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Airport grant could be cut

March 25, 2002|BY LAURA ERNDE

At a time when state money is scarce, spending $2 million to subsidize an air service used by only a handful of people every day might seem like a luxury.

But Washington County lawmakers and Hagerstown Regional Airport officials are trying to preserve the fledgling program, which is marked to be cut from the state's $22 billion budget.

The House version of the budget keeps the subsidy, but the Senate version eliminates it. The issue will be resolved by a conference committee sometime in the next two weeks.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, has said he's confident the legislature won't kill the initiative he helped to create with a $1 million grant last year.

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Known as the Clipper Connection, the service began in December carrying passengers between Taylor's hometown of Cumberland, Md., Hagerstown and Baltimore-Washington International Airport for $59 round-trip.

Boston-Maine Airways of Portsmouth, N.H., a division of Pan American, invested $7 million to get the flights airborne, expecting to have the grant for three years, said Hagerstown Airport Manager Carolyn Motz.

By then, the service is expected to be able to support itself.

Cutting the grant now would send a message to those doing business with the state that its word is no good, Motz said.

News of the possible cut has prompted people to call the airport with questions, possibly jeopardizing advance bookings, she said.

Ridership on the 19-seat twin turboprops has been lighter than hoped.

The flights are offered three times a day during the week and twice a day on weekends and holidays. Passengers flew the flights between Hagerstown and BWI 141 times in January and 206 times in February, Motz said.

While Motz said it's too early to judge the program's success, she touted its reliability.

Well over 90 percent of the flights that are scheduled actually take place. Weather has been the main cause of the few cancellations.

"I cannot explain to anybody how wonderful that is for a startup airline. They are running a very admirable service," she said.

The service boosts the state's economy by bringing Western Maryland closer to the rest of the world, said Tony Dahbura, a Hagerstown businessman who is vice chairman of the Hagerstown Regional Airport Advisory Commission.

But it also creates a spinoff effect, supporters said.

It has led Pan American to launch a new jet service out of BWI, Motz said.

Companies considering locating in Washington County will look more favorably on the area, Dahbura said.

"It's economic development in its truest sense," he said.

Dahbura has found the service convenient for business travel. One morning when he couldn't catch the shuttle and had to drive to BWI, he missed his flight because of Baltimore Beltway traffic.

Washington County lawmakers are unanimous in their backing of the subsidy.

"Let's give it time to work before we pull the plug on it. Otherwise it would be a waste of money that's already been spent," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said the state should help with the startup costs as promised.

"It was a three-year commitment. I would hope and would like to see the state honor that commitment," he said.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he shares Taylor's optimism that the grant will be approved.

"It's very important for Hagerstown and Cumberland and the state as a whole. It's like any investment, you need some seed money and eventually it'll take care of itself," he said.

Even the most conservative member of the delegation, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, doesn't think $2 million is too large an investment.

However, he would not support an ongoing state subsidy for the air service similar to what mass transit receives.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, was upset when his committee voted to slash the subsidy two weeks ago.

Munson may play a role in the final decision if he gets appointed to the budget conference committee.

Munson has served on past conference committees, but said he may be bypassed this time simply because he has made it clear to Hoffman that he will vote for the air project.

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