Could the Washington, D.C.-area’s airports be sold off by the federal government?
That’s been a hot topic since the idea was officially included in the Trump Administration’s infrastructure proposal on Monday.
The president’s proposal said the federal government should divest assets when doing so would "optimize taxpayer value." As examples, the proposal listed both Dulles and Reagan National Airports as potentially contributing to that goal. Both airports are located in the Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capital.
“The Federal Government owns and operates certain infrastructure that would be more appropriately owned by State, local, or private entities,” the Trump plan says. It goes on to say federal agencies should be given the “authority to divest of Federal assets where the agencies can demonstrate an increase in value from the sale would optimize the taxpayer value.”
The proposal also included other items – such as parkways and highways in the D.C. region – but it’s been the mention of the capital area's airports that have created the most buzz.
“Trump administration wants to sell National and Dulles airports, other assets across U.S.,” blared a headline on the website of The Washington Post. Politico echoed that – “Trump infrastructure plan could sell off Reagan, Dulles airports“ – in its own post on the subject.
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Catchy headlines or not, the idea of selling off these assets has long odds – at least in the case of the D.C. airports.
The proposal faces a number of hurdles that could prevent the federal sale, basically boiling down to a reluctance of giving up control – especially in the case of privatization.
Members of Congress, and the state and local government officials who sit on the airport board, have a say over how the airports are managed. Besides business decisions, they address issues like airport noise. The concern is that a private corporation would be less likely to listen to complaints than public officials.
Beyond the possibility of privatization, the Trump proposal also suggested state or local owners could be found. But that track could face similar difficulties. It’s unlikely a state, county or other local entity would be in a position to make a substantial offer for a key piece of infrastructure already owned by the U.S. government.
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Even transferring the airports to a local entity – potentially to help offload federal financial obligations – would not be easy.
Most of the USA's commercial airports are already owned by local entities. The Dulles and Reagan National airports are federally owned, but they are leased from the government and are administered by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA). The agency’s stakeholders include not only the federal government, but also the states of Maryland and Virginia and the District of Columbia. The airports are key transportation hubs in each of those jurisdictions, and none would likely want to lose its say.
Local officials reacted coolly to the idea.
“All I can see now is a federal obligation that they’re trying to push off. Where would we get the money from without a revenue source?” Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne asked when contacted by the Post.
For now, Layne suggested, there’s not enough information in the proposal to offer a realistic assessment.
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“I don’t even know what’s being sold — I don’t mean just physical, I mean obligations,” Layne added to the Post. “What level of funding? Is the federal government just going to wash their hands of it?”
For its part, MWAA issued the following statement to USA TODAY's Today in the Sky blog:
"The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority recognizes the Administration’s interest in optimizing the value of federal assets. This goal of sound financial stewardship prompted Congress to create the Airports Authority, which moved Washington’s airports from Federal management and government appropriation funding to independent management. That change gave the airports access to commercial financial markets, enabling funding for the investments needed to upgrade facilities and services.
"The Airports Authority has served the region and the traveling public well for 30 years, significantly enhancing the quality of Washington’s airports and service to its 45 million annual passengers, while making key contributions to regional economic growth. The Airports Authority continues to operate the airports and its other businesses, including construction of the Metrorail Silver Line."
Stay tuned …
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