In a seminal 1992 study of the effects of the federal funding system, however, transportation economist Don H. Pickrell found that cities favored expensive capital projects over improved bus systems, largely because that was where the money was. The funding system had produced an incentive to overestimate ridership and underestimate costs. And why not: local agencies weren’t held accountable for the accuracy of their forecasts.
“You had grade inflation,” said David Levinson, the CTS Chair in Transportation Planning at the University of Minnesota. “Forecasts were being abused to achieve a particular outcome because there was a lot of money at stake.”
Levinson agrees that ridership forecasting is better today than it was. “There are probably still a few places you could stick your thumb on the scale, but not as many,” he said.
“They are better, without doubt, because the grossest abuses have been exposed and people don’t want to be embarrassed by having that be done again,” said Martin Wachs, professor emeritus in urban and regional planning at UCLA. “The boundaries are more demanding today than they were a decade or two ago.”
The FTA rules and guidelines also have the ability to produce underestimates of ridership, something that isn’t exactly unwelcome for transit agencies. “Agencies will use high forecasts to sell the project, then lower the forecasts so they can exceed that forecast when it opens,” Levi[n]son said.
… forecasters look at how people actually live and travel. Rather than count a trip from home to work as one trip and a trip from home to school as another, for example, the new method recognizes that people might go from home to work to lunch to the dentist and then to home. “We’re modeling what people actually do,” Filipi said.
Levinson, who is one of the experts conducting a peer review of the new models (which won’t be in place until after SWLRT is funded), agrees, saying the activity-based method more accurately capture how people actually use transit. “You can’t choose a car for going from work to lunch if you didn’t take a car to work,” he said.
For all the sophisticated modeling, though, both Wachs and Levinson concede that it’s impossible to separate the technical aspects of forecasting from the politics. Levinson, for example, said forecasts of costs and ridership are not used to determine which localities win federal money but to justify those decisions.
“If [Rep. Martin] Sabo and [Rep. James] Oberstar are well placed, their projects will get funded because it’s not just on cost effectiveness or ridership,” Levinson said of former congressmen who backed the region’s first light rail line.
“Certainly the FTA bureaucrats see their job as being objective and their purpose as being honest,” Wachs said. “But they are strongly influenced by politically elected officials whose goal is to bring money to their project rather than see it go to another state.”
Local agencies should have an interest in not overbuilding or not building at all if the ridership isn’t there. And general managers who have to operate those systems do worry about unsustainable projects, Wachs said. But the elected officials are more interested in “ribbon-cutting” and figure that by the time the operating shortfalls appear, they’ll be out of the picture.