State rail officials are defending as reasonable their estimates that passengers will take at least 29 million trips a year on high-speed trains between San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2040.
In car-loving California, state High-Speed Rail Authority board members say, it will take only a small share of the millions of trips now being made by car and airplane to switch to trains to make the project profitable.
"If you look at the long-term projections for rides in this state," said Michael Rossi, an authority board member and former vice president of Bank of America, "we only need less than 3% total ride changes [to high-speed trains] from cars and aviation to break even, and more of that will come from cars than aviation."
View High-speed rail ridership in a larger map
The authority's board members are going on the offensive in hopes of turning public opinion back in favor of their bullet-train plans. Critics have railed against the business plan for the project, which calls for a 520-mile Phase 1 connecting the Bay Area and Los Angeles/Anaheim, and ultimately an 800-mile system when lines are extended to Sacramento and San Diego.
New ridership estimates released in a Nov. 1 business plan are critical to making the case that high-speed trains can attract enough passengers to cover operating costs. Proposition 1A, a $9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008, requires that the train system operate without public subsidies after the tracks and infrastructure are built.
Rossi and board chairman Dan Richard said the authority has tried to aim low with its new projections, using the least advantageous combinations of factors to plug into a complex formula.
"If you look at the inputs to the model, it's pretty hard to find one that's biased to the high side," Richard said.
"We used gasoline prices that are $1.20 a gallon below what Caltrans uses for planning. We used population numbers that are below the lowest Department of Finance projections. We used lower vehicle-efficiency levels. We make the worst assumptions on the proportion of business travel, which is what uses most of the high-speed rail."
The result produces low-end estimates of 2,700 boardings each day in Fresno, 3,200 in Merced and 2,800 in Bakersfield when the rail system reaches all the way to its proposed ends in San Francisco and Los Angeles/Anaheim.
The question remains: Where would all those passengers come from?
Among all modes of transportation -- automobiles, airplanes, buses and trains -- about 250,000 trips are made daily -- more than 91 million per year -- between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the authority reported. That number is expected to grow as California's population grows.
San Francisco International Airport spokesman Michael McCarron said there are more than 500 flights a week between San Francisco and airports in the Los Angeles Basin, including Los Angeles International, Burbank, Ontario and Santa Ana.
Three of the five busiest Amtrak routes in the nation are the Pacific Surfliner -- between San Diego and San Luis Obispo -- the Capitol Corridor -- connecting Sacramento to San Jose and Oakland -- and the San Joaquin route through the Central Valley. The three services carried more than 5.4 million riders in 2011, a record for the combined services.
Some of the harshest criticism to the rail authority's estimates has come from Valley lawmakers.
Republican congressmen Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, in an op-ed piece in The Bee, described the authority's projections as "hope and fanciful estimations, not facts."
They pointed to the gap between those projections and 2010 ridership in Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, the nation's busiest rail line.
Using that comparison, the congressmen wrote, "we see how ridiculous those numbers seem."
In 2010, 10.3 million people rode Amtrak between Boston and Washington, D.C. "That's 19 million fewer passengers than California's 'low' estimation," they wrote.
Rail officials suggested that it was deceptive for the congressmen to compare ridership today in the Northeast with projected ridership in California nearly 30 years from now. "That's like comparing my ability today to dunk a basketball to my ability in 1962, when I could definitely dunk a basketball," Rossi said. "There's no comparison there. ... In fact, they've even got the wrong numbers."
California's ridership estimates for 2040 were generated by computer models based on high-speed trains that can make the 500-mile trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours, 40 minutes.
Amtrak's current service on the Northeast Corridor is a combination of conventional trains that make the 456-mile trip between Boston and Washington, D.C., in about 8 hours, and higher-speed Acela Express trains that shorten the trip to 6 hours 40 minutes. Those services combined for the 10.3 million riders in 2010. By 2040, Amtrak projects ridership in the Northeast Corridor to grow to 23.4 million as the region's population increases.
Amtrak is planning to develop its own "next generation" high-speed rail line, similar to California's system, in the Northeast Corridor. Amtrak forecasts that the project would boost train ridership on the corridor to between 34 million and 43 million a year by 2040, compared to California's 2040 estimates of 29 million on the low end and 43 million on the high end.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has committed about $3.5 billion to California to build the first section of the high-speed rail system in the San Joaquin Valley from north of Madera to Bakersfield.
The state must match that with about $2.8 billion from Prop. 1A. Construction would begin within a year and be completed by the fall of 2017.
Once the initial construction section is completed from Merced to Bakersfield, additional stretches of track would be added -- either northwest to the Bay Area or south toward the Los Angeles Basin -- before high-speed trains would begin carrying passengers.
Even a partial network of trains running from the north end of the San Joaquin Valley to the Los Angeles Basin would need only to attract 2.2 million riders a year by 2022 to break even on operations and maintenance, rail authority members said.
Amtrak's current San Joaquin route, with trains running from either Oakland or Sacramento, through Stockton and the San Joaquin Valley to Bakersfield with connecting bus service to Los Angeles, set a record last year with more than 1 million trips for the first time in 37 years of service.
In the Southland, trains from Los Angeles' Metrolink service provide about 1.5 million trips a year between Los Angeles and Palmdale.
Between the Amtrak San Joaquin trains and the L.A.-Palmdale Metrolink trains, "that's about 2.5 million riders in those corridors today," Richard said.
"If we actually close that gap down there with high-speed trains," Richard said of the distance between Bakersfield and Palmdale, "we only need 2.2 million -- and that's 10 years from now, with better and faster service -- to break even."
The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6319.