Don't look yet for any "Under New Management" banners across the gates of National and Dulles International airports. But a possible ownership change is now more than mere talk. The carefully drawn Holton Commission compromise to transfer control of these two airports from the federal government to a regional authority has won its first official approvals in the Virginia legislature. Given that Virginia is home to both airports and that the plan would give the state the strongest representation on the proposed authority, these initial blessings from Richmond are no surprise. Still, General Assembly approval of enabling legislation in this short session is critical to the long interstate and federal process involved.
In fact, a check with the political meteorologists shows a strong possibility of turbulence ahead. Maryland's interested parties are not happy. The proposed commission would consist of five members from Virginia, three from the District, two from Maryland and one chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The idea here is that non-Virginia jurisdictions still could unite to protect themselves against domination by Virginia. The other idea is that any other formula would be dead on arrival at Richmond.
That brings it down to going regional or not. The federal offer to turn over the airports, an initiative of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, is the only likely route to better facilities and a more balanced air transportation system in this region. As former Virginia governor Linwood Holton, who has been chairman of the airports commission, notes, "Congress is in no position" to spend millions of dollars on the airports. If the changes are approved, the regional authority would issue bonds to help pay for airport improvements, including an additional new terminal at Dulles and improved access to the impossibly clogged roads to National. If Virginia delivers the necessary approval, then the District and Maryland should join ranks and help take the case to Congress -- where too many members act as if they personally own National. That's been the worst part of the current system all along. The chance to do something about it is too good to ignore.