The master plan that Tampa International Airport adopted Thursday lays the groundwork for adding flights and boosting the airport's role as a regional economic engine. It strikes the right balance between investing in the future and being realistic about the airport's needs and opportunities over the next 20 years. But the master plan's greatest impact might occur off the airport's property, as it moves the region forward on building a modern rail system.
The blueprint the governing board agreed to Thursday would extend the life of the 41-year-old main terminal, removing the rental car operations to free valuable space and expanding the existing facility to handle more international passengers. New automated people movers would carry traffic between the airsides and to a consolidated rental car facility on the southern end of the property. By making more efficient use of its comparatively small footprint, TIA could put more land into flying-related commercial uses. Restaurants and retail space and even a new hotel would generate additional money for the publicly owned facility and stabilize its finances by broadening the revenue base.
The most promising aspect of the plan is its potential as a catalyst for regional rail. The document envisions linking the airport with whatever mass transit system local governments in the region eventually develop. TIA would connect its people mover to a future mass transit hub in the nearby West Shore business district. That opens the door for passengers to travel between the airport, downtown Tampa and Pinellas County without getting into a car. And it would inspire the region to look beyond bus service and toward a rail network that connects the major destinations on both sides of the bay.
The airport's plan could also transform West Shore, which has the largest concentration of commercial office space in Florida. A transit hub serving the airport would make it cheaper and easier for business travelers to get to the West Shore business district. And it would attract bus circulator and other mass transit to serve the area's two malls, dozens of hotels and thousands of businesses. West Shore could be more pedestrian-friendly and reintroduce itself as a place to work, live and play.
The airport's first concern must be serving air travelers and maintaining TIA's reputation for quality. The transit portion of its master plan advances those goals by improving how people get in and out of the airport. But the master plan also advances the ball by underscoring among local leaders the importance of including mass transit in plans for the future. And positioning the airport to better serve the entire region is a reminder to area governments that the local market is the entirety of Tampa Bay. The master plan will evolve over decades, and it may need some massaging from time to time. But it is the right vision and its benefits stand to reach far beyond the airport campus.