Regional air transit authority could revive Worcester airport

City sees move as key to growing commercial service

The future of air travel from Central Massachusetts can only be fully realized through a Regional Air Transit Authority, created by the Massachusetts Legislature, strongly supported by the Worcester City Council.

Worcester currently owns the only aeronautically approved commercial air transit facility in Central Massachusetts. Financial affiliation with Logan International Airport via the Massachusetts Port Authority is only a short-term solution. The long-term stimulus for a vibrant area economy requires establishment of a regional authority, which can be structured and funded through tax-exempt bonds carrying the credit of the commonwealth and linked to the various federal aeronautical subsidies Massport receives.

The Central Massachusetts legislative caucus must be convinced that an independent airport authority can more effectively increase air transportation for the region than can being dependent upon Massport, which is structured, controlled and managed by Boston-area interests.

The city administration is currently negotiating further financial support from Massport, but the decline of air traffic from Worcester over the past two decades reflects a lackof local clout on the Massport board, except for Frederic Mulligan of Worcester, a recent appointee.

A regional air transit authority would tend to draw support from five interested members of Congress: our two senators, who can engineer major support for such an authority; U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, senior member of the House Rules Committee; U.S. Rep. John Olver, senior member of the Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. They all bring a combined support that the city of Worcester, itself, could not garner.

For these reasons, and others, we need our own air transit authority. The city could negotiate a long-term sale of this very valuable asset to the authority with future benchmarks for additional payments based upon passenger count, commercial development and other enhancements. The sale of tax-exempt bonds must be made attractive to the tax-exempt bond investor. The authority's prospectus must paint a positive picture for the private and corporate tax exemption investor.

Municipal and corporate employer commitments could supply the regional glue to make these bonds even more attractive. It works this way: Chamber of commerce groups in Central Massachusetts would encourage members to offer their employees incentives to use the local airport. Small property tax credits could further motivate corporate initiatives. Such credits can be legislatively created, similar to tax increment financing extending property tax concessions to corporations committing to guaranteed employment numbers.

Similarly, the 14-member Colleges of Worcester Consortium - an enormous economic engine powered by their student bodies, employees, teachers and administration personnel - could offer students and employees internal incentives to use Worcester air travel.

The authority would need strong professional management. A five-member authority board would consist of four appointed by the governor: two from Worcester, one from Central Massachusetts and the secretary of transportation or his designee. The state administration would be involved where the credit of the commonwealth stands behind the authority's tax-exempt bonds. Finally, the city manager would name the fifth member, with the approval of the City Council.

The real value inherent in the Worcester airport can be appreciated only when one considers the difficulty of establishing another airport west of Route 128. Approval is dependent on Massachusetts Environmental Impact Review (MEPA) process and opponents to the siting of a new airport could get legal standing by filing a 10-taxpayer suit. The value of having this airport - in place now and properly permitted - is just without valid comparison.

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