Chowchilla, Fairmead voice concerns over high-speed rail route

The California High-Speed Rail Authority on Wednesday disappointed both the city of Chowchilla, where officials worry that a high-speed rail line along Highway 152 would disrupt plans for an industrial park at the city’s southern fringe, and Fairmead residents, who fear the effects the route would have on the low-income community.

The rail authority board, meeting in Sacramento, voted 6-0 to designate Highway 152 and Road 11 as its “preferred alternative” from among four options considered for its Central Valley Wye, a Y-shaped junction where an east-west bullet-train line from the Bay Area would connect with the north-south spine of the proposed rail system in the San Joaquin Valley.

Chowchilla City Administrator Brian Haddix and several Fairmead residents repeated their pleas to the board for a Wye option with a north-south leg along Road 13, just west of Chowchilla, and an east-west leg along Avenue 21, a few miles south of Highway 152. The Road 13/Avenue 21 option is among potential routes that will be evaluated in an environmental assessment this year – and the only one that doesn’t run along the north side of Highway 152.

Haddix said businessman I Ping Ho plans to develop a business park for as many as 160 businesses on the north side of Highway 152 at Avenue 17 1/2 . But those plans would run afoul of any of the Highway 152 options, Haddix said, because a portion of the property would be lost to the rail alignment, and closure of the Avenue 17 1/2 intersection would cut off access to the property.

Ray Hashimoto, a land-development manager representing Ho, agreed that a Highway 152 route for the rail line will be a problem.

“Mr. Ho does believe the alignment will compromise the accessibility of his property and its value as industrial and commercial property,” Hashimoto told the board.

Concerns among Fairmead residents are more personal. Michael Claiborne, an attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, said the unincorporated town along Highway 99 southeast of Chowchilla would be “cut in half” by any of the Highway 152 routes. Residents, he said, “have been consistent that they prefer Avenue 21,” he said.

“This is a big deal to the people who live there,” Claiborne added. “There’s got to be another way.”

Victoria Ortiz, a member of the nonprofit Fairmead Community & Friends, said the proposed Highway 152 route “cuts through more than a dozen Fairmead homes, not to mention the noise impact and visual effect of 21st century trains flying through our community all day long.”

“Fairmead feels like it is the most impacted community, sacrificing the most in all of Central California for the high-speed rail project,” she added.

Ortiz added that she hopes that if Highway 152 is ultimately selected, the rail authority will provide resources to make up for the effects and “make (Fairmead) better, make it something we can be proud of.”

Another Fairmead Community & Friends member, Barbara Nelson, said her 93-year-old mother is fearful the rail route will displace her home.

“She asks me, ‘What’s going to happen to me? Where will I go?’ ” Nelson said. “All I can tell her is, ‘I don’t know.’ 

Diana Gomez, the authority’s Central Valley regional director, said engineers are sensitive to the concerns of Chowchilla and Fairmead residents, and others who have expressed a range of opinions on the various route options. But, she added, the Road 11/Highway 152 option “strikes the best balance among the project objectives, environmental impacts to natural resources, and community concerns and stakeholder input.”

Board Chairman Dan Richard pledged that he will visit Fairmead before any final decision is made on the route.

“I want to try to understand the real impact of the project on real lives before we make a decision,” he said.

“Our action today does not finalize the alignment,” Richard added.

That won’t happen until after the environmental assessment goes through public review and is completed.

“But we are saying today that this is our preferred alignment, (that) this one is the one we think is the winner,” he said.