BWI faces the future


This could be the shape of the future for Baltimore-Washington International Airport: a spanking-new, ultra-modern, high-tech international terminal kept busy throughout the day handling flights from Europe, South America and Asia; an elongated runway that lures major airlines from the Far East and Middle East to BWI; an improved roadway system to cope with the additional volume, as well as a larger, more up-to-date fire and rescue operation.

What could make all this possible is a $3 per ticket levy -- a "passenger facilities charge" -- approved recently by the Federal Aviation Administration. It is in the truest sense a "user fee": those who use the airport facilities end up paying for the improved accommodations. And these improvements are, indeed, crucial to the viability of BWI as a regional airport in the next decade or two.

BWI's growth potential lies in expanding its international takeoffs and landings. While domestic traffic has been flat over the past two years, foreign travel through BWI has jumped 77 percent. At peak periods, there aren't enough gates to handle all the planes. A new terminal would mean a half-dozen more gates, vastly enlarged immigration and customs areas and a direct connection with Baltimore's light-rail line right in the building.

A second step is equally important: extension of one runway from 9,500 feet to 10,500 feet. The shorter runway discourages long-distance flights because big jets require far more fuel to lift off quickly on hot summer days; this means cutting the number of passengers almost in half to compensate for the weight of the extra fuel. That extra 1,000 feet of runway would make higher passenger loads possible for overseas flights, even when the temperature nears the triple-digit mark.

To build these two projects, though, will require much more money than can be raised through the special user fee. The state would have to dip into its consolidated transportation trust fund for the upfront money and the state's 20 percent share of the costs. Yet that could prove an unpopular financing method, since it would cut into money available for new roads, bridges and mass transit. Privatizing the construction and operation of the international pier may be the answer.

Without these two additions, BWI's future could be severely restricted. That, in turn, would hurt Maryland's economic development and its ability to compete for jobs and industry with Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Maryland needs a vibrant and rapidly growing BWI airport. It is an economic engine for the entire state. Proceeding quickly with both the international terminal and the runway extension should be put at the top of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's priority list. It's that important.

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