Rail Authority besieged by critical reports

State legislators give agency until February to resolve ridership, oversight issues

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."

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Like this comment
Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of Los Altos
on Jul 9, 2010 at 10:25 am

It's too bad that the High Speed Rail Authority is circling the wagons instead of dealing with criticism that must have some basis in fact. Too many independent sources are finding fault with the methodology that CAHSRA is using to justify this project. If the HSRA is just going to continue that there's nothing wrong, we should pull the plug on high speed rail.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 9, 2010 at 11:07 am

Time to pull the plug on high speed rail project.

Like this comment
Posted by 5 generations in Palo Alto!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 9, 2010 at 11:28 am

Agreed! Time to pull the plug.
The Egos that created this need to cut their loses and move on.
Trains run empty, San Jose's light rail runs empty.
It was recently decided to have less trains running and ticket prices higher due to this!
How many people would actually use HSR for long distance? I predict: Empty!
The financial disasters will be overwhelming- cities on, near the track, and state-wide:
It will negatively affect medical facilities, schools, businesses, private/public property- et al
It is hard to believe that any sensible person believes we should 'press on' with this.
Help California and drop this albatross in the bin!

Like this comment
Posted by No Faith
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 9, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Senator Simitian knows that HSR leaders Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon have deep political roots and savvy but have little successful business experience. Rod Diridon fathered San Jose Light Rail, the most expensive taxpayer supported light rail system in America today, hardly a leader or a model the state should be following.

Way back, HSR failed to create a business plan that can remain credible throughout its many vetting stages.

With the chickens now coming home to roost, HSR leadership is trying to PR its way out of trouble.

HSR credibility is fading fast, and deservedly so. Smoke is coming from both engines. As Senator Simitian is correctly signalling, only heroic measures will save HSR now.

A new leader has just entered the HSR cockpit. Can van Ark pull this turkey out of its death spiral over the next six months?

When one of his first moves is defending the massively flawed financial forecast the whole HSR project is based upon, he is not getting off to a great start.

Like this comment
Posted by Charlie
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 9, 2010 at 1:32 pm

New HSR CEO Roelof van Ark may have little choice, in his attempt to rebuild HSR credibility, than to defend the flawed studies on which HSR has pinned its plan.

Time is fast running out.

Key California legislative committees are giving van Ark 6 months, 2 of which are holiday months. Plus the entrenched HSR management he has to work with have become like Madoff staff members, they have told the same bogus HSR story ad nauseam (or avoided talking at all). They are unlikely agents of change.

It is looking more and more like the dominoes are about to fall, one by one, in a direction HSR fears.

$9 billion from the state and $2.25 billion from the feds earmarked for California HSR have substantial strings attached, strings that HSR increasingly looks like it will be unable to pull its way.

Like this comment
Posted by Diana
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 9, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Fiber optics is a far better way to go than HSR.

HSR is proving to be another political boondoggle we do not need, and can ill afford.

Like this comment
Posted by jb
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 9, 2010 at 2:46 pm

I didn't vote for it.

This idea was floated when the state was already wading out of ordinary fiscal troubles into extraordinary budget difficulties.

HSR is monumentally difficult to lay out over an already-developed region. For ridership it needs stops, but stops slow it down. Transit should be laid out first with business and residential areas tucked in around it. When areas like the Bay Area have become homogenous there is no "here" and "there" that the trains can run between. No majority of people have any destinations in common.

HSR may be able to high-tail it from the edge of LA to Gilroy or San Jose, but getting into San Francisco can't be taken at 120 mph. Many riders will want to get off the train before they get to San Francisco. Putting any stops into the peninsula region will slow the trip down. It could add a significant percentage of time to the trip just getting from San Jose to San Francisco. 2 hrs LA to San Jose; 45 min SJ to SF.

I read a critic of HSR saying that high speed transit doesn't work to save time unless the terminus region has a very well developed local public transit system so high speed does not have to make its way through suburbs and business areas. That ain't us.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 9, 2010 at 2:52 pm

5 Generations - you say:

-Trains run empty, San Jose's light rail runs empty.

-It was recently decided to have less trains running and ticket prices higher due to this!

It is clear you do not ride the trains or light rail so let me tell you they are not empty, far from it. This morning I got on Caltrain at 9:11 from Palo Alto and it was full, full, full. That's the fact.

The cuts in service were because the State of CA cut a promised $10 million and San Mateo and San Francisco cut their funding by 30%.

Now last year, 2009, during the height of the biggest economic down turn since 1929 the trains were significantly less crowded. So was 101 and 280. But your information is old. Trains today are crowded (so are 101 and 280) and unless you wish to live in grid lock twice a day you should support Caltrain, light rail, buses and such.

HSR could also be a great benefit if they can fix the issues pointed out here.

Like this comment
Posted by Gail
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 9, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Imagine all the fraud, corruption and misuse of public funds this project will generate. Some crooked politicians are salivating at the chance to give lucrative construction contracts to their family and friends for a fat kickback for themselves. This project is ill conceived and flawed. Stop HSR now.

Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2010 at 10:50 pm

I don't know why Simitian is being so lenient with HSR. It is clear to me that the books were cooked in a major way WRT the ridership study, and the whole project seems just rife with shenanigans. Heck, you don't need a computer to tell you the ridership projections are wildly inflated; just use your head! The sooner the plug is pulled on this project the better.

Like this comment
Posted by Hugh Jardonn
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jul 10, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Anybody who believes that CAHSRA will bring in High Speed Rail for $43 billion is smoking crack. Just out of New York comes word on more cost overruns for 2nd Avenue Subway and East Side Excess:
Web Link

"All told, the situation involving East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway tells a story that is all too frequent with giant public sector projects. The projects were approved and sold to the public with one price tag, only to see the budget prove far too insignificant (very rarely, if ever, do projects come in well below their initial projections). And once a project has started—once the foot is in the door—it becomes really difficult to pull the plug, even if the public would never have signed onto the initial price tag."

Like this comment
Posted by Dennis "galen" Mitrzyk
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 11, 2010 at 9:41 am

It's time to pull the plug on HSR, a disaster of monumental proportions in the making, before any more money is wasted, before people start losing their homes and businesses. I've had it with political skulduggery. Kopp and Diridon belong in jail for election fraud and betrayal of the public trust. Enough is enough!

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto resident
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2010 at 10:44 am

Why is Palo Alto putting more money ($200,000?) into more studies?
Why not just say No.

Like this comment
Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2010 at 11:42 am

HSR WILL HAPPEN......the answer as to how will be way ahead of February.
Most of the people arguing against it, are the people who championed moving TESLA to Stanford, and are just irritated at having the "noise" made by the bullet trains, wreck their Bell Tones.
Nobody ever mentions road, bridge, or costs of repairs to drive these high priced vehicles except the law school students who have already ordered the sportscar which will be obsolete by mid June next year when three countries will be introducing a better car at half the price for the average person..Only 30% of Stanford grads are even interested or can afford to think about HSR.

Like this comment
Posted by NONIMBYS
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 11, 2010 at 4:40 pm

What a bunch of NIBBY backed statements...HSR is going to be built!!!

Like this comment
Posted by 5 generations in Palo Alto!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 14, 2010 at 11:49 am

@Frank in Venture

No, you are wrong.
ALL trains except for a very short window of time- commute time - are EMPTY! Trains run 75% of every weekday hours and on weekends! It is a complete waste of of money and energy as they are - empty!

Visit a friend for 24 hours that lives backed to the tracks! Do the same for the San Jose lightrail. You will see this is correct.

Yes! Trains have been cut and the cost of tickets has risen because there is no money! And, people are not riding the trains to help pay the system!

Like this comment
Posted by Claire
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 14, 2010 at 11:56 am

@ Gail in Old Palo Alto

Well said!
You hit the nail square on head. Plain and simple! Thanks for having the nerve to do so!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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