Vision needed to target high-speed rail investments

Without state and local intervention, San Joaquin Valley cities with high-speed rail stations will become sleeper communities, farming out tech workers on express trains to the Bay Area and Los Angeles, a report released Wednesday by nonprofit think-tank SPUR argues.

While the Central Valley could serve to supply the cheap housing the Bay Area has so far failed to provide its own workers, report author Egon Terplan says that outcome would fail to capitalize on perhaps the single greatest infrastructure investment this state will make in the entire century. Rather than being the tide that lifts all boats, high-speed rail could exacerbate already-stark income disparities between the two regions, he said.

If it’s done right, Terplan said those Central Valley cities can reverse years of high unemployment and disinvestment and become incubators for fledgling companies seeking cheaper rents outside the urban poles while still staying only a one- to two-hours’ commute away from either end, he said.

But, it won’t be easy.

Not only will state and local officials have to combat strong market pressures that for decades have favored single-family homes sprawled out on top of former farmland, but they will also have to find the money to beef up local transit options near the stations if they want to offer a viable transportation alternative in the auto-dominated region.

“This is our only chance to really fundamentally change the trajectory of the economy, particularly for these parts of California that have been left out of so much of the economic boom that has been experienced on the coast,” Terplan said. “Getting these details right over the next couple of years (while) this system is still under construction, is really a legacy we want to leave for future generations of California.”

Some progress has already been made. Caltrans is in the process of developing its 2018 state rail plan. That plan will take a comprehensive look at how to integrate high-speed and other passenger rail services with local and regional public transit, “allowing door-to-door alternatives to driving,” the plan’s website reads.

The vision for a statewide rail network, as well as how that network will interact with local services, is critical, Terplan said, because it will focus state dollars in services that allow people to ditch their cars, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ease congestion on chocked freeways. Already, cities such as Fresno, Merced and Bakersfield are planning for regional local transit services that can connect to their high-speed rail stations, he said.

Those services won’t be successful without dense development in the downtown cores of those cities, he said, but achieving that kind of development is no small task. It’s much cheaper to pave over flat farmland than it is to construct high-rises on infill lots, Terplan said. And, the one tool at city officials’ fingertips was their redevelopment authorities, which have since been dissolved statewide. Though, the report argues development corporations should be reinstated for a limited time in cities that have high-speed rail stations to focus new growth.

The state is able to direct some funds through its Cap-and-Trade program, Terplan said, but new tools will be needed, as well.

“It’s still hard to get as much development as many would like, and there continues to be pressure to convert farmland,” he said. “We are seeing some small successes, but what we do not yet have is a strong enough state framework and set of policies to really give those cities the tools to make their downtowns, and high-speed rail, thrive.”

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