Mathews: Thinking big, really big, about the Bay Area
Welcome to the Bay Area, Merced!
And welcome as well to Modesto, Sacramento and Yuba City. Looking south, you're invited, too, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Salinas. And while you're almost in another state, don't worry, Tahoe City, the Bay waters are warm.
This expanded notion of the Bay Area's reach isn't a joke. It reflects the biggest thinking about California's future. If you're in a smaller Northern California region that can't compete with the advanced grandeur of the Bay Area, why not join forces with the Bay Area instead?
The Bay Area would benefit too. It is one of four Northern California regions - along with the greater Sacramento area, the northern San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast triumvirate of Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties - that struggle with severe challenges in housing, land use, jobs, transportation, education and the environment. Since such problems cross regional boundaries, shouldn't the regions address them together as one giant region?
The Northern California megaregion - a concept developed by a think tank, the Bay Area Council Economic Institute - includes 12 million people and 21 counties, extending from Wine Country to the lettuce fields of the Salinas Valley and from the Pacific to the Nevada border.
The places of the megaregion are integrating as people search a wider geography for jobs, housing and places to expand their businesses. The trouble is that this growth is imbalanced. The megaregion is home to the mega-rich in San Francisco and poor cities like Stockton, Salinas and Vallejo. As high housing prices push people out of the Bay Area, they head to the rest of the megaregion, only to find they are too far away from their jobs and schools. The results: brutal traffic that produces more greenhouse gases and longer commutes.
Figuring out how to rebalance the megaregion and solve such problems is a high-stakes challenge, and not just for Northern Californians. The entire state relies heavily - perhaps too heavily - on the growth and tax revenue generated by the Bay Area, which represents one-third of the state's economy. And the megaregion concept offers a vision for how California might spread out its prosperity, creating a better-distributed version of the California dream.
This is not merely allowing the Bay Area to colonize its neighbors, but a mega-rethinking so that planning and development are widened to enable the megaregion's pieces - Bay Area technology, Sacramento government, San Joaquin Valley logistics and Monterey area farming - to magnify each other.
To pick one example, with new state research-and-development tax credits from Sacramento targeting inland companies, an infusion of technology could allow the northern San Joaquin to make its logistics industry more efficient and less polluting as it moves green vegetables from Salinas to expanded ports in Stockton, West Sacramento or Oakland.
A Bay Area Council Economic Institute report and its co-author, Jeff Bellisario, a man whose colleagues call him “Mr. Megaregion,” suggest that megaregional planning could create more high-tech jobs and companies outside of the Bay Area by better connecting the many universities, laboratories and research institutions with local entrepreneurs. This might shift the center of gravity in Northern California southeast, landing in the fast-growing Tri-Valley, which includes the cities of Livermore, Pleasanton, Dublin and San Ramon. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory could be a jobs hub that turns into something of a megaregional capital.
Such planning should be performed by new economic development entities that extend across the megaregion. Companies that now leave the Bay Area for Austin, Texas in search of cost savings might be redirected to Sacramento or Santa Cruz. Such an effort would be strengthened if Bay Area entities jointly lobbied Sacramento to improve education outside the Bay Area. Only half of the people in the Monterey and northern San Joaquin areas have had some type of post-high school education, as opposed to 70 percent in the Bay Area proper.
The report shows such investments could spin off literally hundreds of new ideas. My favorite is that the megaregion could have its own, well, I'll call it a nerd army of overeducated consultants, or, in the report's words, “a megaregional corps of consulting post-docs and advanced graduate students” that could be dispatched to solve problems and prepare local talent for higher-skill jobs.
Of course, making such a shift would require a well-integrated set of transportation connections from one end of the megaregion to the other. The goal would be to keep trucks and commuters off the hellish 580 and 101 corridors, making it easier for the state to hit its targets for reducing greenhouse gases.
Suggested changes include more service on Amtrak's Capitol Corridor between San Jose and Placer County, an extension of rail service to Salinas and support of planned expansions of the ACE (Altamont Corridor Express) train down to Modesto and Merced and up to Sacramento. (Timeout for a political note: The gas tax increase, on the November ballot for repeal, produces $900 million for these ACE expansions.) And all these changes, in turn, would make completion of high-speed rail more urgent, since the first segment, extended from Bakersfield to San Jose, would connect with this expanded megaregional transit system.
It is easy to mock such mega-visions that reshape geography. For years real estate interests have done silly things, like touting a San Joaquin County housing development as being in the “Far East Bay.” (Local joke: Is that nearer Singapore or Hong Kong?)
But if the megaregion could harness its joint economic and lobbying power, much of this seems possible. It could even inspire imitators. Could Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas further integrate into their own megaregional triangle? And might they throw Tijuana and Mexicali into their planning mix as well?
And the Northern California megaregion itself could expand, connecting to planning efforts in the troubled North state and extending down the San Joaquin Valley to California's fifth-largest city.
Welcome to the Bay Area, Fresno.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.
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