President Barack Obama isn't coming to town until Friday, but his administration Tuesday sent Tampa a big gift: a $10.9 million transportation grant to help finish the Riverwalk.
The federal TIGER grant means the city can fill in two gaps on the 2.6-mile-long walkway. Once they're done, pedestrians will be able to stroll along the Hillsborough River from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts all the way past the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
A buoyant Mayor Bob Buckhorn announced the award to a packed business luncheon at the Tampa Convention Center.
"Twenty-five years in the making," Buckhorn said to sustained applause from the crowd of about 500. "We are going to finish that Riverwalk."
The grant will create 200 temporary construction jobs and be a catalyst for private investment along the river, the mayor said.
"This is what we've been waiting for," he said. "This is the beginning of that next chapter."
TIGER stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, and the latest round of funding totals $500 million. The program is meant to boost difficult-to-finance projects that have a significant impact on the nation, a region or a metropolitan area.
While past TIGER grants have generally gone to road, rail, transit and port projects, this isn't the first time program funds have helped pedestrian or bike trails.
Buckhorn said funding the Riverwalk makes sense because it will provide a pedestrian link between neighborhoods and employment centers. That will make it safer to walk though downtown Tampa, which has seen 45 crashes between cars and cyclists or pedestrians over the past four years.
"It allows us to get pedestrians out of a very unsafe environment" at Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive, he said. "As a linkage in our downtown core, it's just as important as a road."
The $10.9 million grant will be paired with another $4.7 million from the city and its partner in the project, the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.
The two gaps in the Riverwalk consist of one segment going south of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park under the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge and a second going north from the performing arts center to Water Works Park.
Together, they will cost $13.7 million. But the one under the Kennedy bridge is more expensive at nearly $10 million. That's because the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel and other properties along that section are built out to the seawall, so the Riverwalk must be built over the river on pilings.
The section under Kennedy will be built first, with city officials expecting to go out for bids this summer with construction starting by the end of the year.
Last year, federal transportation officials denied the city's application for a TIGER grant for the Riverwalk. In that round of grants, the feds received 828 applications totaling more than $14 billion in projects, but had only $511 million to award.
After Tampa applied again this spring, Buckhorn, along with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, and U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, pressed the city's case in Washington.
This time, Tampa officials fine-tuned the application to include another governmental agency and other modes of transportation - traits the TIGER program is designed to support.
The city teamed up with the expressway authority to connect the Riverwalk to a proposed 15-foot-wide, 1.7-mile multiuse trail along the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. Together, the projects will create pedestrian and cycling connections to public bus lines and the TECO Line streetcar.
Politically, the grant boosts a project that's a hometown favorite in a critical region of a key swing state - none of which will hurt Obama, local officials say.
"The mother's milk of politics is always money, and not just into campaigns but also into communities," said Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, a former chief of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party. "There's no doubt in my mind that that's what's going on here - not that we did not have a good TIGER grant - but obviously those things can be political tools to use."
Buckhorn said "the larger issue is (Obama) understands that investments in infrastructure matter."
The mayor pointed to the $105 million in federal stimulus money that's helping build a high-rise connector bridge between Interstate 4 and the Selmon Expressway. Local officials say the project will generate up to 14,000 construction jobs and make the Port of Tampa more competitive.
"Those kinds of things, as mayors understand, not only create jobs but also create economic development opportunities," said Buckhorn, a Democrat and a vocal supporter of Obama. "His three years in office have been all about those kinds of investments. They work, and I'm the first one to stand up and say thank you."
Three hours later, Buckhorn did just that, going out to Obama's campaign office in Ybor City and handing out tickets for Friday's campaign rally.