1. Opinion

Joe Henderson: It's getting easier getting to Tampa but try getting around once you're here

If you haven't been to Tampa International Airport in a while, do yourself a favor and go. The place is sleek, well organized, and has the look of an airport you might expect to see in some exotic city – which, I guess, we can say Tampa could be on the way to becoming.

Yay us!

But there are some things holding us back, and we know what most of the major issues are – a lousy transportation system, schools badly in need of maintenance, and yahoos who think we're still fighting the Civil War.

One of those issues came up during a conversation with airport CEO Joe Lopano. I asked how he felt about the All For Transportation referendum on Nov. 6, the one where voters will decide if they want to increase the Hillsborough County sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for badly needed improvements to the way we get around.

"We have a huge transportation problem in this community," Lopano said. "We bring people in here to the airport at 500 miles an hour, and then they just stop. We have to do something about this."

Lopano is all about envisioning the future and what has to happen to be ready. He learned early in life that you better have a plan if you want to go from driving a cab in West Chester County, N.Y., (which he did) and being a freelance photographer to his current job, where he makes $475,542 a year.

The airport has always been one of the best here and abroad, but in the nearly eight years since he arrived, it has been transformed from a regional player content to be in the shadow of Orlando and Disney into a growing presence on the international scene.

Under Lopano's direction, Tampa began actively pursuing non-stop flights to Europe and South America. That was controversial at the time, but it is working. Tampa is now one of four airports in the state to be classified as a large hub airport. Florida is the only state with that many.

"The airport is the center of gravity here," Lopano said. "If we don't have the kind of airport we do, people like Jeff Vinik don't come here and invest, and his presence attracts others to look at Tampa. Our economic engine is red-lining right now."

Yes, people still come to Tampa Bay for the beaches and to get away from the snow. More than 22 million travelers are expected to go through the airport this year, and that will be a record.

But what happens when they arrive and are greeted by long lines of motionless cars waiting for traffic to clear? Or when a business leader jets in from Amsterdam to talk about bringing jobs to the area, only to step outside this magnificent airport into a car-clogged mess?

Traffic congestion is the biggest threat to the area's economic future.

Meanwhile, back the airport, the $2 billion expansion project goes on with plans for much more in the next decade. The number of gates will be increased. Lopano is targeting non-stop service to Bogota, Mexico City, Lima, Manchester and Dublin.

Cargo traffic is up 104 percent this year and should keep increasing. That all means money coming back into the area.

"We regularly look 20 years down the road, sometimes 30," he said. "We're trying to anticipate what the airport will need to be then, so we can be ready for whatever technology wants to bring us.

"This place is really rocking. We have a lot going on. Honestly, what's happening here now has exceeded my imagination about what could happen."

Only one thing can stop it. It is easier to get Tampa from far away than it used to be, but getting around once people arrive is the problem could determine if they want to come back.