City, County Growth and High-Speed Rail Development a ‘Two-Way Street’


Posted on 09 March 2012

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By Alan Kandel

Come fall, Fresno will be ground zero for California high-speed rail (HSR) if the state legislature gives the project the green light. It is right here that construction will begin, initially on 29 miles of line linking southern Madera County with south Fresno. Located within that section in Fresno at Mariposa and G streets will be the area’s HSR – and, presumably, multi-modal – station. When construction of HSR Phase 1 connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles and Anaheim is completed and trains are running, the question will become: Will California’s planned bullet-train project impact growth locally development-, land use- and transportation-wise around stations and if so, how?

In search of answers, I consulted the Mineta Transportation Institute’s (MTI) “Planning for Complementarity: An Examination of the Role and Opportunities of First-Tier and Second-Tier Cities Along the High-Speed Rail Network in California,” study released just this month, among other sources.

Contained in the study with regard to the Fresno case study - which has implications for other Valley cities with proposed high-speed train stations (Bakersfield and Merced) - Jan Minami, Executive Director, Downtown Association of Fresno shared her vision in terms of what HSR could do for the community.

“I think the HSR gives us a wonderful opportunity to develop what we have to offer here. Fresno is the breadbasket of the world but we have not done a good job of connecting to the outside world to showcase that. HSR will offer these opportunities. It will allow people to come and share what is fresh; it will allow people to hop on the train and go to farmers markets and get fresh produce from the Valley.”

Moreover, Downtown and Community Revitalization Director Craig Scharton adds to Minami’s comments by insisting:

“People here say ‘we don’t want to be a bedroom community for San Francisco with all residential uses and no economic benefits.’ San Joaquin is one of the great agricultural centers of the world but its downtown is non-existent. Creating a business center for agriculture in downtown is one of our strategies. Part of our revitalization should be to get agri-business and related services (e.g., accountants, web designers) to locate downtown.”

More broadly, Ed Graveline, an area rail consultant, expressed that the urban sprawl that has been ongoing in the region for years will stop with HSR.

All points are visionary, the last comment being as profound as it is even. And because bullet trains will enter the Valley from the north, west and south, once built and perhaps even prior to, Valley cities, particularly those with stations, may see land-use patterns change considerably, the kind of change that encourages more pedestrian- and transit-friendly, higher-density, mixed-use infill or brownfield development, the HSR component having the potential to be the impetus for such.

A problem explained

The state’s bullet train will link the principal cities of Los Angeles, Anaheim, Irvine, San Diego, Palmdale, Bakersfield, Fresno, Merced, Stockton, Sacramento, Gilroy, San Jose and San Francisco. In the MTI study, described are cities of two types: First-Tier (“the primary centers of large metropolitan areas”) and Second-Tier (“smaller and more peripheral towns”). Part of the success of the HSR system will be in providing efficient access to and from HSR hubs for those located in the outlying areas or second-tier cities. It will be imperative.

HSR brings with it the potential to foster economic and job growth, new urban building activity and environmental improvement not only to the first-tier cities but indirectly to the second-tier cities as well. But, according to the study’s authors, “The economic, urban design, real estate market, and municipal behavior variables that may influence urban change in the context of HSR remain largely understudied. …While federal and state funds will pay for the construction of the network, local cities with stations connecting them to the HSR system will be responsible for development around their stations.

Despite the fact that station cities will have to provide station buildings and platforms, parking, and enhanced local transit connectivity and infrastructural capacity, many have not yet started planning for HSR. Some cities that have initiated planning efforts are focusing their attention on their stations as isolated entities in the system and in the city often ignoring the possible complement that adjacent stations on the HSR corridor may provide, and how the station may integrate into the city and region.” That’s key. HSR cannot exist in a vacuum.

A world of possibilities

Also key here is that “Research has, nevertheless, shown that pre-planning is essential if environmental, economic development and transportation goals are to be attained, and if the effects of transit on development patterns are to be positive and robust. Research has also shown that regional systems require planning practices. This is even more significant since the HSR will compress distances and travel times,” the study authors note, meaning that towns located peripherally to main hub cities will be an important and integral part of and contribute to the overall network and its success.

Furthermore, second-tier cities could become bedroom communities for workers working in first-tiers as housing opportunities in the former may be more affordable compared to those in the latter. Meanwhile, entertainment and retail venues in addition to cultural events and activities provided by main cities could be of appeal and therefore draw those from outlying ones.

Hanford, located about 30 miles south of Fresno, could be a first-tier or second-tier town depending upon whether or not it gets its own station. For one Hanford-area tomato grower, Brad Johns, he sees the opportunities the bullet train is going to bring with it.

“I envision, when this train is finally built, that most of the folks here in town will get up on a Friday, decide that ‘I would really like to go to San Francisco for a bowl of clam chowder,’ and then they will decide ‘you know what, there’s a really nice show playing in Las Vegas,’ and they will get back on that same train and be in Las Vegas for dinner, get back on the train and be home by midnight to sleep in their own bed,” Johns remarked a week ago on the PBS News Hour.

Spencer Michels, the segment reporter in referring to the tomato grower, noted, “Johns even hopes to put up solar panels and sell power for the train.“ Johns’s property is purportedly going to be diagonally sliced through by the train line.

Aside from the fact HSR will give travelers another viable transportation option with which to move about the state, “supporters argue that fast trains will help unclog crowded freeways, will reduce air pollution and cut transportation costs, while creating thousands of construction and manufacturing jobs,” Michels added.

There are so many pluses to this state project, more than may meet the eye, in fact.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.

Alan,
You say, "More broadly, Ed Graveline, an area rail consultant, expressed that the urban sprawl that has been ongoing in the region for years will stop with HSR."
What exactly would HSR do to eliminate urban sprawl? Would it make SF or LA less expensive to live in? How many middle income folks can afford to live in those unbelievably expensive cities?
Expect quite the reverse.
I believe that HSR, if fares are affordable, would create more urban sprawl. I could work in SF, but live in Merced. That's a 129 mile, 2-3 hour commute one way by car. But, on HSR, I could get to work in 45 minutes or so.
What am I missing?

@EV Fan

Besides Jan Minami and Craig Scharton, Ed Graveline also provided perspective in the MTI study. I did not interview Mr. Graveline. I want to make sure you're clear on that.

In the next paragraph of the commentary I stressed: “And because bullet trains will enter the Valley from the north, west and south, once built and perhaps even prior to, Valley cities, particularly those with stations, may see land-use patterns change considerably, the kind of change that encourages more pedestrian- and transit-friendly, higher-density, mixed-use infill or brownfield development, the HSR component having the potential to be the impetus for such.”

High-speed rail could very well be the impetus for such but there is no guarantee. Like it was mentioned in the commentary in the “A problem explained” subsection, and from the MTI study, “‘The economic, urban design, real estate market, and municipal behavior variables that may influence urban change in the context of HSR remain largely understudied. …While federal and state funds will pay for the construction of the network, local cities with stations connecting them to the HSR system will be responsible for development around their stations.’”

This much I know for sure: the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco and the Railyards project in Sacramento (both already underway) could serve as models for what development around stations could consist of. Those two regions are getting a head start. Others, of course, could be variations on these themes. Development like this may not stop sprawl, but it could affect it.

Europe is an excellent example to bring in here. They have had high speed rail for quite some time and they have much smaller, condensed cities compared to California.

Yes it is an excellent example. I agree

I absolutely agree that Europe is the perfect example.

Diane B. Cochran

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