Madera, Chowchilla clash with farms over rail project

FRESNO -- Fresno can't wait for the day when California's planned high-speed rail line runs right through the center of town.

But the city's neighbors in Madera County want nothing to do with the project.

With no prospect of the 220 mph trains stopping in their towns, Madera and Chowchilla officials say they would like to banish the route to the countryside east of them.

That puts them in conflict with farmers, who worry that the eastern route, generally following the Burlington Northern Santa Fe corridor used by Amtrak's San Joaquin trains, could interfere with agriculture.

The disagreement is one of many that must be resolved over the next year, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority firms up plans for the first phase of a project that is supposed to be ready to start construction in 2012.

Opposition led by Madera County farm interests defeated a proposal to run the high-speed rail line through rural areas west of the cities.

It would have split many parcels of land and made them more difficult to farm efficiently, said Julia Berry, executive director of Madera County Farm Bureau.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority board voted April 8 to drop that western route from further consideration. Now, the debate is centered on two remaining alternatives.

Where they go

One generally follows the Union Pacific Railroad tracks from Merced to Fresno, closely following Highway 99. The other departs Merced on the BNSF line, swings east of Chowchilla and Madera, then rejoins the Union Pacific corridor near the San Joaquin River.

The BNSF route had been designated as the preferred route when its first major environmental report was released in 2005. But it was nearly dropped from consideration because of the potential conflicts with farming and because it is slightly longer than the other options and slower than most.

Only after the western route was rejected did the BNSF option become a leading alternative again.

That pleased the two Madera County cities, which don't like the idea of two new sets of high-speed tracks running through the center of their towns alongside the Union Pacific corridor. The line would create another barrier in the towns and could displace businesses or interfere with development, city officials say.

Chowchilla's City Council will be asked Monday to take an official position favoring the BNSF route and opposing the Union Pacific route, Mayor Jim Kopshever said. The Union Pacific option, he said, is causing "an enormous amount of concern" in the city.

"For Chowchilla specifically, it would completely eliminate our retail and commercial corridor along Highway 99," Kopshever said.

Rail not in city's plan

Madera has not taken an official position, but it is likewise firmly against the Union Pacific alignment, said City Council member Robert Poythress. The city just finished an update of the general plan, its main planning document, and "a high-speed rail route through the center of our town was not in that general plan," Poythress said.

Both cities are concerned about the physical separation that a new rail line could impose on them. In Madera, Poythress said, the city is cut in half by the Union Pacific tracks and Highway 99; a high-speed rail line would only worsen that division.

"We're trying to unify, not separate things," he said.

Another complication facing the Union Pacific route is the freight railroad itself. In a report for the April 8 meeting, the rail authority said Union Pacific was reluctant to cooperate with the high-speed rail plan, fearing it could prevent the railroad from adding spurs to serve new customers.

Carrie Bowen, the rail authority's Central Valley regional director, said the authority's schedule calls for final decisions on the San Joaquin Valley routes to be made by fall 2011 so that design and early construction can proceed before a September 2012 deadline on the use of $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funding.

The $42.6 billion project has $9 billion from a 2008 state bond issue and is counting on more federal funding, local government contributions and private financing to cover the rest of the cost.