Florida already was a strong contender for the high-speed rail money that President Barack Obama could award as early as this week when he stops in the Tampa Bay area. The state has land set aside for the Tampa-Orlando link. There would be a future extension to Miami, and the ridership from the millions of visitors to South Florida and the state's theme parks makes high-speed service viable. But the recession's impact on Florida makes an even more compelling case to award the grants to the Sunshine State.
The federal stimulus package aims to jump-start the economy by putting people to work in rebuilding the nation's infrastructure. With the land set aside, and environmental studies completed, Florida's high-speed rail project is "shovel ready." The state could break ground on the 85-mile link between Tampa and Orlando once Washington okays the state's application for $2.6 billion in stimulus money. The project would create about 23,000 jobs over the four-year construction timetable and 600 permanent jobs once the line starts running.
This spending would make a huge bang in Florida at a critical time. The state's unemployment rate, at 11.8 percent, is higher than the national average. And the jobless rate in the Tampa Bay area is even higher — 12.4 percent. So awarding rail to Central Florida would bring the stimulus money to where it is needed most, enabling a state brought to a halt by the collapse in construction and housing to claw back from the worst jobless picture in 34 years.
Florida's application would do more than add jobs and incomes immediately. The high-speed passenger line would have its Tampa terminus on the north end of downtown, where the federal government is about to subsidize a 28-acre residential and retail community. The state plans to partner with a private operator to manage the line and to develop the entire corridor. The award, then, could open up a host of public-private business opportunities.
Florida sought an additional $30 million in federal funds to conduct the preliminary engineering on extending the high-speed line from Orlando to Miami. That would truly make rail a transit option across the state, and bolster the commuter train systems in operation or being planned in South Florida, greater Orlando and Tampa Bay. This is a timely investment in the fourth-largest state that would serve the entire nation. With any luck, the president could deliver the good news this week in person.