WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama, seeking to deliver on his State of the Union promise to create jobs, will arrive in Tampa today and announce Florida will receive $1.25 billion in funding for high-speed rail.
The state, which has flirted with the idea for a quarter century, applied for $2.6 billion in stimulus money for a line that would run from Orlando to Tampa.
But the White House said no state would get more than half its request right away, and at today's town hall meeting Obama will cast the award as a down payment.
In addition to $8 billion in rail projects to be awarded to states, Obama has pledged an additional $5 billion through the annual budget process.
"It's a pretty good start," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who was pushing for the full funding along with Gov. Charlie Crist and other officials in Florida as well as longtime advocates of rail.
Crist plans to meet Obama when Air Force One touches down in Tampa this morning.
Despite the setback in funding, advocates cast the announcement in breathless terms.
"This will be one of the largest boosts to the state's economy since Disney, since the interstate highway system," Nelson said.
"It's going to be the foundation of a more modern Florida," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
Rail backers say it will bring 23,000 jobs to Florida over four years and create 600 permanent jobs once the line is running, by early 2015. The plan is to eventually extend the line to Miami.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said the Orlando-Tampa corridor "is poised to become the breadbasket for the state and this only catalyzes and reinforces that."
Short-term, however, he doesn't hold out hope the project will put a notable dent in Florida's 11.8 percent unemployment rate.
"We've lost 750,000 jobs" since the recession began, Snaith said. "That is a lot of ground to make up. High-speed rail or not, it's going to take time."
Crist's rival in the GOP U.S. Senate primary, Marco Rubio, blasted the use of stimulus money for rail, even though he said he supports the concept.
"I think we should all be concerned about increased spending on anything at a time when the federal government is borrowing money to function."
Indeed, Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus package has come under increasing attack from critics who say it has not created the jobs it promised. Commuter rail has its share of skeptics. Some say ridership will not be high enough to sustain the system.
Feeling growing public unrest, Obama spent much of the State of the Union address on the economy and alluded to high-speed rail, one of several job-creating initiatives he will unroll in the coming weeks.
"We can put Americans to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow," Obama said. "Tomorrow, I'll visit Tampa, Florida, where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad funded by the Recovery Act. There are projects like that all across this country that will create jobs and help move our nation's goods, services and information."
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Obama's trip to Florida, his third since taking office, allows him to provide muscle behind Wednesday night's message and also pay heed to one of the most important electoral battlegrounds — one he cannot afford to lose ground in.
The town hall meeting at the University of Tampa also features Vice President Joe Biden and will coincide with rail announcements by administration officials across the country.
Thirteen major corridors will receive awards to help develop high-speed rail infrastructure or begin the transition to high-speed rail, according to the White House. Smaller awards will also be made for improvements to portions of existing rail lines.
Overall, 31 states will benefit from the awards, which will lay the groundwork for a nationwide high-speed rail system, the White House said.
By not granting the full funding right away, the Obama administration may be trying to spread the money around more. Florida officials had a measured response to the news and said there was no reason to worry.
"We'll have to do some reassessment," said Nazih Haddad, manager for passenger rail development for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Ed Turanchik, a Tampa developer who headed a statewide grass roots campaign for the project, said the $1.25 billion announced today is enough for the first two years. A second infusion will be needed to lay track, install signals, build stations and buy trains for the Tampa-Orlando connection, he said.
Florida is well positioned, having secured most of the right of way and completing an environmental impact study. In the coming year, the project would be put out to bid and construction could begin in early 2011.
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Plans for high-speed rail date back more than 25 years, when then-Gov. Bob Graham pushed for creation of a Florida High Speed Rail Commission after seeing Japan's bullet train system. The goal was to have lines running in Florida by 1995.
Doc Dockery, a Lakeland developer and the husband of gubernatorial candidate Paula Dockery, has been following Florida's high-speed rail saga since then.
When Gov. Jeb Bush, shortly after taking office in 1999, stopped funding for high-speed rail, Dockery spent $3 million of his own money to persuade voters in 2000 to back a constitutional amendment requiring construction of a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa, Orlando, Miami, Jacksonville and Tallahassee.
In 2001, the Legislature created the Florida High Speed Rail Authority to move the project forward. Dockery served on that authority, which got as far as selecting a route and contractor to build and operate the system.
But in 2004, voters repealed the amendment at Bush's urging.
Then came Obama's stimulus. He long envisioned a high-speed rail network and mentioned Florida as an ideal participant. To secure funding, Florida officials drew on long experience and the enthusiasm from advocates. Politicians lobbied hard for inclusion.
"This is testament to people in politics working in the right way," said Republican U.S. Sen. George LeMieux. "Democrats and Republicans, local, state, and federal folks pulled together to get these needed dollars for Florida."
Times staff writers Adam C. Smith, Jeff Harrington and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.