Graves, an amateur pilot, has opposed a single-terminal KCI for years and still appears skeptical. In July, after a special city committee decided to focus on planning for a new facility, Graves issued a terse statement: “I have yet to hear details that would make me think this proposal is the right one,” he wrote.
It isn’t clear how much mischief Graves could cause if he opposes pro-terminal bigwigs and Southwest Airlines, which appear to have linked arms around the new terminal idea. A new terminal wouldn’t need a lot of grant money from Washington, and Graves couldn’t vote on the plan if it went on the ballot. He doesn’t live in Kansas City.
At the same time, a member of Congress can throw significant sand into the gears of any public project if he or she decides to do so. KCI doesn’t need federal cash for a new terminal, but it does get Washington’s cash for runway and taxiway projects, lighting, signs and drainage work. Security protocols are also subject to federal review. There are lots of ways Graves could poke the bureaucracy if he wants to slow down a new airport.
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KCI is in Graves’ district, which gives his views added weight. “It’s not going to happen without Sam Graves,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said two years ago.
Airport officials have worked quietly to convince Graves of the need for a new terminal, so far without much success. They think Southwest Airlines can be more persuasive as planning proceeds. They say the Republican congressman may not like Kansas City’s Aviation Department, but he hardly can afford to pick a fight with the airport’s most important carrier
Significantly, there are signs Graves’ party is shifting its views on public works projects and the way they’re paid for. In a May report titled “U.S. Airports in Crisis,” U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, suggested raising the passenger facility charge, which is now capped at $4.50 a flight.
When Republicans start talking about raising user fees, something is in the air. There even is GOP whispering about higher user fees for highway and bridge projects. Maybe Republicans now believe the nation’s transportation system needs fixing from time to time.
Or maybe not. Graves’ public role at KCI this fall may tell us if airports and highways are now Republican priorities or if resisting higher public spending is still job one.