Free the Rail Ridership Committee!

APRIL 27, 2011

You’d think that an agency spending millions of dollars on public relations would know to discuss one of its most controversial issues in public, where outside experts and members of the public can steadily review any and all findings. But the California High-Speed Rail Authority isn’t like that.

At issue is the authority’s Ridership Peer Review Committee. Executive Director Roelef van Ark set it up in November 2010 to work over the proposed project’s rather controversial ridership projections of 88 million to 117 million passengers riding each year by 2030. What’s more, the authority says their 800-mile bullet train network will draw away 12 million of the projected 33 million air passengers, as well as 50 million of the supposed 911 million auto drivers, by 2030.

These numbers have drawn considerable fire. In fact, last summer the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies concluded that the authority’s ridership model was “flawed at key decision-making junctures.”

In response to criticisms like the Berkeley study, van Ark convened the Peer Review Committee. Made up of five transportation experts from around the world, the committee appears on paper to be just the thing to revamp the rail authority’s ridership model. Except, of course, that it has an entirely different job.

“Skeptics use ridership issue to cast doubt on the project, as it is difficult to challenge or disprove,” van Ark said in a PowerPoint presentation given during the Peer Review Committee’s first meeting, on January 10 of this year, and obtained by “We need to build credibility to ensure successful future for the project.

From that first meeting, van Ark made clear that the committee would do no more than “refine” and “enhance” the existing ridership model, according to the PowerPoint presentation. “Model has been an appropriate tool to support environmental and planning-level analysis to date,” read one slide. “New model enhancements will support investment and operating/design decisions.”

A Lot of Questions

How they will go about doing this is unknown. The panel is supposed to meet quarterly, and then release a final report after about two years. But their interim work is masked in secrecy because both the authority and the committee members themselves are loath to talk about their work.

Indeed, when I first contacted Peter Kavadeles, a representative of Ogilvy Public Relations — an outside PR firm contracted by the rail authority — and asked whether the peer review committee had released any kind of report on their actions, he emailed back an “off the record” message that they had not.

When I responded that such a message was odd, and that I would need some kind of “on the record” response to my question, he followed through a few hours later with the following quote from rail authority deputy director Jeff Barker: “The Ridership Peer Review Committee has not yet delivered any report to the Authority.”

I ran into more roadblocks when I tried to contact the committee members directly.

“Our official findings and reports will be delivered directly to the High Speed Rail Authority as our work is complete,” Chairman Frank Koppelman, a professor emeritus at Northwestern, emailed me in a message strikingly similar to that of the other members I contacted. “All of the panel members are contractually bound by a confidentiality agreement with HSRA. If you have questions about reports completed to date, please speak with the High Speed Rail Authority directly. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.”

Indeed, the same confidentiality agreement that binds all rail authority planning and engineering contractors also holds true for the peer review committee members. Reads the confidentiality clause in the committee members’ contracts:

All financial, statistical, personal, technical and other data and information relating to the State’s operation which are designated confidential by the State and made available to the Contractor in carrying out this contract, shall be protected by the Contractor from unauthorized use and disclosure.

Funny Numbers

The contracts, which were obtained by Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) — a Palo Alto-based citizens group — also show the committee members are being extremely well paid for the work. Koppelman, for instance, will make $400 per hour for a maximum of 16.5 days, which comes out to $49,600. The other members will receive slightly less, between $225 and $350 an hour.

For all of these reasons, CARRD activists feel the peer review committee is nothing more than a star chamber that will whitewash already bad data. “You can’t make this model work,” said Elizabeth Alexis, an economist and member of CARRD. “The demand is just not there — not even close. People don’t understand the magnitude of how far off the numbers are.”

– Anthony Pignataro


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  1. Anthony Pignataro
    Anthony Pignataro 28 April, 2011, 07:36

    One small clarification: the payment figures cited above are only through March 31 of this year. New contracts are apparently in the works, as the committee is supposed to be around for two years…

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