Count me as the lone voice in the media who thinks the Burns & McDonnell proposal for Kansas City International Airport is a great opportunity for the metropolitan area.
While I was happy with a bird in the hand, I understand politics requires a brief time for additional bids. But all bidders need to hurry.
The winning proposal needs to be approved by the City Council by late August to appear on the ballot in November. Delay beyond November, and the airlines will be very disappointed, to say the least.
It is a gross distortion for critics to characterize the discussions between the city and Burns & McDonnell as secretive, held behind closed doors, even corrupt. The plan for KCI has been languishing for years. Nobody but Burns & McDonnell had the vision and courage to step forward and take the risk of building a new single-terminal airport for Kansas City with no financial exposure to the city or its taxpayers. It would be the first such private effort in the nation.
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The Kansas City-based engineering company, ranked third in the country in airport design and construction, has not come up with some off-the-wall, radical idea that it has not shared with the public. It is working off the very preliminary drawings the city and airlines drew up together in 2015. Those drawings led to a cost estimate of about $1 billion for a new airport. Burns & McDonnell also has deployed a dozen engineers who have been working on this project for months.
In the past, polling has shown two overwhelming obstacles to a new airport. One was a fear that taxpayers would be left holding the bag with increased taxes, despite all the promises to the contrary. The second hurdle was the fact that many simply love the horseshoe configuration as it is and don’t want to give up the convenience they imagine only the present airport can offer.
By privatizing airport construction, the first fear can be totally eliminated. Taxpayers would not be on the hook, even in the worst-case scenario. The losers, if there are any, would be private investors and lenders.
The convenience issue is tricky. Everyone has a different idea about what is inconvenient. I once was a fan of KCI’s horseshoe format. But the airlines are adamant there should be one terminal.
The bottom line is this: Burns & McDonnell and all other bidders should present detailed renderings, proving a single terminal can be convenient. The winning plan must gain approval from the city, the airlines and, ultimately, the voters.
The cost of a new airport is practically baked. Everyone who bids will know the airlines have already set the maximum price for a new terminal. They have said emphatically they will pay only enough rent to support a $1 billion facility. If it goes above that, count them out on the overage. There is plenty of risk. Whoever delivers the winning plan deserves substantial profits.
There is one other important factor in determining the best proposal, besides the design itself. The Burns & McDonnell plan aims to have a new terminal up and running in about five years. Other bidders should be able to compete with that time line.
Citizens of Kansas City and the entire metropolitan area should be clear on one critical fact: The airlines, namely Southwest Airlines, are pushing hard for a new terminal as soon as possible with more capacity to increase their flights into and out of KCI.
A new terminal could provide a boost to Kansas City, creating better opportunities for business and employment growth, improving the travel experience for inbound tourists and clearing the way for more nonstop flights to destinations throughout the United States and possibly the Caribbean.
Although all bids should be evaluated on the merits, in a tight competition, deference should go to the engineering firm that brought us to this dance.