TAMPA — Take a look at plans for the high-speed rail line that may one day connect Tampa to Orlando and Miami, and you'll notice something that may remind you of the children's game, "One of these things is not like the others."
Tampa is the only city without a stop at its airport. Its high-speed rail hub is downtown.
Throughout most of the decades-long discussion of a bullet train in Florida, a station at Tampa International Airport has not been on the table.
Airport leaders have argued they don't have enough land for a high-speed rail station, and that the airport would be best served by a regional light rail line with a stop at the bullet train hub downtown.
Now, with Florida receiving $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money to start construction of a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando, state and local transportation officials are scrambling to figure out how TIA will connect to the downtown Tampa station.
Doing that is crucial for the airport's future, says Steve Burton, a member of the aviation authority board that manages TIA.
Tampa travelers will soon be able to catch a fast train to Orlando and take advantage of the huge number of international and nonstop domestic flights available at that airport, without having to pay for parking while gone.
Lakeland travelers can already easily choose between Tampa and Orlando airports. With a high-speed rail stop planned for that city, it will be even easier for them to fly out of Orlando.
It needs to be just as easy to get from the high-speed rail stop in downtown Tampa to TIA, Burton said. In the near term, at least, it will have to be taxis, buses and specialty shuttles.
The high-speed rail line is scheduled to be finished by 2015.
But initial plans don't have light rail reaching the airport until 2027, and that's assuming voters approve a 1-cent sales tax in November to pay for it.
"We better have a mighty appealing shuttle system," Burton said. "We don't have 10 years to spare in competing with these other airports."
If the sales tax does pass, the first leg of Hillsborough's light rail line is set to run from downtown to the University of South Florida or downtown to a station in the West Shore area near the airport by 2018.
Some are pressing to add an airport terminal segment, which would be less than 1 mile, to the first leg.
One of them is Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Chiaramonte dismisses the idea of adding a high-speed rail station at the airport. In addition to the lack of space, there's not enough distance between downtown and the airport for a high-speed train to accelerate.
"It would be a waste of money on a technology that is not appropriate," he said. "Light rail is very agile, can make sharp turns, can accelerate quickly. It's kind of like comparing a sports car to a semi truck."
Orlando has stops planned for the airport, convention center and Disney World, which are relatively close together. That, Chiaramonte said, is bad planning on Orlando's part.
"They have too many stops," he said, noting that in most European cities high-speed rail connects urban areas, and other systems link those activity centers to airports. "You want people to go to the center of your city and then be connected to other things. You can't develop around an airport. You're missing all the opportunities that high-speed rail offers," he said.
Observers also note that in Orlando, a debate similar to that in Tampa is raging because the high-speed train stops at the airport but doesn't continue to downtown.
Regardless, it's too late to change the high-speed rail plans in either Tampa or Orlando, said Kevin Thibault, interim executive director of the Florida Rail Enterprise.
The stimulus money came to Florida in large part because the plans are so fully developed. A $100 million contract to start preparing the median on Interstate 4 for tracks is set to hit the street this fall, and construction could start in February.
The timetable for light rail to reach the airport could be fast-tracked, but it would require coming up with more money, said David Armijo, the executive director of HART, the county bus agency leading coordination of Hillsborough's light rail.
How much is unknown, but planning so far has assumed a cost of $75 million per mile.
Chiaramonte believes the new ridership figures that would result from bringing in passengers from the airport would give Hillsborough's entire project higher marks with federal officials making decisions about which transit projects to fund. "I think that it should be looked at," Chiaramonte said. "It would be good to look at a way to get a quick connection between the airport and downtown to get to high-speed rail."
In the next 90 days or so, HART will release the results of a study to determine whether to build first from downtown to USF, or downtown to the West Shore area near the airport. As that discussion unfolds, airport officials may emerge as a strong voice.
"It's not too late," Armijo said. "This is the time to make the decision."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.