BWI to get much overdue face lift

URBAN LANDSCAPE

March 18, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

You can tell by the cigarette burn marks and gashes in the vinyl chairs near the baggage carousels.

Or the mismatched floor tiles in the gift shop near Pier C.

Or the "closed for remodeling" signs at many of the restrooms.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport, gateway to Maryland for thousands of visitors every year, is looking pretty shabby these days.

And it's not just a result of the recent snowstorm, although the terminal was literally trashed over the past weekend by passengers forced to camp out as a result of delayed or canceled flights.

When a $64 million expansion of the former Friendship Airport was completed in 1979, Maryland gained one of the nation's most beautiful airport terminals. Today, 14 years after its rededication, BWI appears dirty, disheveled and in disrepair.

The terminal also has become cluttered by all manner of haphazard graphics and obstructions in the corridors, from rental luggage carts to vending machines to a blue suggestion box inviting weary travelers to "Air Your Opinions."

The result is a building that makes a dismal first impression on the visitors Maryland officials want to attract.

BWI handled more than 8.8 million passengers last year. Whether out-of-towners come away with positive or negative memories of Maryland depends in part on the experience they have at the airport. Unattractive surroundings send a message that the state is inhospitable, a place that doesn't care about tourists.

The problems range from relatively minor housekeeping matters, such as untidy restrooms and occasionally overflowing trash cans, to potentially dangerous defects, such as the cracked and chipped tiles on the main concourse.

Much of the furniture looks frayed around the edges, including dingy orange benches that clash with the adjacent red-tiled columns on the baggage claim level. Farther on, passengers have a choice of either beige bucket seats that look as if they were thrown out by a bus terminal or black chairs with chrome legs that look as if they came from an outlet for secondhand office furniture.

State officials admit the airport is beginning to show its age. And they concede that some improvements, such as floor repairs and furniture replacement, have been deferred because of the state's budget crunch and discussions about privatization of the termi- nal.

However, they say a multimillion-dollar overhaul of the terminal is in the planning stages, with work to take place over the next three to four years. They promise that some improvements will be apparent as early as next week.

BWI "has to be the most user-friendly airport in the country, and it's time to pretty it up," said O. James Lighthizer, secretary of the Department of Transportation. "It is getting a little thread- bare.

"I'm prepared, and the governor is prepared, to make a major financial commitment to refurbish it," Mr. Lighthizer added. "We're going to do what needs to be done. We're zeroing in on that right now."

Ted Mathison, head of the Maryland Aviation Administration, said the state has hired Cambridge Seven Associates, architect of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, to study the terminal and recommend possible enhancements. He estimated that the cost over several years would be about $6 million and said funding would come from the airport's operating budget.

In the meantime, officials say, new furniture will be installed by the end of the month to replace some of the worn seating on the lower level. And crews have nearly finished remodeling the restrooms, a project designed to make them more accessible to the disabled.

The sooner the better.

Another summer tourist season is fast approaching, and Baltimore will be host for the 1993 All Star Game in less than four months. That one event will draw thousands to the state, and the airport will be the first place many of them will see.

Looking at BWI through a passenger's eyes, it's ironic to come across the "Maryland with Pride" exhibit on the upper concourse, featuring goods from around the state.

"We are proud of our state, our workers and our products," the display proclaims.

In its present state, the airport sends an entirely different message.

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