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AP Enterprise: True rail ridership figures elusive

November 6, 2011 • Business


In this photo taken Friday, Nov. 4, 2011, passengers depart Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor train in Davis, Calif. The new business plan for building California’s $98 billion high-speed rail project estimates that between 23 million and 34 million passengers will use the system by the time bullet trains traverse the state two decades from now. If those numbers don’t pan out, taxpayers could be on the hook for billions of dollars a year in operating expenses.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The new business plan for building California’s $98 billion high-speed rail project estimates that between 23 million and 34 million passengers will use the system by the time bullet trains traverse the state two decades from now.

If those numbers fail to pan out, taxpayers could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars a year in operating expenses.

Getting the number right is crucial to avoid public subsidies in the future, but predicting ridership is complicated and in some ways a guessing game. It relies on unknowns such as future gas prices and airline taxes, population growth, traffic patterns and even technology that has yet to be invented.

The latest ridership numbers for the voter-approved system already are well below the authority’s projections from two years ago. At that time, planners hoped to complete the first full phase from Anaheim to San Francisco by 2020 and draw 41 million riders a year by 2035.

In its latest business plan, released this week, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has given a wide range of ridership predictions, underscoring the difficulty in determining how many people will want to ride what would be the nation’s first, true high-speed rail line.

The first projection, for 2025, estimates anywhere from 5.9 million to 10.8 million riders on the first sections of track completed, depending on whether the Central Valley line connects to northern or southern California. The gap between high and low ridership projections for the entire system grows to 11 million by 2035, two years after the first phase would be completed.

The business plan says the rail system would be profitable enough to pay for its own Login to read more

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