Calif. bullet train consultant ties questioned

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — A $400-an-hour consultant who was hired to judge the accuracy of ridership estimates for California’s proposed bullet train once worked for the company that prepares them.

Frank S. Koppelman worked for Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics Inc. on two projects before taking his job with the California High-Speed Rail Authority in 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported. He also has a close relationship with Kimon Proussaloglou, a Cambridge executive vice president in charge of forecasting services.

Koppelman, a professor emeritus of civil engineering at Northwestern University, heads the five-member ridership review panel that assesses Cambridge’s estimates. Ridership figures are crucial in helping determine revenues from the line and thus whether it can operate without government subsidies.

The rail project, which spans the Bay Area to Southern California, was approved by state voters in 2008. It stalled last fall after a draft plan said the project’s cost had more than doubled, from $45 billion to $98 billion.

A revised plan released last week gave a new price tag of $68.4 billion, a cost Brown and other backers hope will be more palatable to lawmakers. He is expected to ask lawmakers in the coming weeks to appropriate $2.3 billion in voter-approved bonds. If the Legislature approves the borrowing, construction could begin later this year.

Cambridge’s projections have dropped sharply over the years. The latest low-end estimate is around 20 million passengers a year by 2040.

Critics have called Cambridge’s figures unreliable but Koppelman’s panel concluded last fall that the projections are reasonable.

Koppelman worked for Cambridge advising transit agencies in Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. He told the Times that his work for the company ended in 2009. His work and his friendship with Proussaloglou have not compromised his ability to judge Cambridge’s work, he said.

“In my mind, there is no conflict of interest,” he said.

Few consultants in the transportation industry have expertise in travel forecasting and it would be difficult for the rail authority to hire anyone for Koppelman’s position who didn’t have similar business ties, Koppelman said.

Koppelman has shown “no coziness toward Cambridge Systematics,” said Kenneth A. Small, a member of the ridership review panel. “He’s objective and fair. He is completely professional about it.”