TAMPA — Gov.-elect Rick Scott has repeatedly said he wants to see a feasibility study for a planned high-speed rail line across Central Florida before the project moves forward.
But he refused to answer the billion-dollar question while touring employment centers along the Interstate 4 corridor Friday. That is, will he turn down roughly $2.4 billion in federal money if he's not happy with the results of that study?
"That's hypothetical," Scott said, declining to answer the question while visiting the University of South Florida Research Park on Friday morning to tout his job-creating aspirations.
The question was lobbed repeatedly Friday as Scott traveled from Tampa to Orlando, where he capped off his five-day, 10-city tour of some of the state's top job producers. It so happens that leaders of both cities are eagerly awaiting word on whether plans to link them by high-speed rail are still on track.
"Do we want infrastructure? You better believe it," Scott told a group of business leaders at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. "From my standpoint, I better know what it costs. I'm responsible to the taxpayers of this state."
Scott reiterated previous statements about the project, saying he wants to make sure that high-speed rail is a good deal for Florida. Asked what might constitute a good deal, Scott told reporters in Tampa he wasn't prepared to answer what he again dismissed as a hypothetical line of inquiry.
Speaking to business leaders, elected officials, students and faculty at USF, Scott expressed concern that the price will exceed current estimates, leaving Florida to cover the balance. He said he also wants to know what the operating costs are likely to be, compared with the money expected to be generated by fares, and whether a private company would be willing to run the trains.
And he's surprised that information isn't already available.
"You wouldn't go build a building unless you knew what the costs were," he said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation said Thursday that Florida is in line to receive another $342 million on top of the $2.05 billion the federal government has already pledged for the Tampa-Orlando rail connection. The additional money was made possible because newly elected Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin turned down stimulus money for high-speed rail.
Scott's tour was meant to tout his pledge to help create 700,000 jobs in Florida in the next seven years, trimming state government and eliminating burdensome regulations in the process. "Let's Get To Work" signs, playing off his campaign slogan, directed people to the action Friday.
He told the crowd at USF that a quality education system is critical to job growth while not going into detail about how he intends to improve schools while cutting costs. He said he'd like to see Florida join states such as North Carolina and California, known for top public universities that attract innovative businesses and private investment.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who was on hand, told Scott he could make a quick dent in his jobs goal by letting the high-speed rail initiative proceed.
"It's the kind of investment that pays dividends for the future," Iorio said. "I certainly hope you support it."
Regardless of the outcome, Scott said the I-4 corridor already has a reputation as a budding business hub with potential for birthing new industry and jobs. He said he intends to foster that, using what the state already has going in its favor to foster economic development.
At USF, he declined a trial run on an armless electronic wheelchair designed by school engineering students that moves in response to slight bends in the torso rather than manual controls. At Burnham, Scott watched scientists research a potential "exercise pill" that would help rehabilitate muscles and visited another research station where scientists studied ways to safely burn fat.
"If we can do this a few times around the state, we can get to my goal of 700,000 jobs pretty fast," Scott said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.