While the fate of Kansas City International Airport ultimately rests in the hands of skeptical voters, business and civic leaders want to change the opinion of one man who doesn’t live in Kansas City.
Civic leaders have renewed an effort to convince Congressman Sam Graves, a Republican from Tarkio whose district covers most of the Northland, that the aging KCI should be converted into a single-terminal airport. At the very least, they don’t want him standing in the way.
Graves has been a strident critic of the city’s plans for KCI. Last year, he said there was no reason to trust the city’s Aviation Department. He accused the department of pursuing one proposal for a reconfigured KCI at the exclusion of other ideas.
Backers of a new KCI have realized their goal remains difficult without Graves’ support.
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It is possible to forge ahead without Graves on board; a plan between City Hall and the airlines developed last year envisions a single-terminal KCI that wouldn’t need federal funding to be built.
Graves, however, enjoys popular support in the Northland, and his committee assignments in Congress give him influence in transportation matters. Graves, who cruised to a ninth term in Missouri’s 6th congressional district last year, has appointments on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Aviation Subcommittee.
“His support is very important to us,” said Jolie Justus, a Kansas City councilwoman who also chairs the city’s Airport Terminal Committee.
Graves, in a statement to The Star, left the door open to at least some changes to KCI.
“Sam isn’t against reasonable renovations at KCI, but in his mind, he needs there to be public buy-in for that to happen,” said Graves’ spokesman, Wesley Shaw. “The way to do that is for the city to start the process over, be more transparent with the public from the get-go, and consider every option.”
Graves’ office did not respond to follow-up questions about what “reasonable renovations” means, whether that definition precludes a single-terminal design or to what extent Kansas City leaders have approached him.
While the public seems to enjoy the short trip from KCI’s front door to their airplane, city officials contend the airport is inefficient, lacks amenities and amounts to a lousy first impression of Kansas City to out-of-town visitors. Several years ago, City Hall began the effort to convince the public that KCI should be converted into a single-terminal design.
Graves’ office, according to sources, felt out of the loop as the city tried to sell the airport idea to the public, which steeled the congressman’s skepticism.
In the world of politics, elected leaders want to know what’s going on and be given the opportunity to participate in developments within the districts they control. Graves was cast by airport supporters as a pest rather than someone whose support could help swing public opinion and federal influence in the airport’s favor.
Last April, a coalition of airlines agreed to support a single terminal plan. Justus said that at that time, a group of lobbyists and others “were making sure that Congressman Graves’ office was aware of everything and that he had been invited to come to the different meetings.”
In May, however, after looking at a public opinion poll that showed most voters were not keen on the city’s plans, Kansas City Mayor Sly James pulled the plug on a push toward an election to allow the new airport.
Since last year, City Hall has kept mostly quiet about KCI, appealing to the civic and business community to take on the challenge of reversing public opinion.
More recently, Justus said, the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce had begun developing messaging and community outreach on KCI, an effort that prioritized working with Graves’ office.
Ed Ford, who serves on the Northland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee, told The Star that representatives from the Northland chamber paid Graves a visit late last year to discuss KCI.
“I think it could happen without his support,” Ford said. “But it’s an obstacle.”
Graves appears to have received Southwest Airlines’ attention in recent years. Southwest Airlines is KCI’s most prominent carrier and the one that led a coalition of airlines in negotiations with City Hall over the future of KCI.
Southwest donated $2,500 to Graves’ 2016 campaign, one that he won with 68 percent of the vote in a district that starts in the Northland and runs all the way up to the Missouri-Iowa border. In 2014, Graves received $2,000 from the airline.
“We work with Congressman Graves and his staff on a number of national issues that have a direct impact on the nation’s transportation infrastructure since he is an active member of the transportation committee,” said Southwest Airlines spokesman Dan Landson.
Southwest’s donations are modest amounts, but Graves had not received campaign funding from the airline prior to 2014, a year in which the future of KCI was hotly debated. They’re also donations given to a candidate who has not faced serious opposition to his congressional seat since former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes ran against him in 2008 and still lost by a wide margin.
KCI emerged in the spotlight once again this week when it was included in a draft list of 50 major infrastructure projects being vetted by the President Donald Trump transition team.
The draft list, first reported by The Star and McClatchy, was not a final plan for the Trump administration, but offered a view of some of the types of infrastructure projects that the president-elect and his advisers were thinking about as they prepared to take the White House. Trump has made repeated pledges to craft a massive spending program to replace what he describes as a neglected infrastructure system in the United States.
If a major infrastructure plan comes to pass, Graves’ committee could have influence on where federal money goes. And while City Hall says it can put together an airport plan with its airline partners, both sides are likely to jump at federal funding should it become available.
Civic leaders remain reluctant to talk publicly about KCI. They’re mindful of City Hall’s desire to keep things quiet about the airport issue while it campaigns for voter approval in April for $800 million in public infrastructure funds, which are tied to a property tax increase. And while an airport would not be built with local taxpayer money, city leaders worry that some voters don’t understand that.
But an airport discussion is occurring behind the scenes with a plan to roll out a public education campaign on KCI after April’s election.
“A lot depends on the airlines, how patient they will be,” Ford said. “And I don’t think the council will put it up for a vote until it has a chance to pass.”