After Mayor Rick Kriseman’s announcement that St. Pete has been engaged in talks with air taxi company Lilium at a recent Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) board meeting, the Catalyst reached out to the current mayor, the two mayoral candidates and Lilium with detailed questions about the project.
A spokesperson from German-based Lilium confirmed in an email that Florida is one of its initial launch markets, and the company is “excited about the opportunities in the market.” Passenger service is expected to begin in 2024, which is also when the construction of the Lake Nona vertiport is scheduled for completion.
Kriseman said no specific timetable is set for a St. Petersburg location, and the company is still testing the technology and ironing out operational details.
“In the meantime, I think they’re trying to put all the agreements in place with the cities they are interested in operating in,” he said. “Certainly, St. Pete is one of those cities, and we’re pleased about that.”
“It would be a nice alternative to sitting in a car stuck in traffic.”
In Nov. 2020, Lilium and the City of Orlando announced a partnership to build a vertiport in Lake Nona, representing a $25 million investment. “Other vertiports around the state will enable more routes to create a regional air network,” said the company spokesperson, who asked not to be identified by name.
Kriseman said he has been in talks with Lilium “for a while.” He said he has had several meetings with representatives from the company and is very interested in pursuing alternative transportation options. “I would love to see it come to fruition,” he said.
Lilium said it has met with local officials “for years now,” including mayors, commissioners, and transportation authorities, “specifically in the Tampa Bay area.”
“Along with our infrastructure partners, Ferrovial and Tavistock Development Company, we are working with cities including St. Petersburg and Tampa to identify the most ideal sites to host our infrastructure.”
Kriseman said he does not think specific locations are identified yet, but he has been “trying to provide them with as many different options that we think might be available.” Kriseman added that with all the new construction occurring in the city, there is also the potential for new options to come forward that have not yet been discussed.
“It’s evolving,” he said.
The spokesperson said Lilium’s jet features very low noise and is highly maneuverable, which would allow it to approach and depart downtown cores safely and without disrupting daily activities. They added that important site considerations include proximity to passengers’ likely final destinations and complimentary transportation options so people can conveniently access vertiports.
“We have surveyed sites in the Tampa Bay area that meet our criteria and continue to perform due diligence on the most appealing locations,” read the statement.
While Kriseman was reluctant to name specific sites at first, he did mention the Tropicana Field redevelopment as something that would interest the company.
“My suspicion is if we start moving forward with a single developer – where we have them under contract in the next 12 months – I would think that Lilium would be very interested,” said Kriseman. “Even with all the other development happening around the city, looking at that site in particular, because of the density and concentration of residential and office space. In addition to potentially sports at that location.”
Lilium’s spokesperson said the company is currently seeking certification by the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) for the Lilium Jet. The Lilium Jet will be piloted by a professional pilot, seat six passengers, and have a range of at least 155 miles.
Kriseman said the company is trying to set a price point comparable to ride-sharing services such as Uber. He added that Lilium intends to make the service an option for middle-class residents and not just the “well-to-do.” He also said that similar to taking an Uber from St. Pete to Tampa or from St. Pete to a basketball game in Orlando, it probably will not be someone’s primary mode of transportation.
“That would probably be too pricey,” said Kriseman. “But then again, my suspicion is that someone who lives in St. Pete and works in Tampa isn’t Ubering to work every day either, just because of the cost.”
“I know when I want to go to Orlando Magic games if I could take an air taxi and get there in less time, and it costs me a little more than if I drove, just avoiding the aggravation of sitting in traffic for an extra hour would make it worthwhile.”
St. Petersburg will choose a new mayor in a month’s time. Mayoral candidate Ken Welch does not share the same enthusiasm for this new method of transportation, at least not while city busses are struggling.
“I want to get the basics right,” said Welch. He added that it should not take an hour and a half “for a bus to get to you, and for you to get to your destination.”
“I think we need to start there.”
Welch mentioned that he served on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) for a long time and called it “one of the most underfunded bus services in the nation.” He said the lack of funding is what takes the busses so long, “and that’s why they don’t run at night and why they don’t run on weekends.”
“So, until we get the basic bus service right, those other things sound nice – and I’m willing to look at them, like a monorail, air taxi, or even the ferry,” said Welch. “But until we get the basic bus service right, we’re going to be failing on transportation.”
His opponent in the mayoral race, Robert Blackmon, is much more eager to explore alternative transportation options.
“We always need to be innovative and nimble when it comes to public transit in St. Petersburg and our region,” said Blackmon. “We are an area that is trying to retrofit a transit system into an already built-out area, and when you do that, you have to be smart and agile.”
Blackmon added that it was not ingrained in the city’s history to have public transit, and air taxis, sky gondolas and the Cross-Bay Ferry “are all going to be potentials, and nothing should be overlooked.”
He said it is important to have a multimodal system and called busses “a way of the past.”
“We’re going to need to have connectors like light rail in the most highly trafficked areas, and rideshares and autonomous vehicles for the connectors for the less-trafficked areas, like getting into people’s neighborhoods and for that first mile and last mile.”