Before the easter break the Senate managed to survive and short-circuit the filibustering of Sen. Paul Sarbanes against a sound bipartisan bill to get the federal government out of the expensive business of operating two airports. Now the challenge will be to endure a series of equally shortsighted and long-winded efforts by the senator to destroy the airport transfer bill that makes so much practical and financial sense for the federal budget and for regional responsibility.
The bill as it is represents the carefully considered work of a commission appointed by Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, headed by former Virginia governor Linwood Holton and supported by Gov. Gerald Baliles, former governor Charles Robb, Sens. Paul Trible and John Warner and just about anybody else who has given thought to the folly of the U.S. government's continuing to run and repair National and Dulles airports.
In one breath (that took hours), Mr. Sarbanes argued that the bill would permit unfair competition against Baltimore-Washington International Airport and that BWI has been a stunning success, an efficient and convenient airport. There's no reason BWI's success can't continue -- and indications are that this excellent Maryland airport will flourish as part of this region's air transportation system. Dulles and National, already linked as government properties, would be leased to a regional authority that could relieve the federal government of an estimated $500 million in necessary improvements.
That should be fiscal incentive enough for the federal government to place responsibility for Dulles and National where it belongs, in a public authority that includes representatives of Virginia, the District and -- yes -- Maryland. But Mr. Sarbanes has tried to raise all sorts of other scares, contending that the transfer could lead to flights in the night over National and nonaviation use of Dulles some day. What it will lead to is the operation of two airports with improved facilities, under a 35-year lease (not a sale) that will better serve Congress, the airlines, this region and the traveling public. That's incentive enough for senators to support the bill as submitted.