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.