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Proposed budget cuts air service subsidy

County lawmakers were not confident they could convince Gov. Robert Ehrlich to restore funding for air service from Hagerstown a

County lawmakers were not confident they could convince Gov. Robert Ehrlich to restore funding for air service from Hagerstown a

January 22, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich slashed a state subsidy for air service from Hagerstown and Cumberland to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, possibly curtailing the service by the end of June.

Washington County lawmakers were not confident they could convince Ehrlich to restore the $750,000 that had been promised when the program began.

Flights on Boston-Maine Airways' Pan Am Clipper Connection began a little more than a year ago with the help of $4.25 million from the state over nearly two years.

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A Maryland Aviation Administration report last month recommended ending the subsidy a year early because the service has not been profitable.

The 19-seat planes carry an average of 2.4 paid ticket-holders per flight between Hagerstown and BWI, Hagerstown Regional Airport has said.

It costs $123 to fly round-trip between Hagerstown and BWI, including fees and taxes, Motz said.

The airline had expected to receive a final grant of $750,000 in the 2004 budget.

But Ehrlich's budget released Friday does not contain the grant, said Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan.

The Maryland General Assembly does not have the power to add money to the budget, although lawmakers could try to lobby Ehrlich to restore the program.

If the grant ends on June 30, it will be up to Boston-Maine Airways whether to continue the service, said Bruce Mundie, director of the state's Office of Regional Aviation Assistance.

An airline representative could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The service has lost its biggest champion, former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany.

Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., who beat Taylor in the November election, and other local lawmakers were skeptical that they would be able to secure the money.

Myers, R-Allegany/Washington, said he hopes the airline will be able to continue the commuter flights without the state's help.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said the program probably will become a casualty of a $1.8 billion budget shortfall the state faces over the next 18 months.

"There's going to be a lot of pain to go around in this budget and this is part of the pain," Munson said.

Sen. John Hafer said the subsidy also is a tough sell because people didn't take advantage of the service.

"It's hard to justify something that's not paying its own way," said Hafer, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington.

The budget deficit forced Ehrlich to set priorities and education and other important programs came first, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Delegation Chairman Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said local lawmakers should lobby for the subsidy, however dim the prospects.

"There was a commitment made to fund it for three years and we have an obligation to give it a solid chance to succeed," McKee said.

Airport Manager Carolyn Motz could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In the past, Motz has argued that the service needs more time to become successful.

When it started up, just three months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some people were afraid of flying.

At first there were problems with scheduling and reservations that have since been corrected, some have said.

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