Ajamu Webster wants a new terminal at KCI and will find out next week if enough Kansas City voters think like he does.
If the measure loses in what figures to be a close election, he doesn’t think city leaders should wait around to ask again.
“Let’s try again in April,” said Webster, an engineer with DuBois Consultants.
Most advocates for the project don’t share Webster’s appetite for a quick follow-up.
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They contend that a no-vote on Nov. 7 likely leaves the existing three-terminal KCI in place for the foreseeable future. The combination of political will, business community buy-in and airline industry support necessary to mount a robust campaign would take years to duplicate.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who has less than two years left in office, signaled no willingness to continue the effort. He said there is no Plan B if next week’s election fails.
“If the people of the city vote it down, what am I going to do in 19 months that’s going to change that?” James said. “We’ve said everything that can be said and done everything that can be done. I’m not going to waste any more time on something like that.”
The next steps would depend in large part on how the airlines that serve KCI — who would support the debt generated by a new terminal — would view a loss. The carriers, led by Southwest, told the city they are unwilling to finance a renovation of the 1970s-era horseshoe terminals. But they could always revisit the issue.
“We’d have to sit down with the airlines and say, OK, where do we go from here?” said aviation director Patrick Klein.
Southwest spokesman Dan Landson said in an e-mail Thursday that the status quo will remains disadvantageous for passengers and the carriers serving the airport.
“If the vote doesn’t pass, then we won’t change much,” Landson said. “The current airport design prohibits our growth which in turns impacts the Kansas City region as it can’t attract more nonstop flights to destinations people want to go.”
Others hold still hold out the possibility for a quick turnaround.
Councilman Lee Barnes said he thinks voters would respond to a cleaner, more transparent procurement process. Barnes was outspokenly critical of the attempt earlier this year by James and City Manager Troy Schulte to secure approval of a $1 billion no-bid contract with Burns & McDonnell. He favors a 50-foot “bump-out” on the gate-side of the terminals to provide more amenities for passengers after they clear security.
“We know something has to be done to improve the experience for the travelers,” he said. “In April or a year or so we could go back to the voters with another ask. This time be a little more transparent about what’s going on. Make sure we don’t have any River Club meetings. Give the impression we don’t have some backdoor under the table deals going on.”
Some officials expressed concern that carriers would look seriously at pulling back from KCI and looking at options for new space elsewhere in the region, perhaps Johnson County, or elsewhere.
“I do not discount that Kansas option at all,” said Schulte. “It’s a real issue. There’s too much money and too many economic development dollars involved with airports for people to think that asset can’t be put someplace else.”
Gov. Sam Brownback confirmed to The Star in January that he has explored the possibility of an airport in Johnson County, although it’s exact location is not clear.
It’s also unclear how much longer Brownback will be governor; President Trump tapped him for a State Department post, but his confirmation has been stalled by Senate Democrats.
His successor-in-waiting, Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, also expressed support for the Johnson County airport idea earlier this year, but declined to discuss whether he’s still interested in pursuing it when asked about it in October.
Schulte called the Johnson County option a “worst case scenario.”
“You have standalone facility that’s underused and probably not going to meet anybody’s needs, and you’ve taken a metropolitan area of two million people and split the service,” Schulte said. “It becomes a disaster for everybody.”
Another alternative, discussed mostly behind the scenes among business and political leaders, is the possibility of creating some type of airport authority to run KCI, or to transfer the airport to an existing authority like the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority or the Port Authority of Kansas City.
The upside of a new governance structure for proponents of a single terminal is reducing the direct involvement of politicians in running the airport. Such an agency might also be able pursue a new KCI without permission from Kansas City voters.
Steve Klika, chairman of the KCATA, said those discussions have not occurred recently as he’s hoping Kansas City voters will approve the new terminal.
“I know over the history of time, there have been discussions about putting it under the ATA and letting that authority deal with it, there has been talk about Johnson County,” Klika said. “To be real honest with you, I’m going to tell you there has been no recent discussions. The hope is let’s get this thing done and get it moving.”
Schulte acknowledges that the city has been reluctant to spend large sums on capital improvements given the uncertainty over a new single terminal. That uncertainty will be over on the morning of Nov. 8, and if Question 1 loses the city will have to address how best to keep the current KCI operating.
One city study estimated that just to keep the airport running as is would require more than $500 million worth of repairs to water pipes, electrical systems and roads.
“We’re really on the edge now with our baggage systems and underground infrastructure,” Schulte said, calling the current upkeep of the airport “duct tape and band-aids.”
The city could possibly pay for the repairs out of airport revenues, or use some of the $240 million in bonding capacity that remains from the last big overhaul in the early 2000s. It could also come to voters with another ballot question — this one asking for approval to renovate KCI.