Madera County gets look at Chowchilla junction for high-speed rail

The Fresno BeeMarch 20, 2013 

— What was once called a "spaghetti bowl" of 14 potential high-speed rail routes in and around Chowchilla has been narrowed to four, and residents got their first close-up look at how their town could be affected in a workshop Wednesday.

More than 100 people showed up at the Galilee Baptist Church in Fairmead, five miles south of Chowchilla, for the event hosted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Large tabletop maps detailed four alternatives for what engineers call the "Chowchilla Wye," a Y-shaped junction where high-speed tracks will branch off from the initial Merced-Bakersfield line to head west toward Gilroy and San Jose. Three of the routes run along Highway 152, the highway between Gilroy and Chowchilla, while a fourth follows Avenue 21, about two miles south of Highway 152.

Two options would send 220-mph electric trains around Chowchilla to the west near Road 13, while two others would bypass the city on the east, near Road 18.

Engineers and planners fielded questions from curious -- and sometimes skeptical -- residents.

Kate Knutson, whose family has 60 acres just south of Highway 152 near Road 16, learned that on three of the route options, an overpass to carry traffic over Highway 152 and the high-speed tracks would encroach on property now planted in grapes and pasture.

"I don't want either one," she said of the routes. "I feel like it's being rammed down our throats."

"We'd be better off if they spent this money for education," added Knutson, the business services director at Chowchilla High School.

Kole Upton, a Chowchilla farmer, said he was pleased to see none of the routes going through his property. An earlier option, he said, had the potential to put him out of business because it ran across one of his farms at an angle that would make it useless for agriculture.

"On a micro level, I feel better because (the authority) has done an honest job of working with us," Upton said.

Upton reserved comment, however, on the larger issue of high-speed rail's effect on agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley. He is a board member of two organizations that, along with Madera County and others, are suing the rail authority over the Merced-Fresno route.

Wednesday's workshop and another session March 27 in Chowchilla (read the Merced Sun-Star's coverage of that meeting) represent the start of a new stage of analysis, including an environmental report and rounds of public hearings. Last year, when the agency adopted the Merced-Fresno route, it excluded the area around Chowchilla so that the junction could be studied more. At that time, the authority asked that the Chowchilla Wye be evaluated as part of the San Jose-Merced section of the statewide rail project.

But as the authority prepares to start building its first section of the line in the Fresno-Madera area this summer, authority CEO Jeffrey Morales said the agency is speeding up the analysis of the Chowchilla Wye in preparation to build northward toward Merced if finances allow.

The authority has about $6 billion available -- a combination of rail and stimulus money from the federal government and money from Prop. 1A, a 2008 high-speed rail bond -- to build a line from east of Madera to near Bakersfield.

The draft environmental impact report for the Chowchilla Wye could be released this summer, and a final choice on the route could come in the spring of 2014, said Gary Kennerley, a project manager working for consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff on behalf of the rail authority.

Wye options

The map below shows the current options for high-speed rail routes in and around Chowchilla. To see a document in a larger screen, click on the box in the upper left-hand corner of the map window.

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

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