Valley Dem Rubio votes 'yes' on HSR

The Fresno BeeJuly 6, 2012 

The central San Joaquin Valley's only Democrat state senator joined the majority Friday in voting to approve money for high-speed rail.

Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, was among those voting "yes" on the measure, disappointing some of his constituents in Kings County, where opposition to the $68.4 billion project has been fierce. Aaron Fukuda, whose Hanford home sits in the path of one proposed rail route through the county, said Rubio "will have to answer for his vote."

"I don't think very much of him now," Fukuda said. "He's not much of a representative. He knows the impact this will have."

Fukuda was among many in the Valley who reacted strongly to Friday's vote.

He is one of three plaintiffs, along with Hanford-area farmer John Tos and Kings County, who are suing the California High-Speed Rail Authority and other state officials over the train plans that they believe are illegal under the terms of Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion high-speed rail bond approved by voters in 2008. Friday's vote authorizes the appropriation of about $2.6 billion from Prop. 1A.

On the Senate floor, Rubio compared high-speed rail to building the transcontinental rail in President Abraham Lincoln's time. "Let us do what is right," he said.

Rubio's District 16 stretches along the San Joaquin Valley's west side, from Fresno to Kern counties, and includes all of Kings County. He had considered a run for Congress this year but pulled out; his Senate seat doesn't come up for election until 2014.

The rail authority hopes to begin construction on the first portion of the line in the Fresno area late this year or in early 2013.

"This is a historic day for Fresno," Mayor Ashley Swearengin said. "A lack of transportation infrastructure has always been one of Fresno's greatest challenges to overcoming our biggest gaps, and high-speed rail closes that gap."

Swearengin said high-speed trains will make it easier for Fresnans to travel to California's major urban areas, as well as for visitors from other parts of the state to get to Fresno.

Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea admitted he was nervous as he watched a live webcast of the Senate debate and vote.

"I was in Sacramento for the Assembly vote Thursday and did a lot of recon around the halls in the Capitol," he said. "Everyone knew it would be a close vote. But the better part of me was pretty confident."

Perea said that while a high-speed train linking San Francisco to Los Angeles is a big transportation development for the state, "it's an economic game changer for the Valley."

Perea is among the Fresno leaders who are trying to convince the rail authority to build a major train-maintenance facility in the county because it could bring more than 1,500 permanent jobs. "Now our focus is to bring home the maintenance facility and shift to implementation," he said. "We're going to be very busy making that happen."

Another nervous observer was Lee Ann Eager, CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation, who watched the vote online with several from the Chamber of Commerce. "Everyone was very excited. Today was obviously do-or-die. This is the one thing we have in the near future that can really change Fresno's economic image."

Eager said that as she travels in the U.S. and around the world to promote Fresno, "business executives regularly ask me, is high-speed rail really going to happen?"

"Now I can tell them, 'yes.' People all over the country, all over the world, were looking at Fresno and at California to see if we were going to be forward thinkers."

Opponents said the vote doesn't diminish their determination to stop the project.

Fukuda, who watched the Senate action online, said he was bothered to see Democratic legislators celebrating their victory moments after the vote. "It's easy for them to cheer, but there are thousands of people who are not going to sleep well tonight," he said. "We'll hold legislators accountable."

While Fukuda was bitter about Rubio's vote, he was delighted that four Democratic senators defied the party leadership and Gov. Jerry Brown.

"It was good to see the three senators who have dealt with this issue the longest and the most are the ones who voted against it," Fukuda said of Mark DeSaulnier, Alan Lowenthal and Joe Simitian, who have been longtime skeptics of the rail authority's plans.

Fukuda said he and his co-plaintiffs are prepared to continue the legal fight against the project: "We're staying the course."

Also disappointed was Anja Raudabaugh, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau, which is carrying on its own lawsuit against the rail authority along with the Merced County Farm Bureau, Madera County and several other groups.

"What's interesting is that with all the intensive bloviating going on, everyone admitted there are problems with the project," Raudabaugh said. "But all they're doing is punting the problems to the Central Valley."

Raudabaugh said she and her farm bureau board are frustrated because they don't believe the rail authority has taken seriously their concerns about the train system's potential effects on agriculture.

The Madera County suit challenges the authority's approval in May of an environmental impact report for the Merced-Fresno portion of the proposed line. It focuses largely on claims that the agency did not adequately assess the effects on agriculture of building and operating the train system, nor does it provide sufficient measures to make up for those effects.

Raudabaugh said she had hoped the Senate vote would kill the project and render the lawsuit unnecessary. Now, "the only avenue we have left is the legal avenue," she said.

Perea said he hoped the vote would pave the way for opponents and the rail authority to work together to solve problems, including "dealing fairly and equitably with the property owners who are going to be affected."

"Projects like this are always going to have those who support it and those who don't. But it's time to band together as Californians to make this project successful. It benefits all of us to make it a success."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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