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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Time for answers to Tampa airport transit questions

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Published:   |   Updated: April 29, 2014 at 06:36 AM

Tampa International Airport chief Joe Lopano has big plans, starting with about $1 billion in construction to expand the place in ways right now that look spectacular. I’m all for it.

Having been to most of the big airports in this country and more than a few abroad, I know my impression of a city started as soon as I walked down the jetway to the gate. Tampa International passes the just-off-the-plane eye test, and it should be even better once all this construction is completed in three or four years.

There will be a new people mover, fancy new rental car center and terminal upgrades. Lopano also wants something that’s not quite as flashy, but to him it’s just as important. He wants to add an express bus that will ferry passengers to and from the airport and downtown hotels.

He is not alone in wanting this. A recent survey at the airport showed 296 people said they would be willing to use the service. And if you have a spare hour or more, ask Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe to explain why we need this thing.

Better bring a sandwich.

“The idea behind a bus is to take people off the road,” Lopano said.

Most people, I think, would say that’s a good idea, so my guess is the bus route will become reality. Caution is a wise approach, though — maybe a pilot program at first. If it works, they can talk about expanding service into Pinellas and Pasco counties, beautiful downtown Brandon, the University of South Florida, and other high-traffic areas.

One of the first things travelers do after landing in a new city is check transportation options. This is based strictly on my anecdotal observations at lots of airports, but people would ride free hotel shuttles if they didn’t have to wait long.

If it took more than a couple of minutes, though, you’d see those same people forming a conga line at the Yellow Cab stand. If they won’t wait 10-15 minutes for a free shuttle, how long will they wait for a bus where they have to buy a ticket?

Conventioneers on a budget might use a bus more frequently than business travelers, but you’d have to attract ridership from both for this to work. An express bus also could be more of a hit with riders going from the hotel to the airport. It’s generally easier to adjust your schedule when you’re headed back toward your flight home.

“But look at this,” Lopano said.

He showed me an app on his cell phone in use at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. It showed wait times, fares, and other vital information.

“As soon as you land, just call this up while you’re sitting on the plane and check out the schedule,” he said. “We could do that.”

Good idea, provided passengers on a fully loaded 777 aircraft aren’t too busy finding their bags and have the app on their iPhones or Androids. Even if they don’t, I’d assume there would be adequate signs in the airport to direct the budget-conscious traveler to the right departure line.

Lopano has been relentless in trying to expand Tampa International’s reach through international flights and the ongoing expansion work. He believes strongly that this bus is vital to help attract even more service to the airport.

So be it.

We already know the questions. It’s time to find out the answers.

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