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Obama, Biden Visit UT for Historic High-Speed Rail Announcement

Brett Pollack | The Minaret

Brett Pollack | The Minaret

President Barack Obama on Thursday rallied thousands who waited outside the Bob Martinez Sports Center more than six hours to see him.

The doors of the Sports Center opened to ticket-holders at 10:30 a.m. and the President and Vice President Joe Biden arrived shortly after 1 p.m.  The President’s town-hall meeting lasted over an hour. He spoke about finance, jobs, clean energy, healthcare reform and education.

The University of Tampa was the President’s first appearance after delivering his first State of the Union address.  In addition to emphasizing parts of the previous night’s speech, the President and Vice President delivered news of a new high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando.

This was the first time in UT’s nearly 80-year history that a sitting president visited campus.

“It’s going to give us something to talk about. Out of all the universities, he comes here,” said 18-year-old entrepreneurship major Jon Rogel. “Not a lot of people can say Obama came to my college.”

Before 6 a.m., students and public were lined up along North Boulevard and North B St. waiting to get in to the Bob Martinez Sports Center.  Later, the line continued to wrap all the way to the Vaughn Center and around Austin Hall.

“There were so many people waiting. The lines were unbelievable,” said Monica Mansour.

Vice President Biden took the stage first, announcing $1.25 billion to build a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando. The rail line, which is expected to run up to 110 mph, will also eventually reach Miami.  The money to build the rail is being funded by the federal Recovery Act.

“You have no idea how pleased I am to make this announcement,” said Vice President Biden to a cheering crowd.

After taking the stage, Obama also spoke enthusiastically of the new rail line.

“Those things are fast,” he said of the high-speed trains. “They are smooth, you don’t have to take off your shoes. Check to see if you’re wearing the socks with no holes in them.”

Noting Europe’s many lines of high-speed connection, Obama continued, “Why is it we don’t have those? Part of it is that we’re a very big country, we’re not as densely populated, and we love our cars.”

Obama said having these new trains would increase productivity and also help commuters get to work on time.  Building the rails will also create many new Florida jobs.

While reiterating ideas spoken the previous night during his State of the Union address, the President emphasized the importance of reforming student loans.

“Graduates should only pay back 10 percent of their income to pay back their student loans,” Obama said.  His comment received a standing cheer from the crowd, the most enthusiastic of which came from UT students at the bleachers on his right.

“We’ll forgive student loan debt after 20 years,” he continued, adding that those who chose to work in public service would have their loans forgiven after 10 years.

“In the United States of America, nobody should go broke because they chose to go to college.”

President Obama allocated time for questions from the audience.  UT student Hector Flores was among a few chosen to voice a concern to the president.  He asked what the President would do to ensure equality for gays, a topic broached in the State of the Union address when Obama mentioned abolishing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule.

“A basic principle in our Constitution is, if you’re obeying the law, if you’re following the rules, that you should be treated the same. Regardless of who you are,” the President answered.

After a closing speech, the President left the stage, shaking hands of those sitting behind him, many of which were students chosen to sit on stage for their leadership roles on campus.

“I got shivers when he walked out. I think everyone did,” said Karina Jensen.  “He’s such a powerful person. Everyone went crazy when he said that no one should go broke because they want to go to college.”

Other government officials present included Florida representatives Kathy Castor, D-Tampa; Kendrick Meek, D-Miami; Alan Grayson, D-Orlando; and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston. State Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer were also at the town hall meeting.  Florida Governor Charlie Crist greeted Obama at Mac-Dill Airforce base upon his arrival, though he was not present for the meeting.

Days of preparation and anticipation preceded the President’s campus visit.

The announcement that The Bob Martinez Sports Center would be the venue for the town-hall meeting came Monday at 5 p.m., according to Eric Cardenas, director of public information.

Cardenas also said that White House officials only contacted the university on Friday to scout the location.
The Bob Martinez Sports Center was one of many venues scouted in the area but neither Cardenas nor White House officials could confirm what the other locations were.

Approximately 600 tickets for the town-hall meeting were given out to students who waited in line Wednesday for more than five hours. Earlier that day, 1,100 tickets were given to the public.  However, more than 100 people holding tickets weren’t allowed in to the event as too many tickets were given out.

“Waiting in line for a ticket for 5 1/2 hours was worth it. Waiting in line today for 2 hours was worth it,” said Christina Roman. “It was incredible.

Charlie Hambos, Alex Vera, Coryn Doncaster, Mandy Erforth and Carrie Jean Hoeh contributed reporting to this article.

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