GAO report: California high-speed rail estimates ‘reasonable’

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“GAO also found the travel-demand-modeling process used to generate these forecasts followed generally accepted travel- demand-modeling practices,” the assessment said. “For example, the authority revised several assumptions, such as gasoline price forecasts, to reflect changes in current and anticipated future conditions. However, additional updates, such as the development of a new travel survey, will be necessary to further refine these forecasts and improve the model's utility to make future decisions. External peer review groups have also recommended additional updates.”

The GAO placed blame for problems with the estimates on the Federal Railroad Administration, which the report said “issued limited guidance for preparing cost estimates, and this guidance did not reflect best practices in the Cost Guide.”

The GAO recommended that the railroad agency improve its rules for estimating the costs of new projects, adding that California officials did follow the existing standards.

The California high-speed railway has emerged as a point of contention between Democrats and Republicans because it is the centerpiece of President Obama’s proposal for a network of nationwide railways that would eventually rival the interstate highway system.

The California railway received the largest portion of $8 billion that was included in the 2009 economic stimulus package for rail development, and the project was awarded money that was turned down by other states including Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Plans call for trains that would run 220 miles per hour on an 800-mile route if the California railway is ultimately constructed.

Republicans have argued that the trains will not attract enough riders to cover the cost of its operations. The GOP has also seized on reports that emerged last fall that the cost of building the line would increase from $33 billion to $98 billion.

The GAO said in its report that organizers of the potential railway “met some, but not all of the best practices in GAO's Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide (Cost Guide) for producing cost estimates that are accurate, comprehensive, well documented, and credible.”

The report acknowledged validity to some of the GOP’s arguments, saying “by not following all best practices, there is increased risk of such things as cost overruns, missed deadlines, and unmet performance targets.”

But the GAO said the California High-Speed Rail Authority “did a comprehensive job in identifying the potential economic impacts of the high-speed rail project."

“This includes identification of user impacts, such as effects on travel time reliability, and non-user impacts, such as effects on highway congestion,” the report said.