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Obama announces $1.25B for Florida high-speed rail

TAMPA — The federal government officially has punched a $1.25 billion high-speed rail ticket for Florida.

As expected, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced today that the state will get $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money toward building a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

“I’m excited,” Obama said to cheers during a town hall meeting at the University of Tampa, located on the grounds of a hotel built by 19th century railroad magnate Henry Plant. “I’m going to come back down here and ride it. When that thing is all put up, we’ll come back down here and check it out.”

The Tampa visit was the president’s first public appearance following his State of the Union speech on Wednesday night, in which he recast his administration’s top priorities as protecting the middle class and getting Americans back to work.

Florida’s award is less than half of the $2.65 billion that the state said it will need to build the 85-mile rail line, which would begin in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood and end at Orlando International Airport.

Biden called it “seed money” for developing a high-speed passenger rail system in Florida and throughout the country, saying the Obama administration plans to spend $1 billion annually over five years for the program.

Administration officials also said that $1.5 billion in the stimulus package that was set aside for discretionary transportation projects also could go toward rail.

“For Tampa-Orlando, more funding is going to come in the future as progress is made,” Biden said,

Florida was among 31 states to share in the $8 billion in stimulus rail money that was awarded today. Other big winners included:

Ÿ California: $2.3 billion to begin work on an 800-mile-long, high-speed rail line tying Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Ÿ Illinois-Missouri: $1.1 billion to improve a rail line between Chicago and St. Louis so that trains travel up to 110 mph.

Ÿ Wisconsin: $810 million to upgrade and refurbish train stations and install safety equipment on the Madison-to-Milwaukee leg of a line that stretches from Minneapolis to Chicago.

Ÿ Washington-Oregon: $590 million to upgrade a rail line from Seattle to Portland, Ore.

Ÿ North Carolina: $520 million for projects that will increase top speeds to 90 mph on trains between Raleigh and Charlotte and double the number of round trips.

By spreading the money among so many states, Obama is ignoring the advice of transportation experts and high-speed rail advocates who say the best way to build continuing political support for the program would be to concentrate on two or three grants large enough to get a high-speed line up and running. Once that happens, they reasoned, other parts of the country would lobby for more money to build their own lines.

“We can’t try to touch as many political bases as we can with that money. We have got to do major projects,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said in a recent interview.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., disagreed. “You really have to look at local and regional approaches to create the political will to expand the program,” he said.

Rep. John Mica of Florida, the senior Republican on the House transportation committee, complained that the Midwest lines awarded grants will achieve top speeds of only 110 mph and were “selected more for political reasons than for high-speed service.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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