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Obama's visit brings hope for rail money

The president is coming to the Tampa Bay area on Thursday.

Associated Press

The president is coming to the Tampa Bay area on Thursday.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will arrive in the Tampa Bay area Thursday with a renewed focus on the struggling economy, and many hope he'll bring news that Florida will get $2.5 billion for a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa.

The visit, coming one day after a State of the Union address that will focus on jobs, has rail backers on edge in anticipation.

"It is likely our efforts to create thousands of new jobs for Floridians have paid off," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. "Our state is hurting and in great need of a significant boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act."

Republican Sen. George LeMieux spoke Friday with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "He said, 'I think things look good.' I think we're going to find out next week," LeMieux said.

Competition is fierce among states for a piece of the $8 billion Obama has devoted to rail projects, but Florida is widely considered one of the front-runners. The Legislature in December approved a commuter rail project in the Orlando area that was pitched as a way to attract the federal dollars.

But the presidential trip also creates an awkward situation for one of the bullet train's most visible advocates, Gov. Charlie Crist.

The Republican governor does not plan to attend Thursday's event, which is even more high-profile because Vice President Joe Biden also is attending. Crist's office said he will be "elsewhere" in the state unrolling the proposed state budget.

It's clear, however, that Crist is trying to avoid another "man hug" moment.

During Obama's first post-election visit to Florida in February, Crist stood on a stage in Fort Myers, hugged the president and cheered the $787 billion stimulus plan. Now running for U.S. Senate, Crist has come under attack from some Republicans for associating with Obama and the stimulus plan.

Crist has struggled to clarify his views toward the stimulus and Obama, and he snubbed the president during his last visit to Florida in October. But Crist has unequivocally supported Florida's bid for $2.53 billion in stimulus funding for the rail line. The project enjoys bipartisan backing, and a heavy lobbying effort followed the application.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and a candidate for governor, said that if Thursday is about high-speed rail — which she supports — then Crist should be with the president.

"He has very publicly stated his desire for it so I would think, as the governor of this state, if the president is announcing money for the state, he probably has at least a courtesy obligation to be there," she said.

The White House has said only that Obama will travel to the "Tampa-St. Petersburg area" for an "event" and kept a tight grip on details Friday.

It is unusual for the president and vice president to appear together at far-flung events. Their last joint appearance was in February 2009 for a stimulus bill signing in Denver. But coming a day after the State of the Union, the two will be seeking to make a firm showing on economic issues.

Obama stressed jobs Friday in Ohio, a sign of shifting priorities after health care reform has met roadblocks with Democrats losing their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Florida's jobless rate is 11.8 percent, among the highest in the country, and it is even higher in Tampa Bay at 12.4 percent.

"If you want to amplify a message of getting the economy working again, you want to be in the epicenter of the epicenter," said Steve Schale, a strategist who ran Obama's 2008 campaign in Florida.

Proponents of the high-speed rail project say it will bring 23,000 jobs to Florida over four years and create 600 permanent jobs once the line is running. The idea is the rail would eventually extend to Miami.

U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, said it's likely the visit to Tampa means Florida will get at least some of the $2.5 billion requested.

"You have to put two and two together and hopefully you come up with a high-speed rail project," he said.

Times staff writer Janet Zink and Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

Obama in Florida

This will be President Barack Obama's third visit to Florida since he was elected and his first to the Tampa Bay area. He championed the economic stimulus in Fort Myers in February then returned for stops in Jacksonville, Miami and Arcadia in October.

Obama's visit brings hope for rail money 01/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 8:18am]
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