In a few short years, Dulles Airport has been transformed from the most underused to the nation's fastest growing airport. In the past three years, eight airlines have started new service; two more will start service in the next couple of months, and 14 airlines have established or soon will begin operating hubs at Dulles.
This is good news for Washington, but it also presents a challenge. Right now, booming business is overtaxing the airport's facilities. Parking lots are full, and traffic tie-ups are common during peak hours. Since Dulles does not have the terminal space to handle the current growth, airlines are rushing to construct temporary terminals and gates to handle more pasengers and flights.
If the airports are transferred to regional control, it is also good news that the government will recover every dime it has invested in them. Concerns have been raised over whether the government would get "market value" in such a transfer. Under such a transfer, the new airport authority would pay off the remaining debt of the airports to the Treasury, an estimated $44 million plus interest. And some $37 million would be paid to cover the unfunded pension liability of the airport employees.
Neither Dulles nor National has been properly developed to permit Washington's airline service to keep pace with its rapidly growing economy. No major capital improvement projects have been financed at either airport since Dulles was built in the early 1960s. In the meantime, National's facilities have become obsolete and overcrowded.
What Dulles needs is a new midfield terminal and larger parking area to accommodate the expanding needs of airlines. At National, an adequate parking facility and redesign of the roadway system are essential to relieve traffic congestion. A connector between the terminal building and the Metrorail station would give travelers speedy access.
Under federal control, budgetary concerns have meant that adequate funds for clearly needed airport improvements at National and expansion at Dulles have not been available. If a regional authority with the capacity to issue revenue bonds were operating the airports, it could act easily and quickly to finance these improvements.
Federal funds should not be used to operate profit-making businesses that belong in the private sector. Just as we seek to "privatize" business enterprises, we also want to "localize" functions that properly are handled by state and local governments, such as running airports. American taxpayers' dollars should not be spent by federal officials to operate two regional airports.
By placing the Washington airports under regional control, the government can save at least $500 million for airport improvements it would be faced with spending in the next three or four years. An independent authority -- like similar agencies across the country -- would have the resources to finance such projects with private funds.
Concerns have been raised that the government would not receive "market value" for the transfer. The reason is simple. We are not selling the airports. We are transferring the responsibility for operating and improving them (with private financing) to a new authority that will not be able to make a profit from their operation. The United States will continue to own them for the next 35 years. All revenues will be devoted to operating and improving Dulles and National.
The idea of selling the airports to British investors -- or anyone else -- at a high price is completely unrealistic. To pay off such an investment, airport fees and charges would be astronomical, and they would be passed on directly to the airport users in the form of far higher ticket prices.
In 1984 I appointed the Holton Commission to develop a plan for transferring the airports to local control. Legislation currently before the Senate conforms with the commission's recommendations for transferring the airports to an independent regional authority with members from Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland. Previous administrations have proposed eight times turning over the airports to local control, but none of those efforts progressed as far as this one.
Under a regional authority, the two airports would be run in a businesslike manner by a board that would be responsive to the needs of large air carriers and commuter airlines that use the airports.
Transfer to regional control is an especially critical step for the future success of Dulles Airport -- and now is the time to do it.
Airline service in Washington simply has not kept pace with the region's growing economy. The aim of the transfer legislation is to ensure that the moderniztion of National and the expansion of Dulles will be accomplished without further delay.