Sell BWI Airport?

March 13, 1992

Does the state really want to sell Baltimore-Washington International Airport? We can't believe the governor and legislators would be so foolish as to grab the cash and leave the state's only major air transport facility entirely at the mercy of private entrepreneurs. That would hardly serve the public good.

But short of an outright sale, there could well be public benefits to a carefully crafted partnership with a corporation or even a management contract that would turn BWI's operation over to a private company. Other state-owned facilities might also benefit from such an arrangement.

Privatization is becoming increasingly popular among governments. Locally, Baltimore City has saved money and improved service at both the Baltimore Arena (a private management contract) and its municipal golf courses (a private, non-profit corporation) through this route. Baltimore County and JTC many other subdivisions contract with waste haulers to act as garbage collectors. Recreation facilities in a number of jurisdictions have been privatized successfully. Even soil testing Charles County is now done privately.

The state is no stranger to this trend, either. Last fall, it hired a Denver firm to run the Hickey School for delinquent juveniles. Earlier this year, the state saved Maryland magazine from the scrap heap by selling it to a private publisher. And more recently, the transportation department turned over the operation of a large section of the Dundalk Marine Terminal to the Maersk steamship line.

There is growing recognition that many times private operators can run a facility more cost-efficiently and effectively than government. That may also be the case at BWI, or the port of Baltimore or even the state's light-rail line, as House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell suggests.

But state officials had better beware of the down-side of privatization. No one wants to see a repeat of the Baltimore Transit Co. debacle, in which a private company ran this city's bus system into the ground and then reaped a big profit when the government eventually took over the bus line and had to spend millions to upgrade service.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer is right to appoint a task force to evaluate privatization proposals, such as the prospective Lockheed Corp. bid to buy, lease or manage BWI. Lockheed has an extensive record of building, managing or providing services at nearly two dozen airports worldwide. Its superior marketing skills and its strong ties to air carriers could prove a major plus for BWI as the airport seeks to expand into the international freight and travel business.

Because BWI is crucial to the state's economic vitality, any step toward privatization should be evaluated with great care. A more vibrant, growing and successful BWI would be welcome. If that means setting up a public-private partnership, the notion is worth pursuing -- as long as the public's long-term interest is not compromised.

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