There's nothing particularly exciting about a tram, much less a rental car facility. But the new projects at Tampa International Airport set to open Wednesday are a sign of confidence in the bay area — and a challenge to improve regional transportation across a far broader landscape.
After nearly a billion-dollar makeover, Tampa International will open a new rental car center and SkyConnect people mover this week, two major parts of the airport's plan to position itself for decades of growth. Along with work to ease congestion at the terminal building, the renovations cap the first phase of a three-part project aimed at accommodating up to 34 million passengers a year, up from the 19.6 million who came through TIA in 2017.
In terms of its sheer presence, the rental car facility enhances the airport's reputation for clean looks and convenience. Located south of the main terminal, it has room for thousands of vehicles and enough space to host several smaller companies that now rent cars off-site. By consolidating the operation, customers will enjoy more choices and competition. The airport will move its existing rental car operations from just outside the terminal, freeing up space to expand curbside access for travelers.
The facility is large and highly adaptable, a notable feature of the terminal building itself that over decades has well-served TIA, which is routinely ranked among the world's most customer-friendly airports. The car center has a remote check-in to drop off luggage, and it is served by existing bus service with space reserved for any potential rail line in the future. And SkyConnect is an efficient way of moving people from the terminal to a lower-priced garage, rental cars and other facilities, such as a hotel, that are planned in later phases.
Airport CEO Joe Lopano and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn were smart to see this through, and Gov. Rick Scott deserves credit for his strong support for state funding. With the nation's airports rated a D overall in their physical shape by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its most recent report card last year, the investment in Tampa stands out for the confidence it shows in the region and in its strategy to grow an international audience.
It also stands out for another reason. Tampa's airport and port are investing huge sums to move more people and goods, but that same investment is not yet being made on the ground — on smarter roads and robust mass transit systems that better serve millions across the region. TIA saw the need to spend a billion dollars and went out and did it. Meanwhile, area elected leaders and the business community are focused on finding the cheapest mass transit options available, without enough regard for what this region will need over the next 30 years.
There are starting points and there a break-out moments. TIA's expansion, which is only now getting going, should stand as an inspiration for what can be accomplished by aiming high. It is in the region's interest that this crown jewel remain a leader in air travel and a driving force in the bay area's economy.