Fast train requires state's quick decision
January 29, 2010
Among the crowd of squealing students who turned out to see President Barack Obama on Thursday at the University of Tampa were a number of business and political leaders more excited about the implications of his financial promise to the state than in his superstar status.
His announcement that the federal government will spend $1.25 billion on a high-speed train from Tampa to Orlando means the project can get started soon.
Once construction starts, it will be completed, and once completed it will have lasting impact. It's importance ranks alongside the building of Tampa International Airport, the University of South Florida, interstates 75 and 4, perhaps even Disney World. As many rail advocates say, it's a game-changer.
The state had requested $2.6 billion, so as things stand, a big funding gap remains. But Obama and Vice President Joe Biden describe the initial grants as a down payment, not a total payment. More federal money will follow if Florida aggressively begins construction.
If the state delays, it will lose its coveted spot at the head of the funding line.
Florida won almost half of its request in the first round of grants for many reasons.
The state had reserved right of way along I-4.
The rail project united conservatives and liberals. Leaders in both parties understood it would be an economic locomotive.
A grassroots organization led by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik organized vocal statewide support. Business groups, including the Tampa Bay Partnership, also loudly endorsed the project.
Congressional representatives, including Kathy Castor of Tampa, made sure the White House was aware of the many merits of a Tampa-Orlando train.
The state Legislature, in special session, created a statewide rail authority to help coordinate and pay for state and local rail projects. Both the Orlando and Tampa areas are working on slower-speed rail projects and bus improvements that will help ridership on the high-speed train.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority has held numerous public meetings and has figured out how best to integrate the rapid rail into regional transportation plans.
The I-4 corridor, already a major tourist destination, is poised for rapid business growth.
Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Department of Transportation correctly supported the rail concept.
Florida's economy is among the nation's hardest hit by the recession and much in need of the jobs that will soon be created.
Now, the Florida Legislature must resist the temptation to delay construction until they are sure how to pay for the entire project.
Lawmakers should stand firm behind the long-agreed plan to link Tampa and Orlando, then Miami.
The state should not try to start with a short leg, such as from the Orlando airport to Disney World. The project is worth the investment of taxpayers' money only because it links major cities and will encourage economic growth.
Trains could soon be practically flying from Tampa to Orlando, Los Angeles to San Francisco and Chicago to St. Louis.
But without strong, far-sighted leadership at the state level, and rigorous fiscal oversight, it won't happen in Florida or any other state.
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