Neil Goldschmidt, a new resident of Washington, said last week that National Airport is "a dump" and "a disgrace," an opinion expressed by many who have lived here far longer.
The difference is that Neil Goldschmidt is the new secretary of transportation and thus, in effect, the owner of National Airport. Last week, in an interview with The Washington Post, he promised to decide what to do about National Airport "in less than 180 days, maybe in less than 60 days."
If he succeeds, he will have brought and end to a problem that has been in court since 1970 and has slipped unresolved from the grasp of at least four secretaries of transportation.
Not that Goldschmidt, who was confirmed by the Senate on Friday, has much choice. His attorneys have promised U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. in Alexandria that they will issue a policy statement on the airport by mid-January.
"At this point if you ask me specifically what I will do" about National, "I don't know," Goldschmidt said. "But it [a new policy] is not going to sit here. It will not take a federal judge to get me to get it out of here. All options are open."
The issue is now and always has been how much air traffic National Airport should have.
People who live up and down the Potomac River from Cabin John to Mount Vernon have complained -- including in the lawsuit that landed the issue in Bryan's courtroom -- about the noise of arriving and departing jetliners. They have urged that many of the jets move out to Dulles International Airport, where there once were fewer people.
As the debate has continued, plans for new buildings at National have been put on the shelf. A Metro station was constructed a country mile from the terminal, at least partly because it was thought that the terminal might move out to the station some day. Travelers have battled monumental traffic jams trying to get to and from the airport on a Byzantine tangle of feeder roads.
"How is it," Goldschmidt asked, "that we are supposed to say to the people in other places in the United States that this government has a policy of protecting them from damage to their hearing and the quiet enjoyment of their homes and property -- while still maintaining the public's interest in travel -- if we can't do it in the airports we own?" The Department of Transportation owns both National and Dulles.
"I think that National Airport in its current condition is a disgrace . . . That place is a dump. It needs to be fixed. I can understand why people don't want it to be fixed into something that will handle a trillion passengers a year and I don't think it ought to be . . ."
Goldschmidt's predecessor, former Secretary Brock Adams, was about to decide what to do when he was fired July 19 by President Carter. The firm proposal in front of him from the Federal Aviation Administration recommended that:
The airport be closed to all aviation between 10:30 p.m. and 7 a.m., except for emergencies. Today it is "voluntarily" closed between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., but there are a number of noisy late-night exceptions every year, especially in bad weather.
Nonstop flights to National be permitted from everywhere, not just cities within 650 miles as is presently the case. However, that 650-mile perimeter has seven exceptions: Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, Tampa, Orlando, Miami and West Palm Beach.
Quieter but bigger wide-bodies jumbo jets having fewer than four engines would be permitted into National. Three planes fit that category: The McDonnell Douglas DC10, the Lockheed L-1011 and the Airbus Industrie A300. Today only small, narrow-body jets of three engines or less are permitted.
Although Adams was poised to decide, he had two or three problems.
He wanted to keep the perimeter -- which was designed to encourage short-haul planes to use National and force long-haul flights to Dullus -- but not at 650. If he changed it to 1,000 miles, he would add the city of New Orleans to the nonstop list, which would make Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) happy. Long is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation committees. Both committees are important to a secretary of transportation.
The problem with 1,000 miles was that it did not include Dallas, and thus excluded the home airport for Rep. James C. Wright Jr. (D-Tex.), the House majority leader and the member of the budget committee.
The other problem came in Chicago on May 25, when a DC10 crashed there and killed 273 people. Political advisers in the Deparmtent of Transportation decided that then was not the time to suggest permitting DC10S into Washington National.
So the Washington National Policy sat on Adams' desk until, with the DC10 controversy still simmering, he was dismissed in Carter's Cabinet shake-up.
If wide bodies are permitted, ground facilities and road networks will have to be modified to handle the crowds unless there are other restraints on passenger totals. If the perimeter is extended or lifted, the major airlines will pump in more jets from places like New Orleans or Houston or Denver and make it tougher to get short flights to Charlotte or Charleston.
National can never be a giant airport like O'Hare because it is essentially a one-runway operation and that runway is already saturated. The real question facing Goldschmidt pivots on the size of the 60 or so airplanes an hour that can take off or land at a one-runway airport.
Other points made by Goldschmidt during the hour-long interview:
There is no question that the Carter administration will advocate urban mass transit. The president has been perceived by transit interests as neutral at best, negative at worst. But the White House, Goldschmidt said, "couldn't ask somebody like me to be in this job and mean anything else but to have a transit program." Goldschmidt was a transit supporter in his previous job as mayor of Portland, Ore.
He believes President Carter will be reelected because, he said, the president will have a strong program he can run on, including an energy program. Incumbency and the fact that Carter is "to,gh, self-disciplined and purposeful" will help.
He will reopen at last part of the Department of Transportation's proposed and highly controversial rules on how the nation's public transportation systems are to become fully accessible to the handicapped.
Receiving particular emphasis will be the part of the rule that presumes that many urban mobility problems will be solved with Transbus, a federally mandated low-floor, wide-door bus that all major manufacturers have refused to build.
Goldschmidt called Transbus something produced by the "camel committee" and said that "what we have done with Transbus is invent a way to shrink the fleet.
"Transbus is a problem because it costs so much [at least $250,000 each, as opposed to about $120,000 for a standard bus today]; it's a heavier vehicle and it uses more fuel."
He thinks the federal government will ultimately pay a share of the cost of maintaining the deteriorating interstate highway system. "We should set up a depreciation schedule [for the highways] and charge rates for the use of them that essentially be enough to replace them. . . What you end up with is a program where you never have to replace all the [road] bases in the same year."
Maintenance has traditionally been a state function; when state resources are limited, repairs tend to be made first on local roads, not federal highways.