Well, that was quick.
Mayor Sly James said Tuesday that he and the city would “press pause” on the push for a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport. There won’t be a vote on the issue this year.
The reason seems simple enough: The voting public doesn’t like the idea. In fact, only 40 percent of Kansas Citians recently surveyed said they’d vote for a new terminal.
That appears to be true among Kansas Citians who use the airport a lot. They’re afraid of sacrificing convenience and safety, and paying more for airline tickets to boot.
But it may also be true for Kansas Citians who would vote on an airport project but would never use a new terminal.
Here’s the political reality the mayor and city leaders faced: A new airport terminal would have little impact on the lives of many Kansas Citians. While taxes wouldn’t go up for the project, they wouldn’t go down, either. There would be a mild stimulus from construction jobs, but that would quickly fade.
It might have taken a million dollars or more to persuade those voters to turn out and support a new terminal. The usual campaign funding sources, weary from paying for the recent earnings tax campaign, might have balked.
But the mayor may have also sensed that parts of the city remain sour on how local government allocates its resources. In his statement, James appeared to acknowledge this: “I think we are best served by pausing this conversation and focusing on our city’s other priorities,” he said.
Repeatedly, Kansas City voters have said they care first about safe streets and bridges, quality schools and clean neighborhoods. The polling results, and the city’s decision, suggest those voters remain deeply ambivalent about how the city delivers those basics.
There was likely a political calculation, too. If the City Council had put the measure on the ballot this year and lost, it might take two additional years to address the damage and try again. That might push completion of the project back to the early 2020s, long after the current council is out of office.
The collapse of the 2016 ballot measure may revive talk of building a new airport somewhere else — in Wyandotte County, near the Cerner headquarters or in Johnson County. It’s probably just talk. Building a new airport from scratch would cost hundreds of millions of dollars for runways and other infrastructure in addition to terminal costs.
So Kansas City’s leaders will spend the rest of the year looking at concerns closer than the airport.
Almost exactly one year ago, James stood in the parking lot of the Linwood Shopping Center at 31st and Prospect, in the inner city.
He announced plans to rebuild the dormant center and open a new grocery store on the site. The grocery would “eliminate, or at least take a big bite out of, the food desert area that’s existed here for a long time,” James said that day.
The new store would open in the middle of 2016, officials promised.
I drove by the shopping center about two weeks ago. The old grocery store was empty and dark. The doors were locked. It looked even more worn out than it did last May.
We now know there will be no airport project this year. Perhaps the mayor and council will use the weeks ahead to make sure neighbors will get their promised grocery store by next May, a store that will mean more to them than a new airport would have anyway.