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Obama heads to Tampa for rail plan unveiling

MANATEE — President Barack Obama will be in Tampa today to announce that Florida will get a share of $8 billion in stimulus money to develop high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando.

Yet Florida will get less than half it asked for —$1.25 billion of the requested $2.65 billion — as the White House is sharing the funds among 31 states, including 13 “major corridors.”

That could leave Florida in a bind, as it is counting on federal money to cover the entire construction cost. The state’s only financial contribution to the Tampa-Orlando leg would be donating the right of way.

Still, state leaders were gushing over the expected announcement.

“This will be one of the largest boosts to the state’s economy since Disney, since the interstate highway system,” Sen. Bill Nelson said.

What remains to be seen is whether the boost is enough to make high-speed rail a reality in Florida after more than three decades of starts and stops.

Rail backers claim the 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’ll be flying 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.”

Obama alluded to the high-speed rail initiative Wednesday night in his State of the Union address. As he and Vice President Joe Biden are at the town hall meeting today at the University of Tampa, administration officials will be making rail announcements elsewhere across the country.

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.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.

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