Opponents request building freeze on high-speed rail

Injunction would stop work on Merced-Fresno route

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comOctober 4, 2012 

Pending a high-speed rail legal challenge, the Madera and Merced County farm bureaus have asked a judge to freeze construction on a segment of the project.

While a legal battle plays out over the proposed route between Merced and Fresno, the judge in the case has agreed to consider temporarily halting any development.

Moving forward too soon could needlessly destroy farmland and waste taxpayer dollars if the proposed route ends up being modified, said Anja Raudabaugh, Madera County Farm Bureau executive director.

"We think that proceeding with construction in the face of this legal challenge is reckless," she said. "If there's a better route that would be less impactful, common sense says we should pick that one."

The High-Speed Rail Authority declined to comment on the litigation, which challenges the California Environmental Quality Act review of the project's chosen route.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley will hear arguments for and against the Preliminary injunction Nov 16. The CEQA challenge of the Merced-to-Fresno route is scheduled to start in April.

Proponents of high-speed rail anticipated this most recent twist in the fast-train saga.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown pushed for legislation that would have ensured construction continued during CEQA challenges. But the effort was ditched in June after environmentalists blasted the plan.

Although debate over the cost of the project, now estimated $68 billion, has dominated headlines, the biggest threat to the project could be regional lawsuits.

The judge in the case challenging the Merced-to-Fresno route recently combined into one case three challenges to the rail authority's environmental planning document.

Farmers in Madera and Merced counties are the most vocal critics of the proposed plan, which runs through miles of valuable agricultural land. But the city of Chowchilla, which is involved in the lawsuit, objects to being at the center of a complicated three-way intersection of tracks connecting to the Bay Area.

At the same time, the realization that tracks and rail stations will have to displace many businesses and homes in valley cities has just begun to set in.

Joe Corvello is one of about a dozen business owners expected to be displaced by the high-speed rail station proposed for the city of Merced.

"My dad and my uncle built this business, and I've worked here all my life," said Corvello, owner of C&S Motor Service. "It's kind of a kick in the side. But they don't care."

He, like many business owners in the area bordered by Martin Luther King Jr. Way, G, 16th and 15th streets, have never been formally notified that the state plans to build a high-speed rail station where they do business.

"Nobody has come to talk to us about it and told us anything about what's going on or (told) anything to the other local businesses I know along this area," said Eric Rose, owner of Sound Encounters, a car audio business in Merced that's likely to be affected. "It's all just been what we're told from other people."

Regional supporters have argued that long-term economic advantages will outweigh short-term pain, promising that meetings with local officials and the rail authority are right around the corner.

Benjamin Duran, co-chairman of the Merced County High-Speed Rail Committee, said that within a few months the rail authority will start holding local meetings.

"You have to balance jobs and the economy benefit of the station with the dislocation of businesses," he said. "No one likes to see businesses dislocated. But I believe ultimately the economic impact of jobs and dollars that will be spent in this region will be very, very beneficial."

The city is waiting on $600,000 in state and federal funding to begin the design phase of the high-speed rail station.

The money is expected to be approved before the end of the year.

The city plans to hire a consulting firm to ensure the station meets the aesthetic and practical needs of city, such as determining how tall the building can be, as well as the zoning requirements for the immediate area.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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