Economy likely to delay Tampa airport expansion by 8 years
TAMPA - The sagging economy and drop in passengers means Tampa International Airport will likely put off a $1.4 billion expansion until 2023 instead of starting in 2015 as expected before the financial crash. A revised 20-year plan reviewed today by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority anticipates airport use will hit 25 million to 28 million passengers a year by 2023, which would trigger construction of a new terminal. That's even further in the future than the 2018-2020 projection given in November by then-airport director Louis Miller. The 2006 version of the 20-year plan, the last time it was revised, anticipated growth would spur the need for the first phase of a new terminal to be finished in 2015 at a cost of more than $800 million. A second phase would cost more than $500 million.Also, a new runway won't be necessary for more than 20 years, according to the new plan. The 2006 plan foresaw the need for a new runway toward the end of its planning horizon. That was before the economy tumbled, and along with it, the number of passengers using the airport. Tampa airport set a record in 2007 with 19.3 million passengers. Passenger use dropped 2.9 percent in 2008 and 8.5 percent in 2009. This year hasn't been much better, with 3.7 percent fewer passengers traipsing through the airport the first three months of 2010 compared to 2009. Any recovery is likely to be slow, though airports in Fort Lauderdale and Orlando showed modest increases in passengers in the first three months of this year. Passenger use in Orlando rose by 1.8 percent compared to 2009 and by 4.7 percent in Fort Lauderdale, according to airport authority figures. For Tampa, though, the plan doesn't anticipate a swift recovery. Passenger use is not expected to reach 2007 levels until 2014 and won't hit 30 million until 2029. That passenger count includes arriving and departing fliers. Airport planners expect slow growth and a rebound in the state's housing industry and airport use arriving between 2011 and 2013 and the number of passengers increasing at 2.9 percent a year. The delayed construction means the airport won't have to borrow as much money and can focus on paying off current debts, Interim director John Wheat told board members. The airport could be debt free by 2020, he said. "We're into a maintenance mode the next five years," he said. The authority board also: • Agreed to begin hunting for companies to recruit candidates for a permanent director to replace Miller, the executive director for 14 years who abruptly departed in March. Authority member Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wanted to speed the process. The original proposal didn't have the board picking a recruitment firm until September. The board agreed to conduct a workshop next month to review firms. • Increased the salary of Wheat for his role as interim executive director by 5 percent from his current $212,000 a year. The original proposal by board members Al Austin and Steve Burton was to boost his salary to $253,000, the amount Miller was making when he left. Iorio opposed the hike, saying Wheat should not be paid what Miller made after 14 years on the job and was the top end of the job's salary range. Paying an interim director the top of the salary range would put the board at a disadvantage when negotiating with a new director, she said. She said workers in the city are given a 5 percent raise when they take on an interim position, an amount all three members of the authority board at the meeting agreed with. • Set in place ways to review appeals of zoning regulations concerning height restrictions around Tampa International, Tampa Executive, Peter O. Knight and Plant City airports for buildings, cell phone towers, construction cranes and trees. Under Miller's tenure, many of the decisions about variances were made without a formal process and today's action revamps the process to comply with the airport's rules. • Agreed to a lease with H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute for an outpatient radiation and chemotherapy center. The 20-year lease would bring the authority $8.3 million and also requires Federal Aviation Authority approval. After renovations, Moffitt plans to lease the former Continental Reservations Center building, which was previously scheduled for demolition.
Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at (813) 259-7731.