High-speed rail may adversely affect Central Valley, report finds


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While the planned high-speed rail that will connect Northern and Southern California may boost the Central Valley’s economy, lack of adequate planning may lead to environmental harm, according to a recent UC Berkeley and UCLA report.

The Aug. 20 report advocates building high-speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles but notes the possibility of losing significant tracts of farmland to large-scale single-family home construction in the Central Valley that may accompany economic growth.

“(High-speed rail) can provide people with mobility and provide an economic boost for cities,” said Ethan Elkind, the report’s main author and the climate policy associate at both UC Berkeley’s and UCLA’s law schools. “The risk here is that high-speed rail is growth-inducing. Businesses will want to move to the areas close to the train stations … the question is, how will it be accommodated?”

According to the report, cities in the Central Valley tend to construct large tracts of single-family homes, which Elkind believes is an inefficient use of land. If cities plan early, they can build more densely, which will reduce both the amounts of pollution and farmland destroyed.

“High-speed rail is a safe way to travel compared to autos,” Elkind said. “It electrifies the transportation and moves us away from using petroleum.”

Aaron Fukuda, an opponent of the rail plan and a lifelong Central Valley resident, thinks the negative impacts of the project outweigh its benefits.

“I think they thought (the Central Valley) was a blank canvas with nothing of significance and that people would just move out of the way,” Fukuda said. “There is really a lack of concern for us here.”

Fukuda believes a better location for the railway would be adjacent to Interstate 5, which would be less intrusive to current farm plots. He also worries that the railway will increase economic inequality for those in the Central Valley who are unable to afford bullet-train fare.

The diffuse interests of Central Valley counties may also complicate rail construction, the report said, because the region lacks a single governing body.

The report also addresses issues regarding the railway’s funding, a concern echoed by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach.

“The vast majority of the money we have will be spent on building the route in the Central Valley,” Lowenthal said. “But right now, we have no money to connect the center to the extremes, Los Angeles and San Francisco.”

In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 1A, allowing the state to sell up to $9.95 billion in bonds to partly fund the development of a high-speed rail system from Sacramento and San Francisco through the Central Valley to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Studies estimate the cost of the stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles to be $68.4 billion, with the cost of the lines to Sacramento and San Diego to be determined.

“I really want it to be successful,” Lowenthal said. “But I’m worried.”

According to the report, the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles branch is expected to be completed in 2028.

Alison Fu covers city news. Contact her at [email protected].