After the California High Speed Rail Authority released its updated business plan, the new $98.1 billion cost estimate induced criticism and threw the future of the project into question.
While the price tag is large, the high speed rail project is an unprecedented opportunity to shape the next generation of California's growth by incentivizing compact development and preserving open space.
Over the next 25 years, the Department of Finance projects California's population will increase from 38 million to nearly 50 million. The majority of this growth will occur in the San Joaquin Valley and should these municipalities adopt a "business as usual" approach to growth, over 750,000 acres of farmland will be consumed by sprawl, driving will increase and the Valley's notoriously bad air quality will further degrade.
High speed rail is not a panacea for preserving open space and reducing emissions. However, transportation investments are a key element in shaping development; just as freeways enable development on the urban fringe, high speed rail’s centralized stations can catalyze growth in existing urban cores.
San Joaquin Valley cities and regional planning organizations have already committed to more compact development plans, but implementation of planned transit projects coupled with high speed rail will make this vision possible.
Ironically, critics of high speed rail defined the project as a threat to farmland and existing communities. While the project will require pieces of existing farmland, the project’s ability to centralize development and ultimately preserve farmland outweighs the initial impacts. Within Valley cities, the project will acquire property, but train is less invasive relative to freeway projects like this one in Bakersfield that will erase neighborhoods with monolithic interchanges (PDF).
As one of the largest public works projects ever conceived, the cost will be high and the network will not appear overnight. However, the $6 billion available for the initial construction segment in the San Joaquin Valley is an excellent place to start as it will secure right of way and provide these communities with a sustainable framework for growth.