The president's visit to Tampa on Thursday marked a big win for the bay area and the entire state. Only hours after delivering his first State of the Union address, Barack Obama awarded Florida $1.25 billion in federal stimulus funds to begin building a high-speed passenger rail line from Tampa to Orlando. The money will jump-start a dream 30 years in the making, create tens of thousands of jobs and reshape the look and economics of two major metro areas.
The administration awarded $8 billion to 31 states to build the foundation of the nation's first intercity high-speed rail system. Florida received half of the $2.5 billion it applied for to build the 84-mile link between downtown Tampa and the Orlando International Airport. But Obama and Vice President Joe Biden made clear the award is a down payment on building 13 major high-speed corridors across the country.
With environmental studies completed and land for the rail line already dedicated along the I-4 corridor, Florida's project is "shovel-ready" — a major plus that helped land the stimulus money. Over four years of construction, which could begin next year, the project could create 23,000 jobs and spawn hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private development along the rail corridor. The administration said it supports a second leg from Orlando to Miami with money coming from an additional $5 billion the White House has committed to high-speed rail over the next five years.
The new service would give almost 10 million people in these major metro areas cleaner, safer and more convenient transit options. With speeds up to 186 mph, the trains could cut at least a third of the commute times by car between Tampa and Orlando and half the travel time between Orlando and Miami. Overseas tourists would have an easy way to get from the airport to the theme parks to the Gulf Coast beaches. Removing millions of cars from the highway would reduce the need for additional lanes. New housing, retail and commercial development along the corridors also will expand the economy while reducing the pressure for suburban sprawl.
Rail supporters believe the $1.25 billion is enough to get the Tampa-Orlando work under way, and it is important to do it right to get the additional dollars. Organizers will have to craft a responsible contract with the private sector partner that will operate the line. The state also needs to commit more than the tens of millions of dollars that lawmakers pledged toward rail during last month's special legislative session. The state's support will have a big influence on future federal aid for the Miami extension.
The biggest bang, at least immediately, should be felt in the Tampa Bay area. With the bay area's unemployment rate at 12.4 percent — higher than the state rate, which itself is higher than the national rate — the rail money will help jump-start the local economy. It will complement the tens of millions of dollars the federal government has recently awarded to rebuild the area of downtown Tampa where the rail station will sit — and the $105 million in stimulus funds that are going to reroute traffic in and out of the Port of Tampa. The seed money also should boost the effort in Hillsborough County to hold a referendum in November to build a light rail system, which could connect to the high-speed train.
These important steps to improve the economy and transportation all work together. "When that thing is all set up," the president told the crowd at the University of Tampa, "we'll come down here and check it out."
After decades of discussions and false starts, that day cannot come too soon.