CORRECTION (Published 1/31/2014)

A story about the East Bay Leadership Council's Sustainable Future symposium incorrectly reported the length of mega container ships. It should have stated they are 1,200-feet long.

CONCORD -- East Bay Leadership Council president and CEO Tom Terrill, kicking off the 28-year-old organization's Sustainable Future symposium, said the manner in which goods and people are transported and housed continues to provide daily challenges throughout the area.

A keynote overview of California's economy delivered at the Jan. 23 event by Beacon Economics founding partner Christopher Thornberg, preceded morning panels packed with high- and low-tech spin, a luncheon keynote addressing hurdle-clearing strategies and an end-of-day race to finish outlining the economic forecast for the East Bay.

A BART train passes overhead as traffic moves down Ygnacio Valley Road in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News
A BART train passes overhead as traffic moves down Ygnacio Valley Road in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

A sum total of the messages tilted toward two of Thornberg's opening comments: "We have catch-up to do, given the last decade of insanity," and "The numbers are hopeful: we can take our 'crisis hat' off."

The economist and former chief economic adviser to the California state controller's office painted broad strokes, with statements like "budget uncertainty, in the short term, is behind us," and "there are functional weirdnesses in our economy: bank loans are about the same as last year. That's craziness!"

But he also peppered the approximately 200 business and community leaders in attendance at the Concord Hilton with a plethora of specific -- and mostly positive -- stats via PowerPoint: 4 percent gross domestic product growth in 2013; disposable income in the region up 2 percent; unemployment declined to 6.7 percent; and more.

Thornberg said weaknesses in construction, trade and government "are what's wrong with the economy."

While attributing a portion of the slow rate of construction startups to lender confusion over changed rules and regulations, he said this region's thriving global tourist trade should soon spawn new hotel construction.

"California is one of the cheaper places in the U.S. to visit," he claimed.

The labor market, he predicted, will "heat up," but which sectors will revive first, he said, remained unclear to him.

"In the Tri-Valley areas, you'll see faster growth than on the west side of the (Caldecott) tunnel," he predicted.

Trade imbalances, however, he labeled "still too large," and government spending on bridges, roads and schools "too low."

Housing prices in the slowed, reduced-inventory single-family market continued to grow, while multifamily construction in Contra Costa County dipped.

"Incredibly, unaffordable housing is the worst part of the picture," Thornberg said. "Everything makes sense, except there's no construction. How can that be? The answer is that the (robust) resale market had to do with investors, not homeowners."

Federal government entitlement programs ("Medicare and Social Security will blow up in 20 years," he said) and lending and interest rates -- flat, because of global savings glut -- were trouble spots, Thornberg suggested.

"The recovery starts west and pushes east," he said, speaking about jobs. "The recovery in San Francisco will push into greater growth in the East Bay. Over the next couple of years, you'll see growth float over."

Green industries, the Oakland port and space for housing are strengths and "tremendous advantages for growth," according to Thornberg. Later, asked about oversupply, he said, "Anything you can build in California: build."

A question about the middle class and taxes provoked a vigorous response. "Tax rates. Mitt Romney pays 14 percent. That's half of what I pay. We need pragmatic policies, not extremes. If I sound bitter, I am."

Simplifying the tax code to eliminate perks, implementing a 10-year education plan and ending restrictions keeping employers from firing poor workers were his final recommendations for moving the economy forward.

Contra Costa Transportation Authority executive director Randy Iwasaki said improvements are in store for ways to get back and forth.

"Cars are talking to cars and getting smarter," he said. "Transportation technology at work: imagine bike share rentals all along the BART system."

Panel experts stressed the importance of improving east-west road and rail corridors, managing traffic congestion with modern technology and using big data not only to understand the problems, but to create apps and new forms of transportation technology.

---