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Runway project raises smells of sewer systems past

May 12, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Let's see, tens of millions of dollars spent on a bold project that once completed will, according to the best hunches of Washington County bureaucrats, bring us jobs, admiration and prosperity.

Where have we heard this before?

The painful lessons of the Washington County sewer fiasco of the 1990s seems to have been etched on the minds of the county government for all of about 36 months.

Forget that we're still making budget crippling, multi-million-dollar payments for big, expensive sewer lines and a pre-treatment plant that was supposed to bring us jobs but instead has made us the dumping grounds for everyone else's industrial wastes.

That was a fluke. Now we're hell-bent on another potential boondoggle, a massive runway at a country airstrip complete with a tunnel for a part of U.S. 11 that will be displaced by the project.

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This at a time when air travel is severely down, airlines are fighting bankruptcy and the county is so broke one commissioner has even suggested cutting out contributions to local nonprofits.

If we don't expand the runway, we are told, commuter air service to Hagerstown will be lost. My goodness. What are those three people who get on each flight ever going to do?

This week the county learned that it will have to front the entire project because the federal government isn't going to pay its share for another nine years.

The $61.5 million project is eerily close to the $59 million in sewer debts the county rang up on a whim, and there is no tangible indication that the runway will be any more successful. At least the sewer project included the replacement of an outdated plant and added treatment capacity that eventually will be put to use. There is no guarantee the runway would be even half that successful.

Supporters of the project say we have a golden opportunity that may never come again. The federal government is paying the bulk of the costs and in decades down the road it is hoped Hagerstown will become a regional hub that will attract air passengers away from crowded city airports. Commuter air service is also a boon for businesses that might be more inclined to move here if availed of a quick connection to Baltimore, Pittsburgh or New York.

Those are mildly plausible arguments. Others are not. Airport officials' contention that losing commuter air service would cost the county $20 million to $30 million a year is so silly it doesn't even dignify a response.

And I don't care if Rumplestiltskin is providing the funding, the hard truth is that no one is riding the commuter planes now. Private airlines can't make a profit without huge state subsidies, and without Cas Taylor our weak delegation has already lost the $3 million the state was kicking in.

And with discount airline Southwest fully ensconced in Baltimore, fares at a "regional hub" less than 100 miles away are never going to make competitive sense.

As for new industry, even when the runway was deemed adequate, the Topflight Airpark struggled to tread water. No one came rushing in to build the reincarnation of Fairchild.

Even if we had the world's longest runway, it would do nothing to create ridership. We need a longer runway so we can land passenger jets? We can't even fill tiny little turboprops. What in the name of Chuck Yeager do we hope to accomplish with jets?

If the county were flush with money, if our schools were adequately funded, if the downtown Hagerstown problems had been addressed, if our farmland was adequately protected, if our road network was up-to-date, if we had finished paying off our last pie-in-the-sky project that didn't work out, then we might have a legitimate argument on our hands. Might.

We could build the runway and wait. Just as we built the big sewer system and are waiting still.

But spending millions on a lark, when we have so many urgent problems staring us in the face for which money would do some immediate good, is folly.

President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative will cost us millions. How does the county propose to pay for that, through a $2 surcharge on airline tickets?

The county desperately needs to do something about traffic in the Robinwood area and plans for a new road have been on the books for a decade but the county can't afford to build it.

Why are we so worried about two or three people who may want to go to New York every day when there are hundreds of inconvenienced drivers right here at home who have trouble getting from Smithsburg to Hagerstown.

If someone flies into Hagerstown on one of these jets, what are they going to see? In the city's most important block for commerce, the first block of West Washington Street, nearly 40 percent of the storefronts are empty.

In the county, our splendid scenery and rural heritage are on the block. Protecting it costs money. If we fail, people getting off the jets will be treated to an ugly mishmash of sprawl and misplaced housing developments.

Some commissioners seem determined to force this project through over the warnings of their finance chief, who says the money isn't there. I know they're not in the habit of listening to fellow Commissioner John Munson, but this time he's right - we can't afford it.

With the haunting sewer mess still close in our rear view mirror, there is no excuse for commissioners to allow us to become runway-poor, with no money left to do address areas of far greater urgency.

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