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Was cost worth savings in FAA shutdown?

August 05, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND |

No two ways about it, air service out of Hagerstown to BWI is a sweet ride. Parking is free. The walk to the terminal is a few hundred feet at most, and there are no serious lines at the counter, no lines at security, no lines — well, anywhere. Which is part of the problem.

No matter how much airport officials wish it were otherwise, Hagerstown can't support profitable daily air service, even at a scant $60 for a one-way ticket.

Of course, there's a reason airfare is so cheap — a government subsidy of $191 per ticket. That's right. Taxpayers are paying three times what the actual passenger is paying. Even local airport officials, in a Wall Street Journal article last month, conceded that it would not be a huge economic hit if subsidized air travel here were to cease.

So I'll agree that House Republicans are correct to try to end subsidies to Hagerstown and 12 other small airports. So now that they've "won," the question becomes this: Was it worth $200 million to save $16 million?

The former figure is how much we lost in airport taxes during the recent FAA shutdown; the latter figure is how much we'll save by ending subsidies to carriers at those 13 local airports. And considering all the taxable wages lost to 70,000 construction workers, it will probably take 20 years to recoup the savings realized by the cuts.

I'm not an authority on global finance, but I think that at least the argument can be made that the "terrorists" in the House of Representatives achieved meaningful results by forcing the nation to face its debt problem head-on. Sometimes, holding a bomb up to the entire world economy is the only way they'll learn. But to perpetuate Armageddon in order to lose $184 million?

You just hope that tantrum politics doesn't become the norm — that the House will think nothing of destroying wide swaths of America in order to get its way.

Of course, the debt deal of this month does nothing but force us to address the issue. How we address it in the coming months will be what matters.

First, it might help to stop tilting at airplanes. The left makes much of tax breaks for corporate jets and yachts. The right scoffs that this amounts to mere peanuts. The right is correct. Ending this tax break would save less than a half-billion dollars a year — but that saves close to 20 times the amount that ending air subsidies to those 13 airports would save.

So how can corporate jet tax breaks be categorized as "peanuts," while a handful of air subsidies are such a grand extravagance that it's worth putting 74,000 people out of work to end them?

If we are talking about the Hagerstown air subsidies, then  let's talk about all transportation-related spending. If we're concerned about $16 million in airport subsidies, let's consider $2 billion in annual oil-company subsidies that benefit automobile travel. Not to mention ethanol subsidies, auto-company bailouts and, for that matter, the interstate highway system.

To the extent that it's possible anymore to talk about the national debt in a rational manner, let's at least try. It's time to stop talking as if we could solve all our problems by cutting funding to the transportation projects, hunter safety programs, national parks or Meals on Wheels. We could double the funding to all these programs and it wouldn't matter much one way or the other.

The cause of the burgeoning national debt is very clear: We cut taxes, then went to war, passed a major new prescription-drug entitlement and tried to spend our way out of a recession.

We can't call back the stimulus spending, but we can deal with taxes, entitlements and defense.

In all likelihood, defense will take care of itself. When we stop lobbing projectiles in the Middle East, defense costs will decline precipitously; they always do after a war.

That leaves taxes and entitlements, and both are in need of reform. It's dishonest for either side to demand that just one or the other be fixed.

For me, personally, this would probably mean that the taxes I pay on investments would go up and the date I am eligible for retirement benefits would be pushed back a couple of years.

I would not like this. But the United States of America has been pretty good to me these past 50 years, and if it has to call on me in its time of need, I am not going to be so ungracious as to complain.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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