TAMPA - Brian Cline was trying hard, and not always successfully, to pull his carry-on bag through a throng of people at the Airside E shuttle lobby at Tampa International Airport.
"We're about two people from total gridlock here," said Cline, an accountant from White Plains, N.Y. "They could use more space."
It's coming, and a lot sooner than expected.
The board of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority will get a look in May at the plan and the timetable for a brand new terminal complex at TIA, a mirror image of the landside terminal and four operating airsides that celebrated their 35th anniversary this month.
The need for this major expansion project, which wasn't anticipated for another 20 years, became clear after several years of record-setting growth for the airport and for the Tampa Bay region.
"It's my expectation that on Oct. 1, 2015, we will cut the ribbon on phase one of the expansion, and if we're going to open in less than 10 years, we've got to get moving," executive director Louis Miller said.
Work will begin before the end of this year on preliminaries. They will culminate in a new central terminal building, a new parking garage and one 14-gate airside directly north of the existing facility. Eventually there will be four new airsides.
The new terminal will be served by extending existing roadways. Room will be made for a light-rail system. A people mover will operate between the two terminals.
About four years after phase one opens, the airport will get a new north-south runway on the west edge of the property next to Eisenhower Boulevard.
Aviation authority officials already are meeting with bonding agencies and planning environmental studies, road, bridge and taxiway construction, relocation of the cargo complex, radar systems and the air traffic control tower, and myriad other things.
The cost of phase one?
"It's under a billion dollars," assistant executive director John Wheat said with a smile.
Actually the figure, adjusted for inflation, is $937-million. Financing will be through the Federal Aviation Administration and state grants, bonds and passenger facility charges, the $4 assessed on every ticket for wear on the airport.
The new complex will be expanded as needed, though phase two isn't likely before 2025. Its projected cost is $2-billion.
Airport officials won't even guess when the north complex will be built out.
The central terminal will be constructed like a pie cut in quarters, one quarter at a time. Each time a new airside is needed, another piece of the central terminal will be built, too.
The building boom about to begin at TIA is driven entirely by the pressure of growth. When the facility opened in 1971, it logged fewer than 4-million passengers. Last year, the numbers pushed 20-million, almost double the 11-million who passed through the airport 10 years earlier.
In 2005 alone, passenger counts rose by 3-million over 2004, a growth of 18.7 percent.
"We won't see that kind of growth continue, but the numbers are going to double again in the next 10 years, even with slower growth," Wheat said.
The Aviation Authority prepared four scenarios for growth, and then it studied how far it could stretch the capacity of the existing terminal.
The absolute maximum for the terminal is 25-million to 28-million passengers. Given the population expansion of the Tampa Bay region, the most likely scenario for passenger growth at TIA averages 3.7 percent a year, a far lower figure than the double-digit growth of the past two years. That scenario suggests the 28-million magic number will be passed in 2016, and possibly in 2015.
"If growth comes faster than we forecast, we can pull everything forward a year, and if it's slower, we can bump everything back a year," Miller said.
The overcrowding of the existing complex is not at the airsides, Miller said. They are more than adequate to handle passenger traffic for years to come. The main terminal is not, and the biggest problem is outside the Airside E shuttle lobby.
Airside E is home to Delta Air Lines, TIA's second-largest carrier. The shuttle lobby for that airside extends deep into the third level of the terminal building.
Seating installed opposite the lobby leaves little room for foot traffic, a problem that doesn't exist on the opposite side of the floor.
"It is like fish in a can here," said Adrienne Charnock, 27, of Le Havre, France, who was waiting with her sister, Michele, for a flight to New York to make a connection to Paris.
"Here, on the plane, everywhere we are squeezed," she said.
Across the way, outside the shuttle lobby for Airside C foot traffic flowed freely. C is home to Southwest Airlines, TIA's largest carrier.
"It doesn't seem bad to me," said Kendall Jenkins, 22, of Dallas, who was headed back to graduate school after an extended spring break.
"It's a mess over there," he said, nodding toward Airside E. "But I don't see building a whole new airport just to get rid of one bottleneck."
The problem is that another 5-million to 8-million passengers a year in the landside terminal could turn the whole thing into a bottleneck.
Officials don't want to allow that and risk losing TIA's reputation as one of the most user-friendly airports in the world.
"We're studying several ways to fix the problem of seating and crowd control at Airside E that will hold us until the new terminal complex is built," airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan said.
When phase one of the north complex is done, Wheat said, pressure will ease on the south complex.
"On day one we will move 25 percent of the South Terminal operations to the North Terminal," he said.
Miller added, "We will never let the South Terminal get under pressure again. As soon as we see this threat, we will begin to build the second phase of the new complex. It would be a two-year deal."
For the most part, the two complexes will look and operate a lot alike.
"This terminal complex works, no doubt about it," Miller said. "So we will replicate it and fix what shortcomings we've found here over the years."
If they had it to do over again, officials might not design the Airside E shuttle lobby to take up so much space on the third level. And they would expand the roadways around the arrival and departure areas.
"They came close to getting it right the first time," Miller said. "We'll just tweak some things."
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