February 25th the 7th Annual Farm Bureau Regional Conference, CEO Roelof Van Ark of the High Speed Rail Authority was billed as the featured speaker. He spoke about the impact on agricultural land and also made statements about ridership and financing.
However Van Ark was not the star of the show: the most impactful statements were made by Congressman Jeff Denham. The newly elected Congressman, started his speech by passing around his voting card to the audience. As it passed hand to hand he explained it was required on the floor each time he votes. He told the audience” it was not my voting card, it’s your vote” since they elected him. After an update on Federal budget negotiations and a discussion of the number one concern, local water issues, Denham stated he was working on the Federal Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of which High Speed Rail is part of. He clearly stated his concerns and objections concerning the way the project was proceeding in California.
“If it’s not on time, it’s not on budget, if it’s not off our ag land, we don’t need it,” said Denham. He continued,” Other states have said enough is enough. We don’t want it in our state and California continues to be a money grab for our high speed rail.”
Denham reminded the audiences that when the proposition for HSR was sold to the voters, it was supposed to be $33 billion and pointed out it’s now $65 billion and added that the project haven’t seen a private investor on the building side or the on-going project so we have to make sure this project this doesn’t become an annual subsidy like Amtrak.
Regarding jobs, he wants to make sure we’re not creating jobs for High Speed rail and cutting the jobs in Agriculture. His wish is to move the money from High Speed Rail for Hwy 99 immediately to get products to market and get jobs started today.
And later that week, CBS Fresno posted a 24 hour poll and out of 320 votes, 91% agreed with Congressman Denham, Hwy 99 should be expanded rather than spending the money on the high speed train.
During his speech, CEO Van Ark agreed that the Rail Authority’s communication and outreach had been lacking and blamed his staff inadequacies for those failings. He also tried to dispel myths about the strength of wind associated with passing High Speed Rail trains. Van Ark said if you stood 10’ away from the train, the wind effect would be no more than 10 mph wind gust due to the aerodynamic structure of the train. He didn’t offer any further explanation. He no doubt mentioned this due to concerns farmers had about the effect of the wind on bee pollination, essential to crop production.
According to Van Ark, they are getting input from agriculture people all over the world, he stated agricultural works well with High Speed rail. Farmers work adjacent to the train. He also assured the audience that the High Speed Rail Authority understands they have to consider compensation for losses concerning land and crops and the time it would take to develop new crops. The Rail Authority promised to develop an Agriculture Working Group to work with the communities.
Addressing other concerns that have been expressed about HSRA’s planning, Van Ark, tried to explain that criticism of ridership modeling is very common around the world. He explained that it’s a computer based modeling exercise and you use the people that are the best in the world. What they do is go out to people in the state and ask them questions, use economic input, economic growth data and the cost of fuel. You then take all the factors, the economy, the people, the surveys and run the model, stress test it to make sure the model is behaving correctly. He explained this was done and it was heavily criticized.
He went on to say that he put a peer review group together of “five of the most respected people in the world” to do a peer review of the ridership model. One of the people is from U.C. Berkeley, the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), which is the group who did a peer review of the modeling once previously.
On financing, Van Ark says, a project of this nature has to be paid for to a great extent by the government. He said it’s no different than anywhere else in the world but said that in the California system there can be no operating subsidy – – meaning that whatever tickets the operator sells, it has to cover all the operating costs plus pay the private investor for the money put into the project. He also said that all other real high speed rail systems operate as a transportation alternative people take instead of the airlines or automobiles because it is cost and time competitive. By real high speed rail he was separating it from commuter or city rail systems.
Van Ark asserted that real high speed rail everywhere in the world is cash positive. “Don’t get me wrong it doesn’t mean it pays off the infrastructure costs” but it does in all instances pay for the operating cost, the depots, the rolling stock etc. “Everywhere in the world, real High Speed rail can be positive and profitable.”
At the Press Brief, Van Ark was asked: “UC Berkeley, ITS has said the ridership numbers are unreliable to predict the profitability or the loss of the system. Other than the Authority’s own created peer review committee, do you intend to work with the original UC Berkeley, ITS group to run some scenarios which they have suggested to test the numbers?”
Van Ark replied that the discussions he had with UC Berkeley and Irvine professors indicated that they did not have time to work on our peer review group and they allocated to us Professor Ken Small to be part of the peer review of the ridership studies.
Van Ark continued, “Doing ridership studies and ridership modeling is a very complicated system which costs million of dollars. It does not matter where you do them, if you started from scratch again; it would cost further millions of tax-payers dollars. At this stage I see no reason why one should start a new model when the existing model is being peer reviewed by exactly the same people. At this stage, I do not understand or feel there is a need to begin a new model on this program.”
Note: Professor Ken Small was not part of the original ITS team who reviewed the Cambridge Systematics Model who discovered flaws in the model.
Elizabeth Alexis, an econometrics expert from Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) said it would take less than a day’s work and would not cost taxpayers millions of dollars. http://www.youtube Elizabeth on ridership
Simply checking the original ridership numbers is not a material cost and could in fact save billions of dollars in future subsidies if a High Speed Rail System is overbuilt.