ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers Tuesday will begin debating the merits of using the state’s general fund to revive commuter air service between Baltimore- Washington International Airport, Cumberland and Hagerstown and to introduce new service at St. Mary’s County.
Spearheaded by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, D-Allegany, and co- sponsored by 16 Democratic House members, the bill was designed to spur economic growth in the far reaches of the state through a three-year, state- subsidized, state-managed feeder service.
Preliminary plans call for three flights each weekday and two daily flights on weekends from each location to BWI.
Funding the air service promises to be complicated even though unofficial estimates of the program’s funding – roughly $3 million – are dwarfed by the planned $425 million Transportation Trust Fund subsidies for rail and road travel in 2001.
“No one has ever done this before, as far as I know,” said Bruce Mundie, a Maryland Aviation Administration official. “We’re breaking new ground.”
Federal laws require Transportation Trust Fund dollars be used only for operating or improving airports – not for running an airline. That’s why Taylor wants to tap the state’s general fund for the service.
Policy analysts with the Department of Legislative Services said it’s too early to know how thorny the financial issue will be – there isn’t enough information in the bill.
Mundie, regional aviation assistance director, is charged with figuring out how to create Taylor’s regional commuter program and finding someone to do the job.
Last month, he asked interested air carriers and charter companies to submit cost estimates by Feb. 3. Mundie said he needs planes that can carry at least eight passengers per flight to meet the expected yearly passenger needs at the three destination airports: 7,234 at Cumberland Municipal Airport; 5,949 from St. Mary’s County Airport; and 2,681 at Hagerstown’s Washington County Regional Airport.
Nine businesses responded, Mundie said, but details are confidential. Passenger figures used for Mundie’s requests are too low, say economic development officials in the three locations.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Tom Riford, marketing director for the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission. “We’re more than that.”
Riford said the Hagerstown airport has only one airline with one destination – US Airways to Pittsburgh. If locals want to fly from BWI, they have to drive 90 minutes.
US Airways cancelled its Hagerstown-to-Baltimore route in 1998. “It was a lack of demand,” said US Airways spokesman David Castelveter, of the company’s decision to cut the service.
Castelveter declined to discuss the request for cost data for the Maryland regional air service, but said his airline is always willing to listen to communities who want air service.
The number of passengers using Hagerstown could substantially increase with a direct BWI link for local business giants like Citicorp and Mack Trucks Inc., Riford said, adding he’s negotiating with United Airlines about restoring BWI service.
“A link to BWI is vital to our economic development,” said John Kirby, director of the Allegany County Department of Economic Development. Kirby said the new service will substantially upgrade the BWI connector service that Cumberland Airlines ran until 1994.
The idea for the regional airline bill originated in Cumberland, Taylor’s home turf, a little over a year ago during a meeting with local businesses and state aviation officials.
“It started in the speaker’s office,” Kirby said.
Mundie recalled the same meeting as a collective “shot-gunning” of ideas aimed at bringing BWI commuter service back to Cumberland.
“Casper got hold of (the idea) and he ran with it,” Mundie said.
The largest potential market for Taylor’s air service could come from St. Mary’s County where high-tech companies grew from 60 to 250 over the last four years. That boom began when the Navy consolidated operations at the nearby Patuxent River base.
“It’s one of the critical pieces of infrastructure that we need,” said Martin Fairclough, St. Mary’s County economic development director. Fairclough conservatively estimates that he could fill 70,000 passenger seats a year.
Mundie agreed passenger estimates in his request were low. “I think those numbers are start-up numbers,” Mundie said. If they do turn out to be low, he said, the effect will be higher subsidies at the start of the service, which could decrease as business picks up.