High-speed rail ridership estimates no longer outdated and unbelievable – Orange County Register

The California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority’s latest business plan includes a new, higher $105 billion price tag, but the plan also stands out for what it lacks. The draft 2022 business plan does not provide updated ridership and revenue estimates, but rather relies on forecasts first published in January 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority is providing taxpayers and lawmakers with outdated analysis ahead of a costly policy decision on the system.

The rail authority says it is working on a new and improved model and that “updated forecasts of ridership and revenue generated by the new model will be presented in the 2023 Project Update Report at the Legislative Assembly”.

The just-released 2022 plan still uses January 2020 ridership analysis, conducted by Cambridge Systematics, which projects California’s population will grow to 42.81 million when rail service is expected to begin in 2029 and to 45.87 million in 2040. However, recent Department of Financial population estimates show that the state’s population growth stalled and then reversed during the pandemic, not only due to an excess deaths, but also due to a drop in births and emigration.

Even before the pandemic began, California seemed to be following the path of Illinois and the northeastern states that saw their populations decline for several years. It is now plausible that California’s population, 39.3 million in 2021, could remain below 40 million for the foreseeable future.

Not only can California expect fewer people than the business plan predicts, but those people are likely less likely to use rail transportation than expected. The rise of remote working and online meetings has reduced commuting and business travel, respectively. While the transition from pandemic to endemic conditions is expected to entice more people to return to offices, conference centers and the modes of travel that take them there, online experiences have proven to be an effective alternative in many many cases and they can be expected to keep a large part of the gains. they did during the pandemic.

By comparison, Amtrak’s intercity San Joaquins line declined slightly in each of the five fiscal years prior to the pandemic, suggesting a long-term abandonment of intercity rail travel in the Central Valley. The train, which connects Bakersfield to the Bay Area and runs parallel to much of the original high-speed rail operating segment, saw a 59% drop in ridership from just under 1 .1 million passengers in fiscal year 2019 (just before the pandemic) to just over 400,000 passengers in fiscal year 2021 ending September 30.

While we haven’t seen projections for Amtrak ridership in San Joaquins going forward, we do know that telecommuting, reduced train usage, and other changes in travel patterns are making that the San Francisco Bay Area rapid transit system only expects to recover 70% of its pre-pandemic ridership. over the next decade, by 2032.

Given these developments, it is harder than ever to believe that California’s high-speed rail system will be able to attract the 38.6 million annual passengers in 2040 that it predicts in its “Medium Ridership” scenario. Equally unlikely is the forecast of 8.6 million passengers for 2032, when the high-speed rail portion is supposed to operate along the 171 miles between Bakersfield and Merced, although some of those projected passengers would be on lower-speed segments. connecting San Jose and Sacrament.

As state lawmakers decide to issue an additional $4 billion in high-speed rail bonds this spring, they should have the best and most up-to-date information possible to make informed decisions. By failing to provide timely updates to ridership and revenue forecasts, the California High-Speed ​​Rail Authority is providing policymakers — and taxpayers — with insufficient data to answer the question of whether the high-speed train can cover its operating costs as required by proposal 1A.

With operating losses looking increasingly likely, state leaders should have new, up-to-date estimates of the extent of those financial losses and where the money will come from to cover them. Honest observers may disagree about whether continuing to build the high-speed rail system is the right policy for California. But we must all agree that the debate on this policy must be informed by current and objective data.

Marc Joffe is a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.

Jose P. Rogers