Kansas City needs a new airport terminal. It must be modern, convenient for passengers, acceptable to the airlines that serve the city and cost-effective.
The Burns & McDonnell airport proposal now under consideration is not the best way to accomplish those goals. The City Council should explore other options before asking voters to embrace the plan.
We don’t reach that conclusion easily. The well-respected firm has offered a unique plan, in good faith, that provides a path to borrow money privately and build a $1 billion single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
But there are simply too many unanswered questions to proceed. The Burns & McDonnell blueprint, like any proposal of this size and significance, must be tested against other approaches, not negotiated behind closed doors, then offered as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
That’s exactly what has happened.
The secrecy may seriously damage the project’s prospects at the polls. The council still has time to reset the process, seek additional proposals for the terminal and ask for voter approval this year.
Other firms might proffer a private financing mechanism that’s cheaper than the one on the table. Or they might suggest public borrowing for the airport, an approach generally used in similar projects and one that still deserves serious consideration.
Another firm might lay out a plan that’s cheaper or better or faster than Burns & McDonnell’s pitch for a new terminal. We just don’t know.
We want to be clear: The City Council should now publicly commit to seeking voter approval for a new single terminal at KCI, with or without Burns & McDonnell. Rehabbing the existing structure is not a viable option.
For years, supporters of the current three-terminal horseshoe configuration have loved its ease of use. Indeed, the facility, built in the early 1970s, has served the traveling public well, far beyond its projected life span.
But no one can deny the three-terminal setup has outlived its usefulness:
▪ It’s expensive — the need for additional security personnel adds to the cost of a ticket.
▪ It’s unwelcoming — dark, in disrepair, with few amenities for visitors or residents.
▪ It’s bad for the airlines — outdated facilities now mean fewer flights to fewer destinations.
Another facelift would throw good money after bad. Fliers could invest $500 million in refurbishing the three-terminal layout, only to face the need for a single terminal 10 years from now.
Kansas City needs to build a new facility. Now is the time.
We know what a new terminal will mean. The cost to travel will go up, as will the cost to park. And the 100-step walk from the arrival gate to the parking lot will go away.
But there are many ways to weigh convenience, and walking distance is just one of them. A new terminal design should make drop-offs and pick-ups easier. Parking will be better. Ticket counters will be state-of-the-art.
Modern conveniences such as USB charging stations will be more plentiful. There will be places to snack, to meet with friends, and — yes — buy a newspaper.
Security will change. But a new terminal will not resemble airports in Atlanta or Denver, where passengers sometimes stand in line for hours (sometimes that happens at KCI, by the way.)
A new terminal should make flying safer, an important consideration in the current international environment.
All of it should mean more flights, a better workplace for airport employees and a better experience for travelers.
And — this can’t be emphasized enough — taxpayers won’t foot the bill. Airline passengers will.
We sincerely wish the Burns & McDonnell proposal would include guarantees to deliver those improvements. So far, though, we’ve seen no evidence, other than vague promises, that the new facility will be what Kansas Citians want and need.
We are also not convinced Burns & McDonnell has been as candid as it needs to be. We asked company officials if they could provide a rough estimate of their own fees and earnings from the $1 billion project.
They could not do so. A second partner in the plan, a local investment and financing company called Americo, has been even more opaque.
Aviation consultant Michael Webber told us the plan to privately finance this project was a “solution looking for a problem … a needless shortcut.”
We agree. And remember: This proposal was negotiated in secret, without public or City Council involvement.
We don’t know how much say citizens will have about the project’s design and costs. We don’t know what collateral will be provided to secure private loans for the facility.
The best way to answer those questions is to ask other firms to offer their own plans for the terminal.
Such a request need not delay the project. The City Council should open a 60-day window for all interested parties to suggest alternatives to the plan — in writing, in publicly available documents.
That would still leave time for a full discussion and a November vote.
It’s possible no other firms will step forward. If so, we’ll know other companies feel they can’t compete with what everyone agrees is a highly unusual approach to airport construction.
If there are other bidders, Kansas City will be better for it.
We are encouraged that at least some council members are approaching this debate with healthy skepticism. They’re seeking outside counsel — hired, by the way, without competitive bidding — to analyze the Burns & McDonnell plan.
That’s important, but it is only a half-step. If the Burns & McDonnell proposal is as good as supporters claim, it can withstand comparison with other competitive offers.
We support a better KCI. We want voters to endorse a new terminal in November.
An open, transparent, inclusive process is the best way to achieve that result.