What are we to make of news that Gov. Sam Brownback is pursuing a regional airport in Johnson County?
The push — first reported in The Star — seems real enough. Brownback confirmed it, as did his lieutenant governor. Missourians are acting as if the prospect of developing a Kansas airport is real. The politics of the airport suddenly are being recalibrated.
To be sure, a Kansas airport remains a long shot, at least in the short term. The hurdles for building an airport virtually from scratch are enormous.
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At the same time, the area’s slow-rolling, three-year conversation about Kansas City International Airport needs to accelerate. The Brownback news has splashed gasoline on a smoldering fire.
Now, this much is clear: 2017 must be the year that KCI’s future is decided.
The Kansas plan
Specifics of the Kansas airport blueprint are sketchy, to say the least. It likely would be built in Johnson County, either by improving existing airports or by acquiring land and building a new facility.
First, the good news: Local taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for most of the direct cost. Airports and airport terminals are built and operated with ticket taxes, rents, and parking and airport user fees. Except for needed highway and bridge improvements, the state of Kansas risks little by discussing an airport.
Now the bad news: Constructing a first-class, major airport in Johnson County probably would take decades and $1 billion to $2 billion.
There would be environmental considerations. Safety and noise concerns. Land almost certainly would need to be condemned.
Rental car facilities would be needed. Parking lots would have to be paved. A new tower would be necessary.
And the cost of building new runways — or even revamping existing runways — would be astronomical, in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
That money would need to come from somewhere — if not taxpayers, then airport users. That means more expensive flights for decades. And for what? Runways at KCI are already in place and are in fine shape. Since 1990, the airport has spent $277.5 million on capital and maintenance costs for runways.
The current discussion involves the airport terminal, not the airport. It’s like squabbling over the chairs in the dentist’s waiting room — the real concern is in the back, where the drills and picks are.
The Missouri response
Kansas City already has spent enormous political capital in the bungled roll-out of its plan for KCI. Most voters are now confused about a new terminal. How convenient will it be? How much will it cost? Will it have 21st century amenities, including restaurants and shops?
The longer those questions linger, the harder it will be to convince voters to support a new KCI. If Kansas City’s discussions continue to play out behind closed doors, it becomes increasingly likely that the Kansas plan will gain at least some traction. Meantime, interest rates and construction costs are going up.
City leaders said as much after The Star’s story was published Sunday. They must honor those words by presenting a final design approach, complete with cost estimates and financing, in the next six months.
Voters should decide the issue in November.
If they reject a new terminal, we now know that Kansas will be waiting.