ORLANDO — Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told a gathering of Tampa Bay and Orlando business and civic leaders Thursday that $66.6 million in federal grants is being released to help fund the planned high-speed rail service between Tampa and Orlando.
The funding is part of the $1.25 billion down payment first committed to the project by President Barack Obama during his visit to Tampa earlier this year.
"The president's vision for high-speed rail will forever change the way Americans travel by offering new transportation options," LaHood said. "The grants released today are merely the very beginning of many more to follow."
The money will be used for preliminary engineering and related up-front work on the project, LaHood told an audience of 500 gathered at the second annual "super region" conference. The meeting, a collaboration of economic development groups from Tampa Bay and Orlando, was convened to find common ground and smart growth strategies between the two metro areas as they anticipate slowly merging into a single, gulf-to-Atlantic Central Florida metropolis.
The high-speed rail link, which would run along I-4 from Tampa to Orlando International Airport and connect to light rail and bus systems in each metro area, will probably speed the regional consolidation between the two metro areas.
If all goes as scheduled, the 84-mile transit is slated to begin operation with hourly trips between the two cities in 2015. Total cost: an estimated $3.5 billion.
LaHood said high-speed rail companies from Japan, China, France, Germany and other countries have contacted him, eager to offer their expertise and equipment to the Tampa-Orlando enterprise. The transportation secretary said the federal government is encouraging such foreign firms, given high-speed rail's history overseas, to step in and compete.
"We are asking only two things," LaHood said. "That they hire Americans and do their building in America to create jobs."
High-speed rail can ease traffic congestion and lower U.S. dependence on oil, he told the Orlando crowd. "Once high-speed rail extends to Miami, it's a win, win, win."
Speaker Kevin Thibault, a senior Florida Department of Transportation official, said trains on the Tampa-Orlando link would have the potential to hit 168 miles an hour, but on the next phase — linking Orlando and Miami — trains would approach 200 miles an hour.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.