Fees take flight

Our view : Public needs to know more about how BWI lost millions

May 22, 2008

Yesterday's decision by the state Board of Public Works to approve a $25 million settlement over uncollected rent and fees at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport might be the right call under the circumstances, but it shouldn't be the last word on the subject. The public deserves to know exactly how officials at the Maryland Aviation Administration could have so badly miscalculated the airport's lease arrangements.

The decision means the state has to write off more than $32 million that should have been collected between 2004 and 2006. But that may simply be the best that can be done under the circumstances - for legal and business reasons. This is not exactly a robust financial time for the airlines, and the MAA wouldn't necessarily win a court fight over the matter, according to experts.

But $32 million is no minor shortfall - it's the equivalent of $8 out of the pocket of every adult in the state. And it was discovered only late last year by an outside consultant who was hired to help the agency negotiate a new lease agreement with the airlines.

Perhaps it was an honest mistake involving some midlevel bureaucrat and nothing more. But the calculations involved - determining the square footage of the new terminal built for Southwest Airlines, for instance - don't seem all that difficult and clearly should have been scrutinized.

How many people in the chain of command reviewed this? How come the mistake wasn't caught by legislative auditors? We've yet to hear satisfactory answers to these questions.

Admittedly, this was largely the responsibility of a previous administration. And Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari might be correct when he says new procedures are in place to ensure it won't happen again.

Still, BWI is too important an economic asset to the state for its finances to be taken lightly. The episode deserves additional scrutiny - preferably by people independent of the MAA - so that the public can be confident that the airport is now being managed properly.

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