Florida One of the Biggest Winners in Rail Sweepstakes
Florida was one of the biggest winners in the federal government’s high-speed rail sweepstakes as President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made the trek to Tampa Thursday to announce the award of $1.25 billion in federal help to get the trains up and running.
Included among $8 billion in economic stimulus money for high speed rail, Obama and Biden said the proposed Tampa-to-Orlando bullet train is one of a handful of projects that will get the bulk of federal dollars for high speed rail. The project calls for trains running between the cities at 168 miles an hour with the system later to be expanded to link Orlando with Miami.
Speaking to a large crowd at the University of Tampa’s Bob Martinez Sports Center, Obama touted the rail investment as a job creator. The president’s comments came only hours his State of the Union address Wednesday evening, during which he promised to shift his primary focus from health care to the economy.
“We’re going to put more Americans to work rebuilding our infrastructure…of the future,” Obama said. “It’s important to repave our roads, it’s important to repair our bridges so that they are safe. But we want to start looking deep into the 21st Century and we want to say to ourselves there is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can’t. And that’s what’s about to happen here in Tampa.”
Only California, which got $2.25 billion for a 220 mile-per-hour Los Angeles to San Francisco train, topped Florida’s rail haul. A planned 110 mile-per-hour train connecting Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, which was given $1.13 billion, was the only other proposal besides California’s and Florida’s to receive more than $1 billion.
Smaller grants - $244 million for a Chicago-to-Detroit corridor, $810 million for Madison, Wis., to Milwaukee and $400 million for work between Cleveland and Cincinnati in Ohio – were also announced Thursday.
Officials say the Florida rail will create 2,300 jobs, which Gov. Charlie Crist pointed out after meeting Obama at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force base prior to the president’s formal announcement. Crist did not attend the ceremony.
“Number one, getting this rail is a big deal for Florida,” Crist told reporters while attending a separate education meeting in Tampa. “The most important thing that we can focus on is jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the state’s top Democrat and a candidate to replace Crist, agreed.
“High speed and commuter rail are a key part of growing our economy here in Florida, and today’s announcement couldn’t come at a more important time for our state,” Sink, who attended Obama’s rally, said in statement. “Not only will comprehensive development of rail in our state help create thousands of jobs now, it will also build the infrastructure Florida needs long-term to bring our economy into the 21st century.”
Crist, whose greeting of Obama last year in Fort Myers has since plagued him in some Republican circles, prodded lawmakers to approve a commuter rail bill in a special session last month, saying federal officials had linked a commuter rail package to the high-speed rail money awarded Thursday.
Florida was one of 10 high speed rail corridors identified by the White House last spring for the beginning of a national network. The state was thought to be a prohibitive favorite because much of the preliminary surveying had been done when the plan was approved by voters in 2000 and the Florida High Speed Rail Authority was created in 2002.
However, Florida was only awarded half of the $2.6 billion the state requested. Additionally, the fate of two other requests: $270 million for Atlantic Coast Amtrak passenger service between Jacksonville and Miami and $268 million for buying existing freight tracks for SunRail from CSX Corp, remained unclear after Obama’s Tampa event.
Federal transportation officials said Thursday they favored places like Florida and California because both states have been looking at high speed rail longer than the Obama administration has in office.
“They’re both Republican governors,” Vice-President Biden told the crowd, “so we didn’t pick based on politics... We picked the places that were the most ready. Where it makes sense to build it; where it works. And then we’ll build it out.”
Plans call for the trains between Tampa and Orlando to top 165 miles-per-hour and make 16 daily round trips when the system is build by 2014. Transportation officials estimate travel time between the two cities on 84 miles of tracks will take less an hour.
Still unclear is the source of the remaining $1.3 billion in funding needed to build the Tampa-Orlando route. State transportation officials on Thursday afternoon had no funding specifics, saying instead they need time to learn more about guidelines surrounding the federal offer.