A commission studying the proposed end to federal control of National and Dulles International airports adopted a plan yesterday to transfer responsibility for the facilities to an independent regional agency. Commission members said they were cautiously optimistic that Congress would approve the transfer.
The vote ended nearly six months of infighting among commission representatives from Virginia, Maryland and the District over the composition of the proposed airport authority, and was divided along regional lines.
"The work done here will make it easier for Congress to address the issue, and, hopefully, smooth the way for legislation. I am optimistic," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the sponsor of the plan adopted yesterday by the 15-member Holton Commission.
With Maryland commission representatives dissenting, a 10-member coalition of Virginia and District officials, joined by most airline industry representatives in the group, approved a plan proposed by Warner for an 11-member airport authority that could sell tax-free revenue bonds to operate and improve the airports.
The authority would have five members from Virginia, three from the District, two from Maryland and one appointed by the president and approved by the Senate.
The controlling authority would be created through a compact between Virginia and the District, whose governing bodies must approve the agreement. Maryland would be excluded from the pact to avoid what commission members said would be a politically sensitive situation. Maryland owns Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which competes with National and Dulles for dollars and passengers.
"It would be a very difficult lobbying problem to go to the Maryland legislature," said Commission chairman and former Virginia governor Linwood Holton Jr., who is credited with forging the coalition to approve the plan.
"This moves us a giant step closer to home ownership for Washington's Dulles and National airports," said Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who appointed the commission in June to recommend the best way to transfer ownership of the two Virginia-based airports.
The plan must still pass Congress, which is unlikely to approve any plan that does not have the blessing of the three jurisdictions. Congress, commission members have noted, has balked at previous proposals to transfer control of the only federally owned commercial airports to a private authority. If Congress passes the plan, it still must win the approval of the Virginia legislature and the D.C. City Council.
Commission members Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who did not support Warner's plan, declined to speculate on the proposal's prospects in Congress. Hoyer said the Maryland commission members plan to submit "an alternative statement" to Dole.
Holton said any opposition from the Maryland congressional delegation would make the proposal's passage tougher. "But I hope they will not actively oppose this legislation. . . . I think [Sarbanes and Hoyer] are committed to the principal of having the airports transferred, and I hope they won't let the composition of the authority interfere."
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a commission member whose congressional district includes both airports, predicted congressional approval would require a "hard, hard lobbying effort, but I think it's got a good shot."
Wolf also said he expects the Warner plan to win approval from Virginia's General Assembly. "It has every reason to," he said. "It's in the best interests of the State of Virginia. There's no risk and everything to gain."
D.C. City Council member Betty Ann Kane, another commissioner, also was optimistic about the council's approval: "It gives the District representation and a voice in running the airports. Now we have zero. And it will accomplish a way of carrying out a policy the City Council has . . . of increasing use of Dulles."