Bullet train has 4 route options around one California town as foes plan court appeal

It’s been seven years since the California High-Speed Rail Authority approved its proposed bullet-train route between Fresno and Merced – except for a stretch of about 20 miles through or around the city of Chowchilla that was carved out for more study.

On Friday, the rail agency released a draft of its environmental analysis of four potential route options for its 220-mph trains to skirt around Chowchilla and heading to Gilroy, San Jose and the San Francisco Peninsula. The report is open for public comment through June 20. Comments on the report, and planners’ answers, will go toward picking one of the routes as the Chowchilla Wye – the term for the Y-shaped junction of the east-west and north-south rail lines.

The release of the environmental report came on the same day that an attorney for high-speed rail foes in Hanford announced that he plans to renew a court battle against the rail agency over its use of funds from a 2008 bond measure for construction of the rail line through the San Joaquin Valley.

Chowchilla options went from 14 to 4

Deciding from among multiple alternatives for a high-speed rail route in the Chowchilla area dates to 2012, during which time the number of options has shrunk from 14 to four.

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A 2013 study identified 14 different alternatives for possible high-speed rail routes through or around Chowchilla – an assortment that former mayor David Alexander once called a “spaghetti bowl” of map lines. California High-Speed Rail Authority

Three of the remaining options include the bullet-train line running along Highway 152 west of Highway 99, with the north-south connections along either Roads 11 or 13, west of Chowchilla, or along Road 19 east of the city. The fourth option has the east-west line farther south, along Avenue 21, with the north-south connection along Road 13.

In early 2017, the authority’s board of directors voted 6-0 to name the westernmost of the connections, Road 11/Highway 152, as the preferred alternative. But Toni Tinoco, a spokeswoman for the agency, said four routes remain on the table.

The city of Chowchilla sued the rail agency in 2012 over fears that a route along Highway 99 would disrupt traffic patterns in the community. The city dropped the lawsuit in early 2013 after the rail authority agreed to consider the city’s concerns about what former Mayor David Alexander once called a “spaghetti bowl” of more than a dozen possible alternatives through and around the city.

Chowchilla Wye - static.JPG
A map from the California High-Speed Rail Authority shows four route options for future connections from the Merced-Fresno rail line to an east-west connection to Gilroy and San Jose. California High-Speed Rail Authority Chowchilla Wye draft supplemental analysis

But while none of the four remaining options slices through the middle of Chowchilla, city leaders have not been keen on any alternative that runs along Highway 152 because of potential interference with future development of an industrial there. They described the Avenue 21/Road 13 option in 2017 as the least objectionable of the available routes.

Residents of nearby Fairmead, an unincorporated community southeast of Chowchilla along Highway 99, and social justice advocates told the board in 2017 that they feared any of the Highway 152 options would divide that small town.

The release of the draft environmental analysis for the Chowchilla Wye comes more than two years after the rail authority once anticipated it would have a final decision on the route. In 2015, the agency estimated that it would issue a draft, review comments, certify a final environmental report and approve a route by fall 2016. It represents one of a string of milestones that have come much later than expected. State Auditor Elaine Howle said it’s part of missteps contributing to schedule delays that, along with an over-reliance on outside consultants, have added hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of the statewide rail program.

Continuing legal fight

Also on Friday, Oakland attorney Stuart Flashman said he submitted a notice of appeal to reverse a November 2018 decision by a Sacramento Superior Court judge denying an effort to block the state rail agency from using Proposition 1A funds for the project. Proposition 1A is the $9.9 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 2008 to help pay for construction of the rail project.

Flashman represents Hanford-area walnut farmer John Tos, the Kings County Board of Supervisors and other opponents who have been waging a legal battle against the rail authority and the state since 2012. While Sacramento Superior Court Judge Richard Sueyoshi denied the Kings County motion in November, the order was only finalized in late April.

“The case is now ripe for appeal,” Flashman said in an email Friday.

It’s the second time that litigation over the project’s compliance with Proposition 1A, a $9.9 billion bond measure approved by voters in 2008, has been decided in favor of the rail authority.

Tos’ first lawsuit challenged whether or not the rail project could meet the primary requirements of Proposition 1A, including that trains be able to make a nonstop run from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes and operate without a subsidy of taxpayer funds. A different judge ruled against that effort in March 2016.

The current case took aim not at the rail authority, but legislation that said Proposition 1A funds could be used to build a “usable segment” of the rail system that is “suitable and ready for high-speed train operation,” such as construction now happening on about 120 miles of the route in Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. Flashman argued that Assembly Bill 1889 was unconstitutional because it effectively changed the definition of the rail project from what voters approved in 2008. But Sueyoshi ruled that he could not conclude that AB 1889 violated voter intent to make it unconstitutional.

Compliance with Proposition 1A could come back into play, however, given concerns raised by critics this week after the rail authority issued its 2019 progress report to the state Legislature. In it, the authority raised the prospect of operating the Merced-Bakersfield segment of the rail route as a stand-alone high-speed train line as an interim step to expanding the line west and north to San Jose and the Silicon Valley.

But in the report and in a telephone interview with The Bee on Wednesday, rail officials acknowledged that a Merced-Bakersfield route would not be able to attract enough riders or generate enough revenue to cover its operating costs without some form of subsidy from the state, whether from the rail authority or other state agency. Critics including Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, say they believe that would directly run afoul of Proposition 1A’s language prohibiting a subsidy for bullet-train operations – a prospect that would likely generate more litigation to be decided by a judge.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.