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Beyond the Tracks: The potential of high-speed rail to reshape California’s growth

High-speed rail has the potential to offer Californians far more than the opportunity to travel quickly around the state. Throughout the world, high-speed rail systems have had profound and transformational impacts on cities, metropolitan areas and broader megaregions.

California is now planning to invest tens of billions of dollars in the design and construction of a high-speed train system from San Francisco to Anaheim, and later to extend it to Sacramento and San Diego. This investment in the state’s future is comparable to the Higher Education Master Plan, the state highway system and the State Water Project of the mid-20th century.

In an era of rising skepticism and public projects of all sorts, high-speed rail represents the best of California’s optimism, environmental concern and future orientation. The high-speed rail project could have great economic and environmental benefits to the state and the 26 communities with proposed high-speed rail stations. For each of these communities, the coming of the train is a unique opportunity for municipalities to capture new fiscal benefits and to organize growth in a more compact and less automobile-oriented manner.

However, major investments in land-use changes around the stations are necessary to fully realize the benefits of high-speed rail. If such investment does not occur, both the economic and environmental benefits will be significantly reduced.

This paper explores what it will take to generate a land-use planning and development response to the high-speed rail investment at both a statewide level and in the 26 communities that will receive stations.