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

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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 sought more than double that amount to begin its $42 billion rail project.

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 competitive 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 here.)

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 lacking 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 Cincinnati.

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 transportation."

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 Core 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 through.

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

We recognize that tomorrow’s funding announcement represents less than 5 percent of what will be needed to build a truly national HSR system. In 1956, President Eisenhower initiated the Interstate Highway System, which was built over several decades in partnership with the states through a sustained funding commitment and a dedicated revenue source by the federal government. To realize a national vision for high-speed rail, a similar funding commitment by the federal government will be required.

Late Update: Florida's rail bid has fueled an ongoing scrum 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 TBO.com 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 Times, while simultaneously praising the president's rail allocation for Florida.