Raleigh, N.C. — A Charlotte lawmaker said Tuesday that shifting control of the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport to a yet-to-be-created regional authority is critical for North Carolina's economic future.
Rep. William Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, said the airport is poised to become a freight distribution hub for the eastern half of the U.S. as the Panama Canal expands and starts handling larger container ships next year.
Plans call for placing a facility operated by the state Department of Transportation between the Charlotte airport runways to manage the shift of goods between cargo aircraft, trucks and rail cars, Brawley said. He added that Norfolk Southern Corp. is laying rail lines from ports in Jacksonville, Fla., Charleston, S.C., and Norfolk, Va., to carry freight containers to Charlotte.
About 6,000 acres of vacant land between the airport and the Catawba River could be transformed into a major logistics center, Brawley said, which would be a boon to the Charlotte region and the entire state.
The Senate has already approved legislation that would take control of the airport from Charlotte, and the House is now looking at what has become a flashpoint for a growing battle for power between the General Assembly and municipal governments.
Brawley said Senate Bill 81 won't go to the House floor until Charlotte is allowed to present its case for maintaining control to lawmakers.
Still, he said Tuesday that putting airport management in the hands of a regional agency would ensure a "less-politicized governance body" and more professional operations.
"People have no idea how much the airport matters," he said. "The power of that transportation hub is hard to overestimate, and it is the preservation of that transportation hub that is the focus of these bills."
Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, questioned how appointments made by Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, all Republicans, would be less political than those made by the Democratic-controlled Charlotte City Council.
"Those would tend to be people who weren't cronies of folks close in," Brawley said of the state appointees. "There is an expectation of professionalism or knowledge about the airport (by them)."
He also said many communities outside of Charlotte have "skin in the game" regarding airport operations since flight patterns affect surrounding counties, but their only recourse to seek changes is by lobbying Charlotte City Council.
Brawley compared moving from city control to a regional authority to changing the management of a start-up business as it grows into a major corporation.
"We are no longer just a nice facility for people to fly into Charlotte," he said. "We now have the ability to become the key transportation nexus for the whole eastern half of the United States."
At least two legal opinions have suggested that a change in the airport's management could create problems with the facility's bonds – and one even said that it could increase borrowing costs for cities, counties and other local governments throughout North Carolina.
Brawley said those issues need to be resolved, but he insisted that the $860 million in bonds are backed by the revenue from landing fees and not by Charlotte's credit.