With Federal Aviation Administration funding cuts looming, Washington County officials have decided to seek state funding to help keep open the air-traffic control tower at Hagerstown Regional Airport.
The tower is set to close May 5 if other arrangements are not made, according to airport Director Phil Ridenour, who met Tuesday with the Washington County Board of Commissioners to discuss options for keeping the tower operational.
Hagerstown’s tower was one of 149 federally contracted towers across the country selected for closure as a result of budget cuts necessitated by the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.
Ridenour said the county’s airport commission met last Thursday and decided to enter into a pact with several other counties affected by airport tower closures, including Frederick (Frederick Municipal Airport).
The group agreed to send a letter to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley requesting funding from the state in the form of a 75 percent-to-25 percent match, with the county providing the 25 percent, Ridenour said.
“That would cover our expenses, at least through the end of the federal fiscal year,” which ends Sept. 30, he said.
To fund the tower from May 5 to Sept. 30, Ridenour said it would cost $219,477 through the existing contractor, Midwest Air Traffic Control. If the county is granted state funding, the county would have to come up with $54,869, he said.
Ridenour said he hoped to have the letter ready for Commissioners President Terry L. Baker’s signature by the end of the day Tuesday and have it delivered to the governor by today.
Aside from having federal funding reinstated, the airport commission’s other suggested options include the county fully funding the tower’s operations or establishing a public-private partnership with the airfield’s users.
“I feel as though that (the public-private partnership) should be the last option that we explore,” Ridenour said. “I don’t think we should put the burden on the shoulders of our airport users to help us fund the tower.
“I think it’s ... ultimately the responsibility of the federal government. But, hopefully, if they don’t make a decision to fund it, we drop down to the state,” he said.
Commissioner William B. McKinley, who sits on the airport commission, said petitioning the state for help seems like the best-case scenario at this point.
“We’re not sure what will happen, but it was probably the best option we had at the time,” he said. “... Now, we have to wait and see if that happens, and if it doesn’t happen, then we have to go back to the drawing board and see what we can do.”
If state funding cannot be secured, McKinley said county officials would need to take a close look at the budget to see “how in the world” money can be freed up to keep the tower open.
Ridenour, who also met with concerned businesses last Thursday about the potential tower closure, said the plan would be to keep the tower open its same hours, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and to keep staffing levels the same with one to three people in the tower during operation.
Ridenour has said commercial flights would operate as normal even without an operational tower on site.
Not only Maryland businesses would be affected, Ridenour said, noting that Pennsylvania’s economy also could be negatively influenced by a tower closure.
During the second Thursday meeting, airport business leaders strategized how to get legislators from both states on board with the effort to stave off the federal cuts, Ridenour said.
“They all have a concern over not having the tower,” he said.
The four-week phase-out of towers as part of the FAA cuts will begin Sunday.
Ridenour said a news conference to provide an update on the county’s course of action is set for Thursday at 1 p.m. at the airport terminal off Showalter Road.