ANNAPOLIS – David Shafer said he can’t make a living hauling caskets and bodies alone – he needs the dozens of road trips he takes to the Baltimore- Washington International Airport every month for his Cumberland-based limousine service to turn a profit.
So when it appeared likely that the Maryland Legislature, in the final days of the 2000 session, would pass a bill to subsidize a new in-state commuter airline service, Shafer hired a lawyer.
Shafer wasn’t looking to kill the bill. He was looking for a subsidy of his own.
Ironically, the legislation that had Shafer seeking counsel was conceived and shepherded by his own delegate, Speaker of the House Casper R. Taylor, D- Allegany.
Despite Shafer’s efforts, the legislation passed – and now he feels left behind.
Taylor’s Regional Air Service Development Program, approved by both chambers April 8 and awaiting the governor’s signature, makes up to $5 million in state general fund dollars available to an airline willing to run commuter air service to BWI over the next three years.
Taylor crafted the measure with the Maryland Aviation Administration as a way to lure more businesses to the outer limits of the state where no scheduled BWI passenger services exist.
The bill calls for twice-daily air service between BWI and the Cumberland Municipal Airport, Hagerstown’s Washington County Regional Airport and St. Mary’s County Airport.
Shafer said such state-subsidized commuter air service will drive him and other BWI-bound ground transport companies out of business.
“Are you going to sit in the back of a vehicle for two hours when you can get there in 20 minutes for less money?” Shafer quipped.
But clipping hours off commute time was exactly what Taylor and other economic development officials had in mind when they crafted the commuter air service concept. Flights to BWI, they contend, will lure more businesses – and jobs – to the state’s less traveled areas, including Western Maryland, where the unemployment rate is 5.9 percent, well above the Washington-area’s 2.4 percent rate.
Taylor also thinks the service will boost Maryland’s tourism industry.
One beneficiary of that boost will be the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, a new conference center near Cumberland that the state helped build.
“It would be a significant impact,” said General Manager Chuck Ingalsbee. “It would make us much more accessible.”
In Southern Maryland, the feeling is the same.
“Commuter service is going to contribute substantially to our economic growth,” said Martin Fairclouth, director of economic development for St. Mary’s County. “It’s desperately needed.”
The subsidy, estimated at $2 million a year once the service is operational, was calculated by the MAA assuming a one-way ticket cost of $50.
Shafer is charging customers 50 cents a mile, or $150 for the 300-mile round trip.
His company, Platinum Coach, operates three minivans, three limousines and two hearses, but the bulk of his business – two roundtrips a day – comes from hauling executives from a Cumberland clothing company to BWI’s train station.
Shafer doesn’t deny that the job market in Western Maryland is depressing: He uses hearses for the occasional funeral or body delivery work.
“Up here where it’s economically depressed,” said Shafer, 26, “we do whatever it takes.”
Which is why Shafer wants some assurances from the state. His attorney, Bruce Aitken, said it’s a justifiable gripe.
“Limo companies have a right to stay in business,” Aitken said. “It’s not fair to subsidize one business at the expense of another.”
At a March 30 Senate hearing, Shafer and his new legal advisers spoke their minds, but decided not to oppose the bill.
“Trying to kill this bill was not in (Shafer’s) best interest,” Aitken said, indicating that the three regional airports involved are home to two very powerful state and federal lawmakers: Taylor in Cumberland and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, in St. Mary’s and Hagerstown.
So Shafer, under Aitken’s advice, asked the Senate and the MAA to consider adding a $5 user fee to the air service ticket price, creating a fund that could be used to provide “relief” for wingless commuter companies should air service be successful.
Senate Finance Committee members seemed amenable to the idea, telling Shafer and his attorneys to work out details with the MAA.
But discussions with the MAA failed to produce an agreement, and the final version of the bill contained no mention of what Aitken called “land transport assistance” for limousine services.
Aitken has two options left now: convince the state and the MAA to study and implement an adequate subsidy for land transport, or, failing that, sue the state for failing “to follow the legislative history,” a reference to favorable comments from senators involved in the March 30 hearing.
MAA representatives said more research has to be done before Shafer’s proposal can be evaluated. Typically though, the MAA must accomplish only what is written in approved legislation.
A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said Legislature-approved bills won’t make it to the governor’s desk until a legal and legislative review is completed by the end of May.
Aitken said he and Shafer are willing to work with MAA and the state to create a mutually acceptable solution. Legal action would be a last resort.
“We’re not bomb-throwers here,” Aitken said. “We’re just trying not to get stepped on – or landed on.”