commentary

A decision on KCI’s fate may be on final approach

Updated: 2014-01-07T02:31:33Z

By DAVE HELLING

The Kansas City Star

Like lots of people, I spent time at our international airport over the holidays, picking up friends and family or dropping them off.

I was struck by how uncrowded the airport seemed — traffic is down about 2 percent from a year ago — and how its condition, either by accident or design, seems in decline.

Which means, I think, that a firm decision on the airport’s future may be approaching more quickly than we realize.

The Kansas City Council, for example, must now respond to an initiative petition that would require voter approval before any effort to “demolish or replace” a terminal at the airport.

The council could ignore the petition or question its legality, but that seems unlikely. Such a tactic would touch off another courtroom battle over the petition process and prompt a round of ignoring-the-people’s-will criticism.

Alternatively, the council could put the petition on a 2014 ballot. If it does, though, the public vote might be seen as a test of the single-terminal concept. The petition committee makes no secret of its opposition to a one-terminal plan and could urge voters to use their ballots to “send a message” to policymakers.

Single-terminal supporters would have to respond. Eventually, that might mean two expensive airport campaigns, less than a year after the city’s big check-writers subsidized the health research sales tax debacle.

Kansas City’s movers and shakers are rich, but not that rich.

There’s a third choice: The council could simply adopt the initiative petition without a public vote. That would keep faith with petition signers while avoiding the expensive two-campaign scenario.

But an unspecified future vote would make the airport an unavoidable issue in Kansas City politics for two years or more. That might stall progress on other initiatives, from transit to infrastructure improvements, while leaving KCI in a strange political limbo until 2016 or beyond — as construction costs and interest rates escalate.

So the simplest answer might be for the council to put the one-terminal airport on the ballot in November. That would make the petitioners happy, make campaign consultants happy and give airport operators and city officials some certainty by the end of the year.

Mounting a single-terminal campaign in the next 10 months would be difficult, of course. But the fundamental questions at KCI — access, safety, convenience, cost — are already fairly well understood by policymakers and are unlikely to change dramatically.

So it’s possible KCI will be the most important issue in Kansas City this year. We’ll know by spring.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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