Neumann, president of Cambridge Systematics, wrote a memo claiming that the ITS report is "deficient in significant, substantive ways."
"The ITS Draft Report focuses on academic viewpoints and ignores what it takes to create a model for real-world application," Neumann wrote.
Van Ark also wrote a letter to the ITS saying the authority believes Cambridge has "provided a direct and credible response to each technical point raised" in the report. Van Ark also took issue with the report's conclusion that the error bounds in the model "may be large enough to include the possibility that the California HSR may incur significant revenue shortfalls." He called this "an extraordinary statement for which we find no foundation in the Draft Report."
Meanwhile, local officials along the Peninsula are continuing to call for the rail authority to slow down and to focus less on meeting federal-grant deadlines and more on designing the best system for the state. Earlier this week, the Peninsula Cities Consortium, which includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Burlingame and Belmont, issued a statement asking the rail authority to "take a step back and resolve troublesome issues" before proceeding with the project.
The Consortium's chair, Menlo Park Mayor Richard Cline, said in the statement that "common sense is absent from the high-speed rail discussion" and criticized the "extremely rushed project schedule that is dictated solely by the desire for federal funds."
"The project is suffering from an enormous credibility problem, due to its widely criticized business plan, faulty ridership numbers and the absence of funding to carry out the project statewide -- let alone offer realistic alternatives for the section planned on the Peninsula," Cline said. "There also is no stated plan for paying to operate high-speed rail once it is built, and we fear local taxpayers may be left holding the bag."