Distance to Dulles drives Hagerstown airport funding

October 21, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - A federal funding quarrel hinges on the driving distance from Hagerstown to Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

The length of the trip is an essential measurement for Hagerstown Regional Airport, which has been receiving a subsidy to help communities far from larger hub airports.

The subsidy is in limbo until Congress passes a bill to keep the Federal Aviation Administration running another four years. The last authorization legislation expired Sept. 30.

Currently, the airport has no carrier. Last month, Air Midwest stopped its US Airways Express flights between Washington County and Pittsburgh.


Air Midwest is the third straight carrier to halt service in Hagerstown within five years. It stopped the same day that the airport's federal Essential Air Service (EAS) funding ran out.

Congress approved a temporary funding measure that includes the EAS program. It will last until Nov. 15. But it doesn't cover Hagerstown Regional Airport.

Supporters of Hagerstown's subsidy are leaning on the DOT to let an exemption in the last FAA bill continue, even though it's not in the temporary funding bill.

The DOT won't.

At a Chamber of Commerce luncheon Monday in Washington County, U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., accused the DOT of "resistance" and "making it difficult" for the subsidy to continue. During an interview afterward, he upgraded his accusation to "hostility."

The department, though, says it's up to Congress to enact the appropriate law.

Expired eligibility

A DOT spokesman issued the following department response on the condition that his name not be used: "The legal provision that restored Hagerstown's eligibility has expired. If Congress acts to provide subsidized air service, DOT will work expeditiously to get a new carrier to provide that service."

Air Midwest received $650,000 per year under the EAS program - mostly to cover costs, but also for a small profit.

At issue is whether Hagerstown Regional Airport is at least 70 miles away from Dulles, and therefore eligible for an EAS subsidy.

The DOT, in a 2002 written order, says Hagerstown is too close to Dulles to qualify.

"Using a 1996 Rand McNally software program, we have measured the distance from the center of Hagerstown to the entrance of Dulles International Airport as 57 miles," the order says.

Hagerstown Regional Airport Manager Carolyn Motz said the DOT relied on a path people wouldn't travel; on the interstates, the trip is more than 70 miles.

A 2005 Herald-Mail story reported state and local officials saying the distance is 78 miles.

The Web site puts the distance from Hagerstown's Public Square to Dulles - taking Interstate 70, U.S. 340 and U.S. 15 south to Leesburg, Va. - at about 64 miles.

Calling Cardin's analysis "excellent," Motz said, "Nothing good can come out of hiatus that has been dealt to us."

She said the airport expects to finish, by the end of the year, a runway expansion project necessitated by safety standards. The airport needed to add buffers at either end of the runway.

Long runway, bigger planes

By lengthening the runway from 5,461 feet to 7,000 feet, Motz said, the airport can attract larger regional jets instead of the turboprops that long served Hagerstown. She said "quite a number of airlines" are monitoring the transformation with interest.

This month, Greg Larsen, the airport's business development manager, said the airport has been talking to an affiliate of a major network airline.

In 2006, a total of 11,711 passengers used the airport, or 16 passengers boarding at Hagerstown per day, according to the DOT.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill to continue the FAA's operations and the EAS program for four more years. Cardin predicted the Senate would vote on a measure by Thanksgiving.

The bill that expired Sept. 30 ordered the DOT to sanction the most common route from Hagerstown to Dulles, as decided by the state of Maryland, not the shortest route.

Cardin and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., have urged the DOT to let the exemption continue until Dec. 31 while a new bill is considered.

Mikulski had no additional comment, said Melissa Schwartz, her communications director.

The mileage exemption was left out of the temporary funding bill last month to keep the bill "clean" and free of controversy, said Todd Jorns, the legislative director for Regional Aviation Partners, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Arizona.

Yet, in what is known as a "colloquy," Cardin, Mikulski and a handful of other senators expressed their wishes during a floor discussion that the exemption continue until the next FAA bill is passed. The comments were nonbinding, but meant to influence the DOT, Jorns said.

Motz said Hagerstown Regional Airport isn't counting on federal funding forever.

"The last thing that we want is to have EAS in perpetuity ..." she said. "To us, it's a jump-start so that we can rebuild our numbers."

According to the DOT, Hagerstown has been part of the EAS program since its inception on Oct. 24, 1978.

The Herald-Mail Articles