TAMPA — The idea of high-speed rail in Florida got the attention of C.C. "Doc" Dockery in 1982.
That was when then-Gov. Bob Graham, after seeing Japan's high-speed rail system, put together a committee to explore a bullet train for the state.
"I was on the sidelines cheering then," said Dockery, now 76.
On Thursday, the Republican and longtime rail advocate cheered President Barack Obama at the University of Tampa as he announced Florida would get $1.25 billion for a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando.
"Thank God for this visionary president who got us here," said a beaming Dockery. "I'm absolutely ecstatic. It's a culmination of everything I've worked for for 28 years."
Dockery, the husband of Republican gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery, felt so strongly about the state's bullet train needs that he refused to sit idle in 1999 when Gov. Jeb Bush took office and put the brakes on plans to build a system connecting Florida's five major metropolitan areas.
The next year, Dockery spent $3 million of his own money persuading voters to pass a constitutional amendment requiring construction of the system. And in 2001, he worked to draft legislation creating the Florida High Speed Rail Authority. Dockery served on that authority, which completed environmental and ridership studies, identified routes and selected a contractor to build and operate the system.
In 2004, at the urging of Gov. Bush, voters repealed the bullet train amendment.
But Dockery never gave up hope.
"I wasn't sure I'd see it, but I knew it would happen," he said. "I'm lucky the good Lord let me live this long. I think I'll make it four more years. I want to be in the first car."
Dockery was so excited about Thursday's event that he drove to Tampa from Lakeland on Wednesday to scope out the location and parking situation. Still sore from knee replacement surgery in July, he decided to have a friend drop him off at the UT campus rather than walk from a parking garage downtown.
He received his ticket from Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Dockery credits with getting a $4 million federal appropriation in 2003 so Florida's High Speed Rail Authority could continue its work.
With no support from Tallahassee, though, the money stayed tied up in Washington until last year. State officials requested it then after Obama revealed Florida was eligible for some of the $8 billion in federal stimulus money designated for high-speed rail nationwide.
When an audience member at Thursday's town hall asked how Obama decided to distribute the money, Vice President Joe Biden said Florida emerged as a frontrunner because its high-speed rail plans were so far along, a circumstance for which Dockery can take some credit.
Though Dockery is a Republican, when talking about his dream of high-speed rail, two people he speaks most effusively about are Democrats: Nelson and Obama. And it was Democratic Gov. Graham who first sparked his interest.
Might Dockery switch parties?
"I don't think so since my wife is running on the Republican ticket for governor," he said.