Letting BWI soar


Gov. William Donald Schaefer has set the stage for a long overdue change at Baltimore-Washington International Airport that would liberate the airport's executives from the state bureaucracy and force them to be more entrepreneurial and competitive in seeking out new and expanded airport business. The governor has appointed a committee to draw up plans for a quasi-independent commission to run the airport. He has also named a nine-member advisory commission of business executives that, with General Assembly approval, could well become the panel that runs the airport next year.

Mr. Schaefer rejected the idea of having a private company run the state's airport or making it completely independent. One of the sticking points has been that BWI's finances aren't strong enough to underwrite the entire cost of its $400 million, six-year capital improvement program: The airport's income easily pays for normal operating expenses, but it falls short of paying for the needed construction projects, such as the crucial international terminal and extended runways for long-haul flights.

An earlier task force headed by former transportation chief William K. Hellmann suggested an independent BWI be paired with port and toll authorities to provide sufficient funding for the costly improvements to the docks, toll roads and bridges and air terminals. But that could significantly weaken the state's consolidated transportation trust fund that now pays for all such projects.

What appears to be a sensible compromise is now emerging. The airport will continue to get the money to pay for its big-ticket projects from the trust fund. For instance, the General Assembly last session approved an arrangement under which some $175 million in airport projects are being paid for by the Maryland Transportation Authority, which runs the toll roads and bridges and right now has an ample surplus. BWI will repay that money, with interest, over the next dozen or so years -- just as the toll authority embarks on its own improvement program.

But in the area of operations, BWI could undergo a dramatic change. The new airport commission could be given far-reaching personnel and procurement powers, thus freeing BWI from the grasp of the state's strangling bureaucracy. This has already happened at the harbor, where the Maryland Port Commission has helped engineer a sharp turnaround on the docks.

BWI is the state's biggest economic development engine, but it badly needs an infusion of competitive spirit and marketing zest.

If the Schaefer administration and the legislature can give the airport a boost, there's no telling how high it will soar.

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