Regional air transit authority could revive Worcester airport

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.

If the airlines see the commitment of the community to organize use of our airport by area employers and residents, the decision to locate here becomes more appealing.

The Federal Aviation Administration needs Massport to stabilize its growth pattern. Federal concerns about near collisions at Logan in 2005 and 2006 prompted final FAA approval of a 9,000-foot paved runway over vigorous protest from the East Boston community. The runway may reduce safety hazards of an already overcrowded airport, but should not increase air traffic.

Our legislative delegation needs to garner the support of the co-chairs of the important Committee on Transportation, Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee, the hometown of our city manager, and Sen. Steven A. Baddour of Haverhill. Both have been favorable to Worcester area transportation funding.

The need for a new airport road linking Interstate 290 can easily come when the authority is functional. Mass Highway can accomplish these goals measured by our Central Massachusetts delegation to prioritize this project in a legislative transportation bond issue. Currently, the airports in Hyannis and Nantucket rank second and third to Logan as the busiest airports in Massachusetts. We can make the argument that the airport in Worcester, the second largest city in the state, should rank next to Logan.

Authorities have a proven record of success. Massport was created to save Logan Airport. Authorities bring to the table a political and business independence, which attracts better management. It becomes a magnet for federal subsidies, resulting in a much more dependable financing structure for the tax-exempt investor.

An air transit authority is the only vehicle with good management which can satisfy our current need to end the operational deficit, bring back airlines to satisfy regional air-passenger demands and fashion a long term buyout of the airport facility, maximizing its enormous value potential.

John W. Spillane is senior partner of Spillane & Spillane of Worcester and Hyannis.

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