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Chowchilla bristles at intersection plan

The new high-speed rail plan that would link Merced and Fresno sets up a battle in Chowchilla, where state officials want to build a three-way intersection that will connect the Central Valley and the Bay Area.

Chowchilla representatives are upset about hosting the intersection and have threatened to take legal action against the California High-Speed Rail Authority if their concerns aren't addressed.

However, it's not clear if there's anything High-Speed Rail Authority officials can do to appease disgruntled city politicians and business owners.

"It has dramatic effects on the community of Chowchilla, no matter where they put it," said Jim Kopshever, a Chowchilla councilman and real estate agent. "It intersects our general plan in three or four different places. From a circulation standpoint, from a development standpoint, Chowchilla then becomes landlocked. We can't grow in any direction."

The advantage to high-speed rail is that it's high speed. The disadvantage is that it's hard to cross. Tunnels and overpasses can be built to accommodate cars and buses, but such projects are expensive and slow to construct.

"You won't have any arms going up and down," Kopshever said. "So wherever you put something, you can't get over it. You're done. You can build some overpasses now, but that's for today. That's not for the future. And developers are not going to come in and build overpasses. It's just too expensive."

There are three proposed routes under consideration for running the tracks through Chowchilla. One veers to the west of downtown and splits along Avenue 24. Another follows Highway 99 near the city's main retail corridor and splits along Avenue 21. The third veers east of downtown and splits along Highway 152.

Further examination of each of those options will be addressed in the San Jose-to-Merced High-Speed Rail Draft Environmental Impact Report, due out next fall, said Rachel Wall, spokeswoman for the High-Speed Rail Authority.

"We have more time to work with those communities and come up with design and engineering solutions that mitigate the most impacts," she said. "There are about three options that are under consideration, but we can still make improvements and refine that alignment over the next year to year and a half."

Originally, the authority proposed bypassing Chowchilla, heading east toward Planada and through Le Grand. However, concerns from farmers and environmentalists prompted planners to realign the route along Highway 99.

Chowchilla officials have continued to lobby for the initial plan -- to the frustration of many high-speed rail backers. Lee R. Boese, co-chairman of the Greater Merced High-Speed Rail Committee, a lobbying group, said he was disappointed in the city's position. "My suggestion would be to Chowchilla maybe they want to get some different officials that can negotiate differently because the tack they're using now clearly isn't working," he said. "They have a chance to get the maintenance facility out of this thing. Otherwise, they're not going to be heard at all."

But a maintenance facility isn't going to offset the losses to the tax base if train tracks displace some of the city's biggest retailers, Chowchilla leaders say.

"When you look at this, it's a question of whose ox are they going to gore?" said Thomas Ebersole, Chowchilla city attorney. "There are a number of legal options. I only get to discuss them with City Council in closed sessions. The city would prefer not to enter into litigation. But if the only alternative to be heard is litigation, it's something they'll consider."

However, Chowchilla may be alone in this fight. The recently adopted plan has pleased Merced and Madera county officials. Even several of the skeptical local farm bureaus have endorsed the project.

Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced Farm Bureau, said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the project. "I would not say we're happy, but we're appreciative that this has occurred," she said. "But there's a long way to go still. This can make or break a lot of people. I'm more nervous about the east-to-west connector than I am about the north-to-south."

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

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