Thursday, January 5, 2012, San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed
In 1956, the Federal Highway Act steered the American Dream away from small towns, streetcar suburbs and central cities toward today's auto suburb. It fit the time, shaped our communities, generated economic growth and changed our identity.
Today, our country desperately needs new infrastructure development that will create jobs and economic growth while updating the American Dream and ensuring its environmental future. The answer is high-speed rail.
More than a train ride is at stake; high-speed rail could catalyze the next generation of growth - one more oriented to who we are, what we can afford and what we really need. High-speed rail, along with innovative land use, will breed the kind of economic development and communities California is missing most - urban revitalization along with more walkable, affordable communities.
California's 520-mile-long high-speed rail would connect north and south for half the dollars that otherwise would be needed for highway expansion and new airport facilities. More significantly, it would become a catalyst for urban renewal, enhance local transit systems and generate market-wise development opportunities.
Transit-oriented development built around high-speed rail and local transit would be denser. Detached single-family homes would drop from 62 percent of our state's housing to just over half, with the difference filled by townhomes, apartments, lofts and bungalows. Given that large-lot suburban homes now have declining value, this is a reasonable shift in housing type, ultimately making housing stock more affordable.
This shift also results in 67 percent less developed land and would save prime farmland in the Central Valley and key open space and habitat in the coastal regions of the state. The more compact future means smaller yards to irrigate and fewer parking lots to landscape, saving an average of 3.4 million acre-feet of water per year - enough to irrigate 5 million acres of farmland in our water-poor state.
In the transit-oriented development future, average vehicle miles traveled per household would be reduced 40 percent, the equivalent of taking 18.6 million cars off the road. There would be fewer roads and parking lots built, less runoff water to be cleaned and stored. New highway construction is reduced by 4,700 miles, saving the state about $400 billion.
Less driving means less air pollution and less associated respiratory diseases. More walking means healthier bodies and less obesity, affecting health costs. California would consume 300 billion fewer gallons of fuel over the next 40 years. When these gas savings are combined with auto ownership, maintenance, insurance and reduced utility costs, California households would save close to $11,000 in current dollars per year.
The California Legislature needs to authorize the $2.7 billion in bonds (plus $3.5 billion in matching federal funds) to begin this project. When compared to expanding highways and airports at a cost of $171 billion, high-speed rail at $98 billion is clearly more cost effective.
Just as the '56 highway bill helped spawn the modern suburb, high-speed rail would energize a new generation of community building - one that fits our current environmental and economic needs. This is an investment we cannot afford not to make.
Peter Calthorpe is the author of "Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change."