$100 million expansion set at BWI Plan designed to lure more foreign flights

October 26, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr. Edward Gunts of The Sun's Business staff contributed to this article.

To accommodate growing international traffic, the state is moving ahead with plans for a $100 million expansion of Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- including a light rail station within the terminal.

While still in the formative stages, the project calls for:

* Increasing the number of international gates from three to six or eight.

* Enlarging the areas used for customs and immigration inspections.

* Building a light rail station below the expanded international wing of the terminal building.

At a time when domestic travel at the airport has been declining, the Maryland Aviation Administration has been successful at increasing the number of international passengers using BWI.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Icelandair both inaugurated trans-Atlantic service from BWI last year, and early this year USAir began providing non-stop service between BWI and Montreal and Ottawa. In June, Ladeco Chilean Airlines launched service to South America.

As a result, international traffic increased by about a third last year, and the growth has continued into this year. But that very success has taxed the facilities at BWI and caused service problems, according to airport officials.

And unless those facilities are improved, the state will have difficulty attracting additional international service to Baltimore.

"We're getting people through there, but not the way you want to be doing it on a regular basis," said Nicholas J. Schaus, deputy administrator of the Maryland Aviation Administration.

During peak periods, three or four airplanes compete for the limited gate space. Because of the shortage of gates, some passengers have to be taken to and from the airplanes on special buses called "plane mates."

"We're playing musical chairs" with airplanes and gates, Mr. Schaus said. "It's not the way airlines like to do business."

The traffic at peak times also overloads the areas where international passengers are processed by customs and immigration officials.

The load is having "an adverse effect on customer service," Mr. Schaus said.

The shortcomings of the current facilities are making it harder to attract more international service.

"We have two carriers that are extremely interested in BWI," he said. The state is faced with persuading those lines that it is committed to making BWI a good airport for international travel.

"It's a competitive game," he said.

Even though no funds have been appropriated for the expansion, the state has begun the process of selecting a design firm. Yesterday was the deadline for architectural and engineering firms to express formally their interest in designing the airport expansion.

Michael C. West, BWI's associate administrator for planning and engineering, said that it will take nine months to a year to select the design firm. Construction could start in 1993, and the initial stage of the expansion might open in 1994.

The current international wing is at the northern end of the terminal. The plan calls for extending the terminal building by about 200 to 300 feet and building a perpendicular arm housing the additional gates.

The upper roadway used by motorists dropping off passengers for departing flights would have to be modified to create curb space outside the extension of the terminal building.

BWI was designed for ease of access by motorists. The construction of a light rail station below the terminal building would make for a quick and easy connection with the mass transit system. That would give BWI a distinct advantage over its principal competitors, Dulles International and Washington National.

Dulles has no rail link. National is connected to the Washington Metro system, but some passengers complain that the rail station is too long a walk from the air terminal.

Mr. West cautioned that details of the design and construction schedule for the BWI expansion have not been determined. "We're not very far along in defining the scope of the project," Mr. West said. "It's very dependent on funding. A lot of things would have to fall into place."

The funding issue could be a very delicate one, given the state's financial plight. Mr. Schaus said Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer had approved going ahead with the initial steps of the project because he considers it crucial for BWI's "long-term viability."

Rebecca Reid, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lighthizer said there are no concrete funding proposals yet for the project but that a decision was made to proceed now because of the long lead time required for choosing a design firm. It was not clear what proportion of the project would be eligible for federal funding, she said. Runways, taxiways and aprons generally qualify for 75 percent federal funding, while terminal building work is generally split between the state and the federal government. Since the BWI expansion involves work of both types, the federal share cannot be computed until the design work is further along, she explained.

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