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Barack Obama

Obama Taps High-Speed Rail Winners: Florida, California, Illinois and More

for a larger version. (Image: U.S. DOT)

In his
State of the Union address last night, President Obama hinted at what
many in the transportation world have anticipated
all week: Florida's emergence as a winner in the race for a share of
the White House's $8 billion (and growing) high-speed rail fund.

But Florida will not be the biggest beneficiary of the
administration's first rail rollout. The state taking home the most
high-speed aid today is California, which snagged $2.25 billion to begin
the process of linking Anaheim and San Francisco. Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger's administration had
more than double that amount to begin its $42 billion rail

Florida is set to receive $1.25 billion for Tampa-to-Orlando rail
service, while Illinois is getting
about the same amount to begin environmental studies on a Chicago-to-St.
Louis route and improve speeds between Alton and Dwight to 110 miles
per hour (mph).

Other states celebrating this morning include Wisconsin, which got
$810 million for upgrades to trains between Madison and Milwaukee; North
Carolina, winner of $520 million for improvements of service between
Raleigh and Charlotte; and Washington and Oregon, which got $590 million
to boost the rail link between Seattle and Portland.

House infrastructure committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) hailed
today's first rail grants as "a transformational moment," adding: "The
development of high-speed rail in the United
States is an historic opportunity to create jobs, develop a new domestic
manufacturing base, and provide an environmentally-friendly and
transportation alternative to the traveling public."

The president and Vice President Biden are set to officially
announce the rail winners this afternoon. (A full list of all winning
train corridors is available

But after a process marked at times by parochial jockeying for
funds and concern
over whether federal aid would be awarded in too piecemeal a fashion,
it was not surprising to see Republicans seize upon the potential
pitfalls of the high-speed program.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), whose district in Central Florida is among
today's big winners, released a statement that started out on a positive
note but quickly shifted to a scathing critique of the administration's
rail vision for
maximum speeds that approach those in Europe and China,
where bullet train passengers rocket along at 150 mph and faster.

“Even the first leg
of the Orlando-Tampa route will be a slow-speed, short-stop line,” Mica
said.  “The Midwest
routes chosen will only achieve a top speed of 110 miles per hour and
were selected
more for political reasons than for high-speed service.”

Several of the rail upgrades receiving funds today are expected to
improve top speeds to 90 mph or less, including the North Carolina
project and an Ohio bid to start train service between Cleveland and

Mica also decried the lack of any significant funding to improve
Amtrak's northeast corridor, which he termed an "unfortunate hijacking"
that would ensure service between Boston and Washington "remain[s] the
slow-speed stepchild of passenger rail

In a knock at the northeast route's popularity with commuting
lawmakers -- including, most famously, the
vice president
-- Mica added: "Keeping the Northeast Corridor as a
private train set for a
few select politicians will insure continued congestion in our nation’s
most densely populated region."

The northeast region will receive $112 million in total today,
including $38.5 million to build a new rail bridge in northern New
Jersey that will create expanded commuting capacity in anticipation of
the massive Access to the Region's
tunnel connecting the region to New York City.

Mica was joined by Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA) in his critical
statement. Meanwhile, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) -- a major proponent
of modern rail service along New York's upstate Empire Corridor -- had
only good things to say about today's announcement although her region
looked to miss out on the initial round of high-speed aid.

"In addition to creating construction and design jobs, the
investment in rail will help the U.S. economy in a myriad of other ways,
such as easing congestion on roads, reducing pollution and helping to
bring development to different communities," Slaughter said.

Even as the White House gives its rail investment a deserved dose
of pomp and circumstance today, advocates for U.S. high-speed train
service continue to look to the future as a gauge of the
administration's commitment. Congress' $2.5 billion appropriation for
2010 will need to be matched in future years, rail planners say, in
order to make even one state's proposal a reality before the decade is

As the group America 2050 put it in a statement released before the
winning states emerged:

We recognize that tomorrow’s funding announcementrepresents lessthan 5 percent of what will be needed to build a truly national HSRsystem. In1956, President Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway System,which wasbuilt over several decades in partnership with the states through asustainedfunding commitment and a dedicated revenue source by the federalgovernment. Torealize a national vision for high-speed rail, a similar fundingcommitment bythe federal government will be required.

Late Update: Florida's rail bid has fueled an ongoing
between the state's conservative, Tea Party-aligned forces,
which oppose the major federal role in the project, and lawmakers from
both parties who have been more welcoming of the high-speed train cash.
And today's in-person visit by the president is driving the stakes
higher for Gov. Charlie Crist (R-FL), who polls show falling behind in
his Senate race against GOP rail critic Marco Rubio.

As the blog reports, Crist
has decided to greet Obama at the airport when he arrives this afternoon
but will skip the town meeting at which his state will formally receive
rail money.

Why meet Obama at all? "To express to him my disappointment that
there hasn't been more bipartisanship on his behalf," Crist told the Tampa
, while simultaneously praising the president's rail
allocation for Florida.

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