National and Dulles International airports would be controlled by a regional agency with a heavy representation from Virginia under a compromise tentatively endorsed yesterday by members of a federal commission.
The compromise, proposed by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), was supported in straw vote by nine of the 15 members of a commission charged with recommending how the federal government could divest itself of the two airports, which it owns. Maryland members of the panel, fearful of the competition such a proposal might offer to the state-run Baltimore-Washington International Airport, objected to the Warner plan.
Until yesterday's vote there were widespread fears that the schism between Maryland and Virginia members of the commission was so deep that the panel, headed by former Virginia governor Linwood Holton of McLean, would not be able to reach an agreement. Formed by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole, the commission is scheduled to report its recommendations to her next month.
"It will take a lot of effort" to persuade Congress to accept them, Holton said after the vote yesterday. "A lot of individual members of Congress are going to approach this negatively. But the merits of this plan are so strong, I think it can be sold."
No plan, however, has any chance of winning congressional approval, according to Transportation officials, unless it first is supported by the Washington area governments.
Under Warner's proposal, an 11-member regional airport authority would control the two airports. The authority would be governed by five representatives appointed by Virginia's governor, three by the District of Columbia's mayor, two by Maryland's governor, and one by the president.
The Warner proposal -- which the senator called "a better mousetrap" -- won out over one from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.). Their plan called for National to be controlled by a tripartite authority with three representatives each from Maryland, Virginia and the District, and two federal members. The State of Virginia, they suggested, should take over Dulles much the same way Maryland did with Baltimore-Washington.
The vote on the Warner compromise is expected to be made formal at the commission's meeting Tuesday. If approved by Dole, the recommendations will then have to clear Congress before going to the D.C. City Council and the Virginia and Maryland legislatures.
National and Dulles are the only commercial airports in the country owned by the federal government, and Congress has resoundingly rejected previous proposals to transfer the airports' control to an independent authority.
Holton said a key argument before Congress would be that the proposed authority would be empowered to issue tax-exempt bonds to help operate and improve the two airports.
"How can you talk about the multimillions of tax dollars needed for the airports when you've got a $200 billion federal deficit?" Holton said. Dulles, he said, desperately needs a midfield terminal and National needs a myriad of improvements to its road network, terminals and parking facilities.
Holton, who was praised yesterday for his leadership of the commission, said he has privately worked behind the scenes in recent weeks to lobby for the Warner proposal. "They key to it was getting the District and Virginia representatives to form a partnership," said Holton. He had glumly predicted at the commission's last meeting in November that it would have to forward a summary of each member's position instead of a consensus to Dole.
"Each of us wants to do what's best for our own jurisdiction," said Fairfax County Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, noting the factionalism that had plagued the commission.
"Ideally all of us would like equal representation and equal control," added D.C. Council member Betty Ann Kane. "We all have very strong political and economic interests . . . . "
Virginia members had argued that their state should dominate the authority because they are most affected by airport noise and traffic, and because they have an interest in development around the airports.
Maryland and District members countered that their residents also have a large stake in the airports, particularly National.
Most of the comments of Virginia and District officials yesterday were aimed at criticizing the Maryland-advanced proposals for giving Dulles to Virginia and creating a tripartite authority for National. Hoyer said he would submit that plan in a minority report to Dole.