The morning's first discussion panel explored major transportation challenges confronting the East Bay. The next group of experts expounded on emerging technologies at local firms that are fueling the economy. A luncheon speaker described the business climate needed to foster high-tech startups.

There was barely time for attendees to catch their breath between topics Thursday at the Concord Hilton Hotel, where the East Bay Leadership Council -- formerly the Contra Costa Council -- presented its annual economic outlook conference, now known as East Bay USA.

About 200 business and community leaders listened to forecasts of driverless vehicles and magnetically guided buses. They learned of smaller, lighter lithium-ion batteries and custom medical devices made with 3-D printers.

But no speaker commanded a more attentive audience than economist Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics and former chief economic adviser to the California State Controller's Office. Thornberg is a favorite of regular attendees, partly because of his no-holds-barred opinions. He was among the first to recognize a downturn in the economy years ago, as he proudly pointed out, and he's closely monitored its pulse in appearances since.

"When I first started coming here," he said, "my forecast was 'It's not as good as you think it is.' My second round of forecasts was 'It's about to get really bad.' Then, I more or less said, 'See, I told you so.' Then it was 'It's not that bad.' Today things are getting better."


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Thornberg, who rattles off economic indicators and clicks PowerPoint slides like he's late to catch a bus, can overwhelm a listener with his recitation of inventories, interest rates and consumer debt numbers. But his bottom-line message is that most economic signs are positive.

He said gross domestic product numbers are up. State and local governments are beginning to make ends meet. Interest rates are still low, residential housing is hot and worries of uncertainty are pretty much a memory.

"In 2012, California was the sixth-fastest growing economy in the United States," he said. "We added 226,000 jobs -- second most, behind only Texas. People are coming back to California. Our population growth is greater than the national average."

Thornberg said those results largely dispel the notions that California is overregulated and its residents too highly taxed. If there was more available housing, at more affordable prices, he added, those growth numbers would be even greater. Housing inventory -- he's fond of the latter word -- has been too tight for a long time.

"We have 13 percent of the nation's population but only 7 percent of the building permits," he said. "Even in the worst part of the housing crisis, when we had the third-highest foreclosure rate, we had the lowest housing vacancy rate in the continental U.S."

He blamed the lack of new construction on the California Environmental Quality Act, a 50-year-old law that was intended to prevent environmental degradation but one he said is often misused as a litigious stalling tactic to tie up unpopular construction projects.

"It's abused by interest groups, lawyers and every NIMBY who still has this dream of California as a pastoral state like it was in 1842."

That's one of the things that makes Thornberg so popular with crowds. His inventory of opinions never runs out.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.