TAMPA — The high-speed rail line slated to run between Tampa and Orlando received an additional $800 million Monday.
The grant from the U.S. Transportation Department is in addition to $1.25 billion announced by President Barack Obama early this year, but still leaves the project more than $300 million short.
Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made the announcement about the latest funding during a phone call with Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
"This will ensure the state remains full speed ahead with high-speed rail construction," Nelson said in a statement. "As I've said many times, high-speed rail will be a game changer for Florida's economy, along the likes of the Interstate system and Disney."
The $800 million is designated for construction and the purchase of rail cars.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, called Monday's grant great news not just because it gets Florida closer to having connections between its major cities, but because it means more jobs.
"This ensures that the work will continue, the jobs will continue and the high-speed rail will be a reality," said Castor.
In a statement, Republican U.S. Sen. George LeMieux applauded the funding.
"These projects are vital to Florida's growth and our economy and it is the right use of the taxpayer's transportation dollars," LeMieux said. "I look forward to the day when people can travel to and from the major city and university centers in Florida in an hour or two."
In its application for the funding, the state promised to match 20 percent, or $160 million, which will come from the Florida Legislature's approval in December to allocate $60 million yearly to the state Transportation Department's Florida Rail Enterprise starting in 2014, said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer for the enterprise.
Work toward the project has begun, and crews will soon start clearing the median, replacing bridges and moving signs along Interstate 4, Haddad said.
Construction of the rail is expected to begin in 2012, and the rail is expected to be operational by the end of 2015.
Still, Florida needs about $300 million more to make it happen.
The remaining funds could come next year if Congress passes a bill currently being considered that would allocate $1 billion to the U.S. Transportation Department for high-speed rail projects, said Nelson spokesman Bryan Gulley.
In a statement Monday, U.S. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Winter Park, said the high-speed rail must tie in with local transit.
"The Orlando-to-Tampa project will be the first new intercity passenger rail project built in the U.S. in decades, and it must be financially viable and connect into regional fixed transit systems," said the statement from the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Monday's announcement comes just a week before Hillsborough County voters decide on a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation, of which about 43 percent would go toward light rail. Supporters say local light rail is necessary to the success of high-speed rail.
Last week, Tampa received a $1.2 million boost from the federal government to create a plan for a high-speed rail hub.
The U.S. Transportation Department also notified Congress on Monday of its intent to award an $8 million planning grant for a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Miami.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.