BWI considers teaming up with D.C.


May 27, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

It's an idea that refuses to go away: shifting control of Baltimore-Washington International Airport from the state to a private authority.

And this week the notion -- formally rejected last year by a state commission -- re-emerged with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Melvin A. Steinberg saying that state officials should consider teaming up BWI with the authority that operates Washington Dulles International and National airports.

"These are new times. We have to change our thinking that Maryland is going to succeed by itself," the lieutenant governor said during a candidates' debate. "If we're going to compete in a global market, we should pull together."

During the past year, Maryland has spent a substantial amount of money trying to convince air travelers that BWI is just what the name says -- Baltimore's and Washington's.

A panoramic view, merging the skylines of both cities, greets passengers as they descend to the lower level of BWI's passenger terminal. "Two great cities, one airport," the sign reads.

Indeed, Washington-area passengers now represent a third of all BWI passengers, according to the latest airport survey. But it's a curious time for BWI to team up with the Virginia authority.

The airport has finally shed its stepsister image as hordes of Washingtonians now drive up the parkway to take advantage of discount fares at BWI. It is the fastest growing airport in the country.

So why share the power -- or the new glory -- with National and Dulles? Proponents say the three airports could be marketed together very effectively. In addition, BWI might cut its operating costs by sharing expenses.

While BWI operates at a sizable profit ($15 million to $20 million a year), the state has spent millions on capital improvements. Indeed, it is now embarking on a $400 million building program.

Last year, a gubernatorial task force studied the idea of shifting BWI to the Washington authority. But it opted instead for a business-oriented airport advisory commission, which was established earlier this year.

"We weren't convinced at this time that it would be to our advantage," said Robert R. Linowes, a Silver Spring attorney and member of the governor's task force.

Historically, state officials have been reluctant to relinquish control over the airport, long seen as a valuable economic development tool for the state. Many fear that the authority would always have a Washington bias. "The way the board is set up now would be totally unacceptable . . . all of that would have to change," said Mr. Linowes, who helped create the Washington airport authority.

The Washington authority is composed of five members from Virginia, three from the District of Columbia, two from Maryland and one appointed by the president of the United States. Since the authority was created in 1987, the two airports have been sharing revenues. To fund the extensive capital improvement programs now under way at both facilities, the authority has issued revenue bonds. And that raises some questions about how much priority BWI might get.

"We'd need assurance that BWI would get the . . . development it needs," Mr. Linowes said. "Marketing it together has merit," he added. "Whether or not it will receive adequate attention as a third airport is another question."

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