With plans to revamp Kansas City International Airport stalled, Gov. Sam Brownback and others in Kansas government are exploring the possibility of building an airport in Johnson County to rival KCI, The Star has learned.
In a statement to The Star in response to a request for comment, Brownback confirmed the effort.
“Airlines are requesting construction of a new single terminal airport at (KCI), and the state of Kansas is continually looking for new economic development opportunities,” the governor said in an email. “With more than 50 percent of (KCI) passengers coming from Kansas, we are exploring the possibilities of this project.”
Multiple sources have told The Star that the Brownback administration’s discussions about an airport began late last year. The plans had been closely held. The sources said that several people are under nondisclosure agreements.
Earlier in the week, Brownback had declined to comment about a rival airport, but he provided a statement late Friday. Brownback’s office did not provide additional details.
But Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer also issued a statement.
“There is clearly potential for a modern terminal with lower enplanement costs and increased efficiencies for airlines with minimal taxpayer funding,” Colyer said in an email. “An airport of this nature has the ability to generate enormous economic impact for the state and we owe it to Kansans to explore the feasibility of this project.”
Brownback’s and Colyer’s comments may drastically change the nature of debate about KCI, a project that Kansas City officials put on hold a year ago when polling suggested that residents were not keen on making substantive changes to the airport.
Both Kansas City Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte told The Star they were aware of talk of trying to replace KCI with a new airport in Johnson County.
James and Schulte are among many officials and others who have tried to build a case that KCI in its current form is an out-of-date, inefficient facility that makes for an embarrassing front door to out-of-town travelers. But for all the voices championing a new single-terminal KCI, they appear to be outnumbered by people who prefer KCI’s current, easy-to-use format.
When Kansas City officials realized prospective voters were not behind a revamping, they took a break from publicly discussing KCI. That has presented an opportunity for Brownback, a governor who has been keen on winning jobs and businesses from the Missouri side of the state line, to consider sweeping what would be the biggest Border War prize of all.
“If we don’t get off our tails,” James said regarding Kansas’ competition on KCI, “the possibility becomes greater.”
Steve Klika, a Johnson County commissioner and chairman of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, said Kansas City could not wait around on its airport.
“If Kansas City can’t get its act together, it’s an open ball game,” Klika said.
The Star last month asked the Kansas Commerce Department and Brownback’s office for any documents regarding plans for an airport in the vicinity of Kansas City. The requests were made under the Kansas Open Records Act.
The Commerce Department would not give out any records, saying the request sought documents that would be exempt under the open records act. It cited two exemptions in the act that preclude disclosure of records.
One was an exemption for preliminary drafts, research data or “records in which opinions are expressed or policies or actions are proposed” that have not been disclosed publicly.
The other related to records about a prospective location of a business or industry that had not yet been made public.
Ed Eilert, chairman of the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, declined to comment when asked whether he had been briefed on plans for a Johnson County airport.
“I really can’t make any comment,” Eilert said.
The precise location contemplated for a Johnson County passenger airport remains unclear.
The county currently has two airports. The New Century AirCenter, which has two runways, serves civil aviation. The smaller Johnson County Executive Airport has a single runway and serves corporate and business flights.
What Johnson County or the Kansas side of the metro region doesn’t have is an airport comparable to KCI.
The talk of an alternate airport in the region comes after several years of Kansas City leaders publicly pushing the need to replace KCI’s three-terminal design with a single-terminal operation that was thought to function more efficiently.
That campaign was met with skepticism by a broader public that sees airports in other metro areas as sluggish behemoths and prefers the easy-in, easy-out nature of KCI.
The KCI issue came to a head last year when a coalition of airlines, led by Southwest Airlines, had come around to the idea of a single-terminal airport and suggested they would help finance it. James shortly after declared that the city would hold off on further public pursuit of a new KCI after seeing public opinion polls that showed Kansas City residents hadn’t been persuaded by the case for major changes at the airport.
Brownback’s maneuvering for an airport in Kansas is a bold move for his administration. For Brownback, the upsides of landing an airport in Johnson County include jobs — Kansas City says nearly 60,800 people owe their jobs to KCI — and an accomplishment to point to for an administration flagging in popularity amid ongoing state budget woes.
But several challenges stand in Kansas’ glide path for an airport.
For one thing, planning for an airport takes years, even decades. Discussions to start work on Denver International Airport, which opened in 1995, started in the early 1980s. Planning for a new terminal building for the Indianapolis International Airport, which opened in 2008, traces its origins back to 1975.
It would also require approval and coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We have had nothing official, which is how we would measure any such requests,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory, responding to a question by The Star about whether Kansas officials had contacted the agency about an airport.
It’s unclear whether airlines have been approached by Kansas leaders.
“The airlines are aware that the Kansas City community is discussing a range of issues regarding the future of KCI,” said Southwest Airlines spokesman Dan Landson. “While there’s nothing new to report today, we remain committed to ensuring the region has an airport that can meet the needs and desires of air travelers today and for decades to come.”
There’s also a question of what jockeying for an asset like an airport would do to the idea of regional cooperation among local and state governments that make up the Kansas City area. The metro area is famously, or perhaps infamously, beset by competition between city, county and state governments trying to lure businesses from one place to the other. That competition often involves deploying tax breaks and incentives that aren’t widely seen as ways to promote meaningful economic growth in the region.
Then there’s the cost. Building a new airport from scratch is enormously expensive. Airports in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Dallas and Los Angeles have invested amounts in the range of $1 billion to $2.4 billion each in recent years in constructing new terminal buildings or renovating existing ones. That doesn’t include the cost of runways, parking facilities, air control towers, surrounding highways and myriad other related aviation structures.
Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Council member who chairs the city’s Airport Committee, expressed skepticism about whether Kansas could come up with a viable plan.
“I just think in this day and age, you would have so many obstacles that it would be hard to put something together that the federal government would agree to and you could get financing on,” Justus said. “At the same time, stranger things have happened, and that’s why I think this should be a wake-up call to those of us who want to keep aviation services in Kansas City.”
One thing that may favor the prospects of a Kansas airport is President Donald Trump’s stated willingness to invest in airport facilities.
Trump met with executives of domestic airline carriers Thursday in the White House.
“During the meeting, the president stated four times that America must modernize and rebuild our airports,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International North America, a trade association of airport directors. “We can quickly fund and undertake these much-needed infrastructure projects with no federal budget impact by giving airports more control of local investment decisions.”
Brownback’s desire for an airport may affect how Kansas Citians view the future of KCI.
While the public hasn’t been keen on revamping KCI, civic and business leaders on both sides of the state line have grown impatient with Kansas City’s dithering on improving the airport, a project they see as one tied to the region’s economic fortunes.
“It’s a problem,” Klika said. “It’s got to get resolved.”
Kansas City approved a measure in 2014 that promised not to make significant changes to KCI without the approval of voters. That came under pressure, led by Citizens for Responsible Government.
Kansas City has sought to keep KCI discussions muted while city leaders try to persuade voters to approve three separate bond questions in an April election that could make up to $800 million available for basic infrastructure needs. Those bond questions are tied to a property tax increase.
A new airport in KCI would not be tied to any tax increase or general fund source for Kansas City.
“The airlines are not going to wait forever,” James said, referring to their unanimous recommendation to replace the existing terminals at KCI.
James said he thought Kansas City has maybe a year more to figure out a path forward for KCI.
Schulte agreed, saying, “Failure by us will constitute an opportunity for somebody else.”
The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.