Chowchilla, high-speed rail settle lawsuit over route

The Fresno BeeJanuary 28, 2013 

An artist's depiction of a high-speed rail train zooming past downtown Fresno.

FRESNO BEE ILLUSTRATION

The California High-Speed Rail Authority announced Monday it has settled a lawsuit filed by the city of Chowchilla over the rail agency's approval of a bullet-train route between Merced and Fresno.

The settlement removes one hurdle from the rail authority's plans to begin construction this year in Madera and Fresno counties on the first segment of its proposed statewide system.

(Read the legal details of the settlement at fblinks.com/chow)

But two other lawsuits challenging the environmental approval of the section still are pending in Sacramento Superior Court, and other legal obstacles are all but certain to arise.

The rail authority mollified Chowchilla leaders by agreeing to consider the city's concerns about what former Mayor David Alexander once called a "spaghetti bowl" of route options in and around the city. In addition, the rail authority will cover up to $300,000 of Chowchilla's legal fees associated with the lawsuit once the planning for the route around the area is done.

The Chowchilla area is where the rail authority expects to branch off from the north-south backbone of the high-speed train line with a connection westward toward Gilroy and San Jose -- a connection known by planners as the Chowchilla Wye (a railroad term for the Y-shaped route that would ultimately be built).

Chowchilla's lawsuit argued that the environmental impact report for the Merced-Fresno rail section failed to address "the impacts of splitting the city of Chowchilla in half" by routing the high-speed tracks along Highway 99.

The rail authority announced the settlement in a statement. Chowchilla City Administrator Mark Lewis did not return a call seeking comment.

The rail authority approved its Merced-Fresno section last May, but postponed approving details of the Chowchilla connector options until more studies could be completed. That environmental work is now being done as part of the environmental work for the San Jose-Merced section of the rail route.

In their suit, Chowchilla leaders asserted that by approving the Merced-Fresno route, the rail authority violated the California Environmental Quality Act by limiting the potential for a full environmental analysis of all of the route alternatives.

As many as 14 alternatives had been under consideration for the Chowchilla connection on the Merced-Fresno section of the route. Now, only six remain in contention, rail officials said last week. Rail planners said they could select one option for a detailed environmental review by April.

In the settlement documents, the rail authority recognizes Chowchilla's fears about two specific routes: An east-west connection along Avenue 24, and a north-south line that runs along Highway 99 and the Union Pacific freight tracks.

The Avenue 24 option would span an area identified for annexation by the city for commercial, entertainment and industrial development, according to court documents. A north-south route along Highway 99 would bisect Chowchilla, creating a barrier dividing the city. A route along the highway also would be the most expensive option for the rail authority to build, costing nearly $500 million more than the second-costliest alternative, court records suggest.

If the rail agency adopts an alignment that does not include a Highway 99/Union Pacific or Avenue 24 alignment and the city sues again, Chowchilla would receive no settlement from the state.

The Chowchilla lawsuit was one of three filed against the rail authority over the Merced-Fresno section. The Madera and Merced county Farm Bureau organizations were joined by Madera County, local water and farm preservation organizations and property owners in one of the cases. The other was filed on behalf of corporate property owners in Fresno and Madera counties.

All three lawsuits were dealt a setback last fall, however, when a Sacramento Superior Court judge denied their requests for an injunction to halt all work on the Merced-Fresno section -- including planning and engineering -- until the cases go to trial in April. In his Nov. 16 ruling, Judge Timothy Frawley said he was not convinced that the plaintiffs were likely to win at trial.

Property owners in Kings County have their own lawsuit against the rail agency. But instead of challenging the environmental approval and route selection, they allege that the entire project violates the terms of Proposition 1A, the high-speed rail bond measure approved by California voters in 2008.

More lawsuits are likely this year, after the rail agency is expected to certify environmental reports and approve a route for tracks between Fresno and Bakersfield.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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