TAMPA — Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano first used his oft-repeated one-liner about his desire for enhanced airport bus service more than a year ago.
“How is it I can recruit a nonstop flight between Tampa and Zurich, Switzerland, and I can’t get a nonstop bus between downtown Tampa and the airport?” Lopano asked civic groups in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties that question, cracking a joke to make a point.
Like many transportation issues in the Tampa Bay region, creating a swift, convenient, 9-mile bus connection between the airport and downtown Tampa has evolved into one that’s become complicated and lengthy to resolve.
However, a battalion of local transportation and economic development interests are pursuing a new service as an alternative to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit’s Route 30, which takes 42 minutes along Kennedy Boulevard between the airport and downtown. That compares with perhaps 15 or 20 minutes on a direct run, depending on the number of city stops.
Some now view the bus proposal as a pilot project for how HART should approach transit to include a focus on business and community development, in addition to moving people from one place to another.
“We think a connection between downtown and the airport is a good idea,” said David Smith, a Tampa attorney with GrayRobinson, speaking only in his role as chairman of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. Smith also represents HART’s board of directors.
“We think it is an idea to be promoted. We think it will be good to attract and retain businesses that rely and benefit from easy access to air travel.”
Providing reliable transportation options to and within downtown is a strategic initiative for the group, whose members are drawn from downtown business, Smith said.
He also noted the increasing downtown residential population, many of whom are younger workers keenly interested in mobility options.
“We have a growing lifestyle with people interested in getting around without use of a car, so the link to the airport would be something attractive to them,” Smith said. “So for all of those reasons, we are in favor of the idea.”
If sufficient demand were shown for a direct downtown-airport service and HART had plentiful resources, it’s possible a new bus route might have been created months ago.
But like any metro transit agency, HART is not a revenue producer and covers only a little more than 25 percent of operating costs with fares.
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In addition, because HART relies on federal grants for a portion of its operating and capital grant revenue, it must comply with stringent federal regulations ensuring service to low-income neighborhoods isn’t stripped to provide other routes.That assurance also benefits employers who rely on employees who don’t have cars to get to work.
So HART has neither the equipment nor budget to simply start a new service, which frustrates some — like Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART board member Mark Sharpe, who in recent months has sought ways to create new and innovative service.
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Following the failure of a 2010 county referendum to add a penny to the sales tax to create a light rail line and enhance bus and highway mobility, a consultant’s analysis showed running rapid-transit bus service between the airport and downtown would cost $1.8 million to $3 million for operations and maintenance annually, depending on frequency of service and the number of vehicles.
So officials from the Downtown Partnership, the airport, the Hillsborough Metropolitan PlanningOrganization, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority and HART are holding discussions to develop ways to create and finance a direct airport-downtown route.
In addition, service from the airport to Brandon and Pinellas County is being considered.
If a new airport route is successful, it could serve as a model to look beyond the typical lengthy time period and bureaucratic restrictions HART faces in creating a new route.
“We have to transform the way the public views transportation, providing service to give customers options,” Sharpe said.
“Rather than passengers arriving at the airport and seeing a bus going to the Marion Transit Center (a mile from Channelside area hotels), we’re looking at a whole different type of service. We also need circulators downtown, and in Brandon and Westshore (to provide connections).”
The latest thought emerging from the discussions is that rather than a conventional HART bus, airport passengers might be better served by some sort of shuttle vehicle that would accommodate baggage, provide Wi-Fi connections and make stops at various downtown hotels, rather than a central location such as the Marion Transit Center.
As with all transit plans, the major challenge is to find funding for equipment and operations.
“We don’t have a shuttle vehicle, but let’s talk about what HART can do,” HART interim Chief Executive Officer Katharine Eagan said. “What we are good at is we can plan service.”
Eagan said HART officials are studying how other cities, such as Indianapolis, have created airport shuttles in addition to regular bus runs.
She said discussions have reached a phase of creating scenarios for a shuttle, with a subsequent phase involving a Bus Rapid Transit route that could reach Brandon.
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A recent Tampa International Airport survey found as many as 296 passengers daily could be interested in taking a shuttle from downtown to the airport.
“We envision a high-end bus with Wi-Fi and luggage racks,” Tampa International assistant vice president of media and government relations Janet Zink said.
The Greenlight Pinellas plan to fund additional bus service and light rail within Pinellas County includes express bus service to Tampa International, as does an upcoming transportation referendum in Polk County.
“We are looking into whether or not we can contribute to funding,” Zink said. “There may be FAA restrictions.”