GAO Report Validates HSR Ridership and Revenue Projections

Mar 29th, 2013 | Posted by

In an attempt to undermine the California high speed rail project Congressional Republicans, led by the Central Valley’s Kevin McCarthy and Jeff Denham, sought a review of the project by the federal General Accounting Office. Their hope was that the GAO would find all kinds of major problems with the project that they could use to continue their attack on the project.

Well, that’s not what the GAO found. Instead the GAO concluded that the ridership and revenue estimates were “reasonable” and that the California High Speed Rail Authority followed all laws and best practices in designing and planning the project. Here’s how the Authority described the GAO findings:

The GAO audit found that the Authority:

• Followed all applicable guidance from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which administers the Authority’s federal grants.

• Ridership and revenue forecasts are reasonable.

• Substantially met best practices for developing accurate cost estimates and the report highlights the Authority’s efforts to produce cost estimates that correctly reflect the program’s scope.
The funding plan recognizes the uncertainty of the current funding environment and is building the project in usable phases and has identified an alternative funding source.

• Did a comprehensive job in identifying key economic impacts that could result from the high-speed rail project demonstrating the strong economic case for the project. This includes its ability to create jobs in the short-term and its potential to change the state’s economic landscape in the long-term through improved connections between its metropolitan areas.

• The GAO report contains no formal recommendations for the Authority.

The report itself does make some suggestions for improving the ridership and revenue projections, including a new travel survey for the 2014 Business Plan (I believe the travel survey currently being used dates to 2005). And they did have some words about the project’s cost estimates:

The Authority substantially met the criteria for the accurate characteristic by, for example, the cost estimate’s reflecting the current scope of the project. However, the Authority partially met the criteria for the other three characteristics since the operating costs were not sufficiently detailed (comprehensive), the development of some cost elements were not sufficiently explained (well documented), and because no systematic assessment of risk was performed (credible). The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued limited guidance for preparing cost estimates, and this guidance did not reflect best practices in the Cost Guide. The Authority plans to improve its cost estimates.

That particular finding wasn’t any kind of slam against the project or the Authority, and because the Authority plans to make improvements, the GAO did not conclude that there were problems with the project or its oversight.

But that didn’t stop Congressional Republicans from taking a report that found the California HSR project to be sound and somehow spinning it as validating their own criticisms:

“Obtaining sustained congressional and public support for appropriating additional funds is one of the biggest challenges to completing this project,” the Government Accountability Office auditors noted in the new report.

Underscoring the political challenge, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said the GAO study only stiffened his resolve to oppose the project.

“The authority’s plan is irresponsible and reckless, and that is why I am developing legislation to stop more hard-earned taxpayer dollars from being wasted on California high-speed rail,” McCarthy said in a statement….

“At a time when we’re overburdened by state and federal debt and already struggling to find ways to pay for existing programs, we should not be throwing federal dollars at a project that has spun so drastically out of control since it was first voted for by Californians,” Denham said in a statement Friday.

This is nonsense – it’s circular logic. Republicans like McCarthy and Denham have spent the last two years working to kill federal funding for high speed rail. The GAO notices that effort and points out, correctly, that such efforts put HSR funding at risk. Then those same Republicans point to the GAO report and say “See! There’s a risk this project won’t get enough funding. So let’s not fund it!” even though they themselves created the funding problem in the first place.

The GAO report doesn’t tell us anything we did not already know. HSR systems around the world and in the United States routinely generate high levels of ridership and revenue. And we also knew that long-term HSR funding was at risk due to Republican opposition. The GAO has described reality accurately (the California Legislative Analyst’s Office could learn from that) and while Republicans may not like it, the result is a report that even Ralph Vartabedian had to acknowledge was good for the project.

  1. joe
    Mar 29th, 2013 at 21:57
    #1

    The GAO blamed the FRA for lacking HSR cost estimation guidelines. There is a recommendation the FRA establish guidelines to avoid future problems.

  2. MarkB
    Mar 29th, 2013 at 23:44
    #2

    Wow, those Nancy Pelosi mind rays are stronger than I thought—even the GAO cannot resist.

    Guess we need an updated equation, since the GAO is clearly in on the conspiracy:

    GAO=PB=Tutor=MTC=BART=WorldsFinestTransportationProfessionals=Chandlers=Antonovich=Villaraigosa=Crones’n'Drone=PatronageMachine=HarryReid=TWU= [did I forget anyone?]

    The cast of evil-doers is now so big it makes the cast of Game of Thrones look like it’d fit in a phone booth.

    MarkB Reply:

    [it truncated a line]
    =Villaraigosa=Crones’n'Drone=HarryReid=Metro=Palmdale=Metrolink

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!!!!

    Matthew B. Reply:

    I’m just amazed at how much time and energy Synonymouse has to be a broken record. Of course, every iteration uses another piece of slang and becomes less comprehensible to someone who hasn’t read about the moondoggle dogleg stilta-sky-rail, ward boss baloney a million times before. Oh well. I for one am looking forward to taking the train to see my sister in San Francisco some time.

    Muni-metro to Transbay and then HSR to LAUS + Metro will be a big improvement over my current usual routine of BART to Oakland – Southwest to SoCal (exact airport depends on price, whether I’ll be visiting my parents in the Coachella Valley, etc.) – and then drive for longer than I would like. It will be a huge convenience and I am quite certain I would never fly between northern and southern California again if I could avoid it.

    This can’t be built soon enough.

    synonymouse Reply:

    same vinyl, different site:

    http://www.altamontpress.com/discussion/read.php?1,84657,84734#msg-84734

    Keith Saggers Reply:

    Hold the presses, add AnsaldoBreda

  3. D. P. Lubic
    Mar 30th, 2013 at 00:20
    #3

    From the comments with the LA Times story, by James Leno:

    “So, now that Rep. McCarthy has the report that he requested but didn’t want to get, he hits all his other talking points that much louder.

    “The project is sound, per the California LAO, and Federal GAO reports. The project is legal, per the dismissed and settled lawsuits against it. All the audits show the authority is acting responsibly. So he’s trying to defund it under the guise of fiscal ‘responsibility.’

    “Even when the people who are actually looking at the project are still giving it good marks, the rail critics will continue to ‘rail criticize.’”

    I tell you, the Republicans keep looking dumber and dumber.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    That, or else their oil company and highway construction sponsors are really frightened.

    I like that!

    Jo Reply:

    HSR critics fell flat on their face on this one, and they know it. Too many politicians have become the political arm and mouthpiece of the oil companies and highway lobby; and this country can not have a reasonable and balanced transportation and energy policy because of this unfortunate fact. But I think people are slowly beginning to see the light. If HSR rail becomes fact in California – it will follow in the rest of the nation, and some groups fear this.

    VBobier Reply:

    Agreed on all points Jo.

  4. Travis D
    Mar 30th, 2013 at 01:20
    #4

    …something something detour something something idiot planners something something world’s finest transportation planners something something Pelosi patronage machine something something I hate everything…

  5. Jerry
    Mar 30th, 2013 at 02:46
    #5

    Did McCarthy and Denham ever ask the GAO to do a study on the Iraq war????

  6. Jerry
    Mar 30th, 2013 at 02:50
    #6

    I would have loved to have seen a statement issued from McCarthy’s office such as:
    “The (Pentagon’s) plan is irresponsible and reckless, and that is why I am developing legislation to stop more hard-earned taxpayer dollars from being wasted on (Iraq)” McCarthy said in a statement….

  7. jimsf
    Mar 30th, 2013 at 11:48
    #7

    Ok so Mcarthy thinks high speed rail is a wacky expensive boondoggle, yet he supports building a commerical space flight center in his district.

    joe Reply:

    A reasonably inquisitive mind might wander and dream of ways to link the LA centered aerospace industry to Bakersfield’s intergalactic space port.

    Clem Reply:

    You’ve got the geography wrong, Intergalactic Trans-Dimensional is going to be located in San Jose, and it will even be a train station!

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    Oh, that’s because space travel is futuristic; trains are so 19th century or 18th century or something like that:

    http://io9.com/5908841/watch-mars-and-beyond-disneys-trippy-1950s-vision-of-space-exploration-and-extraterrestrial-life

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    More retro fun from Disney; don’t you (sometimes) wish the future really did work out that well?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWJrvT9sTPk&list=PL79E6906180D17633

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tal27nhifp8&list=PL7382D32739FB022D

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFl6gfdvfqs&list=PL044140387ABE2381&index=2

    jimsf Reply:

    I thought evolution was suppose to weed out kooks.

    VBobier Reply:

    Indeed, troglodytes seem to still be with us…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Um, yeah. To pretty much every single politician and political operative, words like “boondoggle” are not about costs or benefits but about moral belief in the project in question. McCarthy is morally opposed to HSR, hence it’s a boondoggle. No different from how liberals who are morally opposed to the Iraq War complain more about the cost to the American taxpayer than about the actual moral crime of killing massive numbers of civilians. The budget is not ever an issue of competence or of comparing costs and benefits; it’s just one more language for people to argue about other things.

  8. Alon Levy
    Mar 30th, 2013 at 23:43
    #8

    That’s the same GAO that promulgated the “Only two HSR lines in the world make a profit” myth a few years ago. It has no more competence to review ridership and revenue projections than I do to peer-review a French literature paper.

  9. Derek
    Mar 31st, 2013 at 08:31
    #9

    A First Look At The “Grand Central Station” Of San Francisco

    Featuring a video of a sexy, 5.4-acre rooftop park.

    What strikes me about the park is that it doesn’t connect well with its surroundings. You have to make a deliberate effort to get to it, and it really doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an island. And it isn’t exactly in a residential area. So who will use it? Office workers jogging on their lunch break, a few people wandering around, and I’m afraid that’s going to be about it.

    jimsf Reply:

    San Franciscans love their parks. Going upstairs does not keep them away. The area will contain thousands of new residents ( there area already thousands of residents in that neighborhood with more to come)

    further the park will hold events/ concerts etc.

    And yes, workers in the area will flock there for lunch breaks. All of Sfs downtown open spaces are filled with people at lunch time.

    joe Reply:

    yes jimsf

    An example of one such popular park space is http://www.yerbabuenagardens.com/maps.html

    I’ve used The Gardens and concessions as a SF resident and as visitor doing business at Moscone Center Events like the AGU http://fallmeeting.agu.org/2013/welcome/ The Gardens are quite popular with visitors who come every year.

    Join more than 24,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students, and other leaders in San Francisco, California, 9-13 December.

    Any green space on top of the transit center will be used 365 days a year.

    jimsf Reply:

    another look at dtx

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Correct. Nobody will use it.

    And the very best part is that out-of-control structural system required to loft this beyond-idiotic park into the sky (remember people: 1 m^3 of water weights 1 tonne, which tells you that lots of soil way up in the air is fucking heavy) makes it impossible for this so-called “transportation” project to ever serve high train passenger volumes or to serve even low-moderate train movement volumes. (If anybody claims otherwise, they are flat-out lying. No question at all.)

    The so-called “station” in the basement of this park-support system is an less than an afterthrought, a miserable compromised non-functional warren wedged in between the 5 and 6 foot diameter support columns, oh-so-attractively spaced a glamorous 42.5 feet apart.

    As a civil engineer involved in the project mentioned to me a couple months ago, “People are going to be really surprised when they find out how much of the space is taken up by the columns.”

    After all, this and this is the sort of outright fraudulent misrepresentation the “architects” and “professional” engineers involved in the project made to the public, while in reality this is the nightmare they are foisting upon us.

    (Want to see World Class US Transportation Professionalism and World Class US Architects at work?! CHECK THIS OUT!!!

    They seriously proposed that, just a couple years ago, with less than two feet of platform space.

    But subsequently the World Class Architects who have been paid over $100 million of you tax dollars to “design” this fucking catastrophe “fixed” this problem … not (as you or I or any remotely competent human being with a functioning cortex might do) by MOVING OR ELIMINATING THE COLUMNS, not by OR NARROWING OR CHANGING THE SECTION OF THE COLUMNS, but … (wait for it …) by ELIMINATING THE SECOND ESCALTOR/STAIRWAY.

    Absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable, useless, sub-simian, sub-cretinous, unprofessional, inexcusable, contemptible, hateful morons.)

    Everybody involved in any way with this $4 billion fiasco needs to have their oxygen ration zeroed, immediately.

    It really is that bad. It’s worse than you can imagine. Enjoy the park!

    jim Reply:

    The story says that BART trains will be stopping in the basement come 2017. A reporter’s misconception or evidence for one of Syn’s conspiracy theories?

    synonymouse Reply:

    That does not seem likely as the great fiscal selling point of Ring the Bay is that it obviates the immediate need for any trackage north of SFO.

    As Richard has pointed out the TBT design is miserable and the tunnel is problematic and expensive as well. Then you have the urban removal and gentrification issue at Dogpatch, 4th & King, etc.

    So it is either Caltrain in a very crappy, constrained TBT basement or Ring the Bay. Now it is all up to the insiders infighting. The Cheerleaders and/or foamers really have no more say in this byzantine power struggle than the dissident technicals.

    The PB Worshippers will truly have to do happy talk overtime to hype Ring the Bay and terminus at Diridon, if it goes down that way in the end. The party line will hit thru some hard turns. Long shot, but maybe.

    Joey Reply:

    This is one of the reasons it pisses me off to no end that this design was chosen rather than the architecturally superior SOM design, which had the park only one level above grade.

    jimsf Reply:

    The SOM tower design was a god awful monstrosity that would have been a blight on the skyline forever.

    Joey Reply:

    The SOM tower, unlike the Pelli tower, actually had an interesting and unique design. But everyone I’ve talked to about this says that the competition was anything but architectural anyway.

    jimsf Reply:

    The pelli tower is sleek and understated. If you are in an ugly place like las vegas or houston, you need gaudy architecture to create interest. If you are in a beautiful setting like san francisco, there really shouldn’t be any high rises at all as the surrounding hills, water, and sky are more majestic than any buiding can be.

    One thing I don’t like about the new terminal though is the undulating exterior. I never saw the point. id actually rather see a sleek rectangular glass box

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Is that the skin around an waste to electricity building? A chemical plant perhaps? It’s not some place you expect people to go unless they are geting paid to do it, is it?

    jimsf Reply:

    apparatnely Its in Davenport
    The Figge Art Museum here, the first major American building by the British architect David Chipperfield, is a monument to that notion of good taste. Mr. Chipperfield has a knack for making Minimalism look fresh, and here he has designed a very pretty box. Tasteful almost to a fault, the building’s sharp-edged forms and carefully buffed surfaces, which have a soft, reassuring glow, will be especially comforting to those who like their world organized in neat compartments.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    all it needs is an ash elevator and smokestack or two

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/af/Ravenswood_power_plant.jpg

    Joey Reply:

    In that case we should probably move all the people out of SF anyway.

    jimsf Reply:

    well at least the half of them who arrived since 1995

    Andrew Lambdin-Abraham Reply:

    Perhaps they can set up citizen review committees to accept applications to move into neighborhoods and evict undesirable residents.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    They do that already with zoning.

    jimsf Reply:

    well, maybe its a good thing that what happens in davenport stays in davenport, or at least doesn’t make it past dubuque.

    Eric M Reply:

    San Francisco Transbay Terminal design may change. As project organizers celebrated the groundbreaking for a neighboring glass tower, they also confirmed that the terminal itself may not be covered in glass after all — instead the shell will most likely be made of perforated metal.

    jim Reply:

    This one has Amtrak “steaming” into the basement. I take it whoever briefed the reporters was somewhat offhand when it came to discussing the basement.

    synonymouse Reply:

    4449?

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    I like that!

    Alas, I miss the link with the old Key System that the earlier terminal was built for, and don’t care much for what looks like an amoeba in the renderings, either.

    A giant amoeba? Can’t help but think of the “chicken heart” science fiction thriller from the 40s or 50s, which was also satirized by Bill Cosby.

    http://thethunderchild.com/RadioDrama/LightsOut/TheChickenHeart.html

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fE0hHEtkkQA

    Eric M Reply:

    There are other articles stating the same thing about them eliminating the glass from the structure. That was the reason for posting the link, as I just picked one of the articles regardless of the rest of the content.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    There is a very simple rule for architecture: If it isn’t Baroque, don’t build it.

  10. Richard Mlynarik
    Mar 31st, 2013 at 09:28
    #10

    Correct. Nobody will use it.

    And the very best part is that out-of-control structural system required to loft this beyond-idiotic park into the sky (remember people: 1 m^3 of water weights 1 tonne, which tells you that lots of soil way up in the air is fucking heavy) makes it impossible for this so-called “transportation” project to ever serve high train passenger volumes or even low-moderate train movement volumes.

    The so-called “station” in the basement of this park-support system is an less than an afterthrought, a miserable compromised non-functional warren wedged in between the 5 and 6 foot diameter support columns, oh-so-attractively spaced a glamorous 42.5 feet apart.

    As a civil engineer involved in the project mentioned to me a couple months ago, “People are going to be really surprised when they find out how much of the space is taken up by the columns.”

    After all, this and this is the sort of outright fraudulent misrepresentation the “architects” and “professional” engineers involved in the project made to the public, while in reality this is the nightmare they are foisting upon us.

    (Want to see World Class US Transportation Professionalism and World Class US Architects at work?! CHECK THIS OUT!!!

    They seriously proposed that, just a couple years ago, with less than two feet of platform space.

    But subsequently the World Class Architects who have been paid over $100 million of you tax dollars to “design” this fucking catastrophe “fixed” this problem … not (as you or I or any remotely competent human being with a functioning cortex might do) by MOVING OR ELIMINATING THE COLUMNS, not by OR NARROWING OR CHANGING THE SECTION OF THE COLUMNS, but … (wait for it …) by ELIMINATING THE SECOND ESCALTOR/STAIRWAY.

    Absolute, unmitigated, irredeemable, useless, sub-simian, sub-cretinous, unprofessional, inexcusable, contemptible, hateful morons.)

    Everybody involved in any way with this $4 billion fiasco needs to have their oxygen ration zeroed, immediately.

    It really is that bad. It’s worse than you can imagine. Enjoy the park!

    jimsf Reply:

    take a xanax.

    Alan Reply:

    Don’t stop at one. Take the whole bottle.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to overdose on Xanax like that. Add alcohol, however, and it’s pretty easy….

  11. Reedman
    Mar 31st, 2013 at 11:09
    #11

    How accurate did the ridership projections for BART-to-SFO turn out?
    How accurate did the ridership projectons for Miami MetroRail turn out?

    From what I gather, the feds accept that projections are about a factor of three over actuals.

    synonymouse Reply:

    That is about right, except Express West “LuckyRail” will prove to be “LoseRRail” with a hype factor over threefold.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    Expo Line, if anything, underestimated ridership, and that’s the general trend for light rail.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Hiawatha Line. LA Blue Line. Houston METRORail. Charlotte. Seattle. The trend in the last 20 years has been toward convergence between projections and actual ridership, and nowadays there is no systemic bias.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The River Line in New Jersey, the FTA said it wouldn’t get more than 1,500 riders a day. Soon after it opened it was carrying 6,000 and is at capacity during rush hour now. Midtown Direct service was supposed to build slowly to the point where they would run out of capacity through the tunnels to Manhattan in 2010 or so and they were at capacity within a year.

    synonymouse Reply:

    World of difference between light rail and LoseRRail.

    Primary difference off the top is that light rail generally replaces already busy urban bus lines.

    There is no passenger train to Sin City nor over the Tehachapi Loop. Amtrak does not seem to be interested in service on either..

    Wdobner Reply:

    World of difference between light rail and LoseRRail.

    You’re right, with those garden spots of the universe, Camden and Trenton, NJ as the anchor cities the outcome of the River Line’s ridership was a HELL of a lot less certain than it has ever been with respect to the CHSRA’s system, regardless of the alignment California chooses.

    Primary difference off the top is that light rail generally replaces already busy urban bus lines.

    Except it didn’t. NJT left parallel bus service intact and most of the ridership Mr. Adirondacker references are induced trips. You know, the kind you claim will never happen with CHSRA.

    There is no passenger train to Sin City nor over the Tehachapi Loop.

    You have the pound of flesh and couple dozen miles of gold plated double/triple Union Pacific wants before they’ll allow the San Joaquins over their tracks beyond Bakersfield? Again, for all your ranting and raving on the matter of corruption and graft within the HSR project you readily accept another company’s rather transparent rent-seeking as an excuse why something cannot or should not be done.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Where in the multiverse is there a planet where the UP could be more “rent-seeking” than PB?

    Alon Levy Reply:

    What you say is the primary difference is the least interesting difference. In the early 1980s, the light rail lines also replaced urban bus lines, and still their ridership underperformed expectations. All the data from back then points out to cost overruns and ridership shortfalls; it’s just that the forecasts got better, especially in response to the first major American study on this, by Pickrell in 1992, after which ridership forecasts got a lot more accurate.

    The most interesting difference, to me, is that there are 30 years of history of urban transit construction in the US to go on, and 0 years of history of HSR. The forecasting models are as good in theory as the ones that predict most new light rail lines’ ridership to within ~10%, but the numbers haven’t been calibrated with any American lines since there aren’t any, and foreign lines have different levels of connecting transit quality making comparisons less than perfectly reliable.

    (One of the reasons I support DesertXpress, and even more so supported Florida HSR, is that it’s a small line that could be a test case for those models. You’d rather find your models are shit after spending $6 billion on Victorville-Vegas rather than after spending $50 billion on LA-SF.)

    synonymouse Reply:

    A proper and 21st century “UHSR” LA-SF line will not be “shit” in any event. Two conurbations of at least 20 million and 10 million laid out geographically not too differently from the East Coast.

    Express enough, fast enough, competently managed, it is a guaranteed success just as certainly as a dumbed-down detoured substitute will disappoint and prove a drain.

    I wonder if Schwarzie was(is) actually smarter than Brown. As dumb as it was under Diridon and Kopp the CHSRA may have actually declined after becoming even more politicized under Brown, who is utterly oblivious, probably impaired like Reagan. I suggest you can take a failed Orphan ARRA testtrack to the bank. Successful hsr will probably come to the NEC first.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Even with the Tehachapi detour, even if you still use Tejon to compute distance for average speed purposes, the projected average speed is in the 240 km/h area, which is on a par with the faster Shinkansen and TGV runs and better than anything in Germany, Italy, and South Korea. The effect of these things on ridership is there, but it’s on the margins. To pull numbers ex recto, say 60 million via Tejon and 56 million via Tehachapi (the difference is 10 minutes, i.e. about 6% of travel time, and the elasticity of in-train travel time isn’t that huge).

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Both routes have been around since the 1830s. Neither of them are light rail. The River Line carries passengers in vehicles normally seen along streetcar routes and runs on streetcar track in Camden but most of the route is heavy freight rail – it carries freight overnight.

  12. D. P. Lubic
    Mar 31st, 2013 at 13:29
    #12

    Off topic, but of interest–a documentary on the engineering of the Shinkansen:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&v=yDjELN3BeTo&NR=1

Comments are closed.