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Runway plan is approved

staff must move it forward

May 22, 2003

Three of the Washington County Commissioners took a $21 million leap of faith Tuesday, voting to go ahead with a project to extend a Hagerstown Regional Airport runway, even though County Finance Director Debra Bastian said earlier this month the county couldn't afford to do the project.

We support the project because we believe it will bring new jobs when coupled with innovations like the county's 443-acre foreign-trade zone at the airport complex.

It also will allow companies already here to keep doing business after 2007, when new federal regulations will halt commercial passenger service unless the runway is lengthened from 5,450 feet to 7,000 feet.

According to a letter from the Airport Commission that The Herald-Mail will publish Sunday, 50,000 passengers use the airport each year. That could increase with the introduction of 30 to 50-seat commuter jets, the authority said, adding that high-tech businesses to service such planes and other aircraft could get a boost as well.

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That said, we have some serious concerns about some of the confusion that's surrounded this project recently, and whether staff is ready for the follow-through needed to make it a success.

On May 6, some county officials seemed surprised that the Federal Aviation Administration was requiring the county to pay the entire cost of the project up front, with complete federal reimbursement not coming for 10 full years.

But the Airport Commission officials say they've known that's how the deal would be done for three years. During that time, they said, no arrangements have been made for the bridge loan that will be needed, and no money set aside for the county's local share.

That's not entirely accurate, County Administrator Rodney Shoop said Wednesday.

Shoop said that the county has been exploring financing since December of 2002, and the $2.5 million local share has been plugged into the county's Capital Improvement Program for two years. Shoop said he wasn't sure whether Bastian favored handling that through bond financing or another arrangement.

Shoop said Bastian, who was out of town Wednesday, only said the project was unaffordable May 6 because Commissioners' President Greg Snook hadn't finished negotiating a new and better deal with the FAA.

Shoop said that deal may reduce the $8 million local share projected Tuesday by Commissioner William Wivell, who said the FAA won't reimburse the county for interest on the $21 million loan the county must take out.

Wivell, who voted against the project, also said he was troubled because no business plan has been presented that would show how the county will be repaid for its investment.

Wivell didn't say it, but another concern must be whether the state will pony up its share since. For the life of the project it's been a yes-we-can, no-we-can't sort of deal.

Shoop makes the case that everything is under control, but two commissioners voted against this project and the Airport Commission does not seem to have the same understanding of the project that he does.

The bottom line: Getting this project done will require a full-court press by county officials. To do that successfully, it's time for everybody to start using the same playbook.

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