High-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando took another significant step from dream to reality on Monday. The Obama administration's decision to spend another $800 million on the project reflects rail's importance as an economic engine and a model for other regions. It also increases the pressure on Florida officials to find money to put toward a transportation system that could reshape the state in so many positive ways.
The additional money follows a $1.25 billion grant that President Barack Obama announced in January and increases the federal government's contribution to more than $2 billion. With that investment up front, it's reasonable to assume Washington will come through with another $300 million as early as next year to fulfill its commitment. Now the state will have to step up with some $280 million to cover its share of the $2.6 billion project.
The Tampa-Orlando route is at the front of the line for federal funding because environmental studies are completed and land dedicated along the Interstate 4 corridor. The state expects to begin advertising for bids to prepare the interstate median and do work on the interstate over the next few months. In four years of construction, the project is expected to create thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private development.
In Tampa Bay, the timing of Monday's announcement could not have been better. Federal and state money will pay for high-speed rail. But visitors from Orlando's tourist attractions who take high-speed rail to Tampa will need transportation to move around the area, reach Tampa International Airport and head toward the Pinellas beaches. That is another reason why next Tuesday's vote in Hillsborough to approve a 1-cent sales tax for more buses, better roads and a new light-rail system is so important. And if Hillsborough voters approve that package, it won't be long before Pinellas voters will be asked to approve light rail as well. High-speed rail and light rail have to complement each other, and one will not be as effective or as far-reaching as it could be without the other.
Other key pieces also are falling into place. Another $1.2 million federal grant announced last week will help pay for planning for transit-related development around a new rail station at the old Morgan Street Jail site along Nebraska Avenue in Tampa. That station will be a hub for high-speed rail, light rail and improved bus service. The Obama administration also told Congress on Monday it will spend $8 million to plan the extension of high-speed rail from Orlando to Miami.
The federal government is coming through on high-speed rail, which could be running to Tampa in just five years. Now Hillsborough voters need to put another vital piece in place next week by voting for the county transit tax.