California’s High Speed Rail Authority is facing one of its most critical and crowded agendas Thursday, including a review of controversial ridership estimates used to predict the financial success of the $43 billion proposed rail system and a revolt by five Bay Area cities that want the program halted.

The accuracy of the ridership projections provided by a Rail Authority subcontractor was called into question last week by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, who said the figures were so unreliable that it is impossible to predict whether high speed rail would succeed financially or fail.

Representatives of the subcontractor, Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics, are scheduled to make a presentation to the board, defending their research.

“Cambridge Systematics, Inc. (CS) stands firmly behind the ridership and revenue model our experts have created for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the California High-Speed Rail Authority,” the company said in a statement posted to its website. The statement added, “… we emphatically disagree with the authors’ conclusions that the ridership and revenue model is not reliable.”

The ridership isssue is not the authority’s only problem — an audit report found that the the project suffered from bad management and lax oversite.

California voters in 2008 approved $9 billion to begin construction of the rail system with the caveat that it pay for itself once it’s up and running. In addition, state rail officials hope to attract outside investors to help offset costs.

If the ridership projections are wrong, it could scare off investors or leave taxpayers holding the bag for an underused rail system after those who currently are planning it are long gone.

During the meeting, the Rail Authority’s nine-member board of directors also must:

  • Contend with a revolt by five Bay Area cities that want the state to halt the project until issues involving routes and finances, as well as ridership, have been resolved. The San Francisco Business Times reported that Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belmont and Burlingame leaders are concerned that rail officials are rushing ahead so fast that they’re not planning the project well.
  • Receive a presentation from the Gateway Cities Council of Governments, a group of southeast Los Angeles County communities concerned about area transportation issues, including the impact of high-speed rail.
  • Discuss stations and alignments between Los Angeles and Anaheim, an area of serious concern to communities like Buena Park, which at one point faced the prospect of having its new rail station torn down to make room for a high speed rail system.
  • Elect someone to chair the Rail Authority for the next year. Current Chairman (and Anaheim Mayor) Curt Pringle is eligible to be elected for another year, but his term on the high speed rail board ends in December.

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