Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus called Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s pursuit of an airport in Johnson County a “far-off dream,” but not far off enough to keep the city from reviving talks about revamping Kansas City International Airport.
Justus, chairwoman of the city’s Aviation Committee, said at a Monday press conference that a public discussion of KCI’s future would pick up steam after an April 4 bond election. The press conference was called a day after a report in The Star confirmed that Brownback and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer are exploring the idea of a large-scale passenger airport in Johnson County.
“What I think this does is it makes us need to start this conversation again as a city and make sure that after we get past April 4 and the (general obligation) bond that we start to move toward a new terminal,” Justus said.
Meanwhile, Kansas lawmakers seemed intrigued by the idea, even though they didn’t know much about it.
House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, said there had been discussions over a period of time about bringing an airport to Johnson County.
“We’re always looking for ways to generate economic development in our state and our region,” Ryckman said. “This could be an opportunity.”
He said Colyer, also from Johnson County, had given him some information about the possibility.
“We didn’t get into the details,” Ryckman said. “He did say the majority would be from private funds.”
Brownback’s office didn’t release any more details on Monday about the Johnson County airport plan. But the confirmation that he was thinking about it was enough to get Kansas City officials talking about KCI again.
Justus said the earliest that voters could weigh in on a new terminal is November.
“We can’t wait forever because obviously the cost of construction goes up and what the airlines have said to us is that they have a certain maximum dollar that they will be willing to spend on a new terminal at KCI,” Justus said. “So we cannot delay this for too much longer or we’re going to be looking at...a more expensive terminal.”
“And two, if we don’t take some action as a council and then some action as a city, I think conversations like those that have been taking place between Kansas and possibly the federal government or the airlines might actually move on even further.”
Justus said the offer by a coalition of airlines — led by Southwest Airlines — to help with the financing of a revamped KCI remains on the table.
Debate on the future of KCI has remained at a standstill since last year, shortly after those airlines agreed on a plan to refashion KCI’s three-terminal design into a nearly $1 billion single-terminal airport.
But the city halted talks amid polling that suggested there wasn’t broad support for the effort. Kansas City residents, it seemed, prefer the convenience of KCI’s current layout.
That stall gave Brownback an opening to explore the idea of a Johnson County airport. (A spokesman for Mark Holland, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., said he was never approached about placing the airport there).
Details of Brownback’s plan remain scarce, even to lawmakers who offered mixed reviews of the idea.
Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, said he was open-minded to the idea, but added “that’s literally a long runway.”
“It’s fascinating in theory,” Denning said. “That’s a big project and that’s a heavy lift. I just don’t know anything about it because it’s been so hush-hush.”
Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican, had a similar exchange with Colyer that news of the idea would soon become public. She said the airport would be a huge economic boost for Kansas as a whole.
“It’s exactly what we really need right now,” Lynn said.
But she pointed to the fact that local communities near the possible airport would need to vet the proposal because of concerns about traffic congestion and noise.
Johnson County now has two airport facilities. The New Century AirCenter, between Olathe and Gardner, has two runways and serves general aviation. The Johnson County Executive Airport, a smaller facility, serves private and corporate jets.
Lynn emphasized that she would want the project to happen “organically,” with the focus being put on federal money and private sector funds.
“I just think the best solution would be to try to minimize any kind of incentives that we would have to have to make this happen,” Lynn said. “Because, first of all, we probably can’t afford to do the incentives right now.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said that the idea might be a good one but that it needs to go through the legislative process.
“It’s the governor shooting from the hip instead of engaging the Legislature in a meaningful conversation,” Ward said.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat, said floating the idea may distract people from the budget problems the state is facing under Brownback’s watch.
“He’s pretty desperate and trying to leave a legacy, a positive legacy,” Hensley said. “This is just another kind of pie in the sky idea that probably won’t work.”
Whether it works remains to be seen. Brownback’s office would not provide any additional details about his office’s planning for an airport.
It’s certain, however, that the Johnson County idea would be an expensive one.
The KCI plan for a single-terminal airport cost just under $1 billion.
A Johnson County alternative would have to pay for air traffic control towers, runways, parking and rental car facilities and other improvements.
The Federal Aviation Administration makes funding available for air traffic control and runway facilities. But that requires federal approval from an agency that would need convincing that it should spend money on these projects in Johnson County when they exist in Kansas City.
Then there’s the question of highway infrastructure improvements, which would be funded publicly, in and around a new airport.
Scott Wagner, mayor pro tem in Kansas City, said he was not surprised to learn Brownback was pursuing an airport in Johnson County, saying it suggested to him a recognition even among Kansas leaders that KCI is suboptimal.
“Brownback has found a way to steal business from Kansas City and steal the American Royal from Kansas City,” Wagner said, “and thought, ‘Why not go for the airport, too?’ ”