Kansas City International Airport still has most of its original 44-year-old water mains, which means they break frequently, putting bathrooms out of commission or opening sinkholes under the roads.
Baggage handling systems, brand new at the turn of the century, are fragile and in need of replacement. The two active terminals are out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As city officials campaign for next month’s ballot proposition to approve creation of a new single-terminal KCI, they must also push back against the notion that they have allowed the existing airport to go to seed — as a strategy to spur passage of the $1 billion project.
The city’s Aviation Department, which runs solely on revenue from airlines and other airport users, has the money to fix a lot of what’s wrong with KCI. It is authorized to sell $240 million worth of bonds, left over from an airport improvement initiative approved by voters in 2000. There is about $100 million in a departmental “rainy day” fund.
Dan Coffey, treasurer of Citizens for Responsible Government, a government watchdog group, said not making the repairs is “absolutely” the strategy the city is using to win support for a new terminal.
“Just look around. Broken light bulbs. Toilets that don’t work,” said Coffey, a foe of the plan who favors renovation of the existing terminals.
Officials said there are challenges that come with any facility that is more than four decades old and open 24/7 . Bulbs do burn out, toilets stop working, heating and conditioning can go on the blink. But the idea that they’ve intentionally allowed KCI to sag is preposterous, they said.
“We clean the bathrooms on an hourly basis. We’ve never dropped our service standards,” said City Manager Troy Schulte.
Spending on maintenance has remained steady over the last seven years, averaging about 26 percent of the annual operating budget, or $23.6 million. The City Council also has approved more than $50 million in capital spending at KCI this year, and more than $150 million since 2013.
But much of that $150 million outlay has gone to “airside” improvements: runways, taxiways and other aviation infrastructure. Roughly $27 million has been devoted to capital upgrades of the passenger terminals.
Aviation officials point to recent improvements in wi-fi, lighting and seating in Terminals B and C. But critics say airport upkeep has been uneven and inconsistent.
“I think we’re playing catch up after a number of years of, I don’t want to say neglect, but not maintaining things as well as we should have,” said Councilwoman Teresa Loar.
Schulte acknowledges that for the last five years — since the debate over the airport’s future heated up — the city has been “frugal” with its capital spending at KCI. Electrical systems, for example, last overhauled in the early 2000s, are in need of upgrades. But the city is hesitant to pay for infrastructure that would last 20 to 30 years in buildings that may only be around for another five at best. Plans call for a new single terminal, if OK’d by voters, to be open by late 2021.
“It doesn’t make sense to spend money on that long-term capital asset if we’re only going to be in the building for another four or five years,” Schulte said. “The water mains are a 50- to 75-year fix.”
The city estimated last year that it would take more than $500 million to keep the current KCI up and running. That includes new baggage handling, ticket counters, terminal roofs, boilers, chillers, elevators, passenger boarding bridges and expanded parking.
The Aviation Department could use the bonding authority it has held onto over the years to shrink that backlog. But Aviation Director Pat Klein said it’s not that simple. Any significant use of those funds would require buy-in by the airlines, which have made clear that they want a new single terminal. The bond capacity and cash reserves also help maintain the airport’s credit worthiness and protection if Edgemoor, the city’s choice to design and build the project, fails to complete it.
“That $240 million in our back pocket is helpful for completion risk,” he said.
Yet some big fixes are in the works. Last month the City Council approved $11.5 million to renovate and expand the customs and international arrival gate areas in Terminal C. They currently handle flights to and from Toronto, Mexico and the Caribbean. Officials say that in its present configuration arriving passengers face a slow and cumbersome deplaning process.
Klein, who wants to have the work completed by next spring, said it could pay for itself if the airport lured a carrier to offer a trans-Atlantic service — something the city has sought unsuccessfully for years.
In an analysis he presented to the council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Sept. 28, Klein said an estimated 300 people leave KCI each day for connecting flights going overseas. A typical aircraft, arriving four times a week, could bring in more than 30,000 international passengers a year, pumping enough money into the local economy to pay for terminal improvements.
Councilwoman Jolie Justus, a major advocate for a new single terminal, said she supports the upgrade of the international area, even if it is challenging to explain to voters who subscribe to what she dubs the “Major League” theory. It refers to the 1989 Charlie Sheen movie about a fictional owner of the Cleveland Indians, who tries to assemble a squad so awful that attendance will tank, triggering a contract provision allowing her to relocate the team.
“One of the things that is tough to talk about is the fact that we have to make sure we give the best possible passenger experience to our customers regardless of whether we are building a new terminal,” said Justus, a candidate for mayor in 2019.
At the same time, the city has taken a pass on some more modestly priced fixes that could improve the airport experience for some passengers. Officials say it would take about $2 million to bring Terminals B and C (Terminal A closed in 2014) into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Much of the work would involve relocating toilets and grab bars in bathroom stalls. Water fountains must be placed in alcoves, out of the path of terminal foot traffic. Some outside pedestrian ramps are too steep.
The U.S. Department of Justice has granted the city an extension to a settlement agreement originally signed in 2012. It gives the city until 2021 to meet the requirements. But advocates for the disabled questioned why the changes can’t be made now — both those required by the ADA and others that just make sense.
Clark Corogenes, an independent living specialist for the deaf and hard-of-hearing at the non-profit The Whole Person, said he doesn’t begrudge the millions spent on the international arrivals area. But it doesn’t have to be an either-or-proposition.
“I think KCI definitely needs improvements to make it more accessible,” said Corogenes, who is deaf. “Waiting five years for a new airport is not a wise decision.”
For the deaf or hard-of-hearing, improvements could include more visual support in the form of closed captions or flashing lights to cue passengers to check arrival or departure screens for delays.
“There are a lot of deaf and hard-of-hearing people who use that airport,” he said.
Klein said that while the Justice Department extension has allowed the city to remain non-compliant, it is open to considering anything that might make the existing airport safer and more accessible.
If Question 1 is defeated next month, questions about the swollen backlog of needed improvements at the existing KCI — and how to pay for them — will almost certainly become more urgent.
“If this doesn’t pass on Nov 7, we’re going to have a completely different conversation on Nov. 8,” Justus said.