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Tampa, Orlando airports watch each other as they plot future

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Published:   |   Updated: October 13, 2013 at 09:39 AM

People in Orlando envy the Tampa Bay area's beaches and sports franchises, while those in Tampa flock to Orlando's theme parks — and more frequently than Tampa officials would like — to Orlando International Airport for its plentiful international flights.

In many cases, the better offerings of both regions are complementary, and comparisons are more a matter of bragging rights as residents and visitors shuttle between the two regions.

However, what takes shape at Orlando International Airport grabs the attention of Tampa leaders. They are keenly aware of competition for regional job creation that air service to major destinations, especially international cities, can attract and support.

Both airports are positioning themselves to maintain their status among top U.S. airports in annual passenger surveys, enhance regional development in their areas and gain a competitive edge where possible.

Tampa International officials in April approved a $2.5 billion master plan update whose programs through 2028 include new facilities for international flights, a ground transportation station at the airport, and a multimodal terminal served by a people mover airport link expected to be built in Westshore.

Orlando International's master plan update proposes a massive expansion program with the ambitious goal of becoming recognized as the state's preeminent transportation center.

Orlando hopes to achieve that by adding a second main terminal south of the current one and a rail station serving the proposed All Aboard Florida passenger train between Orlando and Miami, as well as Orlando area light rail and commuter rail systems.

“The (All Aboard Florida) project defines us as the center of regional transportation and will transform the way visitors and residents travel between two of Florida's most populated and visited regions, Miami and Orlando,” GOAA Board Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said.

All Aboard Florida would provide the airport with a leg up on Tampa, which lost its opportunity for a rail link with Orlando and Miami when Gov. Rick Scott rejected a high-speed rail proposal in 2011.

Serving Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Orlando International, All Aboard Florida is expected to be packed with tourists while generating increasing business ridership along Florida's east coast.

Phil Brown, executive director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, said he is attentive to what the airports in Tampa, Miami and elsewhere are doing as Orlando International moves forward.

“I think it's significant to the state that this will be the first airport with multi-modal transportation close in, on the airport,” Brown said. “We try to market that we are in the middle of the most well-known international destination in the world, and that Orlando also has a burgeoning medical and meetings centers cluster.”

The master plan for Orlando's South Terminal Complex would further enhance the image of the airport that serves about 35 million annual passengers — twice as many as Tampa — as well as provide needed space for growth.

A primary goal is to maintain Orlando's tourism image reflected in the slogan: “Orlando International Airport, The Orlando Experience,” and to contribute to the region's economic development both through plentiful air service and projects targeting business opportunities.

That's not unlike the strategy Tampa International and other airports espouse, but Orlando International has advantages with its tourism draw of 57 million visitors, mid-state location and plentiful land.

Orlando's facilities are expected to promote business growth in and beyond the 13,297-acre airport, with four times the land as Tampa International.

“There is an interest globally in creating 'airport cities' next to airports,” Brown said. “That provides revenue not generated by airlines but by people who do business near the airport. We focus a lot on what we can do to develop non-airline revenue.”

Orlando's airport experience is threatened by overcrowding in the main terminal and parking facilities. That was a point of contention with some airline officials who want to keep their fees low and contend some gates are not being used efficiently.

But airport staff said international traffic growth is limited by current facility restraints and no aviation authority funds will be used to construct the All Aboard Florida station.

The time line to implement the master plan depends on passenger growth triggering a half-dozen phases of development. That will begin when the airport reaches 40 million annual passengers, which could occur soon after 2016.

While no timelines or price estimates have been set for the advanced phases, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a $1.07 billion capital improvement program through fiscal 2018.

That includes funding to enhance and expand the current main terminal ticket lobby, baggage handling, international gate expansion and launch the people mover project to the South Terminal site where a parking garage, will alleviate parking congestion.

Light rail could start with a link to the Orange County Convention Center. Commuter rail could be a link to the SunRail commuter system that begins service next year.

Like Orlando, Tampa International's main terminal would reach saturation with another 10 million passengers.

Tampa International's master plan eschews building a new main terminal formerly envisioned north of the current one, a plan postponed when the recession took hold. The new concept improves and expands the main terminal and pushes development south and east.

Rental car operations will be relocated to a new facility, opening up more passenger parking at the main terminal.

A people mover similar to the trams between the main and airside terminals will serve the new consolidated rental car facility, with expectations it could be extended to serve passengers at a proposed multimodal transportation center in Westshore, similar to a project adjacent to Miami International Airport.

“Our plan does call for an on-airport transit station at the rental car center,” said Janet Zink, Tampa International's assistant vice president of media and government relations. “But the Orlando airport has more land than we do and an existing rail line that makes it easy to develop a large hub on their airport campus.”

The airport's hub will be at the proposed Tampa International Airport/Westshore multi modal center, which would serve buses, Bus Rapid Transit or light rail and the people mover airport connection.

“Passengers from all over the region — St. Pete, Pasco, Sarasota, north Tampa — could get a boarding pass there, check their bags and hop on a people mover that will take them directly to the terminal,” Zink said.

“There are also more opportunities for transit-oriented development at that location. It makes great sense, especially when you think about the connection to Pinellas across the Howard Frankland Bridge.”

But funding prospects for rail or a true Bus Rapid Transit system are less certain than what Orlando has achieved and proposed.

The Tampa Bay region's chances to enhance its transit systems will depend on voter approval to add a tax similar to the one Hillsborough County residents turned down in 2010.

Local elected officials hope All Aboard Florida would at some point extend its service from Orlando to Tampa, but these prospects face obstacles, not the least of which is the train has the rights to use to Florida East Coast Railways freight track to Jacksonville, and there's no inexpensive route to Tampa.

Local business officials have embraced Tampa International's quest to recruit more international flights and have supported about $2 million in airline recruiting efforts so far for new flights to Switzerland and Panama.

Tampa International Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano believes those who either drive to Orlando International or fly to Miami to connect with international flights can be persuaded to use their hometown airport if it could recruit more flights.

Ronnie Duncan, founder and president of The Duncan Companies Inc., a Florida, Georgia and Arizona real estate firm, and executive chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, believes in Lopano's goals for the airport but recognizes the competition with Orlando.

“It is clear Central Florida and the Tampa Bay region have a lot in common, but also have some different talents and opportunities, Duncan said. “The question each region must ask is 'What are our priorities?' Central Florida has achieved success in SunRail, extensive loop highways and its airport. We need to be sure we are just as good in setting our priorities.” tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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