Government & Politics

KC Council action aims to extend KCI solicitation deadline

With the airlines serving KCI renewing pressure on the city to get moving on building a new single terminal, the Kansas City Council sought Thursday to gain more control over what has been a rocky process.

After Councilman Quinton Lucas complained that “we’re flying without any type of direction,” the council Thursday approved a resolution directing City Manager Troy Schulte to listen to outside legal firm advice to improve the request for proposals for engineering firms to build and privately-finance a new terminal.

It directed the city manager to bring any proposed changes to the request for proposals back for review by June 13, next Tuesday.

While it wasn’t directly stated in the resolution, that indicates the deadline for proposals could be extended past the initial June 20 deadline. Schulte said he’s eager to comply but is awaiting the outside lawyers’ advice on a reasonable deadline.

“There will be an extension of time,” Schulte said. “The amount of time is still in discussion between the city and the outside counsel.”

Council members Lucas and Katheryn Shields, among others, complained that the city’s solicitation process keeps changing for national firms interested in the new terminal project.

In early May, the city announced that Burns & McDonnell was working toward an exclusive deal to design, build and privately finance that terminal.

After a public outcry, the city opened up the process to competitive proposals, with a deadline for responses of June 20, but giving Burns & McDonnell right of first refusal. Then a few days later the city took that right of first refusal off the table.

Then, according to council members, lawyers advised them in a closed session Tuesday that the June 20 deadline for responses was too quick.

All of those changes, and the legal advice, suggest a need to get a better handle on the process, some council members said during a business session Thursday.

“There has been some confusion in recent weeks about what is in the request for proposals,” said Councilman Quinton Lucas, who then added that the city was flying without direction.

Shields said the lawyers had offered a “significant critique” of the request for proposals process so far.

“The mayor said this is the most important thing that we’re doing as a city,” Shields noted, “I think the council has a role to play in this.”

Shields said the city council is committed to having voters decide on an airport path forward at a November election. She even introduced an ordinance Thursday calling for a Nov. 7 airport election.

But Shields wants voters to consider public financing, which would conflict with the current solicitation for private financing options. The council will debate Shields’ ordinance, possibly next week.

The council’s discussion followed an email Wednesday to city officials from the airlines, saying time is of the essence.

In an email sent Wednesday to Aviation Director Pat Klein, Steve Sisneros, director of airport affairs for Southwest Airlines, said the airlines want a public election on a new single terminal to occur this year, and not be put off until 2018.

He warned that the longer the City Council debates the airport’s future, the more it jeopardizes their business at KCI.

“The airlines want the election to occur as soon as possible and we hoped it would have occurred by now,” Sisneros wrote. He noted that if it’s postponed to 2018, previous estimates of the cost of a new terminal, judged to be about $964 million in 2015 dollars, would be nearly three years old and would have to be updated.

Southwest is the largest air carrier at KCI and has spoken for what is said to be a unified position of all the airlines, wanting a new single terminal built at the airport. That proposal must go to a vote of the Kansas City public, and polling has shown that many city residents would prefer to keep the existing horseshoe-terminal configuration.

If the solicitation deadline gets extended too far, that could hinder the chances of preparing ballot language by late August, which must be done to hold a November election. That could put the election off into next April.

In his email, Sisneros said, “The longer it takes for this to move forward, the greater the challenges are to both our customers and our employees who work at KCI.”

“We are cognizant of the community’s perception regarding the convenience factor of KCI’s short curb drop off to gate,” the email continued. “However, as an airline, convenience to our customers is many things and we work very hard to give them the best possible travel experience.

“Convenience also means having a place to sit, the ability to use the restroom, have food, beverage and retail amenities. The current terminal layout creates serious operational and customer experience challenges that would be solved by the new single terminal. As you know, rarely do airlines agree on something but in the case of KCI, we are currently in agreement on this.”

Sisneros said the Burns & McDonnell proposal assumes the project can be completed at the same or lower cost that the airlines have agreed is affordable. No general Kansas City taxpayer dollars are at stake. The new terminal cost would be paid for with airline rents, concessions, parking and other airport revenues.

The contentious and prolonged airport debate has even affected city council races. It prompted labor leader Pat Dujakovich to announce Thursday that he’s running for a city council seat, in part because he feels so strongly about the merits of a new airport terminal.

He is challenging Northland Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who has argued against a rushed decision on the new terminal. Loar responded that she’s honoring the wishes of her constituents.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley