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Will High-Speed Rail Get Sick with BART Syndrome?

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Lawmakers, planners want train stations to be sprawl-fighting urban centers

BART Syndrome. No, it’s not some virus you catch riding the train.

According to urban planners, it’s what happens when a BART station gets built — but nothing else gets built around it, defeating the purpose of what is known as transit-oriented development, which aims to fight environmental problems by reducing sprawl and car use.

Now a group of lawmakers and planners is trying to make sure the disease of desolate train stations doesn’t spread to California’s ambitious high-speed rail project, which the state hopes will carry passengers at 220 miles per hour from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, or SPUR, said that the environmental benefits of rail will be lost if there isn’t development around the stations, which are currently planned for both dense urban centers and more sprawling cities like Gilroy, Fresno and Bakersfield.

“Getting the system built is only half the battle, and getting the patterns of growth changed is the second,” said Metcalf, whose organization this week is putting out a report called “Beyond the Tracks,” which identifies “BART Syndrome” along with some possible remedies. 

The problem, Metcalf and others acknowledge, is that no one can fix the problem by fiat. Planning is up to local governments, and building is up to developers, not the high-speed rail authority or the state. Local governments have long bristled at the notion of “regional planning,” and developers often find it easier to build sprawling developments far from the cries of opinionated neighbors.

In Sacramento, state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma said she plans to reintroduce a bill — known by the wonky moniker TIF for TOD (tax-increment financing for transit-oriented development) — that she hopes will spur development around high-speed rail stations. Vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ma’s bill would let local governments use a financing tool — much like a redevelopment area — around stations to fund infrastructure in the area.

“We’re going to hopefully have new stations from high-speed rail, and there’s no money in the budget to do any infrastructure improvements,” said Ma. “This money would go to parks, solid waste projects and other infrastructure.”

Ma, who is betting that Gov. Jerry Brown will be more receptive to the bill, said it will entice cash-starved local governments and developers to build around train stations.

But some transportation planners are skeptical. Gerald Cauthen, a veteran Bay Area transportation engineer, said that even these legislative steps won't guarantee development around train stations.

"For the last 40 years, planners have been telling each other about the need for clustering development in order to reduce the externalities of growth," said Cauthen. "The problem is, if you're a local official whose friendly, generous developer is singing the praises of his proposal to further sprawl in your city, … a vague state reminder to consider the externalities may not weigh all that heavily." 

Cauthen said that the only way to make sure that developers build around stations is to use a big stick with cities and towns.

“The only leverage is if the High-Speed Rail Authority were to say, ‘We’re willing to give you a station, but you have to give us some solid plans for transit-oriented development,’” Cauthen said.

Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the authority, said it wouldn’t be playing hardball with local communities in that manner. But she said that the authority is working on a proposal to help fund planning efforts by cities around the stations.

Some BART stations have spurred dense development, like in downtown San Francisco. That hasn’t happened around many of the suburban stations. And in some places, such as Orinda, it hasn’t been possible, because the station was built right in the middle of a freeway.

SPUR's Metcalf said that while those who conceived of BART in the early 1950s hoped stations would create more places like downtown San Francisco, by the time it opened in the early 1970s, local governments weren't that interested in building high-rises. 

Tom Radulovich — a BART board member who has been working with Ma to pass the TIF for TOD bill since it would also benefit BART stations — said that the high-speed rail authority appears to be on the right track on this issue.

“The good news is that high-speed rail seems to have learned from BART’s mistakes,” said Radulovich.

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