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New vision for Tampa International Airport cleared for takeoff

TAMPA

Joe Lopano unveiled the future of Tampa International Airport on Thursday.

But the CEO said the new $2.5 billion master plan does more than just expand and modernize the 42-year-old airport for the coming years and decades.

It's also a new flight plan for the way TIA will do business.

"The old paradigm for the airport was that the airlines will grow, we'll just sit back and keep the bathrooms clean," Lopano said. "Times have changed. It will never go back to what it was before.

"Now airports are seen as big business. It's a new paradigm."

The airport's governing board, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, unanimously approved that new paradigm at Thursday's meeting.

"This is not just a pie in the sky idea that Joe formed last night," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who sits on the board. "This is something that he and the staff have been working on since he walked through the door (in 2011)."

The new master plan sets the stage for three phases of construction and expansion by 2041, Lopano said. It will also allow TIA to make more money.

The airport has spent the past two years paying down its debts so it can fund the new master plan with revenue bonds, Lopano said. It will also seek out federal and state grant money and public-private partnerships for funding.

But TIA also intends to grow its revenue and the ways it generates those profits, through rental car fees, airline fees, developing the airport's empty parcels, and adding more concessions to give patrons more reasons to spend money at the airport.

"We have to maintain a diversified revenue base in the long run to sustain our future and not rely on tax dollars," Lopano said. "We need to stand alone and fund our future."

The consultants who drafted the new master plan focused on the immediate and long-term needs of an airport showing its age in a plan that can be built in phases.

Change will come quickly. The first phase is set for completion in fall 2017.

"This is not a plan five years on the shelf," Lopano said. "This is a plan of action that starts today."

• • •

The first phase is the decongestion phase, as the airport tries to reduce traffic and parking congestion and free space in the main terminal for the next phases.

That phase started in December, when the airport banned curbside idling in the arrival lanes. Doing so could extend the life of the terminal's curbs and roads by another 20 years.

TIA will also build a consolidated rental car facility, or ConRAC, along the southern edge of its property, near the economy parking garage and airport post office. A new automated people mover will link passengers to the main terminal and the new rental facility 1.3 miles away.

The facility will serve two functions: moving the rental car counters and cars from the main terminal frees space for future expansion and opens up the parking garage. It will free 1,200 long-term garage parking spaces and get 8,500 rental cars off the road a day. Then the airport will build out the four corners of the third-floor transfer level, adding 50,319 square feet.

Lopano has called the new 2.3 million square foot facility an "airtropolis" — a hub the airport could commercially develop with restaurant and retail space, car rental counters and a parking garage, maybe even a new airport hotel. The nearby mall, International Plaza, is 1.2 million square feet.

Not only would the facility generate new car rental and concession revenue, but Lopano said the airport could benefit by letting the private sector run it.

"We could sit back and reap the benefits," Lopano said.

Projected cost of this phase: $841 million. It should be done by fall 2017.

• • •

The second phase sets the stage for the third: demolishing the Tampa Airport Marriott and the control tower to expand the terminal and build a new international airside.

Projected demolition cost: $452 million. It should come down between 2018-2023.

In phase three, the terminal would be expanded north at three levels: The ground floor would be a new international curbside; the second floor would hold customs and immigration; the third transfer floor would be a security area for an expanded Airside C and a new Airside D. The artist's rendering envisions a glass structure overlooking the new airside and new control tower.

"This is the future of Tampa," Lopano said, pointing to the sketch of the wing-like new airside. "This is my favorite rendering. Here is a brand-new Airside D. It's gorgeous."

Two new automated-people movers would stretch north from the expanded terminal. One would link to the brand-new Airside D, which would be built in the northwest corner of the main terminal alongside an expanded Airside C.

Construction of this last phase would take place between 2020-2028, but not until Tampa International has the number of international passengers and flights needed to justify it.

Third phase projected cost: $1.2 billion. By that time, consultants estimate the airport will be handling 34.7 million passengers annually.

Dr. Joseph Diaco, a board member, likes this master plan much better than the old one. That called for building a new terminal for billions of dollars. But after the recession, TIA no longer has the passenger numbers to justify that.

"This is amazing," Diaco said. "The planning is meticulous. It's tremendous that we don't have to go build another terminal, which costs twice the money."

• • •

Lopano also talked about plans to expand the airport beyond the airport itself, connecting it to whatever mass transit systems emerge in the bay area.

TIA hopes to connect the new automated people mover to the proposed Westshore Multimodal Center that state planners hope to one day build in the Westshore Business District along Interstate 275.

The Florida Department of Transportation has decided such a hub must be built to accommodate future transportation systems — and the airport wants to be a part of that.

In the end, Lopano sees a transformed airport serving a transformed area.

"We need a new way to think in Tampa, to grow this business," he said, "and we're going to do that."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

New vision for Tampa International Airport cleared for takeoff 04/04/13 [Last modified: Thursday, April 4, 2013 11:31pm]
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