A busier BWI is the goal Governor wants airport to be run by an authority

June 05, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has decided that the underused Baltimore-Washington International Airport should be operated by an independent authority, much like the one that runs BWI's chief competitors, National and Washington Dulles International.

In a confidential report circulated this week, an eight-man gubernatorial advisory committee recommended to Mr. Schaefer that an authority, operated by public and private interests, could free BWI from some cumbersome government regulations that now hamper its ability to attract more airlines and passengers.

The governor said yesterday that he has asked Secretary of Transportation O. James Lighthizer to begin working on a plan to set up such an independent authority, subject to legislative approval.

"Creating this authority could help make the difference in marketing, promoting and strengthening BWI's position," said Page W. Boinest, a spokeswoman for the governor.

The proposal also has significant implications for the state's entire transportation efforts. With BWI excluded, money normally budgeted for the airport could become available for more politically popular road and mass transit programs.

Mr. Schaefer formed the committee specifically to examine the issue of allowing a private concern to lease or manage BWI. The committee recommended an authority after emphatically rejecting the privatization idea.

The state has operated BWI since 1972 when it purchased the former Friendship Airport from Baltimore City, renaming it a year later.

While BWI is widely viewed as well-operated and easy to use, it lags behind the two Washington airports in number of passengers served.

Critics have argued that BWI must be marketed more aggressively to Washington-area passengers, but the airport's limited state advertising budget severely restricts such an effort.

On a potentially touchy note, the advisory committee also concluded that the prominence of Baltimore in BWI's name hampers the airport's ability to draw national and international passengers who are unaware of its accessibility to Washington.

"The name BWI carries little or no recognition as a Washington airport," wrote the committee, which comprised eight leading Maryland businessmen. The group suggested that the airport might even be marketed jointly with National and Dulles.

Currently, BWI is the only major state-owned and state-operated airport in the country. Airports are typically operated by quasi-public authorities, not government agencies. Dulles and National are owned by the federal government but operated by an authority appointed by the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of Washington.

As envisioned by the advisory group, a separate authority would give BWI the best of two worlds: It would be free from state government regulations, such as those affecting bidding on contracts, but it would retain the capacity to issue tax-free revenue bonds.

Politically, however, the authority is considered as a double-edge sword: While the state legislature could gain more money to spend on much-needed road and transit programs, politicians could lose control over the airport's budget.

"A lot depends on how you structure the authority," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, the Prince George's Democrat who heads the House subcommittee responsible for the airport's budget. "If the legislature and the executive can retain a fair degree of accountability, then it can be a good thing."

The group outlined few specifics about how an authority might operate. Presumably, however, it would be modeled after the authority that oversees state bridges and toll facilities.

That group issues revenue bonds to build new projects that are supported primarily by tolls.

All other transportation programs -- ranging from BWI and the Port of Baltimore to road and mass-transit projects -- are financed through a single transportation trust fund that derives its money principally from fuel taxes and motor vehicle fees. The airport contributes revenues largely from landing fees, parking and concessions.

Since the state bought the airport, it has spent millions of taxpayers' dollars for major improvements.

The committee report did not address whether such an authority would take responsibility for BWI's considerable capital debt -- or whether it would continue to seek money from the trust fund for future projects.

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