I first met Cathleen Galgiani in 2004 while she lobbied to bring new railroad crossings to Merced so trains wouldn't delay ambulances on their way to the city's only hospital.
Six years later, Galgiani still is working on the railroad, albeit a faster one.
She's one of the state's leading proponents for a high-speed rail system, an investment likely to cost more than $45 billion that she argues would generate jobs, relieve traffic and help clear the air.
It's been her baby in her two terms in the Assembly represent- ing an economic-ally hard-hit district that runs from Merced to Stockton.
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Lately, her efforts have gained momentum.
Galgiani helped write Proposition 1A, the successful 2009 ballot measure that dedicated $9.95 billion in bonds to launch the effort.
In January, the Obama administration set aside $2.4 billion for high-speed rail, boosting momentum for the fast trains.
That cash is setting up the guaranteed market that Galgiani, a Democrat, says will lure private investors to the project who can hire Californians and finish the job. To her, that justifies the long-term costs of the bonds that are launching the work.
"The only way we're going to stimulate the economy is if we put Californians back to work so they can make their house payments and pay taxes, so that we can continue providing health care, mental health care, public safety and maintain our education system," she said.
But the expense of a high-speed rail system is a ripe target for other lawmakers looking for ways to slash spending to cope with the recession's prolonged drop in tax revenue.
"The state is fundamentally bankrupt, and we are carrying a huge debt burden, which is only exacerbated by a wish list of projects that may or may not be sustainable," said Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Orange County.
She wrote a bill that would compel the state to hold off selling the Proposition 1A bonds, and she's skeptical that the statewide high-speed rail plan is a good investment.
"Right now, with where the state is, it would be best if we just dealt with immediate needs," Harkey said.
A December report from Treasurer Bill Lockyer says debt service on all of the state's bonds could hit $10.4 billion a year in 2020, jeopardizing services. The entire state general fund, which pays for law enforcement and education, is expected to be $85 billion next year.
With those numbers, it's conceivable that voters might agree to snuff out what former Modesto City Manager George Britton used to call the "California bond fairy."
Yet Galgiani says such a move would send the wrong message to investors who want to lay a stake in California's rail plans. She's making it a priority to block Harkey's bill.
She submitted two bills that will help the high-speed trains get moving in other ways, and she checks in with Lockyer from time to time to make sure the bonds are sold in time to fund the California High Speed Rail Authority's operations.
"I could conceivably spend every single day working on this," she said.
That's a lesson Galgiani took from her time working in the Legislature as the chief of staff to then-Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews. Their push to improve the railroad crossings in Merced took years even with a concerted focus from the city's leaders.
"None of these things can be done overnight," Galgiani said. "The challenge here in Sacramento is that we get pulled in a million different directions, and unless you make it an effort every day you're here to stay focused and not spread yourself too thin, it's difficult to make those accomplishments."
Galgiani's up for re-election this year. She's generally neutralized opposition to her on both sides of the aisle by working closely with Central Valley Republicans. She'll likely face a challenge from Jack Mobley, an Air Force veteran from Merced who ran against her in 2008.
Galgiani was expected to run for Republican Jeff Denham's state Senate seat but announced last year that she wanted to stay in the Assembly.
One of the reasons?
"I wanted to see this through," she said.
Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.