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New doubts about bullet train

Experts say promoters inflated estimates of the cost of providing alternatives if the rail system isn't built.

January 17, 2012|Ralph Vartabedian and Dan Weikel

In October, Parsons submitted the analysis that came up with the $171 billion, a number that initially appeared in the authority's draft business plan released Nov. 1. In the study, Parsons first estimated how much passenger capacity the system would have at completion in 2033 and then calculated the cost for providing the same airport and highway capacity.

Parsons said the high-speed rail system could carry 116 million passengers a year, based on running trains with 1,000 seats both north and south every five minutes, 19 hours a day and 365 days a year. The study assumes the trains would be 70% full on average.

But nobody, including the rail authority, expects the bullet train would actually carry that many people in the foreseeable future. It estimates the system will actually carry between 30 million and 44 million passengers per year by 2040. If those ridership numbers were used to calculate alternative highway and airport requirements, as suggested by Madanat and others, it could actually be cheaper than the bullet train.

Parsons Brinkerhoff defended the use of capacity rather than projected ridership, saying that high-speed rail systems are investments with a 50- to 100-year life and therefore they have useful lives that go well beyond any ridership forecast.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 18, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Parsons Brinckerhoff: An article in the Jan. 17 LATExtra section about cost estimates developed by the California High-Speed Rail Authority identified a consultant as Parsons Brinkerhoff. The New York-based firm's name is spelled Parsons Brinckerhoff. Also, the firm is not connected to Pasadena's Parsons Corp.

The ridership assumption is just one example of the controversy with the estimate. The analysis disregards current unused capacity and scheduled investments that will absorb some future growth.

Airports, such as Ontario, LAX, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose, have room for tens of millions of new passengers, and three former Air Force bases in the L.A. area could become prime candidates for future commercial airline operations. Much of the state's rural interstate system is not congested either.

"All you get are selling points from the authority," said Burlingame Mayor Jerry Deal, who supports the idea of high-speed rail but questions the current project.

"I want information that is as close to reality as possible, but we don't seem to get that."


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