Kansas Citians who support open, responsible government have had a good week.
But there is hard work ahead.
Thursday, the airport engineering giant AECOM told Mayor Sly James and the City Council it is interested in building a proposed new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
The announcement means a major firm is ready to compete with Kansas City-based Burns & McDonnell, which has offered to design, build and borrow $1 billion for the project.
This competition is precisely what the public needs. It’s also what The Star has called for, even as some community leaders urged everyone to fall in line and back the Burns & McDonnell plan.
More options will yield the best possible product at the lowest cost to the flying public. The city should not only embrace the alternative but should also continue to seek other expressions of interest in the project.
Pay no attention to anyone suggesting these newcomers are too late. If we’re to believe the mayor, the Burns & McDonnell proposal came to the city’s attention only a couple of months ago. There is more than enough time to consider all approaches to the airport terminal project.
Remember: A competitive process is more than good policy. It’s good politics, too.
If voters are convinced Burns & McDonnell had an unfair advantage from the beginning, they’ll approach a November vote with deep skepticism about the airport.
We would share that skepticism.
We’ve called for a process that’s open, transparent and based on facts. Council members now must roll up their sleeves, consult with experts and the public and then begin to sort through the different ideas on the table.
Here are some benchmarks:
Cost and convenience
We still don’t know how much Burns & McDonnell, or any other potential bidder, will earn from the project. All companies involved in the terminal process should make those figures as clear as possible.
We still don’t know how much more it will cost to park, to fly, to buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee at the new facility, either.
Current figures suggest revenue will need to increase at least $25 million a year to pay for borrowing for the project, although lower fees are possible if the public borrows the money.
We’d like to see a detailed comparison of the private financing plan and a traditional public bond plan.
And what will the design look like? AECOM, Burns & McDonnell and any other competitor should provide as many options as possible for the council and public to consider.
Kansas Citians have been told the airlines now serving Kansas City will cover any debt shortfalls at the new terminal.
The commitment is hardly comforting.
Here’s a partial list of airlines that have declared bankruptcy over the past 30 years: Eastern, Braniff, Continental, Pan Am, Midway, America West, TWA, Vanguard, U.S. Airways, Northwest, United, Delta, Frontier and American.
It isn’t hard to imagine one or more of the current carriers at KCI going under or leaving town by 2047. What happens then?
Last week, the council was told the remaining airlines would cover the additional cost if a carrier goes under. Watch out, traveler: With less competition and higher costs, your plane ticket will get more expensive.
Construction and financing
Bidders should offer guarantees for minority- and women-owned business participation in the terminal project.
If the decision is to pursue a private financing option — an option we hesitate to endorse — then the city should know who is providing the private lending.
We also want to know if private lenders require extraordinary collateral or insurance in order to make their loans.
Under the Burns & McDonnell plan, the new terminal would actually be built by a shell company called Terminal Developer LLC (or another company it chooses.)
A subsidiary of Burns & McDonnell will own half of Terminal Developer. The other half will be owned by a subsidiary of Americo Life, a local investment firm.
We’ve seen little evidence so far that these entities have prior experience in borrowing for a $1 billion project. A competitive process might bring better expertise to the table.
Burns & McDonnell has promised to build the terminal more quickly to save money. Another firm, bidding competitively, might agree to financial penalties for missing the completion date.
The way forward
These are not minor concerns.
To date, city officials and those working on the project have essentially asked us and the public to trust their judgment.
But Kansas City has had some experience with requests for trust that have gone awry. We were asked to trust Trizec when it promised to rebuild Union Station. We got a long legal battle instead.
We were asked to trust projections for the Power & Light District. We will pay millions each year before that borrowing is repaid.
There have been successes, too. They share important traits: close scrutiny, a public process and accountability. We want all three for the airport.
Outside counsel is conducting a review before the City Council commits to a deal. But the decision deadline remains June 15, two weeks from Friday.
It’s a crucial deadline that council members and Kansas Citians should discard.
Take time. Get answers. Get this right. And get another opinion.