TAMPA — President Barack Obama arrived at noon today aboard Air Force One, landing at MacDill Air Force Base just minutes behind schedule. Vice President Joe Biden arrived just before the president.
After touring a maintenance hangar, Obama is taking a motorcade ride toward the University of Tampa's Bob Martinez Sports Center, where he is expected to announce that Florida will get $1.25 billion of the $8 billion in stimulus money targeted for high-speed rail throughout the United States.
Florida plans to build a connection between Tampa and Orlando with those funds, but needs $2.65 billion for the project.
Gov. Charlie Crist arrived at MacDill Air Force base around 11 a.m. to greet the president.
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"I want to thank him, on behalf of our fellow Floridians. for his suport of high speed rail." Crist said in an interview before Obama arrived. "It will bring thousands of jobs to the area... It will be an infusion of millions of dollars into our economy."
Crist, a Republican, said he plans to encourage more bipartisanship. "It's important for us to work together ... even if we don't agree on everything," Crist said. But he apparently turned down a White House invitation to attend the town hall meeting, according to Politico.
Rail backers claim the Tampa-Orlando project will bring 23,000 construction jobs to Florida over four years and create 600 permanent jobs once the line is running. That’s sufficient reason for the project to finally succeed, said Rep. Kathy Castor, who flew to Florida with Obama on Air Force One.
“Our neighbors and Florida businesses who are hired for these jobs will invest in our home towns,” she said. “They will spend money at our local small businesses. They will buy homes. They will help our economy recover.”
The state sought $2.65 billion for the proposed rail line, which generally would follow the Interstate 4 median from downtown Tampa to Orlando International Airport with stops in Lakeland, Walt Disney World/Celebration and the Orange County Convention Center near Orlando. It could be operational by 2014.
Rail supporters said they’re not worried about Florida getting less than its full request over time, noting the Obama administration plans to set aside another $5 billion in high-speed rail money in future federal budgets.
“Florida could not spend $2.5 billion in the next two years” on high-speed rail, said Ed Turanchik, president of the rail-advocacy group ConnectUs. “Anything over $1 billion with a strong letter of intent would be a big win.”
Another rail advocate, C.C. “Doc” Dockery, of Lakeland, speculated today’s award to Florida will be large enough to lay down the track bed and construct overpasses and underpasses.
A second federal grant then could pay for the rails and stations, with a private company providing and operating the trains, he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened that way,” said Dockery, who spearheaded a constitutional amendment in 2000 that required the state to build a high-speed rail system. Voters repealed the measure four years later.
That was only one chapter in high-speed rail’s long record of failure in Florida.
A 1976 state study said a St. Petersburg-Daytona Beach line was feasible, but it was never built. The state received proposals in the late 1980s for a rail system linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami; those proposals died because of a lack of public funding.
In the mid-1990s, the state struck a deal with a private consortium to build a 200-mph train linking Miami, Orlando and Tampa. But then-Gov. Jeb Bush killed the venture in 1999, saying it was too expensive and risky.
The 2000 amendment led to plans for a statewide high-speed rail network, with Tampa-Orlando the first leg. While voters repealed the amendment in 2004, it didn’t stop the planning.
The Florida High Speed Rail Authority, of which Dockery was a member, continued its studies on the Tampa-Orlando segment. Those studies later formed the basis of the state’s stimulus application.
Rail supporters said they’re cautiously optimistic this time around will be different.
“What’s different between now and 2004 is that we’ve now experienced $4-a-gallon gas and 12 percent unemployment in Florida,” Turanchik said.
Staff writer Duane Marsteller contributed to this report.