High-speed Rail

Wednesday, Jul 11 2012 11:27 AM

Will Rubio pay a political price for his high-speed rail vote?

BY JOHN ELLIS The Fresno Bee

In the end, state Sen. Michael Rubio felt comfortable enough to keep the state's proposed high-speed rail project alive.

The valley's lone Democratic Party state senator last week voted to approve money for high-speed rail.

The question is: Will Rubio's vote come back to haunt him when he seeks re-election or runs for another office?

Despite the deafening hue and cry from those in the valley who oppose the massive project as an economic boondoggle that will take prime agricultural land out of production, Rubio said in reality the breakdown of supporters versus opponents is really "about 50-50."

"I've heard loud and clear from those who support high-speed rail and those who oppose high-speed rail," he said. Supporters, he said, see a project that will create tens-of-thousands of jobs.

And at this point, even opponents aren't sure that Rubio will pay a political price for his vote.

"I think Rubio -- it is hard for me to say -- he is a strong player," said Prudence Eiland, who is the California Republican Party's Central Region vice chair and also chair of the Kings County Republican Party.

That said, Eiland and others say it is far too early to know. Rubio's district -- which covers all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties -- isn't up for re-election until 2014.

Other unknowns are how the state's new primary -- in which the top two advance to the November general election, regardless of political party -- will play out after its initial run this year.

And there is Proposition 40, the November ballot initiative that seeks to kill new Senate districts drawn by the 14-member independent citizens commission.

One thing Eiland knows: Rubio won't do well in Kings County, which has been at the forefront of opposition to the bullet train. Then again, Democrats in general have been pummeled of late in Kings, and Rubio likely would have done any better if he'd voted against the plan.

Still, Rubio said he carefully considered several things before voting "yes."

Among them:

* Greater transparency and interaction with the rail authority. He said Gov. Jerry Brown's decision to shake up the authority board and replace the CEO were positive steps.

* A plan to minimize the effect on agriculture and also wanted assurances that any farmers or ranchers are "made whole" if the project bisects their land and takes some of it out of production.

* An "ag czar" post manned, if possible, by a valley person connected to agriculture that would have the ability to determine damages and losses when farmland is taken out of production and who would also work for a route that would have the least effect on prime farmland.

* Assurances that the High-Speed Rail Authority would come before a legislative committee annually to review proposed projects.

* Study an alignment along Highway 99 all the way through the valley.

None of that will likely placate angry farmers and ranchers who largely oppose the project, but taken together Rubio said it was enough for him to vote to fund the project -- for now.

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, and Eiland is disappointed to see the project move forward.

"I think for sure he made a mistake with his vote," she said. "I'm sure he succumbed to pressure from the usual suspects."

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