1. Opinion

TIA must plan next 20 years with care

Published May 11, 2012

Tampa International Airport will have to balance its wants and needs in the coming months as it crafts a master plan for the next 20 years. There is not enough land or money to satisfy every wish. The airport needs to be careful as it becomes an even larger player in the region's economy to remain focused on its primary mission of providing a reliable, convenient and affordable link between the Tampa Bay area and the world.

The airport handles about 17 million passengers a year, and that number is expected to grow to 29 million by 2031. The airport has pushed off plans to build a second terminal to the north until at least 2023, thanks to a slowdown in traffic resulting from rising gas prices and the recession. But the facility still needs more immediate improvements, from ways to ease congestion in the terminal and curbside dropoff areas to more room for rental car facilities.

Some of the upgrades will be fairly ho-hum. Design changes and new technology could make the terminal easier to navigate and maximize the space needed for check-in counters. Curbside pickup has improved; the real challenge is to give visitors an alternative from having to drive into the terminal altogether. The airport is also taking an overdue look at building a gas station at the entrance to its property. That would be a convenience for out-of-town visitors especially, and one that would burnish Tampa's reputation for customer service.

The bigger question is how to balance the airport's aviation needs with its ability to grow as a business. With 3,300 acres, TIA doesn't have the latitude that airports such as Orlando International (13,300 acres) have in accommodating all sorts of airport-related ventures. Tampa, though, is looking at building a transportation center at the south entrance that would include everything from a hotel, retail and rental cars to a monorail hub that would bring passengers to and from the terminal. That is a solid idea that could put underutilized property back onto the airport footprint. Officials also are looking at whether land on the east side could be used for a fly-in medical arts institute.

The master plan is updated about every five years, so no plans, at this stage, are set in stone. But the document will guide early decisions about how the airport intends to grow, the character it will take and the role it will play in the region's economy. The public should take the opportunity to weigh in at the next community meeting, expected in August.