Md. air travel subsidy pushed

Taylor bill would help pay for BWI links with regional airports

February 09, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland would become the first state to subsidize regional air service under legislation being pushed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and the Glendening administration.

A bill introduced by Taylor and considered by a House committee in Annapolis yesterday would require the state to help foot the bill for commuter service between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and a handful of regional airports.

Supporters hope that the subsidy would prompt carriers to offer service between BWI and airports in Hagerstown and Cumberland in Western Maryland and in St. Mary's County in fast-growing Southern Maryland.

Preliminary estimates put the cost to taxpayers of subsidizing such service at more than $2 million a year.

Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat, said the money would be an important investment in economic development efforts in rural areas.

Time-pressed corporate executives would use the new service to get in and out of areas that are not well served by air carriers, he said, and it would provide an incentive to corporate groups to hold conferences in those regions.

He added that the service could be regarded as not much different from other kinds of state-subsidized mass transportation.

"Think of a commuter airplane as a flying bus," Taylor told the House Appropriations Committee.

The speaker's enthusiasm for the concept was echoed by state transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and economic development Secretary Richard C. Mike Lewin.

"We're committed to regional air service," Porcari said. "We really do view it as economic development."

The proposed legislation drew no opposition at yesterday's hearing, although some committee members raised questions.

Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat, questioned the need to provide air service to rural areas instead of finding more transportation options for the traffic-clogged Interstate 270 corridor in her county.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the Howard Republican who is the House minority whip, called the proposal "a little bit extravagant."

"I don't think they really made the case for an extraordinary government subsidy for airline travel," Flanagan said.

State transportation officials said no other state currently provides such a subsidy.

David L. Blackshear, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, said nine regional air carriers have expressed some interest in providing subsidized service in Maryland.

While a Transportation Department consultant estimated last year that the state would have to spend $2.1 million annually to help provide service from Baltimore to Hagerstown, Cumberland and St. Mary's County, some of the carriers have said it would cost the state as much as $6 million, Blackshear said.

The estimates are based on the carriers handling three round-trips a day during the week and two on weekends on each route. State officials hope a state subsidy would allow the carriers to charge one-way fares in the $50 range to keep them attractive to customers.

The consultant estimated that flights between Cumberland and BWI would be the most popular, attracting more than 7,200 passengers a year.

The only regional air service now offered in the state is between BWI and Salisbury. In 1997, U.S. Airways halted its 30-year service between Hagerstown and BWI.

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