Monday, December 3, 2012

Joe Lopano's big plans for Tampa International

Posted By on Mon, Dec 3, 2012 at 1:49 PM

Tampa International Airport director Joe Lopano has big ideas for the future development of his airport, and he laid out the details of his most recent master plan on Monday morning before the HART board.

The question he and his staff have been working on is succinct: How can they maximize the 3,300 acres that the Aviation Authority controls to generate more revenue? He said the original design of the airport from 1971 is "brilliant," but there is the dilemma of running out of space, which needs to be answered in regards to future growth.

The congestion at the curb sides and the shortage of parking in the 3,500-space long-term parking garage are among the areas where space is already a problem. That's where the South Development Area plan kicks in. The plan considers putting services like car rental facilities, taxi staging, and new retail stores and restaurants, in the space where the post office and cell-phone waiting lot currently exist.

To facilitate the plan, Lopano intends to go "back to the future," and dramatically build up an Automated People Mover (APM). In fact, when it opened, TIA was the first airport in the country to introduce that mode of transportation.

The plan would require a terminal APM Station, which Lopano said would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars." But he's confident that the funding would be available, saying the airport is quickly paying down its debt. He estimated that in four or five years, "we (will) have the ability to take on a billion dollars in debt," not counting other funding sources from Washington and Tallahassee. He said if Miami can do it at its airport (with the $2 billion Miami Intermodal Center, why can't Tampa?

He's also talking about a potential gas station to be housed near the rental car facility, and maybe a hotel. Lopano said the area would then be ripe for future development.

The East Development Area Planning concept will focus on aviation related development. Currently it holds cargo facilities, ground service equipment facilities, and airport maintenance operations. Lopano said the idea is to have facilities for the airlines to do "heavy maintenance on our aircrafts."

The HART board members liked what they heard. County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said it was "like Christmas" to hear Lopano speak, and wondered if the people mover could possibly be extended outside the airport's footprint and connect to the Westshore business area.

HART member Dr. Steven Polzin repeated that idea, saying he also was interested in the prospect of the people mover being extended. But HART member Karen Jaroch said she was worried about the costs of the project.

Lopano said she need not be.

"We've done a study of our bonding capacity. It's abundant," he said, repeating that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. "You don't need a lot of infrastructure. The roadways already exist. We can phase the financing in."

Lopano said the airport's current $2.50 rental car tax is relatively low compared to the tax of similar services around the U.S., and that would help partially fund the potential rental car center.

There have been two public meetings with discussion about the master plan, with another scheduled for Dec. 12 at the Seminole Heights Garden Club.

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