Tampa International Airport plans to shift car rental location to free up terminal space

12/20/12 Janelle Irwin
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Tampa International Airport officials are making plans for future growth and some of the changes could happen pretty soon. The airport’s CEO told Tampa City Council members this morning that rental car facilities will likely be moved in order to free up parking spaces and cut down on road congestion around the main terminal.

The new rental car facility would be built near the post office and economy parking lots on the south side of the airport property. Tampa airport’s CEO Joe Lopano said the project could be completed in three to four years.

“We have to get, first of all, our final plan which will be brought to us in March – I’ll bring it to my board members in March. If the board adopts the plan immediately to begin awarding contracts for design and building of that system.”

TIA leaders are updating a long term plan to accommodate an increasing number of passengers. Officials expect ridership to double in the next 20 years. Lopano said the long term parking garage is already starting to fill up and won’t be able to handle the surge.

“It has been closed five times this year because it’s full. Now, that also happens to be the place where we have our rental car facility storing cars. They take up about 2,000 spaces in that garage. If we were able to move the rental cars out, we don’t have to build a new garage so we save money by doing that.”

Right now the airport’s roads can handle traffic flow, but that will change as more people are boarding flights. Moving rental car services away from the main terminal would also cut back on traffic as people no longer would have to approach the terminal to return or pick up cars. Lopano said the rental car facility will have a system in place to take people directly to the main terminal.

“We’ll connect that with an automated people mover system which will be similar to the shuttles that we currently have and that will be about a mile and a half of new train system that will connect you right to the south development area.”

Airport officials want to alleviate congestion from arriving flights. Food trucks will be added to the cell phone waiting lot where people can see updated flight statuses on a giant sign instead of driving in circles looking for the person they are picking up. Lopano said airport security is also now enforcing a rule that used to be overlooked.

“What our consultants pointed out to us that we have people dwelling at the curb for 20-30 minutes and that forces someone to pick someone up out in the third lane. And we’ve got photos of people coming in wheelchairs having to wheel out into active traffic to get into a car. The rule is active loading and unloading only although, over the past it’s been relaxed. What we have done – in fact, we started last night – we will enforce loading and unloading only.”

The plan would also include a bus station where regional transit could drop passengers instead of driving to the terminal. Lopano said the station would also use the automated people mover system he calls by its acronym, APM.

“This facility will also have the ability right now to accept bus, bus rapid transit. So, in other words, at the rental car center where the APM station is, there will be a ground floor level where a bus can pull up, you go up an escalator, get on the APM and go right to the terminal. Or, hotel buses … all the buses that are congesting our terminal can now pull up here at this station, go up an escalator, get on an APM and go straight to the airport further decongesting the main terminal area.”

The employee parking lot would also be moved out of the north side of the airport to the site of the proposed rental car facility. That eliminates buses that take workers to the terminal. Instead, Lopano said the employees would ride the same automated people mover as passengers. That would create what Lopano called a little city.

“We will put commercial development there. We will put offices. We will put gas stations, restaurants, all the things that 10,000, 15,000 people might want. So, an employee, when they get off their shift, will ride an APM, get in their car and can stop and buy milk and eggs – whatever they need – gas, all of those things can be done very conveniently. Or a rental car customer – I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to return a rental car here in Tampa – there’s not a lot of gas stations out there and it’s very difficult to find one. So, you would just pull right in here, gas your car up and bring it back to the rental car center.”

Other longer term goals include the possibility of building an economy hotel or a pet hotel. Lopano said there has also been some talk of putting another transit station on the outskirts of airport property that would also connect to the main terminal.

“Now, it also gives us the opportunity if the community so desires, to extend that people mover to some other place down by Trask if that’s the area where some other – if it’s train or bus or bus rapid transit, whatever that might be gives us the opportunity to go and connect. As an example, if there were some sort of rail that ran along (I-)275, you could have a station called Tampa International Airport - Westshore station and you get off the train and there’ll be a check in counter, restaurants – it’ll look just like an airline terminal – get on a people mover, it’ll take you right to the main terminal.”

The new train station option is in contrast to previous ideas that included a light rail station closer to the main terminal. Lopano is also working on expanding international flights. In the coming decades that could mean expanding available airsides, but Lopano said right now his plans to accommodate the influx only include offering more concessions.

“That expanded main terminal avoids a massive infrastructure investment and would last for at least 25 years and when international growth is achieved, we can affordably add capacity. And that’s one of the brilliant parts about the original design is, you build a main terminal and then you plug airsides in as you need them. If you don’t need more than you don’t build the gates, but the main terminal is already there – that infrastructure has already been paid for.”

As more needs arise, Lopano said airside C where Southwest flights currently land and take off could be expanded and another airside could eventually be added to accommodate more international flights. Tampa City Council members had little to add to TIA’s future plans. Council chair Charlie Miranda noted that Tampa had the first airport to use an automated people mover system.

“The location and the train is certainly what we need. Isn’t it amazing that 41 years ago someone thought of this concept, built this beautiful airport and today is still one of the shining stars throughout the world. So those individuals … should be congratulated again for the thought that they had and the investment of the mind that they had for the future and you’re doing the same thing now by bringing us up to date on what could happen at a very low cost as I understand it … compared to the relative cost it would be if you had to expand the main terminal.”

Airport officials hope to grow travel to places like the Caribbean and Central and South America since most of those flights would not require long range aircraft and planes could be used for more than one trip per day. Lopano said new flights to Cuba that started last year likely won’t be expanded just yet, but the flights they have are filling up.

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