Based on information presented at the most recent Network of Business Advocates and Entrepreneurs (NEBA) forum on transportation issues, it appears the local recruitment efforts of Jet Blue could not overcome obstacles Tallahassee has no control over – geography and economics.
NEBA held a forum addressing the current and future status of air and rail transportation in Tallahassee which featured Aviation Director Chris Curry and City Commissioner Scott Maddox. Maddox, who has a long history of trying to improve air service in Tallahassee, spoke first and addressed both air and rail transportation issues.
The two issues air travelers have consistently complained about are ticket prices and flight availability. Reports show that approximately 30% of residents in the Tallahassee area choose to fly out of other cities, such as Atlanta and Orlando, because of price and non-stop flights.
Maddox could offer no concrete solutions, and with a hint of resignation, he explained why the current situation is probably not going to change in the near future.
Maddox said, “we are 4 1/2 hours from a major hub. We are a fly over designation.” He said this geographic reality does not appeal to air carriers.
Mr. Curry, explaining why Jet Blue will not commit to serving Tallahassee, said the economic model of air carriers is focused on filling larger planes. This approach, driven by factors which include a shortage of pilots, puts Tallahassee down the list when desirable carriers are looking for new markets.
Maddox admitted that Tallahassee’s economic growth will be stymied “until we have good air service.”
When Mr. Curry was asked about the reason for the airport’s international designation, he spoke about future trade opportunities with Central America due to the overcrowding at south Florida airports. He also explained how the international designation, coupled with Tallahassee’s ability to obtain a “foreign trade zone” designation from the US Department of Commerce, could help recruit foreign businesses.
Mr. Curry also discussed the $62 million in airport improvements to the runways and the terminal and said the renovations to the security check in process will soon be competed. Mr, Curry said the current carriers are solid and, despite certain challenges, the economic activity through the airport contributed approximately $453 million to the local economy in 2016.
Commissioner Maddox also talked about the possibilities of the return of Amtrak service to north Florida. The service was interrupted during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and now a number of groups are supporting its return. Maddox said a test run from Jacksonville to New Orleans was popular.
Maddox said there is a Gulf Coast Working Group which will report to Congress next month on reopening the section of the Sunset Limited Trail which runs from Tallahassee to New Orleans. However the current Administration’s budget does not include any money for rail anywhere in the country, so he suggested people that support rail to call their members of Congress.
Maddox said the the operational costs of the service is approximately $5.4 million per year, however he also talked about some of the benefits of Amtrak. He said the service would help reduce I-10 congestion, improved labor markets, and the appeal to young people.
Maddox was encouraged by the physical condition of Tallahassee’s train station and also by the growth in the Gaines Street area which will help transition the transportation option with Tallahassee’s urban area.