While ARTIC, Anaheim’s gleaming new transportation hub, has certainly made an architectural statement along the 57 Freeway, its initial ridership numbers are lagging way behind estimates, according to figures from December, its first month of operation.
When Anaheim officials were selling the public on ARTIC, which stands for Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, they said nearly 3,000 train boardings would take place starting with opening day in 2014.
That’s not what happened. ARTIC opened Dec. 8, and daily train boardings in Anaheim for that month averaged less than 800, according to data from the Orange County Transportation Authority.
Critics, who since ARTIC’s inception have characterized it as a public works boondoggle built on the false promise of a high-speed rail terminus, say they knew all along that the actual ridership numbers wouldn’t live up to the city’s projections.
“I’m not surprised because the entire project was oversold,” said Transportation Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeffrey Lalloway, an ARTIC critic who wasn’t on the board when the project was approved. “It will under-deliver.”
City officials, meanwhile, say such pronouncements are premature for a facility designed to accommodate decades of commuter growth. They also say the “opening day” ridership estimate highlighted in a city PowerPoint on ARTIC actually meant “first year.”
“The facility has been very successful,” said Public Works Director Natalie Meeks. “If you go out there and look at the parking lot, even during the day, there’s lots of people using it. There’s lots of cars out there.”
However, when former Mayor Curt Pringle and other officials were pitching the project years ago, they offered more specifics than “lots of cars.”
Inflated Ridership Estimates
City officials claimed that ARTIC would have over 10,000 riders on its various transit services – including buses, taxis, airport shuttles and trains – by opening day.
That estimate came from a 2009 project needs assessment study by Los Angeles-based Cordoba Corp. That assessment has since proven to be off on a variety of levels.
To begin with, it over-estimated by hundreds the daily ridership in the year the study was done. Cordoba said the city’s previous station would see 782 daily boardings for Metrolink and 487 for Amtrak in 2009. By 2013, when ARTIC was first expected to open, that number would rise to 1,600 for Metrolink and 575 for Amtrak, the study said.
However, 2009 only saw 421 Metrolink boardings and 453 for Amtrak, according to figures provided by the Transportation Authority and gathered from the rail agencies.
And in 2013, Metrolink ridership was 527, the figures show. That’s only one-third of the ridership Cordoba had projected. Amtrak, which came in at 431, was also short of the projected number.
Those involved with the ARTIC project are now reluctant to talk about the projections. A Cordoba representative said the company provided its methodology and assumptions to OCTA and deferred all questions to that agency.
An OCTA spokesman deferred questions about the projections to the city.
City spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz, in a statement emailed to Voice of OC, pointed out that the study details its own justifications for the numbers, and that it was “based on the best information available at the time.”
“The [Great Recession] delayed the plans of some service providers to significantly expand service levels but we still anticipate significant growth of services and ridership in the future,” Ruiz wrote.
The recession certainly played a role, but does not explain everything, critics say. In fact, figures from Amtrak and Metrolink show train boardings declining in Anaheim even as the economic recovery has picked up steam.
Perhaps the most important source for Cordoba’s study is Metrolink, which predicted a major spike in ridership based on an ambitious plan known as the Metrolink Service Expansion Program, according to the study.
By 2010, the program was supposed to increase the number of trains that stop at the Anaheim station from 19 trains to “at least 45,” the study states. The idea was to roll out a “high-frequency intra-county” rail service.
But the recession caused a massive decline in sales tax revenue, and the expansion program was scaled back to include only six new intra-county trains, according to a Transportation Authority staff report.
And even that modest service addition failed to meet expectations. The six new trains averaged only 28 passengers per train, the report states.
This had a two-fold impact on Cordoba’s ridership estimates. It dramatically reduced the number of Metrolink passengers, but it also affected estimates for thousands of riders on other transit services – resort transit, Transportation Authority and employer buses and taxis, among others – which were based on the Metrolink projections.
Yet even though the Transportation Authority board decided in early 2011 to significantly curtail the expansion, officials continued to use Cordoba’s estimates.
In September, 2011, the Transportation Authority presented an environmental assessment for the ARTIC project to the Federal Transit Authority that included the outdated ridership projections from Cordoba’s study. This occurred several months after the Transportation Authority board had cut the expansion program that was one of the most important assumptions in Cordoba’s estimates.
A few months later, city-hired transportation consultant Richard Wilson wrote in a memo to the city’s transit manager that Cordoba’s 1,600 ridership projection for Metrolink was an “overestimate,” citing weak economic conditions and the curtailment of the train service expansion plan.
In addition to a service expansion that didn’t materialize, train boardings have also not lived up to predictions that the economic recovery would boost ridership.
According to OCTA figures for the Anaheim station, Metrolink and Amtrak ridership showed modest increases between 2009 and 2011.
But since 2012, Metrolink ridership declined 10.8 percent at the station. And despite reports of increases across the state, Amtrak ridership at the Anaheim station has declined 32.2 percent over the last two years, the figures show.
Why Amtrak boardings at Anaheim have declined so sharply is unclear. Amtrak representatives did not return a phone call seeking comment, and city officials didn’t directly address it when presented with the figures.
Other transit services that were expected to serve ARTIC, such as the LAX Airport Fly-Away bus and other special transit services, have yet to materialize, the Orange County Register pointed out in a 2013 article questioning ridership projections. Those services accounted for nearly 4,000 of the projected riders, according to the article.
All this has critics saying, essentially, we told you so.
“I think it’s certainly a beautiful piece of architecture,” said Transportation Authority board Director Michael Hennessey of the 120-foot translucent shell that covers 56,000 square feet. “But I don’t think the project has done anything to facilitate transportation… in my view the case was never made for it. And the numbers show it.”
Central to the case for ARTIC was high-speed rail. In 2009, officials said ARTIC would one day be the southern-most terminus for the state’s proposed high-speed rail line.
But the financing plan for high-speed rail is billions of dollars short, and, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the rail line will ever make it as far south as Anaheim. In Orange County, there is widespread skepticism over whether high-speed rail will ever make it to Anaheim.
“I think until someone comes up with a budget and a plan to build track between Bakersfield and Palmdale, it’s largely irrelevant to the citizens of Southern California,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson told the Register.
The bulk of the $185 million ARTIC project cost was paid for by Orange County taxpayers with a special half-percent sales tax known as Measure M2.
But it’s Anaheim’s taxpayers that will shoulder the annual operating and maintenance expenses for ARTIC, which is several times over the cost to run train stations in other nearby cities.
For example, the Irvine train station saw 1,900 boardings a day in fiscal year 2013-14, according to city provided figures. That’s well over twice as many as ARTIC.
The cost to operate and maintain the Irvine train station annually is $485,000.
That cost for ARTIC is expected to be $4.7 million, nearly 10 times what it costs to run the Irvine station.
Anaheim officials say that’s not a fixed number and will likely change as the city assesses the station’s actual needs. As things stand now, ARTIC is generating some revenue from tenant leases, but it’s not enough to cover the annual operating cost.
A large billboard that was expected to bring in an additional $800,000 in revenue was rejected after a torrent of opposition from residents. And a corporate naming rights broker has worked for a year without being able to secure a deal.
Meeks said that their naming rights broker, Superlative Group, has told city officials that it would “take a while” before a deal is done, and that waiting a year isn’t unusual.
All that leads to a general fund hit of $3 million to $4 million annually, depending on how the annual cost is adjusted.
In the long-term, Meeks said the city plans to earn revenue from the development of land around ARTIC, and there are other plans to rent out the large amount of building space for special events.
“It’s a new facility, and it’s going to take a while,” to setup the facility’s revenue sources, Meeks said.
In the short-term its looking like taxpayers will foot the bill.