Plans to pursue a badly needed upgrade to Kansas City International Airport — most likely construction of a single new terminal — are not yet on a glide path to success at City Hall.
Some new City Council members properly want to get answers to crucial questions before putting any project on a ballot. Voter support for hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds will be needed before anything gets done at KCI. As council member Jolie Justus conceded recently, “We have a very skeptical public on this issue right now.”
Justus chairs the council’s new Airport Committee. Its work will be crucial to putting the best possible proposal forward.
At the panel’s first meeting,Justus and other council members resurrected questions about renovating the existing KCI. That option was pretty much cast aside at a major public hearing with the previous council in July. Consultants contended that a new terminal would be less expensive than adapting and reusing the current terminals. No cost figures for the projects were released at that time.
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But Justus and others want to know the numbers for each approach. If building the more controversial single terminal is less costly, City Hall will need to show that proof to the public. Aviation officials, who might have thought this part of the debate was over, said they would provide the information. That must be done soon so the panel can make progress more quickly.
Also, a few council members want to make sure city assets at KCI won’t go to waste if Terminal A is torn down and replaced with a single, large structure as was discussed in July. “We need to know what’s going to happen to B and C,” Justus points out, giving the city a more complete plan for reusing airport property.
The Airport Committee should press aviation officials and consultants on other issues.
▪ The design of a single terminal must retain convenience factors that Kansas City travelers love about the current KCI. Short walks to gates, easy baggage collection and simple passenger pickup are examples. As Justus astutely notes, “I don’t like the assumption that single terminals are not convenient.”
▪ A new modern terminal also would have to contain amenities already featured in other leading airports in the United States, such as plenty of eating and shopping options for passengers, along with top-notch technological features.
▪ The airlines, led by major KCI carrier Southwest Airlines, ought to be required to put significant amounts of funds into any new terminal to add specific features they may want, including high-quality passenger amenities. A substantial private infusion of money into the project could help it pass at election time.
▪ The committee eventually will have to determine whether it has confidence in the Aviation Department — especially director Mark VanLoh — to be involved in a campaign to approve the bonds. VanLoh has provided abysmal leadership on this project, especially by failing to establish a collaborative approach much earlier with the airlines.
After all this work is done, even more remains.
A good education effort will be needed to make sure voters realize that funding for KCI upgrades would not require general tax increases and would not divert money from public safety, street repairs and other basic services. Council members hear that off-base criticism all over town. In reality, the aviation bonds would be paid with user fees that include charges levied on passenger tickets, parking and concessions.
With an election not contemplated until 2016 or 2017, City Hall still has time to craft a strong deal to build a new KCI.