TAMPA — Tampa, Orlando and Miami won't get high-speed rail in the foreseeable future, but Gov. Rick Scott will use election-year funding initiatives for a 1.3 mile people mover at Tampa International Airport and for a local and long-distance passenger rail terminal at Orlando's airport.
Scott on Wednesday designated $194 million in state funds toward the $1 billion first phase of Tampa International's master plan improvements outlined last year.
Those include main terminal redevelopment, a new rental-car facility, and an automated tram linking the main terminal, remote parking garage and the rental car area.
On Feb. 17, Scott announced spending up to $215 million for a terminal at Orlando International Airport that originally was to accommodate high-speed rail, but now is planned for All Aboard Florida, a Florida East Coast Industries passenger train project scheduled to link Central and South Florida in late 2015.
That same day, Scott said work will begin in 2017 on a $337 million expressway to link I-275 and U.S. 19 with elevated tollways, including a link from Interstate 275 to St.Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The project was not expected to be funded for another 15 years.
The current flurry of transportation initiatives follows Scott's rejection in 2011 of $2.4 billion in federal funds to build the Tampa-Orlando phase of what would have created the nation's first high-speed rail project in 2016, possibly reaching Miami two years later.
Two series of state-funded, investment grade reports by independent consultants concluded even the shorter, Tampa-Orlando phase of the high-speed rail project would have been profitable.
Asked Wednesday why he would approve the current transportation projects after rejecting high-speed rail, Scott said, “I want to make sure your money is spent where we can get a return … where you're not going to be stuck with a project that doesn't make sense long-term.”
No one in attendance at the Scott-controlled news conference Wednesday suggested the airport improvements were not a good deal for the community.
“This is the biggest project at this airport since it opened,” Tampa International Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano said.
The master plan concept is to create improvements to avoid building an additional main terminal north of the current facility for years.
It will create 7,100 short-term construction jobs, and up to 1,100 permanent positions. Construction is expected to begin this year and be completed by 2017.
Airport officials sought $272 million from the Florida Department of Transportation through Scott, and got about 70 percent of what they asked for.
Lobbying for state funds in Tallahassee by airport officials and a private firm under an $80,000 contract began in February 2013, with the governor approving funding a week ago in a tightly held decision.
The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority previously created a flexible funding plan, so there should be no difficulty in getting the remainder of the $1 billion for the master plan projects from a combination of federal grants and airport bond initiatives, said Janet Zink, the airport's assistant vice president of media and government relations.
Eventually the people mover, similar to the trams that operate between the airport's main and airside terminals, could be extended to WestShore where a multimodal transportation center that could handle buses, taxis and light and commuter rail is envisioned.
Scott said he has little doubt the Legislature will approve the project – “I'm very confident it will happen.”
Wednesday's announcement was Scott's third in three weeks of a nine-figure infrastructure project in the Interstate 4 corridor, a crucial swing-voting area of the state that could decide his tough re-election battle against former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Democrats immediately said Scott was using big spending projects to curry favor.
“Even Rick Scott's State-of-the-State speech was stage-managed by his campaign manager, so it's only fair to assume that everything he does now will be to benefit his own campaign first, not the people of Florida,” said Kevin Cate, spokesman for Crist's campaign.
Alan Clendenin of Tampa, vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, said Scott is seeking to remake his image.
“He started off slashing money for education, and now right before an election he's restoring it. He started off slashing funding for environmental controls, and right before an election he's trying to pretend he's a friend of the environment. He rejected money for high-speed rail and now he's talking about investing in the I-4 corridor.”
University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said there clearly is “a political side to the story.”
Scott “made it clear in his State of the State speech that he's in gear running for re-election,” Jewett said. “He's aware his approval ratings aren't great and Crist's beating him in polls. He's got to get out there and be visible and take advantage of being the incumbent governor – one advantage is you can go around and announce big projects.”
But Jewett also said the projects “fit into Scott's long-term theme of investing in infrastructure to help the economy, particularly airports and seaports. So it's not all political.”
In comments to reporters after his announcement, Scott said it's about jobs, not politics.
Asked if he expects a political effect from the project announcements, he said, “As you know what I ran on in my campaign was jobs. What I'm focused on is where can we get more jobs.”