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Are air taxis in our immediate future?

Mark Parker

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A rendering of a Lilium electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle used for emissions-free jet and taxi service. Photo courtesy of lilium.com.

While the Jetsons age of flying cars may still be further away than some people would like, it appears air taxis could be quietly zipping over the city of St. Petersburg in the near future.

During Friday’s Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) board meeting, members shared the latest plans on the potential of air taxis emerging in Tampa Bay.

TBARTA has long been in talks with air taxi companies after receiving a state grant in 2019 that allocated $1 million for the study of innovative technologies.

The topic of air taxis was broached as the board discussed the lack of regional cooperation for the implementation of water ferries. Pasco County Commissioner and Vice-chair of TBARTA Kathryn Starkey said she hopes the ferry system keeps growing and sees it as “the beginning of a regional ferry system.”

“And then I’ll add another one into the mix,” said Starkey. Starkey then explained that she’d recently attended a meeting in Palm Beach where Commissioner Greg Weiss announced his county had signed a contract with Lilium, a German-based aviation company that specializes in all-electric, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles used for emissions-free jet and taxi service.

In Nov. 2020, Lilium and the City of Orlando announced a partnership for the company to build its first U.S. office and vertiport in Lake Nona, representing a $25 million investment. According to a statement, Lilium was looking for a central location with a supportive community that was open to new, futuristic technology. The fully electric vehicles enable city-to-city connections of up to 185 miles with minimal noise and no emissions, and the manufacturer needed a hub that could connect multiple cities across the state.

“I thought he (Commissioner Weiss) mentioned they were going to St. Pete or Tampa, does anyone know?” asked Starkey. Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long spoke up and said she was in talks with the company over two years ago. She said she and her staff had some interesting Zoom calls with Lilium “before Zoom was a thing.” She added the company was “very interested” in a line that goes from Orlando to Tampa to St. Pete and then down to Ft. Myers.

“We have definitely been engaged in conversations with them,” stated St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman to the board. “And certainly, we’re hopeful that’s exactly what will happen, that we’ll be able to identify a location for them to have as a place where they can launch the air taxis from.”

“Whether it is from St. Pete to Tampa, Tampa to St. Pete, or Tampa to St. Pete to Orlando, I do expect that to happen.”

Lilium’s jets would be able to deploy from rooftops of buildings as well as parking garages and other structures.

Starkey then took the opportunity to make another big announcement concerning Lilium in Pasco County.

“I’ll let you know we are in the very beginning of discussions with our 800-acre Moffitt Cancer Research campus,” said Starkey. “They’re building a helipad, and we actually discussed this last night (Thursday) with the developers, and they’re very interested in having Lilium come to that facility.”

Starkey said that is another regional effort the board should move forward with, “but its place is in TBARTA, in my opinion.” She added that she does not know if that is an “action item,” but “regional transit projects belong here.”

Rene Flowers, secretary-treasurer for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), said that while the ferry situation “has already left the building,” she would like to ask the administration to come back with a process to address things that are happening in members’ counties and decisions being made without bringing TBARTA “to the table.”

“I’m just hearing that there are certain things that have occurred that TBARTA’s definitely not been aware of,” said Flowers. “Just making it a suggestion.”

Long replied that while she does not “feel good saying it, that’s a leadership issue in my mind.”

“These things are going on, and have been going on, and the planner … has been in our meetings, so either he’s not taking key information back, or somewhere there’s a huge communication glitch,” said Long. “And we have to figure that out before we can ever move forward.”

Kriseman said that he “totally agrees” that the whole mission of TBARTA is to be an authority on regional transit matters. However, he said that financial issues – such as not having recurring funding, along with uncertainty over the future of TBARTA and “members of the legislator that would like to see the demise of this organization” gives him reason to pause before turning plans over to the transit authority.

“It makes it hard if you are interested in a transit concept and recognize it’s regional – and it is regional – to not feel like you want to move forward on what you’re working on,” said Kriseman. “As opposed to handing it over to TBARTA and saying, ‘alright, we know it’s regional, you guys run with it.’”

“I think if we can get to a point where we have greater stability, our existence isn’t being threatened, and we have recurring funding, once we get to that point, then there really isn’t an excuse for any of us to not bring something to TBARTA.”

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