HAVING PATIENTLY abided the high- pitched exaggerations and doomsday forecasts of a handful of members, the Senate has voted overwhelmingly for a sensible transfer of National and Dulles airports to a regional authority. House, please copy: This is the way to relieve the federal government of the unnecessary and expensive business of running and improving two airports that this region can and should take care of in better fashion. That has been the purpose all along of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole and an impressive bipartisan coalition -- and the Senate saw fit to seize the opportunity and save Uncle Sam a bundle for airport improvements that a local authority can underwrite through bonds.
The strength of the Senate vote -- 62 to 28 after an exhaustive examination and debate -- should assist House members in their deliberations. Sen. Paul Trible of Virginia, who led the successful floor effort, was able to assure colleagues that the bill is neither a giveaway nor a recipe for managerial anarchy at the two airports. Senators were able to see through opponents' scare talk about "round- the-clock operations" at National, commercial development of everything but the airstrip at Dulles and massive stripping of benefits and protections enjoyed by airport employees.
As approved by the Senate, the two airports would be leased -- not sold -- to a regional authority for 50 years. After that, if the executive and legislative branches agreed, the airports could be sold -- at an additional sum -- to the authority. In the meantime, the regional authority could float bonds and improve both terminals; that would save the federal government an estimated $500 million. That, the senators agreed, is worth considering.
Supporters of the bill in the House note that the airports bill is not a partisan issue, nor is it an exclusive production of the administration. There was solid Democratic as well as Republican support in the Senate, and Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles, along with his predecessor, Charles Robb, are among the Democrats urging congressional approval of the measure.
With improved facilities and under the management of a responsible public authority that includes representatives of the federal government, both National and Dulles can serve all parties -- the traveling Congress included -- far better than they have. House passage can let it happen without expensive delay.