Dipu Gupta: High-speed rail opportunity could bring cities back to life

July 24, 2012 

High-speed rail will preserve our farmland, improve our downtowns, increase education funding and make our cities wealthier by reducing debt.

All of this was done once before, with the transcontinental railways in the 19th century. They made possible the wealth that built beautiful buildings, such as the old courthouse and theater in cities like Merced. These are great public buildings within walking distance of single family houses on tree-lined avenues. This was small town American urbanism. High-speed rail can provide the Central Valley with a modern version of this prosperous lifestyle.

If you look at an aerial photo of your town, you will see that it is actually two towns. The first is the pre-1950s grid, typically aligned to railroad tracks, with city blocks of about 4 acres each. This block size allowed for pleasant single family homes on individual lots, including garages and yards. Most people could walk a few blocks to a main street. This is a neighborhood for people. The second town, built after World War II, is for cars. It is no longer a neighborhood. It is suburban sprawl and it is expensive.

A large part of California cities' financial problems are due to developing suburban housing and commercial strips on what was once farmland. This pattern of far-flung development creates unfunded liabilities in the form of fire, police and other essential services that our local governments cannot afford to provide when they are so spread out. While highways are an essential part of

our transportation network, they require expensive and continual subsidies. An auto-dependent lifestyle also is an economic hardship for the poor and middle class, who are spending an increasing percentage of their income on transportation. No one wants to take cars away, but they should be a choice and not a requirement.

High-speed rail solves the financial problems of sprawl because it encourages living a neighborhood-based life where you can walk to some, perhaps most, of your daily needs. This lifestyle appeals to many people. The young want the social life that only a good downtown can provide. Parents would like to spend less time being chauffeurs, and families will live downtown if there are schools and safe neighborhoods. Seniors also want a walkable downtown. As people age, they can meet many of their daily needs if they can walk to them. Of course they prefer their independence to an old-age home. Why not provide them with this choice?

The land around a high-speed rail station increases in value because proximity to transit supports social, cultural and commercial activity. When property values go up, so does the tax base of the city and our ability to fund programs such as education. Therefore, while critics claim high-speed rail will take money away from education, in fact, the opposite is true. High-speed rail is a way of achieving prosperity through growth as opposed to resorting to austerity measures, which can be seen to be failing all across Europe.

We can afford a high-speed rail system, which will cost $68 billion. To make sense of this number, some perspective is required. Compare $68 billion to what California spends on state-controlled highways: $500,000 per mile per year for a yearly total of $10 billion. This money is primarily for maintenance, not new highways, and requires us to defund or underfund many other things. A high-speed rail system with its far-reaching economic benefits is easily worth the equivalent of what we spend on 7 years of road maintenance.

High-speed rail will create work at a time when the economy, while not in a technical recession, has almost all the other qualities of one. The environmental impacts of rail are far lower than auto and air transport. It is a simple matter of fact that a high-speed rail system does not need operating subsidies. The Japanese Shinkansen system has even recovered its initial construction costs. Furthermore, Japan is a country with one of the world's strongest economies despite having limited natural resources. The value of the Shinkansen system has been so great that the entire country of Japan has benefited equally, even those areas without a station.

Gupta, a licensed architect, teaches at the University of California at Merced.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service