UC Berkeley-UCLA Report Urges Central Valley to Use HSR to Stop Sprawl
The law schools of UC Berkeley and UCLA have published a new report titled “A High Speed Foundation: How to Build a Better California Around High Speed Rail” that urges the Central Valley to find ways to ensure HSR limits sprawl rather than fuels it.
The report lays out the risk that without a focused effort, HSR could produce more sprawl in the Valley given usual development patterns. But it also argues that the HSR project is an excellent opportunity to produce sustainable development oriented around new center city density:
Four Key Barriers to Efficient Development around a High Speed Rail Foundation
1) Lack of a Valley-Wide Organizing Effort to Optimize High Speed Rail Decision-Making: the eight-county San Joaquin Valley lacks a collaborative mechanism, with business, community and government involvement, to focus on deciding, shaping, and mobilizing support for high speed rail policies and benefits.
2) Lack of Resources for Planning and Outreach for Station-Connected Development:
Cash-starved local governments and planning departments lack the funds needed to plan for development connected to high speed rail, gather citizen input, and mobilize community support for station-connected plans.
3) Financial Support for and Lack of Limits on Auto-Oriented Development: many local governments in the region have historically tended to approve lower-density, single-family developments and ranchettes that require residents to drive to services and jobs, which leads to disinvestment in future high-speed-rail-connected areas, higher costs to municipal budgets, and unmet consumer demand for compact, walkable neighborhoods.
4) Lack of Financing for High-Speed-Rail-Connected Projects: high speed rail stations and connected communities require improved center-city neighborhoods and older urban corridors, where historic disinvestment and deteriorating infrastructure may make development projects and upgrades difficult to finance.
In the past I have argued that sprawl requires three ingredients: cheap oil, cheap credit, and favorable land use policies. We no longer have the first ingredient. We have the second ingredient, at least for the time being. But it’s the third ingredient that the report focuses on in these points.
Three of these four missing pieces that they cite have to do with funding. They are right to point out that even with downtown HSR stations, Valley cities will need more financial resources to fully take advantage of those stations and provide the amenities and other infrastructure investments that will help bring new residents to the areas near the station.
The report also lays out some steps the Valley should take to address these barriers:
This report identifies the steps that government leaders, businesses, and the public can take to ensure that California optimizes growth patterns around high speed rail. These stakeholders will need to:
• Enlist a Valley-wide collaborative entity, including business, community, and government leaders, to develop a vision for regional economic growth and environmental preservation tied to high speed rail, ensure that high speed rail decision-making supports that vision, and mobilize citizens to implement the policies necessary to realize it;
• Support local and regional planning efforts and outreach, including through computer modeling programs and identification of best practices and tools, to implement the vision;
• Demonstrate the costs of development patterns that do not support the regional high speed rail vision by compiling and modeling data on the impacts of this development on municipal budgets, agricultural productivity, and public health; and
• Utilize and support financing programs that can catalyze private investment in thriving, mixed-use pedestrian, bike, and transit-accessible development projects that are connected to mobility hubs and high speed rail stations.
I suspect it’s the last item that’s the most important. A Valley-wide collaborative entity is a very good idea, but it will take funding to provide the kind of infrastructure that will make transit-oriented development thrive in the Valley cities hosting HSR stations.
Those cities – Bakersfield, maybe Hanford, Fresno, Merced – all have good bones. Like most major California cities they were originally built around centrally located railroad stations. Their downtowns are walkable with compact blocks. Those are great conditions for TOD. But more will be needed to take these downtowns, many of which have not seen significant infrastructure investment in several decades, and make them ready for 21st century density.
But that is an opportunity for the Valley and for the state as a whole. California would do well to invest in these efforts, since doing so would be cheaper and more effective in the long run than letting this region struggle with 12% unemployment.