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Officials say airport needs longer runway

January 21, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

Some Washington County community leaders fear that the Hagerstown Regional Airport might become obsolete if the runway isn't extended in the next decade.

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But there's a major obstacle - a runway extension would run across U.S. 11, a factor that would raise the price tag to $40 million dollars.

Right now, the airport has an advantage over other area airports in Martinsburg, W.Va., and Frederick, Md., said Airport Manager Carolyn Motz.

It's the only airport in the region to offer scheduled commercial airline service, she said.

The airport boosts the local economy by an estimated $70 million a year, but changes in the industry could threaten its future unless the 5,450-foot runway is extended to 7,000 feet, she said.

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"If (the airport) doesn't step up to the plate, eventually it will wither away and die," Motz said.

Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly agreed Wednesday to get the idea off the ground.

The idea of lengthening the runway was shelved about 10 years ago, but some recent developments have brought the issue to people's attention.

Over the last year, the airline industry has talked about replacing the 19- and 30-passenger turboprop planes with more efficient jet-powered planes, Motz said.

The so-called regional jets, which carry 38 to 100 passengers, might not be able to safely take off and land in Hagerstown.

"It's not a foregone conclusion, but it is a concern," she said.

Last week, a Fairlea, W.Va., company pitched the idea of bringing commercial airline service to the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Martinsburg.

Corporate Assets Resources Development said it was eyeing that location because of its runway, which is long enough to handle regional jets.

"That throws a scare into people in Hagerstown," said Richard Phoebus, chairman of the Washington County Airport Commission.

The Martinsburg idea has been called "far-fetched" by industry analysts.

Martinsburg doesn't have a passenger terminal or air traffic control tower, both of which the airport in Washington County has, Motz said.

Local business leaders, who depend on the commuter airline to shuttle passengers to New York and Pittsburgh, have begun lobbying Maryland and Washington County officials to pursue the expansion project.

The most logical way to overcome the hurdle of U.S. 11 is to tunnel the road and bridge the runway extension over the highway, officials said.

Early cost estimates are between $30 million and $40 million.

Although the project would be years away, its massiveness requires a significant head start, said Fred Teeter, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

In the past, runway improvements have been funded mostly through federal grants, with the state and county each chipping in 5 percent.

Decades ago, U.S. 11 was moved east to accommodate the airport's runway, said Phoebus.

A runway expansion not only would preserve crucial commuter service, but would open up possibilities for cargo business from companies such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service, Teeter said.

The Greater Hagerstown Committee is backing the idea of future runway expansion along with more money to promote the airport.

"More effort is required if the airport is to be a future business and tourist 'attractor' for the community," the committee wrote in a letter to the Washington County legislative delegation.

An industry analyst warned, however, that a runway expansion warrants further study.

"You have to be careful to not get the 'Field of Dreams syndrome' - build it and they will come,'' said George Hamlin, senior vice president of Global Aviation Associates Ltd. of Washington, D.C.

The Delegation agreed Wednesday morning to set up a meeting with the Maryland Aviation Administration to talk about the idea.

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