UC Merced professor: High-speed rail would benefit Valley

A new study of California's proposed high-speed rail system estimates $3 billion in direct economic benefits to the Central Valley -- and possibly billions more if the system gives a permanent boost to the region's economy.

On Wednesday, in its last meeting before voters are asked to approve Proposition 1A and authorize $9.95 billion to start work, the California High Speed Rail Authority received results of the economic study, which it commissioned.

The authority's board chairman, former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, called the report by Shawn Kantor, a professor at the University of California at Merced, "validating and even inspirational." Kantor said his tally includes savings that high-speed rail would provide the region's residents in time and money that otherwise would be spent on driving to the Bay Area or Southern California, including gas, maintenance and parking.

The estimated economic benefit also includes productivity gains, Kantor said. "You can sit on a train and work, make phone calls, and be productive." A leading opponent of Prop. 1A, however, saw it differently.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said the project could flop after wasting scarce funds that could be used for other needs.

Coupal did not attend the board's meeting in Fresno and said he had not seen the study. But he said the state should use its bonding power for other projects, such as dams, rather than a type of rail system that has never before been built in this country.

"To use a worn-out expression in this political climate, they're trying to put lipstick on a pig," he said.

Prop. 1A would authorize $9 billion for the high-speed rail system and $950 million for related transit improvements. A Field Poll this summer showed a previous version leading 56 percent to 30 percent.

Besides the Jarvis group, opponents include the California Chamber of Commerce. But no organized opposition group has filed fundraising papers with the secretary of state.

The Planning and Conservation League, an environmental group, has joined a lawsuit against the authority's decision to route the system through Pacheco Pass, which it deems more environmentally sensitive than the alternative Altamont Pass. But its executive director, Traci Sheehan, said the group has taken no position on the bond measure.

Even if it is approved, the bond issue would provide only a fraction of the $33 billion that the authority estimates would be needed for an initial phase from San Francisco to Los Angeles via Fresno and Bakersfield. Supporters hope for additional funds from the federal government and private investors such as public employee pension funds.

Kantor said that the Central Valley could reap indirect benefits from the rail system, as well as direct savings of time and money. He said that construction was likely to be a significant economic stimulus, because the region would have 40 percent of the system's tracks but only 15 percent of the population it would serve.

In addition, he said, the system could boost the region's economy by making it easier for products and people to move around in search of markets and jobs.

"The question you might ask yourself is: 'What are the possible benefits to the Central Valley if it were fully integrated into the California economy?'" Kantor said.

The answer he gave: If the region's incomes rose to match the rest of the state, the gain would amount to $48 billion per year, of which $2 billion would accrue to the state as income taxes.