Obama calls high speed rail funding a 'down payment'
TAMPA - Mind the gap. That announcement warns passengers boarding Amtrak's high speed trains in the Northeast to the mini-chasm between the platform and Acela rail cars. Mind the gap also highlights the difference between the $2.56 billion in federal stimulus funds Florida sought for the proposed Tampa-Orlando high speed rail line and the $1.25 billion award President Obama announced at a town hall meeting at the University of Tampa Thursday. However, Obama characterized the $8 billion allotment to Florida's high speed rail and other rail projects in 30 more states as a "down payment." More federal funds are predicated on successfully launching construction, creating jobs that Florida officials say could reach 23,000 in the construction fields for the Tampa-Orlando route, the President said."Making investment in infrastructure is a 'two-fer,'" Obama said. "We create jobs immediately and lay the foundation for a vibrant economy in the future." "We want to start looking deep into the 21st century. There is no reason why other countries can build high speed rail lines and we can't. That's what we're going to do here in Tampa, putting people to work." According to the state's application for federal surplus funds, construction would begin in late 2011 for the Tampa-Orlando phase that is expected to be completed by late 2014. However plans on how to get started remain to be finalized, since state officials basically just learned on Wednesday night how much money will be initially available. One option under consideration by the Florida Department of Transportation, which will oversee construction of the project is to use the money to lay track between Tampa and Orlando along with the foundations and platforms for the five stations. Later work, including erecting the overhead electric wires to power the trains and buying the trains, would come with subsequent funding that Obama indicated is a high priority. His administration allotted winning states about half of what each requested from a pool of $8 billion. There is an additional $1 billion available from federal budget plans for high speed rail over each of the next five years, creating a $3 billion gap in dedicated high-speed funding. "Florida must efficiently and effectively begin substantial construction of the 84-mile link and stations with the Recovery Act award in order to attract additional investments per the $5 billion for high speed rail under the separate 2010 budget process," U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said Thursday. Castor said Florida successfully competed among more than $50 billion worth of applications and should remain ahead to complete its plans in part because of the support of coalition of business and bipartisan elected officials and providing more than $500 million worth of land the state acquired for rights of way. Vice President Biden concurred, saying Florida's plans were the most advanced. Obama said he's excited about the project. "I'm going to come back down here and ride it. Y'all have a date."
Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at (813) 259-7817.
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