Urban sprawl is an obscenity to high-minded city planners who argue that the solution foruncontrollable gridlock, pollution and energy consumption is high-density housing served primarily by public transit. Unfortunately this solution does not jibe with what is actually happening in the Bay Area.
With the nation’s highest regional housing prices, rapid population expansion, a shortage of centrally located land for adding new homes and a general anti-growth attitude, hundreds of thousands of Bay Area householders who still demand the largest newer single-family homes they can possibly afford are moving out to the Central Valley.
They are buying into new tracts developed on former farmland. And the family job-holders are becoming long-distance commuters to employment centers in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley corridor. And no matter how hard we try to entice Bay Area residents to live in transit-oriented, high-density urban infill housing, in all probability a large-scale exodus to the Central Valley will continue unabated for many more years.
So one major question that arises is: What can be done to keep the greatest possible number of these long-distance Central Valley commuters off our highways, where they add to the Bay Area’s already maddening gridlock, pump out carbon emissions and have to buy ever-more-expensive gasoline? The Altamont Pass — the main route between the Central Valley and the Bay Area — is regularly our worst commuting bottleneck.
The answer could be a high-speed, regional express-rail network that genuinely transports commuters more rapidly, conveniently and affordably than their automobiles. That is the gist of a detailed report by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, which takes up the entire November issue of the think tank’s magazine.
Known demographic trends make it evident how we need to think seriously about the coming necessity to manage much greater daily flow into and out of the Central Valley. By 2050, the population of the United Statesis projected to grow more than 45 percent to 400 million — mostly clustered in 10 large “megaregions.” The Northern California megaregion will expand from 14 million to 24 million people in an area extending from Salinas and Stockton to Sacramento.
BART and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission have collaborated on a Regional Rail Plan that recommends an expanded high-speed rail express from San Francisco through the Altamont Pass and across the Central Valley to Sacramento. It might seem folly to even consider yet another costly transit project when California is now facing an extended period of huge deficits.
But even if a total commitment to high-speed megaregion rail were made right away — hardly possible given the standard political tendency to ignore nonimmediate problems — many years would be required before construction began.
Meanwhile, work should commence on the massive paperwork that must be approved — permits, environmental reports, blueprints, bidding invitations and the like. This preliminary phase would be affordable even now, and would make the track-laying ready to start when population growth makes it inescapable that the Northern California megaregion needs regional rail.