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Warning flags for runway abound, but commissioners cover eyes

February 29, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

One of the biggest chunks of baloney you are ever likely to read in print came to us this week from Washington County Airport Manager Carolyn Motz, who said a U.S. Airways carrier was pulling out of Hagerstown in part because the airport's runway is too short.

Funny, that wasn't what David Castelveter, spokesman for U.S. Airways said. His exact words were "I don't see any significant growth in the Hagerstown area. The best we'll be able to do is maintain" the flights that they have now.

That's about as clear as it gets. He didn't say "Hagerstown's runway isn't long enough." He didn't say "If only we could fly big jets in here we would have plenty of passengers." It was "I don't see any significant growth."

I know it's silly to blame Motz, who gets her marching orders from County Administrator Rod Shoop, but in the future she may want to defer runway extension comments to him, so we know exactly who is responsible for a multi-million boondoggle that will shortchange everything from schools to roads to farmland preservation for the next two decades.

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The other bit of bad runway news that came out this week was the severe escalation of the project's pricetag for county taxpayers. What was once sold to the citizens as a $2 million expenditure is now up to as much as $14.4 million and counting.

County Commissioner Jim Kercheval said there's "no guarantee we're going to have to pay all that." Boy, there's a statement that leaves one brimming with confidence. I suppose there is "no guarantee" that the bank won't knock on your door tomorrow morning and tell you to forget about paying the rest of your mortgage, too. But what's worse, is that there is also "no guarantee" the project won't end up costing us a lot more.

The biggest, perhaps the only, selling point of this $60 million project was that the federal and state governments would be picking up most of the tab, and that the county would only have to kick in peanuts. Now even that is no longer true.

More and more, this project is looking horrible for county taxpayers on its face. Motz herself admitted that the thrice-daily flights to Pittsburgh are only half full. A state subsidized commuter flight to Baltimore failed because it averaged only three passengers a day. And now Shuttle America, which contracts service for U.S. Airways, is pulling out because, according to press reports, "they were not making money on their operation here." U.S. Airways will have to find yet another contractor to maintain the flights and try to make the numbers work.

Unlike the Washington County Commissioners, private industry operates under business models, marketing studies and financial plans. Washington County has none of that - all it has is a whim.

Hagerstown's runway is currently the same length as Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C., and it is big and safe enough to land the president's Air Force One. But let's just pretend that the county's "we can't land jets" argument is true, even though it isn't.

Why would any airline want to? They can't even come close to filling a 30-seat turboprop. So suddenly they are going to start flying 50- to 150-seat jets in here? Does Motz, Shoop or the County Commissioners understand how insane this sounds? This is like telling a starving man that all he needs is a bigger plate.

Every time there's bad news for the airport, the county tries to scare up an executive or two to write in about how crucial the runway extension is for our economic vitality. Let me ask the execs this: If this project were a corporation, would you buy stock?

Would you hope for any kind of return on your investment? Would your own company dive into such a venture with no marketing plan, no business model or no idea how you would possibly recoup your $14 million investment? Would you buy in, just because some middle manager thought it was a cool idea?

About the best we can realistically hope for is that FedEx or some other air-support system for our magnificent warehouse network will move in. And that's not worth it.

Even if the county had no sewer-debt monkey still on its back, even if all our schools were up to date, even if our roads were adequate to address the needs of the coming decade, even if the new downtown university campus weren't already short of operating funds and even if our community college didn't need an urgent expansion to provide real jobs now instead of wished-for fairydust jobs in the year 2030, this would still be a dubious idea.

But we still haven't recovered from our last flight of capital-spending fancy. And our schools and roads are becoming an obsolete mess. In short, any number of urgently needed projects in the county will go begging because the county wants to extend an already grossly underused runway and dig a tunnel for U.S. 11 to pass underneath.

Sorry kids, your education comes second. Sorry motorists, you'll just have to sit in traffic. Sorry rural farmland, it's bulldozers for you.

Commissioners Bill Wivell and John Munson prudently oppose the project. The best thing for Washington County right now would be if one more commissioner would be independent-minded enough to step forward and say "this is not right."

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