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UCLA–UC Berkeley report: San Joaquin Valley should act now to benefit from high-speed rail

By Alison Hewitt 
Originally posted in UCLA Newsroom

California's proposed high-speed rail would zip travelers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under three hours, but people living in between should begin organizing now to avoid the project's potentially drastic pitfalls, according to a report published this week by the law schools of UCLA and UC Berkeley.

"A High Speed Foundation: How to Build a Better California Around High Speed Rail," noted that the San Joaquin Valley could either reap the benefits of high-speed rail or suffer the consequences. It all depends on how aggressively communities there prepare, said Ethan Elkind, the lead author of the report.

"The risk is that the system could make things worse in terms of congestion, sprawl and air quality if it's not implemented right," said Elkind, a climate policy associate with the UCLA School of Law's Environmental Law Center and the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment, as well as at the UC Berkeley School of Law's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. "But it's also an opportunity to revitalize a lot of existing downtowns as compact, walkable, mixed-use areas around the proposed stations, and to connect them by bus and transit lines to the existing cities."

The report, which outlines key barriers to efficient development and identifies solutions, was the centerpiece of a panel discussion hosted by the UCLA and UC Berkeley law schools on Aug. 20 in Fresno. At the meeting, agriculture and development leaders and California High-Speed Rail Authority officials shared ideas for managing the impacts of high-speed rail in the region.

The report notes that the San Joaquin Valley has a history of constructing low-density housing that lead to sprawling, car-oriented cities dispersed further by acres of agricultural land. That approach has made the region reliant on automobile travel, leading to poor air quality, traffic congestion and the ongoing transformation of valuable farmland into more low-density housing. Cities slated to host the high-speed rail stations could expect building booms that would exacerbate the sprawl, traffic and smog, the report says.

"The valley really needs to unite all of its local governments, business groups and citizen groups, and take steps now to steer the impacts of high-speed rail in a positive direction," Elkind said. "Right now, the valley isn't really unified or prepared for the high-speed rail system."

Valley groups should put policies in place that channel the otherwise uncontrolled demand for growth into transit-oriented developments and mixed-use housing, the report advises. Residential areas 10 miles away from the proposed stations should also be linked via public transit to the high-speed rail stations.

Also contributing to the report were Sean Hecht, executive director of the UCLA Environmental Law Center; Cara Horowitz, the executive director of the Emmett Center on Climate Change and the Environment; and Steven Weissman of the UC Berkeley School of Law. Along with Elkind, all three contribute to the joint UCLA–UC Berkeley environmental law blog Legal Planet.

The smog, congestion and traffic in Los Angeles are an example of what could happen in the valley, Elkind said.

"During the 1910s and '20s, there was an extraordinary amount of valuable farmland throughout Los Angeles," Elkind said. "L.A. is a cautionary tale of what can happen when there's unchecked, unplanned development."