MARYLAND could have a gold mine at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- if politicians don't mess it up.
The $1.8 billion in airport improvements unveiled last week -- a poorly guarded secret that has been leaking out for six months -- could make BWI a model 21st-century airport.
Actually, the total package is easily likely to top $3 billion, perhaps rivaling the $3.4 billion being spent by rival Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia.
What the state would get for this investment looks like an airport out of Star Wars:
Lots of glassed-in vistas to give travelers a see-through feeling of transparency; high-tech parking garages as far as the eye can see; monorails and moving sidewalks to tie everything together; concierge service for your bags even before you reach the airport; a quantum leap in new gates to accommodate an insatiable demand from airlines.
BWI is booming. It's been that way for years. These improvements are long overdue, delayed by gubernatorial politics. It's a catch-up plan to meet today's reality of 15 percent growth per year and worsening congestion as BWI tops 20 million passengers in 2000.
Over the next 10 years, construction may never stop. It will almost certainly include some unmentioned items, such as an additional runway, more large concourses and piers for planes; and a second, self-sufficient terminal at the far end of this planned, U-shaped complex.
Politics, though, could get in the way.
The "Prince George's mafia," as it is known, already has tried to take over airport operations.
When Theodore E. Mathison retired last year as executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, heavy pressure was put on Transportation Secretary John Porcari to replace him with F. Kirwan Wineland, a former county councilman and son of a Marvin Mandel-era political power.
Mr. Porcari wisely resisted, even when pressure came from the governor's staff. Instead, he chose a savvy and experienced airport administrator, David L Blackshear, who was brought in as the "master builder."
Still, the pressure from P.G. pols continued. A position was created for Mr. Wineland as the co-No. 2 deputy.
More pressure was applied and -- voila! -- the longtime No. 2 at the airport, Nicholas J. Schaus, quietly "retired." With him went the airport's institutional memory just when Mr. Blackshear needs all the help he can get in steering the improvement package through a cumbersome and resistant state bureaucracy.
Mr. Blackshear also will need help from the General Assembly in bending procurement and hiring laws so he can fast-track construction of parking garages and new concourses. Otherwise, congestion at BWI could become intolerable.
But lawmakers may be reluctant to let BWI write its own procurement rules. After all, it was a controversial airport contract that led Harry R. Hughes in the 1970s to quit in disgust as transportation secretary when the Mandel administration gave the job to a politically connected contractor, Victor Frenkil.
Mr. Hughes then ran for governor -- and won -- on an anti-corruption platform.
Further complicating BWI's expansion plans is the stubborn refusal of Gov. Parris N. Glendening to propose a long-term fix for the state's transportation trust fund. The fund is $20 billion short of what's required for basic road, bridge, port and airport improvements over the next 20 years.
Much of BWI's projects can be built with revenue bonds backed by parking, car rental and airline fees. But a new runway and new terminal could require a major state commitment beyond what's in the transportation trust fund.
Mr. Glendening has consistently avoided addressing this financing shortfall. But he found extra state money for a replacement Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River. The airport may require a similar special investment.
The new-look BWI is refreshingly forward-looking. Its Euro-style parking, for instance, would use existing technology to take the hassle out of finding a space:
Overhead roadway signs would direct a driver to a garage with vacancies; as the driver enters that garage, signs would indicate floors with available spaces; signs on each floor would identify the aisles with room, and each parking space would contain a sensor with a green light flashing if there's an opening.
It's an ingenious solution to a major airport headache. So are the monorail and moving walkways. And the decision to extend the existing building in a U-shape avoids constructing spread-out, multiple terminals -- the bane of air travelers at many large airports.
To make this expansion work will take entrepreneurial spirit and rapid construction. Government does neither well.
But BWI has proved in the past that money spent there brings big dividends. Giving the airport more operating flexibility -- and the necessary funds -- ought to be a priority in Annapolis.
There could be a huge payoff from taxpayers, and air travelers, if politicians show some courage and resist the temptation to meddle.
Barry Rascovar is the deputy editorial page editor.