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Washington to Tallahassee: Start backing commuter rail or risk federal funding

Members of Florida's congressional delegation criticized their counterparts in Tallahassee for rejecting funding for Tri-Rail and a proposed commuter rail line in Orlando, saying the move could put federal money in jeopardy.

"I can tell you the rest of the country will clean our clock if we continue to stumble,'' said Rep. John Mica of Orlando, the top Republican on the House Transportation Committee. The Legislature this spring rejected a controversial rail line in Central Florida and failed to give Tri-Rail a dedicated source of funding, making it more difficult, Mica said, for lawmakers to make the case in DC that the state needs transportation dollars.

Mica's remarks came as Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos and her counterparts from various states were to meet at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to talk about $8 billion in federal dollars available for a high-speed rail corridor across the U.S.

Rep. Kathy Castor said she thinks Florida's got a good chance of securing some of the dollars in the competitive process. "It's obvious President Obama wants to make a splash," she said. Biden -- a DC-to-Delaware Amtrak enthusiast -- told governors and state transportation officials at the meeting he believes high speed is "really a no-brainer."

"This is how the interstate highway system started, folks," he said. "It wasn't like the Lord on the eight day said -- boom! -- there's the interstate highway system."

The White House said details on the federal grant applications will be announced later this month and the first round of grants are expected to be awarded as soon as late summer 2009.