News Column

High-speed Rail Challenges, Opportunities

August 22, 2013
California bullet train

A report issued Tuesday by the University of California describes the state's embattled high-speed train proposal as an opportunity for environmental and economic benefits in the San Joaquin Valley.

If, that is, the region can overcome the fractious politics that surround the controversial bullet-train plans.

Tuesday's report was jointly produced by the law schools at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles. The release of the report coincided with a panel discussion Tuesday afternoon in Fresno where representatives from agriculture, development and the California High-Speed Rail Authority discussed how to manage the economic and environmental impacts of high-speed trains in the Valley.

The report and the panel discussion come on the heels of two important developments Friday: a judge's ruling that the rail authority's November 2011 business plan and funding plan failed to comply with provisions of a 2008 state bond measure; and the rail agency signing a contract with a team of contractors to design and build the first 30-mile segment of the statewide train system in the Fresno-Madera area.

The high-speed train, which would link San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the Valley, presents both challenges and opportunities, wrote Ethan Elkind, the report's author. Elkind is a climate policy associate with the UCLA School of Law's Environmental Law Center and the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the UC Berkeley law school.

"The system has the potential to worsen California's development patterns -- and therefore the environment, economy and public health," Elkind wrote. In the Valley, that potential stems from a history of low-density, car-oriented housing developments that chew up valuable agricultural land. Such development, he said, leads "to traffic congestion, poor air quality and the ongoing loss of the region's invaluable agricultural resources."

High-speed rail, he said, could increase such growth. "To heighten the challenge," he added, "the Valley has been divided politically over high-speed rail while experiencing some of the worst effects from the recent recession."

But there are opportunities for economic and environmental benefits, the report suggests, "if Valley leaders can develop and implement supporting policies." In addition to jobs building the rail system, Elkind wrote, "the system could create new business opportunities in Valley cities connected to the major economic hubs in the state."

Traffic congestion and air quality could also be improved if the system were to be successful in attracting motorists and airline passengers as an alternative for travel to the Bay Area and Southern California.

Lack of Valley-wide organization cited

The report outlines four key barriers to efficient development of high-speed rail and proposes possible solutions:

-- No Valley-wide organization to help guide decision-making on the rail project.

-- A lack of money for cities' planning of development around high-speed train stations.

-- Continuing financial and policy promotion of automobile-oriented development.

-- Lack of funds for development projects in cities to connect high-speed rail to the rest of the community.

Elkind also proposes several solutions, most focused on Valley-wide collaboration, regional planning and policies for more efficient patterns of urban development.

These include:

-- Enlisting businesses, community and government leaders across the Valley to craft a regional vision and policies for economic growth and environmental protection around high-speed rail.

-- Supporting local and regional planning efforts using sophisticated computer modeling programs and other "best practices."

-- Better explaining the long-term costs of traditional automobile-oriented, spread-out development relative to city budgets, and impacts on agricultural and air quality.

-- Exploring financing programs to spur private development in mixed-use, transit-oriented development with connections to transportation hubs, such as high-speed train stations.

At Tuesday's panel discussion, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said that cities along the rail line must work closely with the state rail authority to ensure the best outcomes for residents and businesses that will be affected by the train route.

"If they are going to be impacted, we want to make sure they get every penny and every bit of respect and courtesy," she said. "At all times, the city is looking for a win-win" for both the property owner and the rail project.

Kings County group not keen on collaboration

For representatives of the Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability, a Kings County coalition of property owners who oppose the rail project, Swearengin's call for collaboration with local governments struck a sour note. The group coalesced after a 2011 incident in which Curt Pringle, then the authority's board chairman, publicly dressed down Kings County Farm Bureau director Diana Peck at a rail agency meeting in Sacramento. Peck was taking the authority to task for failing to coordinate its efforts with the Kings County Board of Supervisors.

Alan Scott, a CCHSRA co-founder, said Kings County residents remain distrustful and dissatisfied with the rail authority's efforts to work constructively to address the county's concerns.

Frank Oliveira, another co-founder, added that the UC report's call for a regional effort to explain and promote the benefits of high-speed rail was less a blueprint for managing challenges and "more of a solicitation for reorganizing the way we live in the Valley." Oliveira chaffed at the notion of additional layers of regional planning to mandate denser urban development in cities.

The report, however, could end up being a largely academic exercise, depending on the ultimate outcome of a judge's ruling Friday in Sacramento that the rail authority's 2011 business plan violated key provisions of Proposition 1A, a 2008 high-speed rail bond measure.

The judge stopped short of blocking work on the project, but has asked attorneys for Kings County and two of its residents, who brought the lawsuit nearly two years ago, and for the rail authority to submit written arguments over potential remedies to the violations.

Elkind, whose report was written before Kenny issued the ruling, said he's read the court document and doubts that Kenny would order work stopped. "I'm not sure the judge is ready to go there," Elkind said.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or at (559) 441-6319 or on Twitter @tsheehan

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(c)2013 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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Source: Copyright Fresno Bee, The (CA) 2013