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Obama trip here may mean high-speed rail funding

MANATEE — As anticipation builds for the arrival Thursday of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in Tampa, so does speculation that Florida’s quest for high-speed rail is on a fast track to federal funding.

Obama and Biden may announce as much as $2.53 billion in stimulus funds for a rail project connecting Tampa and Orlando.

“The supposition is they’ll make announcements about stimulus dollars,” said Ed Turancheik, president of Connect Us, the state’s high-speed rail advocacy group. “The best news would be $1.8 billion or more for high-speed rail in Florida. That would be very good news.”

The White House has dubbed the visit as a “town hall event” starting at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the University of Tampa. Tickets will be available on a first-come, first-served basis from noon to 2 p.m. today at the University of Tampa Bob Martinez Sports Center.

While Manatee County may never see a track or train, local officials say the project, which is expected to cost $3.5 billion, would provide thousands of jobs and make it easier for travelers to make their way around the region.

Several Manatee County officials, including Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Lawrence A. Miller and county Commissioner Donna Hayes, plan to be in Tampa for the announcement.

“You never count your chickens before they hatch,” said Hayes, the county’s representative on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. “You’re never sure until you have that check in hand. I feel confident, but you really don’t know before the president makes a decision.

“People are complaining about stimulus dollars. They want to see something. They want to see a structure.”

Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to attend Thursday’s event, according to his office. U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, will not attend but supports the rail project, according to press secretary Sally Tibbetts.

Stimulus funding would permit the project to begin in 2011 with the first stage connecting Orlando International Airport and Celebration, the home of Disney World. An estimated 23,000 jobs will be created, according to state estimates.

“It is likely our efforts to create thousands of new jobs for Floridians have paid off,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, whose district includes a small part of Manatee County. “Our state is hurting and in great need of a significant boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

Neil Spirtas, vice president of public affairs for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, said there are no figures available detailing the economic impact of high-speed rail on Manatee County. But, he said, the chamber has long been an advocate of the project because of the job opportunities and improvements in transportation infrastructure.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said a rail system could allow residents of East Manatee, including Lakewood Ranch, to travel more easily to work in Hillsborough, Citrus or Hernando counties and eventually central Florida.

“By having a more streamlined transportation system, you enhance the quality of life,” Galvano said. “There’s no reason Florida can’t have a matrix that can support a multiregional work force.”

Florida’s long-term rail plans include an $8 billion second phase of high-speed service connecting Orlando and Miami along either the Florida Turnpike or Interstate 95. Bradenton and Sarasota are among several communities across the state that could be in line for light rail or express bus service in a later phase to link the entire state.

“I can tell you this: TBARTA includes Manatee County. We are part of the overall plan that includes high-speed rail and light rail,” Galvano said.

Hugh McGuire, a Manatee County lawyer and a member of the TBARTA board, said the entire region will share in the benefits of high-speed rail.

“I think it’d be tremendous,” McGuire said. “I think it would jump-start what we’re trying to accomplish.

“I think the biggest concern all the (TBARTA) members have mentioned is that everybody gets something, whether that is express buses or high-speed rail.”

Competition is fierce among states for a piece of the $8 billion Obama has devoted to rail projects, but Florida is widely considered one of the front-runners because it has secured land rights and has cleared a federal environmental review. The Legislature in December approved a commuter rail project in the Orlando area that was pitched as a way to attract the federal dollars.

Illinois and California are considered to be among the other top contenders for federal funds.

“The fact that we have made the commitment legislatively has put us among the states that are serious about rail,” Galvano said.

The St. Petersburg Times contributed to this report.