The Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation yesterday that would shift control of National and Dulles airports from the federal government to a regional authority, an action seen as a major victory by Virginia and Reagan administration officials.
But before the committee approved the measure by a 12-to-4 vote, it agreed to a number of concessions to Maryland, including an amendment requiring the airport authority to pay Maryland $36 million, a sum that one senator angrily called a "political payoff."
Under the bill, which administration officials say stands a good chance of winning congressional approval, federal control over the airports would be significantly reduced.
The regional authority would lease the two airports from the federal government for 35 years and then assume complete control of them.
That would end congressional oversight of National and Dulles, which long has angered many area residents and, some officials say, has forced overuse of National at the expense of Dulles.
The authority would issue tax-free revenues bonds to finance massive airport improvements, including more parking and a redesigned road system to alleviate congestion at National and a new midfield terminal at Dulles. Maryland officials had opposed the legislation, saying it would give the airports an unfair advantage over Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which is owned by their state government.
Yesterday the committee touched only briefly on noise, one of the most controversial aspects of the operation of National Airport. Sen. Paul S. Trible (R-Va.) proposed eliminating a provision that would have retained the airport's current nighttime noise limits, saying the issue should be decided by the authority.
But Trible withdrew the amendment, after some senators who live in Northern Virginia opposed it. Trible said that both the airline industry and antinoise activists support the amendment, which he said he plans to offer on the floor.
As late as Tuesday, supporters of the bill were predicting a much closer vote. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who has made the airport issue a top priority item, spent the 24 hours preceding the vote talking to every committee member, some of them several times and for several hours, according to Rebecca G. Range, assistant secretary for government affairs.
Some of the amendments accepted by the committee yesterday were designed to win over senators who felt that the bill was unfair to Maryland. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R-Md.) said that the amendments "substantially improved" the bill, although he said he was withholding final judgment until he had a chance to review the package.
But Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) said that, even with the changes, the bill is "not acceptable," and he plans to fight the measure on the Senate floor. Neither Sarbanes nor Mathias is a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Range said that transportation officials believe they have the votes in the Senate, but are concerned that opponents may try to filibuster.
Trible said he hopes that the bill will be brought before the full Senate during the next few months, but acknowledged that the Senate schedule is crowded and that the bill may not come up for a vote until next year.
Under the proposal, the regional authority would pay the federal government $47 million for the airports and assume $33 million in unfunded employe pension liabilities. Maryland officials have argued that the Northern Virginia airports are worth far more, at least $341 million.
Maryland paid $36 million to buy BWI from Baltimore in 1972, and the committee voted to require the authority to pay Maryland for the cost, an action that provoked criticism from committee member Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), a critic of the airport transfer proposal.
"What we're saying is if there is any political problem, we'll pay them off," said Hollings. "We'll keep Maryland's mouth shut by giving them $36 million."
A Sarbanes spokesman said that the $36 million was too little, but a Mathias aide called it "a nice sweetener" and said that, along with the other concession, it considerably improved the bill.
Maryland officials also charged that, under the original proposal, the authority would use profits from the highly popular National to subsidize less successful Dulles. The authority also could allow nonaviation development on Dulles land to fund airport activities.
The committee accepted two amendments, drafted by Mathias and Sen. Wendell H. Ford (D-Ky.), addressing those concerns. One amendment restricted nonaviation development at Dulles, and the other required that revenues raised from parking and landing fees from one airport cannot be used at the other.