Business owners, civic and union leaders, and some ordinary citizens praised Burns & McDonnell on Tuesday for its proposal to build and privately finance a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport, but plenty of skeptics weren’t convinced this is the best airport modernization approach.
The debate over KCI’s future that has embroiled Kansas City for five years continued with a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday night at the Kansas City Airport Marriott. A joint City Council committee heard arguments for and against the idea that Burns & McDonnell unveiled earlier this month. It was a plan to try to resolve questions about airport improvement costs, debt, risk, affordability and convenience.
The council will hold two more public hearings before it decides, possibly on June 15, whether to pursue the airport idea with Burns & McDonnell. The company would use the summer to refine its proposal, and Kansas City voters could be asked to approve any major airport changes with an election this November.
Mike Brown, president of Burns & McDonnell International, told the audience the company took up the mayor’s challenge “to find a solution to a sticky problem.”
He said the financial risk for what is likely to be a $1 billion project would rest with the terminal development team and the airlines, not the taxpayers. He also said the company is committed to building as affordable and convenient an airport as possible, with a close-in parking garage and comfortable gate areas. He said the design would be a “collaborative journey” that will involve the city, the airlines and the traveling public.
“I want to make a plug for getting this thing done,” said former City Councilman John Fairfield, a longtime Northland resident. Fairfield argued that a creative solution that taxpayers don’t have to pay for is “a no brainer.”
Julia Harris, a Leawood resident, said she’s been one of those people who loved the airport and didn’t understand the need for a new terminal. But in the past few years, she’s changed her mind and finds KCI to be inconvenient and “crumbling, which is an embarrassment.”
She said Kansas City should look to the Indianapolis airport as an example of a wonderful, new single-terminal airport.
But Jerome Hughes of Kansas City and Larry Thrasher of Gladstone had major doubts. Hughes questioned whether the airlines will really add more flights, as they’ve said they might with a new terminal. He also argued that any promise to make the new terminal as convenient as the existing terminals is “wishful thinking.”
Others in the audience didn’t like the no-bid aspect of this exclusive deal with Burns & McDonnell. They asked why the City Council isn’t using a competitive process to get ideas for a project of this magnitude.
“I was under the impression the city did things on a bid basis,” said DeWayne Steele, who retired years ago from the airport police.
One person asked why the city can’t simply reopen the shuttered Terminal A to provide more space for the airlines.
But Aviation Director Pat Klein said Terminal A doesn’t solve his problems, since it’s just as narrow as the other two cramped terminals. He said he doesn’t need more gates, just roomier gates, since planes are larger and carry more passengers.
“It’s not the number of gates. It’s our hold room size,” he said, adding that if he opened Terminal A, he’d just get a lot of space with the wrong geometric configuration that would add to his operating costs without solving his problems.
Stacey Webb of Kansas City praised Burns & McDonnell as a great company but said the council has a different challenge — lack of trust from the public. She wondered why this proposal is in “such a rush mode” and said the council will have to overcome past miscalculations like the Power & Light debt subsidy and other mismanagement to gain the public’s confidence.
Anthony Arnold, who owns a construction company, said Burns & McDonnell is a high-quality company and he’s excited about the proposed project. But he also cautioned that it won’t be easy to convince residents, voters and people who fly only a few times a year that this plan can also be positive for them.
“The general public of Kansas City needs to understand the benefit this project will have for them, as well,” he said.
The seeds for this Burns & McDonnell idea were planted a year ago, when James called on the business community to help chart a path forward for the airport. Polling had showed that voters weren’t getting behind the city’s preference for a new single terminal at KCI.
Burns & McDonnell, one of Kansas City’s most prominent engineering firms and the nation’s third-largest airport builder, started looking into ways to finance a new, single airport terminal that would suit the city’s needs and could garner voter approval.
The company thought private financing would appeal to voters because it would assure no taxpayer dollars are involved. But the fact is that city taxpayer dollars are never involved, since airport improvements are funded by passenger and other user fees, not local tax dollars.
The mayor and city manager learned about the the Burns & McDonnell idea in late March. But the parties wanted to keep their airport discussions private until more details were worked out. The mayor and Burns & McDonnell went public with The Star’s editorial board on May 11.
Major labor unions and construction trades came out in favor of the plan May 17.
But the City Council has lots of questions and concerns. Last week, they approved spending up to $475,000 for outside legal counsel to scrutinize the idea and, if the city decides to move forward, to negotiate as strong a deal as possible for the city.