TAMPA — Once upon a time Tampa International Airport envisioned a grand design for the future. It would spend more than $900 million to build a new north terminal alongside the main one. It would add a dozen new gates, and more to come. It would open as soon as 2015.
Yes, that was the plan — before the Great Recession.
So the airport on Thursday unveiled a new, more realistic, more practical vision for the future.
The highlight is a new tram that would connect passengers to a new rental car facility on the southern end, by the U.S. Post Office. It could be the start of what airport CEO Joe Lopano called an "airtropolis" — a small town on the airport's southern sector built of rental car services, commercial development, parking garages and, maybe someday, a light rail station.
More importantly, it would free up terminal space. And that, Lopano said, could lead to a grander but scaled-down transformation of the airport: an expansion of the main terminal perhaps, or construction of a new international airside.
It's a much more affordable and practical way of adding gates and flights and growing the airport, Lopano said, without having to spend hundreds of millions on a single structure.
"It's a very measured approach to growth," Lopano said. "It gives us the ability to not have to spend a massive amount of money for one additional gate."
HNTB Corp., an architectural, engineering and construction management firm, was told to re-imagine the airport's master plan for the new economic reality. The airport lost 14 percent of its passengers and $22 million in operating revenue from 2007 to 2010. Lopano blamed the "triple storm" of the recession, the real estate collapse and the BP oil spill.
The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board got its first look at the preliminary plans, starting with the southern and eastern quadrants. Lopano told the Tampa Bay Times that potential designs for an expanded terminal or new airside will be released in December.
According to HNTB, the airport isn't projected to regain its 2007 workload until 2016, when 19.7 million passengers annually are expected to use the airport.
But by 2031, they project 28.7 million passengers annually. The master plan will be geared to handle that growth.
The main terminal, however, is showing its 41 years. The curbside arrival and departure lanes are already at or nearing capacity. Passengers must cross those lanes to reach their rental cars. Altogether it's causing congestion and slowing drop-offs and pickups. Traffic entering and exiting the airport is also expected to get much worse in 2016.
The rental car operation has its own issues: The counters are in the main airport but most of the cars are in the economy parking garages. Consolidating rental operations would make it more profitable for the airport.
The new automated people mover system would be a modern version of the airport's shuttles, taking passengers a mile south to the proposed consolidated rental car facility and economy parking garages.
It could also open up the airport's southern edge to development, like a gas station, retail and restaurants, amenities passengers would want. Employee parking could be moved there.
"You could have 7,000 to 8,000 people a day in those areas," Lopano said. "It becomes a small city."
In the eastern sector, the master plan envisions expanding aviation-related development: more room for airline repair companies and vendors; more room for another cargo carrier to join FedEx; and perhaps room for manufacturers to set up fulfillment centers, like the one Dell has near Nashville International Airport.
"Those are heavy-duty job creators," Lopano said,
The board seemed enamored of their first glimpse at the master plan — to a point.
"This is a great plan," said Dr. Joseph Diaco, a board member.
"Maybe I missed it at some point," said vice chairman Robert Watkins, "but we'll see numbers for what this costs?"
After the laughter died down, Lopano said the price tag will come soon. So will a series of public meetings. The first will be Oct. 25 at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater hotel at 12600 Roosevelt Blvd. N. The master plan is set to be completed in February.
Folks here may think Tampa International is a big airport, Lopano said, but it's 3,300 acres. His old airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, is 18,000 acres.
This new vision not only allows the airport to grow at a lower cost, he said, but also saves the entire northern half for more projects in the far-flung future. Say, a north terminal?
"We have very little land so we have to be careful how we use it," Lopano said. "This uses our existing facilities more efficiently and allows us to grow and preserve land for the future."
Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.