ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers Tuesday questioned the fairness, economic feasibility and necessity of a bill to bring the country’s first state- subsidized commuter air service to rural southern and western Maryland.
The bill aims to restore daily and weekend commuter air service from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Hagerstown’s Washington County Regional Airport and Cumberland Municipal Airport while introducing new service to St. Mary’s County Airport in southern Maryland.
US Airways terminated its Hagerstown-to-BWI route in 1998 after 30 years of service. Cumberland Airlines ended its service to Baltimore in 1994.
Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which heard the bill Tuesday, asked if US Airways cancelled the route because no one was riding the planes.
Maryland Department of Transportation Secretary John Porcari, one of three speakers at the hearing, said he didn’t know the full history, but a lack of passengers was part of the problem – a statement later confirmed by US Airways officials.
Proponents of the regional airline bill contend businesses and communities are asking for flights to BWI, and that the only way to create them is to subsidize the operation.
The legislation is the brainchild of House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr, D-Allegany, to bring economic development to distressed areas of the state.
Rawlings also was concerned the bill didn’t consider other rural areas in the state.
“Why would you want to establish (service to) Hagerstown and Cumberland when Frederick isn’t mentioned at all?” said Rawlings, a co- sponsor of the bill.
Porcari said those airports were identified as reasonable candidates in a marketing study.
“We can add any community to that study,” added David Blackshear, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration.
Blackshear last month asked interested air carriers and charter companies to submit cost estimates for the service, assuming three daily roundtrips and two Saturday and Sunday roundtrips and a one-way ticket price of $50.
Nine companies responded with cost estimates between $2 million and $6 million and one-way ticket prices ranging from $45 to $129, according to Blackshear.
“Any major air carriers?” asked Rawlings.
“No,” Blackshear said.
Funding estimates for the bill call for $2.1 million a year in general fund subsidies through 2005, roughly 40 percent of the operation, according to Blackshear.
Kevin Smedley, president of Kinetic Enterprise Systems Inc., said he’s one of the nine bidders – and he’s looking for investors.
“You say airplanes and everybody says `They crash,'” Smedley said. With a state subsidy, investors might bite because “they don’t have to spend their $2.1 million up front to see if it works,” Smedley said.
But before investors, there have to be users. That’s why Delegate Joan Breslin Pitkin, D-Prince George’s, was concerned there was no testimony from businesses and communities who reportedly asked for the commuter service.
Mike Lewin, head of the state’s Department of Business and Economic Development, said he had statements from businesses and others and promised to provide them to Pitkin.
Delegate Nancy K. Kopp, D-Montgomery, questioned whether the bill considered statewide solutions to the geographic barriers between bustling central Maryland and the outer regions – and whether other methods of connecting them were considered.
“It’s not as simple as giving someone some money to bring an airline in,” Kopp said.
According to Pitkin, an Appropriations subcommittee will probably review the bill and the new information and make recommendations to the full committee.