Updated:High-speed rail projects in California, Florida and Illinois are among the big winners of $8 billion in grants announced Thursday by the White House -- the start of what some Democrats tout as a national rail-building program that could rival the interstate highways begun in the Eisenhower era.
President Barack Obama announced the awards during a town hall meeting in Tampa, Fla. -- a follow-up to Wednesday's State of the Union address that focused on getting Americans back to work. Thirteen passenger rail corridors in 31 states will receive grants, which are funded by the economic recovery act enacted last year.
Even with slumping approval numbers, President Barack Obama got a raucous welcome at the University of Tampa Thursday, making Florida his first stop in a tour to hand out big money for high-speed rail.
"We want to start looking deep into the 21st century," President Obama said.
President Obama came to Tampa with a sales pitch for central Floridians skeptical that high-speed rail is the future of transportation.
"Those things are fast, they are smooth, you don't have to take off your shoes," Obama joked.
At max speeds of more than 150 mph, the plans to connect Orlando and Tampa could run up a bill faster than the federal government can afford.
Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden called the first award a down payment.
"Making investment in infrastructure is a two-for because it creates jobs immediately and it lays the foundation for a vibrant economy in the future," Obama said.
The 1.2 billion pledged so far might only pay for right-of-way and basic infrastructure. The trains and even the tracks themselves could cost billions more.
"Are you worried about finding the money to get this done?" WFTV reporter Eric Rasmussen asked.
"What we heard today was the government will budget for the additional monies in future years," said Alex Sink, Central Florida Chief Financial Officer.
Alex Sink says she's counting on another round of federal funding; $5 billion more is up for grabs over the next five years.
Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Crist is calling on $1.1 billion in the next state budget to fill in the gaps.
Others are calling for the state to finish at least part of a high-speed line from Orlando to Celebration with the federal money they have now.
"I think we have to demonstrate a product that's going to be feasible and watch the pennies and I think we need to show what the train is going to look like," Orange County Commissioner Linda Stewart said.
The first trains could start running in 2015, but the $1.2 billion pledged by the President will only pay to get the project started.
State transportation officials say putting trains on tracks in the median of I-4 with five stops between Orlando and Tampa will ultimately cost more than $3 billion. The state says high-speed rail will create more than 20,000 jobs, starting with construction.
Local leaders who made the trip to Tampa say they won't complain about not getting the full $2.6 billion they asked for.
"Something is better than nothing, there's going to be a huge amount of jobs and that's what we need in Central Florida right now," Orange County Commissioner Bill Segal said.
The high-speed rail is different from SunRail. The high-speed rail would hit speeds up to 150 mph. The SunRail is Central Florida's proposed commuter train. It's far slower and far less expensive than high-speed rail.
SunRail would connect Poinciana to DeLand when it's completed. The state needs $600 million in federal funding for the project and a decision on that is expected by early February.
A lot of the details are still being worked out on the high-speed rail project, but a one-way ticket from Orlando to Tampa may cost about $30.