The five-year debate over a new airport terminal has reached its most critical moment yet.
Kansas Citians should pay close attention.
This week, The Star learned of secret negotiations over a plan to privately finance a new single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
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The talks yielded the outline of an agreement that is expected to be made public next week.
In essence, Burns & McDonnell would raise all the money for a new terminal from private lenders — perhaps $1 billion or more.
No government entity, including the city, would issue debt for the project. “There is zero risk to the taxpayer,” Mayor Sly James said Thursday.
In exchange, Burns & McDonnell would be awarded the exclusive contract to design and construct the new terminal.
Voters still would be asked in November to approve a new facility. The city still would own the airport.
But the exclusive development agreement between the city and Burns & McDonnell — known as a memorandum of understanding — would be signed and approved before that vote.
The approach shows some promise. Kansas Citians should reserve judgment on the plan until they see more details, including the role the public might play in determining the final design of the terminal, the cost to airline passengers, the time needed to build the facility and the opportunities for other firms to win contracts for the project.
We support a public vote in November. The current airport is unsustainable, and a vastly improved KCI is needed.
Having said that, Kansas Citians should be deeply worried about how this deal was put together.
The city has negotiated the agreement privately. There was no opportunity for other firms to prepare counter-proposals or to offer their own suggestions on financing.
The city did not issue a request for proposals, a standard practice on major public works projects. It did not ask for bids. It did not publicly reveal plans to have a private firm find private financing for the terminal.
Burns & McDonnell will assume some risk for the project, but it stands to earn enormous sums if the terminal proposal comes to fruition.
No one talked about the plan in public. Citizens attending town hall meetings were left in the dark. Business groups spoke to The Star editorial board Monday about a new terminal but made no mention of the unique structure now being contemplated.
Yet the original schedule called for submitting the agreement for City Council consideration on May 18, with a final council vote coming as soon as May 25.
That would have given the public just one week to offer comment and perspective on the framework for one of the largest public works projects in city history.
Rushing a decision is unacceptable. The council should tap the brakes and allow time for public hearings and a considered discussion about whether this unique financing arrangement is the best approach.
City Hall wants the voters’ trust. It has started one of the most critical campaigns in city history with closed-door dealings that effectively cut Kansas Citians out of the process.
That’s just wrong. The airport debate must be open, fair, complete, fact-based and inclusive.
Supporters of a new terminal may get there eventually. They have started on the wrong foot.