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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

MCO moves forward with expansion, possible rail connections following pandemic slump

Posted By on Wed, Nov 10, 2021 at 5:40 PM

  • Image via Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA)
While expansion to Orlando International Airport has been underway for years, there was no guarantee that MCO's embiggening would be completed post-pandemic.

Last year, at the height of the confusion, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority slashed the budget to the Terminal C expansion at MCO, despite the project already being more than halfway complete. The move was controversial even among the GOAA board. Luckily, the worst of it appears to be in the past and projects are moving forward.

Casandra Matej, the President & CEO of Visit Orlando, doesn’t expect a full recovery of the local tourism numbers for at least another year, but the worse of the downturn now looks to be behind us. At a private panel event focused on the return of European visitors to Orlando, GOAA CEO Phil Brown spoke to the Orlando Weekly regarding the airport's future

At the time of last year’s budget cuts, we noted the airport’s strong performance leading into 2020. While last year saw a dramatic drop in passenger numbers, the airport has recovered far faster than many had expected. August of 2021 saw passenger numbers just fifteen percent below month-to-month comparisons from 2019. Traffic at the airport has more than doubled from the slump seen in 2020. Things are expected to look even better as European and Canadian travelers can once again enter the U.S.


click to enlarge The layout of the South Terminal Complex - IMAGE VIA GREATER ORLANDO AVIATION AUTHORITY
  • Image via Greater Orlando Aviation Authority
  • The layout of the South Terminal Complex
Now with improving passenger numbers, many of the projects cut last year have been reinstated. That’s thanks in part due to more than $17.8 million in funding from the state. Still, Brown explains, the airport must be cautious with its spending as it recovers from the downturn.

“We're working on some additional funding for some additional apron that was cut out that would help the operation once we open back up. We've got a lot of demand for gates. So, we need to start putting that back in, but we've got to get the revenues to catch up with the demand at this point,” she said.

Terminal C will increase the overall number of gates at the airport, which currently has 129 gates, by more than fourteen percent.

Beyond the new gates, Terminal C is also the culmination of a decades-long push to make Orlando International Airport a true intermodal terminal. That will come in mid-2023 when Brightline begins offering rail service between the airport and South Florida. After the South Florida to Orlando line is complete, Brightline will turn their attention to connecting to Tampa via the Right of Way on Interstate 4 leftover from the voter-approved but Republican killed high-speed rail network previously proposed for this corridor.

click image The baggage carousels were installed in Terminal C earlier this year. Construction is now wrapping up on the new terminal. - IMAGE VIA GREATER ORLANDO AVIATION AUTHORITY (GOAA)
  • Image via Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA)
  • The baggage carousels were installed in Terminal C earlier this year. Construction is now wrapping up on the new terminal.
There’s been debate on which route Brightline will use to connect between the airport and I-4 with local leaders preferring an extension along the Beachline with a potential stop at the Orange County Convention Center while Brightline prefers a slightly more direct route along SR 417. Either route, though, provides the opportunity for a connection with SunRail.

While she hasn’t publicly weighed in on what route she prefers, Florida State Representative Anna Eskamani, whose district includes areas near the airport and several areas surrounding SunRail stations, explained to the Orlando Weekly that she hopes to SunRail connect directly to the airport no matter what route is selected.

“I'm a big advocate for alternative modes of transportation, but especially public transportation. I think it's important for readers to remember that Brightline is private, so Brightline is focused on those who can afford it. It is important because it'll hopefully relieve I-4 traffic," she said. "I think any alternative mode of transportation is positive because it takes traffic and cars off the road, but at the end of the day, Brightline is not a replacement for investing in something like SunRail, and we have to really hold ourselves accountable to that point.”

She also favors a route that stops at Disney, noting that removing this stop would make the train’s economic case much more difficult. Still, she hopes Orlando’s transit expansions are mindful of other areas within the region.

“I really want to make sure that any type of transportation system doesn't just bring visitors to the tourism corridor. There are lots to come to other parts of Central Florida for. We have so much to offer in downtown, especially when it comes to arts and culture,” explains Eskamani. “I want to make sure that we have a transit system that doesn't just prioritize the biggest players but also embraces our smaller nonprofits and pop-up or community events. That's the kind of transit system that I want to see, which is why for the airport on Terminal C, I really want to see Brightline and also SunRail go from downtown to the airport.”

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