TIA’s example for the region
In a region that remains deeply divided over rail, it is notable that Tampa International Airport’s master plan utilizes rail to eliminate traffic congestion, capitalize on real estate and increase revenues. The first phase of the airport’s 20-year, $2.5 billion master plan will develop a consolidated rental car facility that will be linked to the main terminal by a 1.3-mile automated people mover. TIA CEO Joe Lopano says when studying congestion at the terminal, his staff found much of it stemmed from rental cars. The remote facility, served by the people mover, will take 8,500 vehicles away from the terminal a day. The centralized rental car facility will allow the development of nearby commercial ventures, including restaurants, retail and perhaps a hotel that will generate additional revenue for the airport.This first construction phase, which will cost $841 million and create 9,000 jobs, will allow the airport to better utilize terminal space, move passengers more efficiently and cut operating costs. We don’t want to put too fine a point on this. There is a big difference between building a rail system on airport land and building a public system where costly right-of-way purchase is necessary. But as most major cities have discovered, effective mass transit systems efficiently move people and generate development opportunities. They also make a city more appealing. Lopano says Tampa’s lack of comprehensive transit is a huge problem for visiting Europeans, who are used to trains and buses. He rightly believes there should at least be a nonstop bus line from the airport to downtown Tampa. The airport rail line may also demonstrate, as Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe suggests, the value of developing rail in relatively short links. The TIA system could easily be connected to a mass transit terminal in the West Shore area. Lopano says the people mover could also be run around the airport’s perimeter and connected to a system that would utilize the CSX tracks north of the airport. In any event, Lopano’s master plan is impressive, providing more space for domestic and international flights, improving security and baggage handling and continuing the airport’s emphasis on passenger conveniences — walking distances are kept under 700 feet. The entire project will enable the airport to handle nearly 35 million passengers a year, about double what it does now. But even if those numbers are not realized, the investment should pay off for TIA, generating revenue from commercial development and diminishing the airport’s dependence on airline fees. TIA’s thoughtful investment should cause local leaders to also reflect on ways to tap rail’s potential to improve transportation and the economy.