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Finances threaten longer runway

The FAA will not completely reimburse the county for its share of the expansion until five years after the project is completed.

The FAA will not completely reimburse the county for its share of the expansion until five years after the project is completed.

May 07, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN, MD. - If the Washington County Commissioners decide to move ahead with the Hagerstown Regional Airport runway expansion, they would have to come up with both the county's share and $26 million for which they would not be immediately reimbursed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That news might endanger the much talked about project.

The county must have the $61.5 million project completed in four years to meet new federal safety regulations, but the FAA would not reimburse the county for the federal share during that same period.

The FAA plans to pay back the county over a nine-year period. That means it would take the FAA five years after the project is completed to reimburse the county for $26 million of the cost, county and airport officials said.

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County Finance Director Debra Bastian told the County Commissioners at a Tuesday meeting that they cannot afford to pay for the project in four years.

"The county can't handle that over that time period," Bastian said.

The county has about $10 million in cash reserves, she said.

News of the funding gap leaves the commissioners with the options of killing the runway project or borrowing money to pay for it, they said.

The county must pay for a portion of the project each year over the four years in order to be paid back by the FAA.

The FAA would reimburse the county for 90 percent, or $47 million, of the project's cost. The state and county each are to contribute 5 percent of the total cost.

Commissioner John C. Munson said he doubted the state would have the money for its share.

"The way the state's been cutting us, I wouldn't trust them to come through with this," he said. "I wouldn't trust them at all."

Munson said the county should consider dropping the project and giving up the county-run airport to a private company.

If the county borrows the money, it would cost more than $26 million because of interest, officials said.

"It looks like maybe we can't afford this job. It looks like maybe we can't afford this airport," Munson said. "I think we're getting ourselves into hot water here."

Without a longer runway, the airport could lose its scheduled commercial air service, which would have an economic impact of $20 million to $30 million a year, Airport Manager Carolyn Motz told the commissioners.

The project would involve extending the runway from 5,450 feet to 7,000 feet to improve safety and to accommodate jets.

"We're going to be out of the passenger operations in less than 10 years," Motz said.

County and airport officials said they hoped to come up with creative ways to pay for the shortfall.

In an effort to cut costs, Commissioner James F. Kercheval asked whether the FAA would allow the county to provide fill dirt, which the county already has, for an embankment that would be part of the project.

The county anticipates the embankment construction to cost $20 million.

Commissioner Doris J. Nipps suggested asking whether Pennsylvania would help pay for the project, since the airport provides regional service.

"To me there's got to be a way for us to do this, we just haven't figured it out yet," Nipps said.

After the discussion, the commissioners approved a preliminary letter of intent from the FAA for the $47 million in funding over the nine-year period. Kercheval said the approval will give the county time to decide whether financing the project is a feasible option before it commits to or turns down the extension plan.

"All we're doing now is keeping it alive," Kercheval said. "Then we always have the option later of saying we can or can't do it."

Motz said after the meeting she didn't fear that the commissioners would reject the extension project.

"The commissioners would only give the thumbs down if this wasn't the right thing for the county citizens," Motz said.

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