TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority voted Thursday morning to move forward with the first steps of phase two of the airport's massive master plan.
Aviation authority board members voted in favor of a $132.4 million amendment to the authority's 2017 fiscal year budget, which would set funds aside to begin the demolition of the red side parking garage and start development of a retail and office space area near the airport's new rental car facility, which is currently under construction.
The $543 million phase two of the Tampa International Airport's master plan includes adding express curbside drop-off for passengers without checked bags and the commercial development of 17 acres of airport property. The majority of the project will be funded through the 2018 fiscal year budget. The airport hopes to issue bonds next year as well as use passenger facility fee collections and Florida Department of Transportation grants to finance the project.
"We've been aggressively paying down our debt over the last years to afford this project," said Joe Lopano, the airport's chief executive officer. "In the last two months we've been focused on public outreach with the goal to be transparent as we consider phase two of the master plan."
The commercial development of 17 acres near the airport's new rental car facility will allow a developer to build an on-site hotel, office space and some retail and restaurant common areas. The airport would develop the sites and connecting atrium areas, but would sign leases with developers to initially construct and maintain the commercial structures.
Express curb lanes were introduced to the master plan because fewer travelers are checking bags, said Chris Minner, vice president of marketing at the Tampa airport. Minner estimates that 40 to 45 percent of travels at the Tampa airport fly without checking a bag. Nearly 80 percent of all Tampa travelers don't check in for flights at an airport counter anymore either, with the growth of mobile and online options.
"Passengers don't want to check luggage when they can avoid it. Airlines charge fees and people are traveling lighter," said Al Illustrato, vice president of facilities and administration at the airport.
Board members discussed the airport's debt and the authority's ability to pay for a such a hefty price tag over the next six years.
"The reality is that we've been studying this project for three years," Lopano said. He reiterated that the staff had done its due diligence to predict costs and prepare for them.
Staff members said that even after the master plan updates, the Tampa airport will continue to be among the cheapest in the country for travelers.
"We can't always predict the economy; we can only guesstimate," said board member Victor Crist. "Under conservative estimates, we've got our nut covered. But we should keep our options open for other ways to fund this project."
Stantec Consulting Services is being paid up to $2.6 million for design services of the gateway development area. The board approved a contract Thursday to increase the cap by $15.4 million to $18 million for construction management and design services for commercial structures planned for phase two.
The Tampa airport also reported Thursday that March was busiest month in the airport's history with a 0.5 percent growth in domestic passengers and a 0.7 percent growth in international passengers. The airport served 9.8 million passengers during the first six months of fiscal year 2017, which matched 2016 levels. International passenger traffic is up 2.3 percent so far this year, thanks to full flights on Copa Airlines, Lufthansa and Southwest's service to Havana, Cuba.