Express Curbsides at Tampa Int’l Will Allow Millions of Passengers to Bypass Ticketing/Baggage Lobby

Express Curbsides at Tampa Int’l Will Allow Millions of Passengers to Bypass Ticketing/Baggage Lobby
Ken Wysocky
Published in: 

Prompted by heavy traffic caused by vehicles dropping off and picking up passengers during peak travel times, Tampa International Airport (TPA) is overhauling its curbside operations. The strategy: express curbsides that provide departing passengers with only carry-on bags a direct path to TSA checkpoints and airline gates—no stops at the ticketing/check-in lobby required. 

The system will work in reverse for arriving passengers. After disembarking from their flights, customers without checked bags will be able to go directly from their gates to the express curbsides for pick-up.

The curbside makeover is just one component of a $310 million project that also includes demolition of an old administration building and construction of a new utility plant. Designed by HNTB Corp., the curbside project broke ground in June; airport officials expect crews to complete the first phase by late 2021. The entire 16-lane project is tentatively scheduled to wrap up in late 2024.


Project: Express Curbsides 

Location: Tampa (FL) Int’l Airport

Strategy: Add 16 lanes of curbside roadways, 8 on each side of main terminal, for drop-off/pick-up of passengers without checked luggage

Project Cost: About $310 million, including ancillary projects

Funding: Airport revenue bonds

Construction Timeline: June 2019-2024

Project Design/Engineering: HNTB Corp.

General Contractor: Hensel Phelps

Subcontractors: To be determined 

2018 Airport Volume: More than 21 million passengers

Predicted Volume by mid-2030s: 34 million passengers

Key Benefits: Faster, more convenient flow for passengers with carry-on luggage only; less passenger traffic in main terminal; less vehicle congestion at existing curbsides; could help forestall predicted need for additional terminal by accommodating expected passenger growth into 2030s

“This express curbside will be the first of its kind in the United States,” says Al Illustrato, TPA’s executive vice president of facilities. “It will separate passengers who need full airline services from those who don’t. It will improve the experience for both types of guests.”

“Some airports may have attempted smaller variances of this concept, but not a fully dedicated express curb for carry-on-only passengers,” adds Thomas Rossbach, vice president of aviation architecture at HNTB.

The strategy is especially germane at TPA because about 53% of its passengers do not check bags. That equates to 11.5 million of the 21.7 million passengers the Florida airport expects to serve this year. Airport officials feel it is important to accommodate the growing number of passengers traveling exclusively with carry-ons to avoid paying airline fees for checked baggage.

“They have no luggage and have a boarding pass on their cellphone, yet they still have to contend with all the traffic created by passengers that require full services,” Illustrato explains.

Removing this subset of passengers from existing curbsides should significantly ease congestion there and in the ticketing/baggage-check lobby. In fact, it should help TPA accommodate additional passenger growth without building additional infrastructure.

HNTB predicts passenger levels will rise by nearly 3% annually in the coming years, reaching 34 million in the mid-2030s. “And HNTB’s passenger predictions have been very accurate,” advises Illustrato.  

TPA’s previous master plan initially predicted that annual passenger volume of 22 million to 25 million passengers would require a new north terminal complex—essentially a mirror image of the airport’s current main terminal and satellite airside terminals. But express curbsides and other measures should forestall that for 15 to 20 years, he notes. 

“We should be around 22 million passengers this year, which is around the point where the (old) plan said we’d need to add the north terminal,” Illustrato says. “But now we’re able to put off building a new terminal for another 15 years or so. That’s huge.”

Currently, the 3,300-acre airport includes 58 gates, three runways and 23,000 parking spaces. It handles about 500 flight operations a day, which ranks TPA in the top 30 busiest airports in the United States.

Reducing Curbside Traffic

Currently, TPA has 16 lanes of curbside traffic loops: eight on the “blue” (north) side of the main terminal and eight on the “red” (south) side. Each side has four lanes stacked on a double-decker roadway. The express curbside project calls for another 16 lanes built in the same configuration, adjacent to the existing curbside loops but farther north and south, respectively.

There’s one key difference, however: When passengers arrive at the express curbsides, they’ll enter “vertical circulation buildings,” one located on the red side and another on the blue side. From there, they’ll ride escalators or elevators up to a skywalk that crosses over the existing curbsides and enters the third floor of the terminal, which provides links to the airport’s four satellite terminals via a monorail.

“This plan builds in twice the curbside capacity while reducing existing curbside traffic by about 50%,” Rossbach says. 

The unique design also is rooted in safety. Many airports increase curbside capacity by building additional circles of roadway outside their existing curbsides, which forces passengers to cross existing curbside lanes to get to/from the terminal.

“Passengers have to cross lanes, and vehicles have to stop for passengers, which is a very inefficient way to keep passengers and vehicles moving toward the terminal,” Rossbach explains. “This design keeps the throughput of these lanes moving at all times because there’s no pedestrian-vehicle interface.”

Decongestion Planning

In recent years, curbside congestion at TPA has risen 8% to 10% annually, fueled by more flights and larger aircraft carrying more passengers at peak periods. The increasing popularity of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft also contributes substantially to the increase, adds Illustrato.

“Our peaks keep getting ‘peakier,’” he laments. “During our busier times of the day and season, our curbs routinely get congested to the point that traffic backs up on our parkway, sometimes all the way out to the interstate (about one mile away).

“We’re not at a point where it’s severe or catastrophic,” he clarifies. “But we don’t like how it’s been degrading our guests’ experience over time.”

The airport’s revised master plan, developed by HNTB and approved in 2013, includes an estimated $2.2 billion worth of improvements. Its main components are aimed at reducing vehicle congestion and making access to airport services more convenient for visitors.

A key piece of the plan’s first phase included a new 2.6-million-square-foot car rental center that opened in February 2018. That project enabled TPA to remove various car rental operations from the terminal and consolidate them into a new facility about one mile away, thus removing a major source of traffic congestion. 

The airport also installed a 1.4-mile automated people mover to take passengers from the rental center to the main terminal, and added 50,000 square feet to the third-floor transfer level of the main terminal. “The new rental facility eliminated 4 million vehicles a year from our roadways, which provided immediate relief,” Illustrato reports.

All told, the first phase of improvements cost about $982 million. Funding came from an increase in passenger facility charges at the car rental center, airport revenue bonds, the FAA and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Phase two, which began this June, includes the express curbsides plus a 35-acre commercial development near the rental center. The total cost for phase two is projected at nearly $543 million, and will largely be funded with airport revenue bonds. The third phase, which will cost an estimated $685 million, calls for a fifth airside satellite terminal with 16 gates. Funding will come from passenger facility charges and airport revenue bonds.

“We’ve preserved room for a north terminal complex of some type, which we thought we’d need sooner,” Illustrato says. “But with the steps we’ve already taken, plus the express curbsides, we should be able to process more people and traffic through the existing main terminal. That’s far better for customers and from an operating perspective, in terms of airport costs.”

Challenges Await

Executing a large infrastructure project like the express curbsides while minimizing disruption to passengers will involve complex planning and maneuvering. “On a scale of one to 10, I’d say this will be a seven, because it involves moving utility lines and demolishing an administration building that includes a central utility plan,” remarks Illustrato.

“Plus, we’re building the new express lanes very close to the existing curbside lanes…and we still need to ensure that traffic keeps flowing,” he says. “We have innovative phasing plans to keep access open to the existing roadways, curbs and the terminal all through construction.”

Rossbach compares the project to heart surgery: “We have to keep the heart pumping while building new arteries, as well as a new nervous system (in the form of a central utility plant building). So we essentially have to keep the patient alive through heart and brain surgery.”

Some of the work, such as splicing and merging new roadways into existing roadways and building elevated roadway bridges over active roadways, will occur at night to minimize the impact on passengers.

For other work, crews will erect temporary barrier walls to separate construction areas from landside operations and maintain full access for passengers throughout the project.  Extensive wayfinding aids and signage already are in place one mile from the terminal to warn drivers and direct them through possible construction activity.

The airport also will implement a public outreach campaign that advises passengers about each stage of construction.

Lessons learned during the first phase of the master plan helped TPA and HNTB officials determine the best ways to work through phase two. “Phase one was probably a 9+ on a scale of one to 10,” Illustrato reflects. “So having that under our belt helps us figure everything out. We’re an airport first and will always do our best to minimize the impact on our guests and tenants.”

From a broader perspective, Illustrato is excited about the benefits the express curbsides will provide. He’s also intrigued about the prospect of emerging technologies extending TPA’s passenger capacity beyond 34 million without much additional infrastructure.

“In the years to come, other improvements in technology and passenger processing could enable our main terminal to handle even more passengers,” he says. “And that would be wonderful.”


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