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Saving the runway project

May 08, 2003

Three years ago, the Greater Hagerstown Committee told the local Maryland General Assembly representatives that progress was being made on three local projects - bringing the University System of Maryland to Hagerstown, widening Interstate 81 and lengthening a runway at Hagerstown's Regional Airport.

On Tuesday, however, county officials said the runway project is in trouble.

Why? Because the Federal Aviation Administration now says the county must pay the entire cost of the project up front, with full repayment of FAA's $47 million share not coming for nine years.

Assuming that repayment plan can't be altered, county officials must now decide whether borrowing the cash will yield enough new business to make the risk worthwhile.

Not doing it will cost the county commercial air service within 10 years, said Carolyn Motz, the airport's manager. Motz said the loss of that service would have an economic impact of $20 million to $30 million each year.

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That loss would be in future business because, at this point, commercial air service has not been a big success here. In January airport officials reported that Boston Maine, which reinstated air service to Baltimore, was only carrying 2.4 passengers per flight on its 19-passenger commuter planes.

Three years ago County Commissioner Bert Iseminger said the runway extension was the county's most important economic development project.

With a longer runway, Iseminger said, local trucking companies could receive goods for distribution here rather than at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

We recommend three things. The commissioners first must ask Maryland's congressional delegation to see if FAA's repayment plan is set in stone. Second, the county board should do as Commissioner Jim Kercheval suggests, and see whether in-kind contributions could cut the cost of the $61 million project.

Finally, as Commissioner John Munson said, the county should look at whether a private company or authority could raise the funds more easily.

The county may want to retain control, but if the choice is between a private airport with a longer runway and a county-owned facility that can't accommodate larger planes, the choice seems clear.

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