By now, more than a few members of Congress have recognized the merit of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole's bill to transfer National and Dulles airports from federal to regional control. It's a matter of smart money: Uncle Sam should not have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for airport operating costs and improvements that the federal government doesn't and shouldn't cover anywhere else in the country. The measure, now before Congress, would relieve the federal government of its expensive responsibility for operating and improving National and Dulles.
If it is so obviously practical, why is there any congressional opposition? "There's only one obstacle," said Virginia Sen. John W. Warner yesterday, "and that's politics." Members of Congress have personal interests in air travel to and from their home districts, and the question, Sen. Warner said, is whether "members will rise above personal considerations. I predict they will."
If so, good. But in any event, there is no earthly reason for Congress to approve some $250 million to fix up the two terminals: National with better parking and access, and Dulles with a mid-field terminal. The proposed regional authority could float tax-exempt bonds to finance these projects. As Rep. Frank R. Wolf said, "it is not appropriate to go to the federal government when the locals are willing to pay for it."
Other opposition also has to do with home-state politics: some officials in Maryland fear that the measure will cause competition for Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Yet every indicator points to plenty of business for both international airports in the future. In preparing this legislation, Secretary Dole and former Virginia governor Linwood Holton, who headed a special commission making recommendations, made every effort to involve and accommodate representatives from Maryland.
Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. of Virginia, who will serve as manager of the bill in the Senate Commerce Committee, is sensitive to all these concerns but notes the importance of not losing an important opportunity to enact this bill. Mayor Barry, Rep. Stan Parris, regional officials and airline industry representatives concur. Only American Airlines is still trying for a -- damaging -- amendment, which would expand National Airport's 1,000-mile flight limitation and thereby wreck the whole premise upon which the other airlines have agreed to work for passage of the compromise.
It's a matter of sound fiscal and transportation policy. Members of Congress should be eager to put responsibility for the airports where it belongs.