Chowchilla leaders say that if there must be a high-speed rail line running near their city, it ought to be to the south and west – and that the state had better be prepared to pony up some dollars to make up for the effects on the community.
The City Council voted Tuesday night to support one of three alternatives being considered by the California High-Speed Rail Authority for its Central Valley Wye, a Y-shaped junction between the north-south Merced-Fresno section and an east-west branch toward Los Banos, Gilroy and San Jose. On a 4-0 vote, council members approved a resolution recommending an option with east-west tracks running along Avenue 21, about 2 miles south of the city, and a north-south connection along Road 13, a mile west of the city limits.
Three-and-a-half years ago, the rail authority was contemplating as many as 14 different alternatives around and through Chowchilla for the Wye. The plethora of options created a virtual “spaghetti bowl” of lines on maps. So convoluted were the possibilities that in May 2012, when the rail agency certified an environmental impact report for the Merced-Fresno portion of the program and approved the route, the authority board carved the Chowchilla area from the approval and set aside the region for additional environmental study to narrow the options.
That wasn’t enough to allay the city’s concerns, which extended into court when Chowchilla sued the high-speed rail authority over potential routes that would run through the city, including along Highway 99 or the Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks. The city’s suit accused the rail authority of failing to address “the impacts of splitting Chowchilla in half” by routing tracks along Highway 99. By early 2013, the city and the authority reached a settlement, as the state agency acknowledged Chowchilla’s concerns and pledged to take those worries into consideration before making a final decision on the Wye route.
City Administrator Brian Haddix said the current mood of the council is one of concern over how high-speed rail will affect the city and its future development patterns, but that the Avenue 21/Road 13 option represents the least-objectionable alternative.
Two high-speed rail route options running east-west along Highway 152 would have trains rolling at the edge of Chowchilla’s southernmost city limits and through an area recently annexed with an eye toward future industrial and commercial development.
Each of the other options run east-west along the north side of Highway 152, at the edge of Chowchilla’s southernmost city limits. One calls for a northward branch along Road 13 west of the city, while the other would branch north along Road 19 to the east of Chowchilla. Both would have the trains rolling through part of the area the city recently annexed with an eye toward industrial development.
According to city documents, the Highway 152/Road 13 option would derail a proposed commercial, residential and hospitality district at the corner of Highway 152 and Robertson Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. That project already has city approval of a tentative development map.
The Highway 152/Road 19 alternative would likely put the brakes on a proposed Chowchilla Industrial Center with the potential to provide 2 million square feet of space for up to 160 companies and as many as 4,000 jobs. The developer, I Ping Ho, told the City Council at a Sept. 22 meeting that the Highway 152/Road 19 option “would cut through this project site, rendering it impractical to develop,” Haddix said.
While council members agreed on their preference for the Avenue 21/Road 13 route for the Wye junction, that choice is not binding on the rail authority. “We have to follow very stringent, strict guidelines for the state and federal environmental assessment process,” said Lisa Marie Alley, a spokeswoman for the authority. “Feedback from the community is part of that process. So are the impacts on water, critters, farmland and the environment. All of that is part of what we look at before we get to a recommendation of a preferred alternative.”
Alley said the agency’s staff will present a status report to the rail board when it meets in November; as of now, it is not planned as an action item for a board decision on a preferred option. Such a decision would steer additional analysis leading to the release sometime early next year of a draft environmental impact report on the effects of the route.
Once a draft environmental impact report is released for comment from the public, local and state agencies and others, a final version of the EIR would be prepared for certification and a final route chosen by the rail board, most likely sometime next summer or fall.