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By NICOLE MACON
BALTIMORE -- The automatic spending cuts that began Friday could result in longer lines at airport security checks and closure of air traffic control towers if Congress doesn’t agree on a way to reduce the budget, according to Maryland politicians who gathered at Maryland’s busiest airport.
Sen. Ben Cardin and Maryland Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, John Sarbanes, D-Towson, and John Delaney, D-Potomac, met at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to discuss how the sequester will impact the state’s busiest airport and the businesses that depend on reliable air service.
Maryland’s regional airports could see air traffic control towers shut down April 1, which could divert their commercial air traffic to BWI Airport. Airports that could be affected include Frederick Municipal Airport, Easton Municipal Airport, Hagerstown Airport, Martin State Airport and Salisbury-Ocean City: Wicomico Regional Airport.
Sequester will cause a significant impact in Maryland -- 5.6 percent of Marylanders work for the federal government, compared to an average of 2 percent nationwide.
Affected agencies will have to cut eight to 10 percent of their current budget between now and the end of this fiscal year, because the sequester is based on a department’s annual budget, Cardin said.
“That’s another devastating impact on our national defense readiness and on our domestic budget,” Cardin said.
Of the $1 billion in transportation spending cuts required due to sequestration this fiscal year, $600 million will come from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“The only way that (Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) will be able to achieve those savings will be furloughing the FAA workers, including those who are responsible for air traffic control,” Cardin said. “Notices will be going out in the next few days.”
The sequester’s automatic spending cuts go into effect today, but any furloughs and shutdowns will not occur until early April. The uncertainty of the sequester’s consequences has already caused businesses to hold back on making investments in the economy.
“You’ve got businesses that are holding on and not hiring people because they don’t know what to do,” Cummings said.
Cardin met with small business leaders on Monday who told him that they are already bracing themselves for an uncertain future.
“Agencies cannot enter into long-term contracts,” Cardin said. “That means the costs are going to be more, the number of contracts are going to be fewer. They’ve already started to lay off people and they’re not hiring.”
Sequester’s “disruptive” impact comes at a time when Maryland is gaining ground from the losses from the country’s recession. “Why would you, at this critical moment, impose this slowdown, this self-inflicted wound on the economy, when we’re about to get that traction, in terms of our recovery,” Sarbanes said. “It makes absolutely no sense.” Sarbanes represents the district where BWI Airport is located.
Delaney agrees that the country’s budget issues should be addressed, but sequester’s cuts to discretionary spending are not the way to do it, because this type of spending has the strongest impact on the economy.
“An investment that we make in our infrastructure, like this airport, has such an amazing payback in terms of private sector job creation, and jobs that have decent standards of living,” Delaney said. “And that’s what we’re sacrificing if we don’t deal with the big issues in our budget.”
A slowdown in air traffic will have ripple effect on the economy, hurting industries that rely on tourism such as hotels, restaurants, and local businesses. The nearly 63,000 people who go through the airport daily “just can’t move efficiently if parts of the system slow down or shut down,” Linda Green, Executive Director of the BWI Business Partnership, said.
“Air traffic is too important to the economy and jobs to be treated like a political football,” A4A spokeswoman Jean Medina said in a written statement. A4A is an airline advocacy group.
Southwest Airlines, one of the leading passenger lines at the airport, so far has not made any changes to prepare for sequestration. “At this point, we do not anticipate any significant impact immediately to our operations,” Southwest Airlines spokesman Chris Mainz said.
While there is a “huge gap” between Republicans and Democrats on a replacement to sequestration, Cardin is confident that both parties can come up with a solution to the spending cuts. “We are ready to take up a replacement to sequestration at any time.”