Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to commit nearly $200 million toward Tampa International Airport’s master plan is a big boost to a project that promises to enhance the travel experience for millions of visitors and possibly jump-start transportation plans for the entire region.
The state money will go toward the first phase of the airport’s 20-year, $2.5 billion master plan unveiled last year by TIA CEO Joe Lopano. It begins with the construction of a consolidated rental car facility that will be linked to the main terminal by an automated people mover. That people mover could one day connect to a proposed Westshore transportation hub serving visitors and residents who live and work in that area.
The state money comes after lobbying by Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and others who understand the economic benefits of having a world-class airport and a functional transit system offering choices beyond cars.
“Infrastructure matters,” Buckhorn said during a press conference with Scott and others Wednesday. “This is a big leap forward.”
As we’ve said before, Lopano’s master plan is impressive. It will eliminate inconveniences for travelers and double the airport’s passenger capacity to nearly 35 million a year. The project will also be an economic engine during and after construction.
The first phase of construction, expected to cost about $1 billion, will create an estimated 7,000 jobs. More than 1,000 permanent jobs can be expected after the rental car facility, called the Tampa Gateway Center, is up and running. The center will open areas nearby to development, possibly with retail, restaurants and a hotel.
Extending the people mover to Westshore would bring transit and commercial opportunities there as well, and perhaps one day offer a rail link to downtown Tampa and across the Howard Frankland Bridge to Pinellas County.
Scott entered office with a preconceived notion that a high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando was fiscally irresponsible, and he killed the plan along with the $2.4 billion in federal funds to build it and the thousands of jobs it would have created.
But Wednesday he thoughtfully emphasized the importance of investing in Florida’s transportation infrastructure, especially airports and ports.
Last month, he committed $215 million for a train station at Orlando International Airport that could move passengers on a future rail line linking Central Florida with South Florida. And the commuter SunRail line being built in Orlando and partially funded by the state will soon be serving passengers into and out of that city.
The activity around Orlando has put that city ahead of Tampa in terms of transportation options and meeting the future needs of a growing population. The master plan taking shape at TIA might someday be considered the beginning of a future with more choices for commuters, travelers and residents.
With the governor’s help, that future should be easier to reach.