Mix generous portions of smart bond money, sound airport management and sensible delegation of federal authority -- and you have Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole's legislation to get Uncle Sam out of the business of owning and operating local airports. But add the personal air-travel interests of certain members of Congress and the home-state politics of anybody elected to office in Maryland -- and you have the makings of a murdered bill.
Supporters of the bill got more than a little taste of this at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday. Those who like their local airports just the way they are -- or who like Baltimore-Washington Airport more than any other -- invoked "fairness," "balance," the Grace Commission and three-dimensional math in proposing various alternatives to the regional formula that a regional commission worked out for Secretary Dole. To hear it from some of the politicians, the two local airports in Virginia are national treasures that should be run by, for and with the money of everyone in America -- in perpetuity and hang the cost.
The biggest would-be spender is South Carolina's Ernest F. ("I-use-National-more-than-anybody-in-this-room") Hollings. Sen. Hollings contends that his colleagues in Congress should vote to fork over $250 million in federal funds to fix up National and Dulles rather than let a regional authority float tax-exempt bonds. His chief justification is that these are the airports of and for the whole United States.
Maryland officials voice concern that Baltimore- Washington will suffer if Dulles improves at all -- even though all signs point to plenty of air traffic for both airports in the future. As a result, various com=e members and witnesses proposed 1)leaving airport authority as is, with or without big federal dollars to improve National and Dulles; 2)putting all three airports into a regional authority; 3)leaving National under federal control or making it regionally operated, while letting Virginia run Dulles and Maryland run BWI; and 4)changing the composition of the regional authority by adding more Marylanders or more federal representatives -- or even making the entire membership subject to Senate confirmation.
But all of these options and more were carefully considered by the federal-regional commission that former Virginia governor Linwood Holton headed -- and compromises were carefully struck. The transfer legislation is the sound result. Every member of Congress who thinks the federal government should be relieved of its expensive responsibility for operating and improving National and Dulles should support the bill now, while the opportunity is there.