A Beautiful BWI is Worth the Cost

May 03, 1994

It is fashionable in the cost-conscious '90s to denigrate government spending on anything for primarily aesthetic reasons. Not surprisingly, then, the state Department of Transportation's plan for a $16.3 million face-lift at Baltimore-Washington International Airport is being met with grumbles from some who feel this is another example of taxpayer-funded extravagance. A planned $5.8 million observation lounge and a $500,000 outdoor garden featuring 150 life-sized steel geese are prime targets for ridicule. After all, aren't parking, convenient ticket counters and speedy baggage claim facilities all travelers really need?

We'll agree, an attractive airport doesn't count for much if travelers have to wait in line for eons or can't find a place to park. But it's narrow-minded to classify all money spent in the name of art and aesthetics as wasted. Could Oriole Park at Camden Yards have been built more cheaply without all the nostalgic architectural touches? Probably. But it wouldn't be a national showplace without these things, either. In retrospect, it would have been a horrible mistake to cut corners and turn out a functional but forgettable stadium.

The airport, which is booming these days, is one of the most important cogs in the state's economic machine. Millions of visitors pass through BWI every year. For many, their image of the state depends on their experience at the airport. As it is, BWI is user-friendly, but it is starting to look shabby. It is time to invest money in making it look better. Some details of the renovation package leave us skeptical -- the carpeting, bright lights and huge murals planned for the main concourse sound a little garish -- but the observation deck and the garden are not among them. The former should be unique, inventive and functional, a glass-enclosed gallery with a panoramic view of the runways, pieces of real airliners used as sculpture and a cafe. And the award-winning design for the garden with the geese promises to be a powerful evocation of flight.

State officials should be careful to keep costs from running amok -- as it appears they are trying to do by making adjustments to the observation lounge, which came in over budget. But to ax them in the name of practicality would be short-sighted. Like Camden Yards, a beautiful, one-of-a-kind airport should pay off in the long run.

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