WASHINGTON — A day after delivering a State of the Union address aimed at showing recession-weary Americans he understands their struggles, President Barack Obama intends to award $8 billion in stimulus funds to develop high-speed rail corridors and sell the program as a jobs creator.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden plan to announce grants for 13 major corridors during a town hall meeting in Tampa, Fla., Thursday, the president's first public appearance following his speech to the nation. It's an attempt by the White House to show that getting Americans back to work is the president's top priority and that he has a plan for how to do it.
The president's visit to the region means Florida's proposal for a high-speed line connecting Orlando and Tampa is likely to receive funding. California's proposal for an 800-mile-long rail line from Sacramento to San Diego and a nine-state proposal in the Midwest are also considered strong contenders.
The $8 billion in funding for high-speed trains and other passenger rail projects is part of the $787 billion recovery act. Besides the 13 corridors receiving grants, a White House official said several smaller awards will be made for improvements to existing rail lines. Overall, 31 states will receive funds.
The official said the projects are expected to create or save tens of thousands of jobs in areas like track-laying, manufacturing, planning and engineering, though there is no time frame for how long it will take for those jobs to develop. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak ahead of the president's announcement.
Though the White House is quick to point out that the economy is no longer on the brink of a depression, as it was when Obama took office, stemming the free fall hasn't translated into job growth. The unemployment rate has hovered near 10 percent for several months, while Obama's approval ratings have dropped.
With that in mind, Obama will spend about two-thirds of his speech on the economy, telling Americans in specific terms that he understands their struggles. He'll reinforce that message in the coming weeks by laying out a number of job creation initiatives, the first of which will be the high-speed rail grant awards to announced Thursday in Tampa. Trips to Maryland and New Hampshire will follow.
In Florida, a swing state Obama carried in the 2008 election, Obama will face a populace where more people disapprove of his performance than approve – 49 percent to 45 percent, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, the first time the numbers there have shifted in that direction since Obama's election.
Even experts who favor high-speed rail question whether the awards Obama will announce Thursday can turn into the job generators the administration is hoping for. Because the U.S. has never had the kind of bullet trains found in Europe and Asia, there are no U.S. engineering companies or manufacturers with experience in high-speed rail. Anthony Perl, who heads the National Research Council's panel on intercity passenger rails, said that means much of the technology will have to be purchased abroad.
At a rail manufacturing conference last year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said more than 30 foreign and domestic companies have promised to establish or expand operations in the United States if they are chosen to build high-speed lines.
Still, high-speed rail experts say that if the administration spreads the $8 billion among more than a handful of projects, none of the projects will get enough money to get up and running.
"If they want this money to have an impact they are going to have to give a lot to a few states," said lobbyist Tim Gillespie, who represents two large French rail companies.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy contributed to this report.